This interesting article by medieval historian Amanda Power traces our culture’s relationship with the concept of mass surveillance from the medieval characterization of the Christian god and how piety was policed by the church:
What is all this but a fundamental trust in the experience of being watched? One must wonder about the subtle, unspoken fear of the consequences of refusing to participate in systems of surveillance, or even to critique them seriously. This would be to risk isolation. Those who have exposed the extent of surveillance are fugitives and exiles from our paradise. They have played the role of the cursed serpent of Eden: the purveyor of illicit knowledge who broke the harmony between watcher and watched. The rest of us contemplate the prospect of dissent with careful unease, feeling that our individual and collective security depends on compliance.
Eight centuries ago, in November 1215, Pope Innocent III presided over a Great Council of the Church in Rome known as the Fourth Lateran Council. It was attended by high-ranking members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the monastic world, together with representatives of emperors, kings, and other secular leaders from throughout Christendom. Their decisions were promulgated through seventy-one constitutions. They began with a statement of what all Christians were required to believe, including specifics on the nature of Godby this time: “eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable”—and the view that salvation could be found only through the Roman Catholic Church. Anyone who disagreed, according to the third constitution, was to be handed over to secular lords for punishment, stripped of their property, and cast out of society until they proved their orthodoxy, or else be executed if they did not. Anyone in authority would be punished if they did not seek out and expel such people from their lands; their subjects would be released from obedience and their territories handed over to true Catholics. There was nothing empty about this threat: the council occurred in the middle of the bitter Albigensian Crusade, during which heresy—likened to a cancer in the body of Christendom—was purportedly being cut out of Languedoc by the swords of the pious.
The Fourth Lateran Council was talking about crimes of thought, of dissent over matters of belief, matters not susceptible of proof. But whether individuals were heretics could not, in theory, be established without investigating the contents of their minds. To this end, the council decreed that bishops’ representatives should inquire in every parish at least once a year to discover “if anyone knows of heretics there or of any persons who hold secret conventicles or who differ in their life and habits from the normal way of living of the faithful.” These representatives were to follow these external indications of nonconformity into the recesses of the mind and establish their meaning in each case. Over the decades the role of the inquisitor was developed into an art and a science, and elaborate handbooks were produced. But in 1215 it was stated merely that individuals should be punished if “unable to clear themselves of the charge.”
What is all this but a fundamental trust in the experience of being watched? Our trust is so strong that it seems to have found its own protective rationality, deeply rooted in Western consciousness. It’s an addict’s rationality, by which we’re unable to refrain from making public a stream of intimate details of our lives and those of children too young to consent. One must wonder about the subtle, unspoken fear of the consequences of refusing to participate in systems of surveillance, or even to critique them seriously. This would be to risk isolation. It would be a trifle paranoid to reveal less—a little eccentric, not quite rational.
Posted on December 21, 2015 at 1:09 PM •