Spying on others
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