In recent months, the public have been made aware of the Snowden revelations about the extent to which electronic communications have been intercepted, the secret laws that facilitate the programme, the intimidation of those working on the stories, and the information that global encryption systems have been deliberately weakened at the behest of US government agencies. This succession of events hints once again at a disturbing rupture between the world that most of us have been taught that we live in – democratic, free, respectful of human rights, tolerant, progressive – and a dystopian ‘real’ world in which these values are always negotiable if the stakes are right. It also, to my mind, as a medieval historian, brings up some enduring questions about European society and culture: the deep-rooted disconnect between our ideas of individual freedom and the fetish we have made of being watched.
There has been a certain familiarity to the unfolding of events over the summer, even to the banal assertions that those who are innocent (and patriotic) have nothing to fear, and that mass surveillance is necessary to protect the population from ‘security threats’. While there has been alarm in some quarters, and a determined campaign by the Guardian newspaper to generate public reaction, the overwhelming impression in the UK is one of a collective refusal to engage with the implications of the revelations. People seem to have accepted their lack of electronic privacy, as far as they have understood it, as the price of participation in modern society. The seductive power of skilfully designed products for the capture and dissemination of our information, and the instant rewards of digitised self-promotion are too great to resist. ‘Big Brother’ no longer conjures up a vision of a terrifying future in which civil liberties have been destroyed, but has come to mean a show in which celebrity and fortune are the rewards for submitting to surveillance. The glamour and values of the market disguise the bleakly totalitarian world into which we have entered. We are not a society that likes to look too deeply beneath our complacency about our ‘freedoms’. Our understanding of what it is to be ‘rational’ has long excluded the public expression of the ‘irrational’ fears that might rise up if we looked too deeply into our utter dependence on an insecure, compromised internet.
In reflecting on all this, it strikes me that wholesale surveillance of society is nothing new. Until recently, most of the population of western Europe understood itself to be under constant scrutiny by an omniscient and omnipotent Creator, who not only knew the contents of everyone’s correspondence, but also the innermost secrets of their hearts. Those found guilty of subversion were sentenced to an eternity of torments, while the obedient, submissive and wholly grateful were rewarded with an afterlife in paradise. Whole systems of governance, both secular and religious, were based on this view of the universe.
A major narrative arc of medieval history is the successful insertion of an ecclesiastical hierarchy, often in alliance with secular rulers, between ordinary men and women, and God. Among other things, the whole population was instructed to confess their sins – both of deed and thought – to an agent of the church at least once a year. It was this inculcated fear of God, it was thought in some circles, that prevented the general public from running amuck. Progress narratives tell the story of the gradual freeing of western populations from these ‘medieval’ mechanisms of social control. Individualism and free thought could flourish only when ancient beliefs had been eradicated, when humans no longer lived under the eye of God.
But this is only one side of the story. More relevant to today’s situation might be the persistent human delight in being completely known and completely understood by the creator of the whole universe. Every hair on our heads counted, every thought beneath the hair known and foreknown; every sin forgiven the contrite sinner; all suffering observed with infinite love and compassion and every injustice set right with perfect justice. Existentially, there are few things that horrify humans more than not being watched: being ignored, forgotten, lost among the indifferent multitudes of humanity. Being known and loved (and its converse), has always been and remains the ultimate subject of art and literature; the great truth that made people build cathedrals; that made them gather week after week to give thanks to God. The magnificence of it was the simple fact of being known, as an individual, rather than diminished into a fleeting speck in the vastness of the universe. There was terror in it too – the fear of judgement, of damnation, haunted people, but it was not too high a price to pay for the assurance that everyone else would be judged too. This is what mass surveillance has meant in European culture for nearly two millennia.
It is tempting to speculate that not merely the expectation of surveillance, but the desire for it, is so fundamental to western culture – to all cultures based on monotheistic religions with omniscient gods – that the supposedly secular society almost welcomes its resumption. Is it, even, human nature to wish for a watchful judge and arbiter, not only for a window into our own souls, but even more, as a watcher of others, the creator of a secure state, our protector against the evil-doers? Was Erich Fromm correct to suggest that, perhaps, it is from freedom itself that we want to escape?
It is not surprising to find the population compliant, for it is unclear what any of us can do to change the situation. But the willingness of the public to continue pouring personal information into corporate and government databases suggests, at the least, a profound refusal to learn from history or to remember what we all know of the capacity of states to amass records that will enable them to turn on even the most innocent of their citizens.
Amanda Power is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Roger Bacon and the Defence of Christendom (2012). You can see Amanda’s other History Matters blogs here.