The Panopticon is a type of prison designed by philosopher Jeremy Bentham (England 1787). The design concept is to allow an observer to observe (opticon) all (pan) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell when, or if, they are being observed, thus conveying a "sentiment of an invisible omniscience" (Jeremy Bentham).
The perfect prison, the "Panopticon," would be structured with cells that open out to a central tower. Individuals in the cells do not interact with each other, except in prescribed ways, and are constantly confronted by the panoptic tower (pan=all; optic=seeing). Prisoners cannot see when there is a guard in the tower and must believe that they could be watched at any moment. "…The inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so…" (Michel Foucault 1975).
The Shadow of the Panopticon centers on a futuristic society that has evolved within Jeremy Bentham’s design for prisons. In the Panopticon, a single guard can watch over many prisoners because the guard remains unseen. It is through this illusion of might, a belief in numbers, that this society has developed its controlling systems of power and ways of thinking. By believing that there is someone watching them, citizens of the society behave in an obsessively ordered, paranoid manner. But who is creating and imposing the oppression? What if there hasn’t been anyone in the tower for centuries?
The central premise of the Shadow of the Panopticon is that of a city in the middle of the Gobi Desert, New Eden, set up by the Chinese as a prisoner-of-war camp. They built the Panopticon—which is over a mile high and oversees the entire city—and the great wall that surrounds the city. The Chinese, using this Panopticon style of prison as a sociological control experiment, erected automated manikins that moved in the top tower windows, making it appear as if larger-than-life figures were always in the tower watching.
Many decades after the prisoners were brought in, a plague struck within the captor’s enclave—and guards, scientists, and city administration abandoned New Eden. The automated systems in the city continued to work, and the prisoners in the city continued to believe they were, in fact, under guard.
Over hundreds of years the Chinese became known as the Inese, and the mighty Panopticon in the centre of the city, where water and food was distributed, became the central point of worship. The prisoners, over centuries of believing the Inese were eternally watching them, created a cruel, self-imposed, oppressive state obsessed with the Panopticon.
Life goes on like this for a thousand years. The relentless sun and the shadow of the Panopticon encompassing all. Everyday at noon the Panopticon causes rain to fall, maintaining the oasis, New Eden, in the midst of the burning desert. Generations are born and die without questioning the power of the Inese whom they believe reside in the Panopticon. Until one day, with a random event—a rat falls into the gears—then the automated machines grind to a halt…the rain stops…and this where our story begins…