Who’s Watching the Watchers and Who Cares?

I’m intrigued by the case of Edward Snowden. Is he a traitor or a freedom fighter? Is he exposing us to potential threats to national security or revealing domestic political corruption? Anyway, if you want to equal my level of sophistication on the NSA watch this: http://youtu.be/UrOZllbNarw

More and more I hear people talking about surveillance. I was surprised to hear that an Indian bio-medical researcher I go to school with says he’s afraid of being flagged by Homeland Security. I think  hardliners might presume he has something to hide but I think in reality i think he simply knows he might have to suffer a lot of inconveniences if he checks out the wrong library book or visits the wrong website.  I don’t think he’s afraid of jail time. He just wants his passport to work like mine does.

Implicit in all these conversations is the debate over surveillance in our lives. Specifically, do people have a right to privacy at all? Is that something we should protect as we do the Freedom of Speech?

I’m in discussion/absorption mode on this issue so I can’t speak as a (fake) authority but I did come across a fascinating article on the implicit metaphor of God in surveillance.  That someone who does not believe in God musing that a higher power might exist is parallel to suddenly feeling that “you’re being watched.” This excerpt explores a scene  from a very popular futuristic book called Homeland, when the protagonist Marcus feels that the camera and mic in his computer have been hacked.

From the First Things article:

Marcus sits frozen: “My computer sat there, staring at me from its little webcam, a ring the size of a grain of rice. The mic was a pinhole-sized hole set into the screen’s frame.” After a moment, he begins to speak to whoever might be watching him: “You’re in there, aren’t you? I think it’s pretty creepy, I have to say. If you think you’re helping me, let me tell you, you’re freaking me out instead. I’d much rather that you talk to me than sneak around spying on me.”

Here Doctorow makes the theological metaphor explicit. The “stupid and awkward” feeling of talking to his computer leads into a page-long excursus about the only time in his life he ever prayed. When he was about ten or eleven years old, Marcus was temporarily obsessed with the idea that God was going to damn him and his family because none of them believed in him. After a week or so of anxiety about the “insurance policy” (his version of Pascal’s wager) represented by belief, he knelt down beside his bed and tried to pray, at which point he found himself pouring out all sorts of worries that he had not even realized he had. Despite the revealing effects of this experience, he felt no response from “the universe.” As Marcus puts it, “no words had come back. No feeling of presence. No feeling of being listened to, or heard, or understood. I had spoken to the universe, and the universe hadn’t given a damn.” As a result, in the space of an hour, young Marcus went “from an anxious agnostic to a carefree atheist, and I’d stayed that way forever after.”

When Marcus speaks to his computer, “the universe” answers him back. A new text document appears on his screen with the words “ooohhh busted.” Marcus realizes that he has been witnessed in ways that terrify him: “I tried to keep a poker face, staring into the eye of the camera over my screen as one of my biggest fears in the world came to life before me.” What kind of fear? Fear of total surveillance, of being “pwned” in some absolute way.

What  a modern and relatable idea. We all encounter doubts whether we believe that God exists or doesn’t. As with surveillance, many don’t care is they are being watched by cameras or God. Or they believe the Watchers don’t care about their little lives.  The metaphor is endless.

The article mentions the afterward by Aaron Swart, the founder of Reddit who died earlier this year under mysterious circumstances.

 Swartz was under indictment for downloading academic documents owned by JSTOR with the intent of releasing them into the public domain. Surveillance tracked a leak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology back to a laptop in an unlocked utility closet. The university put a hidden camera there that recorded him. The police arrested him two days later.

Swartz writes to Doctorow’s young readers: “I can tell you something you wouldn’t believe if it came out of the mouth of any of those fictional characters: This stuff is real.” He means, of course, that the powers of surveillance and everything they represent are real. Swartz goes on to urge readers to get politically involved: “I know it’s easy to feel like you’re powerless, like there’s nothing you can do to slow down or stop ‘the system.’ Like all the calls are made by shadowy and powerful forces far outside your control. I feel that way, too, sometimes. But it just isn’t true.”

Now to get familiar with my Iphone and its sweet mic and camera.

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