Spying on oth­ers

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - BOOKS - Eaves­drop­ping: An In­ti­mate His­tory Re­view by SUKHDEV SANDHU

Author: John L. Locke Pub­lisher: Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity Press, 288 pages

HERE are some things I have dis­cov­ered through eaves­drop­ping. The girl who used to live next door to me at uni­ver­sity, the sweet-faced girl who peo­ple thought would go and work with land­mine vic­tims in Africa, had a pen­chant for elab­o­rate role play with her boyfriend that in­volved them both pre­tend­ing to be doc­tors and nurses, Nazi camp guards, thalido­mide vic­tims.

A friend of mine was cheat­ing on his fi­ancee, a fact whose vi­cious de­tails he blabbed about to a mu­tual pal in the not-com­pletely empty gar­den at a party.

Most re­cently, while stand­ing in a queue at pass­port con­trol, I dis­cov­ered that “Kirsten Dunst to­tally has an iPad that she to­tally loves and to­tally uses it to i-chat with her boyfriend who lives on the op­po­site side of Amer­ica in LA”.

Silly? Sure. Pruri­ent? Guilty. But val­ue­less? Per­haps not: the fi­ancee would surely have found it use­ful to learn about her boyfriend’s be­trayal; some gos­sip site could have worked up a para­graph or two about the Marie An­toinette star’s gad­getry.

That eaves­drop­ping has mean­ing, value and even a his­tory is the premise of the lin­guis­tics pro­fes­sor John Locke’s in­ter­mit­tently com­pelling study of the topic.

The prac­tice is of­ten thought, rather misog­y­nis­ti­cally, to be the pre­serve of shrewish and trou­ble­mak­ing women; it’s also some­thing that only other peo­ple do - they eaves­drop, we over­hear.

For Locke, how­ever, it rep­re­sents “the quest of all hu­mans to know what is go­ing on in the pri­vate lives of oth­ers.”

Draw­ing on a wide range of psy­cho­log­i­cal, an­thro­po­log­i­cal and an­i­mal be­hav­iour stud­ies, he ar­gues that eaves­drop­ping should be seen as an im­por­tant adap­tive strat­egy that has, over the course of hu­man his­tory, al­lowed us to glean vi­tal in­for­ma­tion about the avail­abil­ity of food, sex­ual part­ners and help in the event of lo­cal skir­mishes or bat­tles: it’s a way of get­ting ahead – and also out of the way.

It’s also an urge that, whether in the Mex­i­can town of Teopisca where par­ents sent their chil­dren to the cen­tral mar­ket with or­ders to spy, or in Am­s­ter­dam many of whose houses were mounted with mir­rors on the side of their par­lour win­dows, seems to be uni­ver­sal.

Eaves­drop­ping, Locke sug­gests, is not just an ac­tiv­ity; it’s a crit­i­cal prac­tice. In­ter­cepted sig­nals need to be an­a­lysed, in­ter­preted, com­pared with ex­ist­ing lo­cal mores. As such, they amount to a form of so­cial mon­i­tor­ing, a means of pa­trolling the bound­aries of what is con­sid­ered nor­mal or ab­nor­mal, ac­cept­able or de­viant.

There will be those who see such snoop­ing as a weapon of the morally su­per­cil­ious and the po­lit­i­cally cen­so­ri­ous.

They will, even though Locke doesn’t dis­cuss this, cite in­stances where re­pres­sive states – Maoist China or post-war East Ger­many – have en­joined their cit­i­zens to spy on their neigh­bours with the goal of crack­ing down on dis­senters.

At the same time, civil so­ci­ety of­ten en­cour­ages eaves­drop­ping. “Care­less talk costs lives” was the wartime slo­gan that one might re­phrase as “Care­ful lis­ten­ing saves lives”.

For good or for bad, lo­cal au­thor­i­ties across Bri­tain in­creas­ingly out­source and tech­nol­o­gise eaves­drop­ping by al­low­ing ratepay­ers to tell them where to place CCTV cam­eras.

Locke, though he men­tions de­vices such as es­cutcheons and dumb wait­ers that rich peo­ple used to keep them away from house­hold ser­vants who might spy upon their af­fairs, doesn’t talk much about technology. He should have. Def­i­ni­tions of pri­vate and pub­lic are shift­ing: peo­ple up­load reams of in­for­ma­tion about them­selves onto so­cial net­work­ing sites and con­duct mo­bile phone con­ver­sa­tions in earshot of strangers.

Eaves­drop­ping has a fu­ture as well as a his­tory, but it’s a rapidly evolv­ing and wholly un­pre­dictable one. – © The Daily Tele­graph UK 2010

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