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Surveillance, Big Brother, and the Restlessness of the Heart

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 02, 2013

A recent article by Glenn C. Arbery of Assumption College raises intriguing questions about our modern culture of universal surveillance and the omniscience of God (“Search Me, O God”, First Things, June/July 2013). Arbery points out the depth and breadth of our culture’s submission to surveillance in social media, tracking of shopping patterns, and of course the various recording mechanisms used by the State in preventing crime, terrorism, and violations of the prevailing secular ethos. To these we might add the ubiquitous security cameras in and around places of business, the universal traceability of cell phones and GPS devices, and the immense capacity of modern webcams, satellite photography and mapping systems.

Anyone who has been caught on camera running a red light knows the frustration it can cause when we are forcibly reminded of this constant surveillance. Arbery’s interest is in the theological analogs. For example, just as some people feel a need to “stick it to the man” by attempting to avoid surveillance, to reveal to the world its consistent violations of our privacy, or to release its accumulated secrets publicly to the shame of the powerful, so too do some people think of God as a sort of universal surveillance system, waiting to say “gotcha!” Thus some choose to rebel against God, defying him to what we might call his ever-observant face.

In fact, this is the conception of God encapsulated in Cory Doctorow’s popular books Little Brother (2008) and Homeland (2013), which are what has stimulated Arbery’s reflections. But thinking about the problem of constant surveillance can lead us in many directions, rooted in our paradoxically conflicting desires to see, to be seen and, when convenient, to remain hidden.

There are, of course, many more who find the easy courage to refuse to be bound by God than who will dare to resist the more immediate punishments of the modern State, or who will forego the benefits of our modern communications-and-observation systems, which are constantly gathering data to make straight the way of our next purchase or to facilitate our ego’s next grandiose ride into public view. If people will have their cases adjudicated by a television judge or call in to a problem-solving radio talk show, then the urge to be noticed must be a lot stronger than we think!

Just as we all have moments in which we devoutly hope never to be seen by anyone, we all have moments when we would give just about anything to be in the limelight. To a considerable degree we learn to manipulate our modern surveillance systems to what we perceive is our own advantage, even if we are sometimes hung with our own rope. We gain an elusive social traction on Facebook and similar venues, we seek “appearances” in various quarters, and we even go to some trouble to cultivate a persona for these purposes. Some people even play the system, creating multiple personae. But we also learn how to wipe our trails clean when we need to, and we tend to cultivate a society in which our own faults are defended as “rights”, so that surveillance really doesn’t matter, unless we are one of them.

For the truth about surveillance systems is that they can be fooled, even if we don’t always succeed in fooling them. And the truth about God is that He cannot be fooled, not even for an instant, no matter how hard we may try.

This realization reminds us of a whole host of differences between God and surveillance, the heart of which is that the purpose of surveillance is to restrict our freedom in accordance with the desires of other human persons who know far less about us than we know about ourselves, whereas the purpose of God is to maximize our freedom, to bring our freedom to completion, in accordance with the desire of the only One who knows us better than we know ourselves.

It is important to recognize this difference. The problem with God has never been that God sees all. The problem with God is that our own consciences accuses us before him. It is not the observation that makes us turn and run; it is the guilt.

History has already demonstrated that we can become inured to observation. We are quite capable of living happily under a microscope, once we are acclimated to it, and most of us adjust to the patterns of surveillance in our way of life without any great psychic distress—even if there are many good reasons for keeping it to a minimum. But what we apparently cannot get used to is the constant feeling within ourselves that we have somehow failed to live as we should. We go to great lengths to escape this feeling, losing ourselves alternately in hedonism and asceticism, as symbolized perhaps by drugs on the one hand and dieting on the other.

This feeling of living under a judgment is not engendered by Big Brother, for Big Brother simply establishes the rules of a game that cannot touch our deepest selves, a game that we all learn to play, one way or another. But even within the game, our moments of treasured happiness, our instances of deepest contentment, come when we are immersed in goodness and, accordingly, at peace with ourselves.

Our fundamental orientation toward God and toward the good are built into our very nature, even though in our weakness we often attempt to counterfeit this orientation through the pursuit of mere pleasure. With respect to God, no matter what we do we are seeking our own happiness, we are seeking to enter into the ultimate fullness of being, even if we are doing this in ways that are doomed to fail. It is the office of conscience, and still more of grace, to enable us to find the right path, and to render us discontented until we do.

When the prophet Samuel was trying to identify the future King of Israel, he first settled upon Eliab, who appeared perfect for the role. But God said, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam16:7). This is not something human surveillance can do, which is why it ordinarily troubles us so little. But nothing could more clearly express the problem we have with God, and why our hearts are so very restless until they rest in Him.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: davidSanDiego - Jul. 02, 2013 3:20 PM ET USA

    If my own father had known all the things I was up to in the past I would have been stopped on some, perhaps allowed to get a bit farther into trouble on others. All for the purpose correction and learning. I find the omniscience of God comforting.