In his desire to maximise efficiency within the prison system with minimal guards, Jeremy Bentham settled on a structure that he would call the ‘Panopticon’. A central tower of guards surrounded by a ring of prison cells facing inwards, Bentham argues that prisoners begin to discipline themselves under the idea that someone could always be watching – to the point where the guards needn’t be. Over time, what was simply a model of efficient prison management, has become a symbol for the never-ending expansion of infinite measures of social control. In the same way that you stop at a red light even when no one is around, society has normalised these mechanisms of self-regulation that you don’t even notice you’ve made a habit of.
Whilst some look more prison shaped than others (sorry Ursies), it’s hard to ignore the similarities between Bentham’s panopticon and the social dynamics of living at college. There are very few other scenarios in life in which you will live in a fun little Soviet-esque commune of 300+ people all within 100 metres of one another. It’s almost a given, then, that you begin to make observations about the people that you see everyday. First, you’re intentionally trying to learn more about them, then you’re naturally picking up what they talk about and how they do it. It slowly becomes more personal as you learn their mannerisms and quirks, until all of a sudden, you’re an expert at reading their body language even if you didn’t intend to be. College forces you to speed-run relationships.
This has its benefits. I know Jess is having a bad day if she turns down an offer for tea in the dining hall; I know Harry has classes all day Tuesday because that’s the day he’s not at lunch. But it also presents its own very unique set of disadvantages. The eventual realisation of how well you can understand the people around you leads to the inevitable conclusion that those people are also seeing you under the very same spotlight. The knowledge that at any one point, someone can understand or recognise you in ways that may forever remain unknown to you is terrifying. This is only compounded by how fast information can travel – share good news with your best friend – people you’ve never talked to before will be congratulating you at dinner. Share bad news…you get the picture. Hyper surveillance is puppeteering our interactions in a way that means all our conversations revolve around each other.
This keen awareness of just how perceived I am at any one moment has made me feel as if I have to be a perfect version of myself every time I open my door. I’ve become a person that almost demands others to know how put together I am. I portray a version of myself that I hope will be the most interesting and entertaining to those that are watching me and reflect favourably upon me as it inevitably gets passed down the gossip chain – if I slip up, the guards will notice. In an environment in which everyone is acutely aware of what everyone says and does at any moment, I’m determined to make sure people only see the version of myself that I want to put out there. Because if I do that, then I’m beating the panopticon, right? I need to have total control over the narrative people have about me, because now that I’ve gotten ahead of it, I can make sure it’s only the good stuff. Right?
I worry about what this surveillance is doing to me. Am I just tolerating it, or have I begun to ask for it?
I lap up the attention as I walk to work in my brand-new corporate chic attire (I intentionally loitered around at breakfast so people could see how responsible I looked). I mock TikToks of people videoing themselves doing good deeds (I hope that none of mine go unnoticed). It could be easy to throw away the real weight this Orwellian lifestyle can have on you, file it under “exhibits narcissistic tendencies” and move back onto gossiping about other people. Yet I can’t help but worry about the way this mask I’m wearing might become permanently welded to my face. More importantly, I don’t know what’s scarier – the thought that my friends can’t see through it, or that they can.
In the never-ending performance that is living at college, how is anyone supposed to feel seen when we’re made to enjoy the ordeal of keeping up appearances? I want to feel as if my relationships with the people around me mean something – like they know me – but how can I ever be sure? How can I be sure what knowing me even looks like? College is a perpetual balancing act of attempting to put on your best performance of yourself, whilst also wanting to maintain some semblance of authenticity. Are we all just patchwork caricatures of the traits we think people will find the most interesting about us? Isn’t there, too, some sincerity in that.