Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Writing Under Surveillance

"The thing that he was about to do was to open a diary. This was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws), but if detected it was reasonably certain that it would be punished by death, or at least by twenty-five years in a forced-labour camp. Winston fitted a nib into the penholder and sucked it to get the grease off. The pen was an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures, and he had procured one, furtively and with some difficulty, simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink-pencil. Actually he was not used to writing by hand. Apart from very short notes, it was usual to dictate everything into the speakwrite which was of course impossible for his present purpose. He dipped the pen into the ink and then faltered for just a second. A tremor had gone through his bowels. To mark the paper was the decisive act." (George Orwell)

The recently uncovered surveillance program at the National Counterterrorism Center reminded me of this passage in the first chapter of Orwell's 1984. It notes the guilt of writing down something for one's own personal use. Of writing down simply one's own ideas. Ever since I started blogging, I've been more or less consciously committed to the idea that if I write something, it may be read by others. I "know" that my gmail is in principle open to government investigation. In fact, I have no illusions about the privacy of any of my electronic correspondence. (I am only confident that no-one cares what I think and, in the worst case, that no one would dare to admit they've been snooping. So some agent, somewhere, may know what I'm up to, but it's our little secret.) On a bad day, I imagine that every keystroke is, under the right circumstance, visible to Big Brother. (Again, I imagine he leaves me alone because I'm not worth the bother.) Events like the recent Petraeus affair reminds one of one's vulnerability. It makes one think twice about seeking fame and influence. It makes one want to remain powerless.

Anyway, the extreme situation in which it is a suspicious act to write something down that Big Brother can't see, i.e., on paper, in one's diary, is probably still a few years off. But it made me realize that I don't write things I don't imagine are for publication. I keep those things in my head. I feel guilty about the poems I've jotted down in notebooks here and there and not told anyone about. After all, I felt those things. Who am I to keep them to myself. I should stand to account, right?

I think that mindset is totalitarian. It says something about what the Internet has done to how we (or at least I) feel about writing. Having an unfinished novel in your files feels like participating in a bomb plot.


Andrew Shields said...

Do you know Milosz's "The Captive Mind"?

Sarojini Sahoo said...

Is your 'bomb plot' novel based on this theme? Then, eager to read it. Finish it as soon as possible and get it published for us.