Mass surveillance may seem eerily futuristic, but it marks a return to a time when we were watched by an omniscient authority. We called it God.
Amanda Power writes: Humanity, according to the most influential origin story of Western culture, was created naked, unashamed, wholly willing to submit to the scrutiny of the god who made the world and its rules. Through an act of defiance urged on humans by an enemy of their happy state, “their eyes were opened”—they realized their own nakedness and sought to hide from view.
“Nothing is hidden from the eyes of the observing world.”
— Aleksandr Pushkin, 1837
The god was so angered by this that he threw them out of paradise to suffer and die. This was the original sin, the disobedience for which humans deserved to be punished through generations, centuries, and until the world ends. It was, quite simply, the pursuit of knowledge not sanctioned by the one who ruled them, and the hunger for privacy from surveillance. Or so the ruling elite, through its rabbis and priests, has told the population for thousands of years, through the brief and vivid story of the Fall.
Nor did variants on this god—depending on the teller: murderous or tender, wild with wrath or soberly judging, immediate or remote, but consistently male—cease watching after humanity’s expulsion from Eden. The resulting observations were the basis for a highly interventionist treatment of those he called his chosen people. When they obeyed him, he gave them, in his hot and possessive love, pleasant places to live, and he slaughtered their enemies. When they looked to other gods, he rained devastating punishments on them until they submitted once again.
He could see into their hearts and enter their dreams. Much of this remained the same in his Christian incarnation, but the dazzling promise that immortality could be regained through Christ’s death was yoked to the demand for a particular kind of self-scrutiny: the constant examination and exposure of one’s inner self. He knew us but also insisted we know ourselves and share our knowledge with him. Participation in our own surveillance was the price of entry into heaven.
For centuries the history of Western nations was traced from these beginnings, and so for centuries this god was part of how we legitimized our forms of government and those individuals who governed us. The flawed nature of societies characterized by inequality and injustice was simply another aspect of life in the unsatisfactory world created by mankind’s original sin. Around 1159 John of Salisbury, discussing governance in his Policraticus, observed that even tyrants of the worst kind were “ministers of God, who by His just judgment has willed them to be preeminent over both soul and body.
“The mass surveillance of the global population by corporations and government bureaucracies that has transcended all pretense of democratic accountability. The technologies that enable it are sophisticated, sleek, and silent. A sort of cyborg omniscience is obtained by those who control the information.”
By means of tyrants, the evil are punished and the good are corrected and trained.” All this, he believed, was a result of humans reaching a “rash and reckless hand toward the forbidden tree of knowledge,” and thereby plunging themselves into misery and death. The only remedy lay in submission to God; the only comfort in hard times was His watchful eye. So useful a tool did the idea of God prove to be—to ruler and ruled alike—that it has been carried, through the teeth of the so-called Enlightenment, into the social imagination of many republics and democracies. And it would not be surprising if these ideas, reiterated so consistently over the centuries, informed our attitudes toward the sort of surveillance we now experience as a novel aspect of modern life.
“If we have drifted into the dystopia of which George Orwell and Aldous Huxley warned, then surely, we are inclined to think, we have entered a terrifying new world.”
For it seems to be such a contemporary issue: the mass surveillance of the global population by corporations and government bureaucracies that has transcended all pretense of democratic accountability. The technologies that enable it are sophisticated, sleek, and silent. A sort of cyborg omniscience is obtained by those who control the information. If we have drifted into the dystopia of which George Orwell and Aldous Huxley warned, then surely, we are inclined to think, we have entered a terrifying new world.
But those who see in all this something eerily futuristic may have it backward. In our modern surveillance state, it’s possible we have in some perverse and unexpected fashion actually regained something of the comforts of being known by a higher authority—something that the modern West had largely lost, and for which we have perhaps unconsciously longed.
“But those who see in all this something eerily futuristic may have it backward. In our modern surveillance state, it’s possible we have in some perverse and unexpected fashion actually regained something of the comforts of being known by a higher authority—something that the modern West had largely lost, and for which we have perhaps unconsciously longed.”
At its most essential level, the notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, interested, judging God was translated into our inherited forms of governance through the Roman Catholic interpretation of Christ’s words to Peter, in the Gospel According to Matthew. “Upon this rock I will build my church,” Christ says to his apostle, “and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The Church alleged that this authority had been transmitted through the succession of the bishops of Rome, and flowed from pope on down through the clerical hierarchy, so that every priest shared in the power to bind and loose on earth, in the knowledge that their decisions would be upheld by God.
“At its most essential level, the notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, interested, judging God was translated into our inherited forms of governance through the Roman Catholic interpretation of Christ’s words to Peter, in the Gospel According to Matthew.”
Through the priests, God’s power to watch and judge had a human embodiment. They were not to shed blood, but there were circumstances in which they were to hand over obdurate individuals to secular authorities for execution. God’s dispersed authority was thus delegated even to laypeople whose individual jurisdiction extended no further than towns and villages. At the top of the secular hierarchy, monarchs were anointed by priests, thus symbolizing their religious legitimacy. As in John of Salisbury’s “ministers of God,” these monarchs’ worst abuses were sanctioned by the assertion of the elites that governments always operated with the backing of watchful divine will. Read the rest of this entry »
Journalism from places like North Korea and Iran should be prefaced with a disclaimer: Big Brother Is Reading This, Too
Bret Stephens writes: The New York Times recently featured a photo and video essay by the celebrated photojournalist David Guttenfelder titled “Illuminating North Korea.” It’s a potent reminder that nothing is so blinding as the illusion of seeing.
I don’t mean to disparage Mr. Guttenfelder’s photographic skills or his sincerity. But what are we to make of a photo essay heavy on pictures of modern-looking factories and well-fed children being fussed over in a physical rehabilitation center? Or—from his Instagram account (“Everyday DPRK”)—of theme-park water slides, Christian church interiors, well-stocked clothing stores and rollerblading Pyongyang teens—all suggesting an ordinariness to North Korean life that, as we know from so many sources, is a travesty of the terrifying truth?
I’ve been thinking about Mr. Guttenfelder’s photos, and of the prominence the Times gave them, while considering the trade-offs between access and propaganda. In April 2003, Eason Jordan, then CNN’s news chief, wrote a revealing op-ed in the Times about his network’s coverage of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
“Over the last dozen years I made 13 trips to Baghdad to lobby the government to keep CNN’s Baghdad bureau open and to arrange interviews with Iraqi leaders,” Mr. Jordan wrote. “Each time I visited, I became more distressed by what I saw and heard—awful things that could not be reported because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff.”
It was an appalling confession of a massive journalistic whitewash, all for the sake of scoring prime time with tyrants. But sometimes it takes a great fool to reveal an important truth. In this case, the truth that much of what passes for news reporting from closed societies is, if not worthless, compromised to the point that it should be prefaced with an editorial disclaimer: Big Brother Is Reading This, Too. Read the rest of this entry »
George Orwell “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations” pic.twitter.com/Slsc3fqEcI
— LibertarianGeo (@LibertarianGeo) February 23, 2014
China has yet to establish much of a visual effects industry built on quality of work. Indeed most Chinese filmmakers tend to use Thai or Korean shops, as their graphics are better than those from China’s vfx companies but not as pricey as the top-end effects from the U.S., Europe or Australia/New Zealand.
One notable exception to the mediocrity of Chinese vfx has been Base FX, a Beijing-based digital effects house set up in 2006 with the aim of serving both Hollywood and the local Chinese and Asian industries.