The All-Seeing Eye
Liberty is the physical freedom to move around, to grow and develop. It also takes interior form as a space of silence and darkness in which ideas can grow unobserved. Under huge technological and economic pressure, we are in the process of turning ourselves inside out. Why keep something to yourself when you can share? Why keep something to yourself unless you have something to hide? We are becoming more visible to each other, whether we like it or not, and so we take steps to make our newly-public interiority conform to social norms — to appear healthy, legal, sane, unthreatening on the inside. Our thoughts and preoccupations leave traces, which always threaten to take on the character of evidence. Why were you looking at that? Why did you linger on that page, underline that sentence?
Future historians will find it hard to explain how meekly we accepted the end of privacy. We have surrendered without much of a fight. We now live in a world where every communication can be overheard. It doesn’t matter if anyone is actually listening. The suspicion is there, hovering over the keyboard, humming in the background of the call. Never more will it leave us, this self-consciousness, a technological substitute for the all-seeing eye of God. Perhaps our brief historical flirtation with autonomy was too scary. It was too hard to take responsibility for ourselves, too troubling to feel that no one was judging us and in our loneliness we were unobserved. Better now that daddy is back again. He can tell us how we ought to be.
No doubt we will adapt. We will make a culture of hints and nuances. We will learn to speak indirectly, to read different kinds of silence. That was how things worked under the old twentieth-century totalitarianisms. It’s how it works in some parts of the world today. Our new panoptical totalitarianism will teach us these tricks. In future you will have to guess what I think by what I don’t say. I will dream up towers and knock them down, I will try to follow my desires, to imagine without caution, but I’m far from sure I will succeed. This is not how I want to live, but it is how I expect to live, unless we can find a definition of liberty that we actually want to uphold, something we are prepared to fight for.
Hari Kunzru is the author of Gods Without Men and three other novels. He lives in New York City.