I don’t want to sound paranoid… but we are being watched. When I leave my home on the campus of Macquarie University in Sydney I can’t travel more than 50 metres without being surveilled by a security camera. There is a camera observing the footpath outside my back gate. There are cameras over all the entrances and exits to the residential community where I live. There are cameras in the carpark. There is another set of cameras newly installed at the closest set of traffic lights to catch drivers who play with their phones while stopped. And it is not the cameras but the phones we cannot put down that watch us most closely.
By and large, none of this feels oppressive. I am oblivious to the cameras. I love my phone. I am happy to trade my privacy for digital utility. Even though it is more total than the worst fears of 1940s dystopian fiction, mostly it doesn’t feel like totalitarian surveillance. This constant over-sharing is experienced in a certain way—as a form of freedom rather than oppression. And this is only possible because there have been significant shifts in the structure of our desires. We are driven, in a fashion inconceivable to our forebears, by our own internal compulsion to put ourselves on display. We are being watched… and for complicated reasons, this is what we like.
Byung-Chul Han is a contemporary German philosopher of culture whose work on digitalisation and consumerism contains some of the most penetrating analysis of these phenomena going around. Not only this, his books are generally short and quite readable (arguably a revolutionary innovation for German philosophy). In his essay translated into English in 2015 as ‘The Transparency Society’, Han presents a series of evocative descriptions of the emergence of a form of social life in which everything is on constant display. Each chapter is a vignette of something lost in a society marked by an ‘excess of positivity’. By this, Han means a situation in which the ordinary dialectic between things revealed and secret is disturbed so much that everything is driven by the desire for transparency, nothing is secret.
One of the many dark sides of the quest to put everything on display, is the growth of surveillance culture. A culture that praises and rewards constant self-disclosure doesn’t train us well to live with the presence of the unknown. There is a resilience required to live with the unknown, and as we cease to practise trust, this resilience disappears. Then, whenever what remains of our trust is broken—as it inevitably will be—our anxieties are confirmed and we spiral further and further into insecurity, requiring more and more surveillance to assuage our fears. As we weaken the necessity of trusting each other by replacing shared expectations about behaviour with ubiquitous cameras, we become more and more anxious about the things that the cameras don’t capture. Trust is at risk in a society where everything is put on display.
I was reflecting on Byung-Chul Han’s work recently due to a conversation about whether students on our campus will feel safer if we install an additional suite of security cameras. Is it possible that the effect will be exactly the opposite? Rather than learning to live in a world that challenges us with its secrets and thereby learning how to trust others, trust our environment, and ultimately trust God, we pursue the kind of total knowledge—total transparency—that is ultimately a titanic desire to know as God alone knows.
Learning to live as a Christian requires learning to live in the dialectic of revealed and secret. We are fully known by God, and as yet remain unknown even to ourselves.
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
This is the dialectic in which hope grows strong.
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