It’s almost a year since Edward Snowden’s leaks about NSA and GCHQ spying made world headlines, and showed us that even the most tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorists hadn’t gone far enough in imagining the true extent of electronic surveillance. In the Romantic period, letter-opening, spies slouching on street corners under greasy beaver hats, and the government's network of informers were significant obstacles to political organization and open discourse. It seemed that anything, however apparently innocent, could be politicized. Today, our emails are scanned and stored for retroactive mining on networked algorithmic databases, our movement through public space is tracked and analysed using CCTV and face recognition software, our car journeys are logged and stored for two years with Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras, and data from our mobiles – tracking devices that can make phone calls – is routinely harvested. As Bentham predicted in the 1790s and Foucault theorized in the 1970s, such inspective force has the effect of encouraging us to modify and flatten our behaviour.
It's true that many of us seem to have shrugged and simply accepted that post-privacy is an inevitable stage in social evolution and societal change. But apathy and fear can be hard to distinguish at times. In The Spirit of Despotism (1795), reissued by radical bookseller William Hone in 1822, Vicesimus Knox lamented how ordinary people had been "terrified" into a state of "tame and silent acquiescence ... learn[ing] to consider politics as a dangerous subject, not to be touched without hazard of liberty or life." The insidious effects of creeping surveillance were not to be underestimated, though – Knox believed that his age's system of "spies and informers" had corrupted the "sequestered walks of private life", and "destroy[ed] at once [its] confidential comforts and most valuable virtues".
I'm honoured to be giving a keynote at the "John Keats and his Circle" conference at the Keats House, Hampstead, 2-4 May 2014. My talk at 7.30 pm on Friday 2 May is entitled "Keats in Three Crowds" – though it could just as easily have been called "Keats post-Snowden" – and explores Keats's anxieties about preserving privacy and anonymity in public spaces. It's been opened up as a free public lecture, and everyone's very welcome to attend. If you're interested in registering for the rest of the conference, the day rates (with concessions) are very reasonable, and many of the world's most eminent Keatsians will be giving papers (conference programme).