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Under Watchful Eyes: The Medieval Origins of Mass Surveillance

Linked by Paul Ciano on September 15, 2016

O brave new world that has such people in it.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the response to revelations concerning the extent of modern mass surveillance is that most people in the West have not seemed to mind; we have not perceptibly altered our online behavior or demanded a response from our governments. We seem not able or willing to grasp the implications, and we have shown a weary cynicism that evidently masks a deeper indifference. Many have shown an eager complicity, free of defensiveness. If you are innocent, you have nothing to fear, we insist, forgetting the innocence of millions interned and murdered by Western governments within living memory. Surveillance will keep us safe from our enemies, we say, obediently accepting the pronouncements of our governments on the identities of our enemies and the proper sources of our terror.

What is all this but a fundamental trust in the experience of being watched? Our trust is so strong that it seems to have found its own protective rationality, deeply rooted in Western consciousness. It’s an addict’s rationality, by which we’re unable to refrain from making public a stream of intimate details of our lives and those of children too young to consent. One must wonder about the subtle, unspoken fear of the consequences of refusing to participate in systems of surveillance, or even to critique them seriously. This would be to risk isolation. It would be a trifle paranoid to reveal less—a little eccentric, not quite rational.

Those who have exposed the extent of surveillance are fugitives and exiles from our paradise. They have played the role of the cursed serpent of Eden: the purveyor of illicit knowledge who broke the harmony between watcher and watched. The rest of us contemplate the prospect of dissent with careful unease, feeling that our individual and collective security depends on compliance. We are unwilling to cease our perpetual confessing. That murmuring of our thoughts and experiences into the listening ears of states and corporations—disguised by the loving online presence of our family and friends, or concealed by the vast anonymity of the Internet—is one of the great horrors of modernity. We cannot conceive of how what we reveal now about ourselves and our children might be used in the future, by the systems of governance that will arise amid the instabilities of a changing climate. And yet, for all that, the deep narratives of our culture tell us that the lost happiness of humanity consisted not of the harsh travails of private existence, but of just this: living naked and innocent within the absolute love of an omniscient watcher.

Paul Ciano

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