It’s a city of windows. From my vantage point on the eighth floor, I can count hundreds. With the right equipment, I could see into dozens of curtainless rooms. Reach into them. Last night, I attended the Liverpool premiere at FACT of Laura Poitras’s moving new film Citizenfour. For almost the entire film, the whistleblower Edward Snowden sits, tightly framed in his tiny Hong Kong hotel room, as he reveals details of global surveillance programmes to Guardian journalists, the whole drama unfolding in real time. One thing became clear from Poitras's film – all our lives are now curtainless rooms. What also emerged with sobering clarity as I sat with twenty or so other people dotted around the auditorium is that most people are unconcerned by this state of affairs, or at any rate unwilling to voice concern.
Yes, the Snowden leaks last June confirmed what many people already suspected – that the NSA and GCHQ, along with their “five eyes” partners, had constructed an enormous, globe-spanning surveillance mechanism that routinely captured the bulk of our electronic communications (email, SMS, videochats), our photographs and buying habits, and through networked algorithmic CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras (ANPR) tracked our movements through public space; that it worked with large Internet Providers to harvest our online search histories, the length of time we spend on sites, our browsing habits, our “likes”, our circles of friends. But most of us, if we thought about it at all, were content with the official line, ventriloquized by William Hague shortly after the Snowden revelations broke: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”.
Stopping for fuel on the drive up to Liverpool, I happened to glance at the front page of the Oswestry and Border Counties Advertizer, which reported a “ceremony” held at the local police station to celebrate the switching on of a new £64,000 CCTV system. Local communities – whatever they are, these days – actively petition for surveillance systems to “keep them safe”. The narrative of security has trumped all others.
It turns out that “surveillance” is a Romantic word – its first use in English contexts was in the Monthly Review in 1799. The newness of the term “surveillance” to signify an ontological condition – that of being “under the eye of the police” – was still being registered in Charles James’s Military Dictionary of 1816. In May that year, Hansard recorded a House of Lords debate on the Alien Bill that should sound very familiar. Lord Milton and the Solicitor-General tussled over the extensiveness of the “system of surveillance it was necessary to establish for the security of the realm”. As far as I’m aware, it’s the first recorded instance of the now ubiquitous slant rhyme of surveillance and security.
In 1795, English essayist Vicesimus Knox complained that his own age’s mass surveillance project – letter opening, neighbours informing on neighbours, a rapidly expanding system of spies – was corrupting the “sequestered walks of private life” and destroying its "confidential comforts and most valuable virtues”. His lament resonated with Romantic poets. Writers including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats struggled to find ways – often fugitive, displacing political discourse onto nature imagery in a form of literary steganography – of processing imaginatively the individual and wider social impacts of what Jeremy Bentham, designer of the Panopticon, called “inspective force”. It’s tempting, given the seeming apathy of today’s citizenry, to conclude they needn’t have bothered. But let’s remind ourselves why Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth and other of our best historical writers thought it so essential to contest, and develop resilience to, mass surveillance. Why, if they’d been alive today, they would have encrypted their emails and used privacy browsing software such as Tor.
Jacob Appelbaum puts it well in an interview in CitizenFour: “If you lose privacy, you lose agency, because you lose the ability to say what you think.” He’s right. Democratic political organization becomes all but impossible when all communications are intercepted and stored (think that through …), and perilous to our life chances when mere presence at a legal protest can result – as we know it now often does – in long-term tracking and tagging, which may impact on our social “privileges”, such as the ability to find employment, secure loans and rent housing. Even discussing “politics” becomes hazardous, now that big data, with its scarcely conceivable predictive power, can detect “thought crime” before we are ourselves aware of it.
This week, I’ll be talking about Keats and surveillance at the University of Cyprus's Romanticism and the Future conference. My focus will be on ways in which Romanticism continues to insist on its pertinence to current debates about the chilling experience of surveillance and the wider social impacts of the erosion of privacy.