What is most alarming about popular young adult novelist Cory Doctorow’s vision is the understanding of God that he proffers. Feeling the indifference of the universe does not plunge him into an abyss of meaninglessness, as one might think: It liberates him from this inner Big Brother.
Doctorow’s previous novel, the best-selling Little Brother, published in 2008, sets the stage for Homeland, published this past February. In the San Francisco of the near future, the Department of Homeland Security throttles American liberties in its system of surveillance and coercion after a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge, and seventeen-year-old Marcus Yallow fights back. Homeland continues the story.
What might never occur to the hacktivist readership Doctorow anticipates is the theology of surveillance he inherits from Orwell. In 1984, Big Brother represents the totalitarian state’s politically useful replacement for God. In Homeland, Big Brother not only replaces God but becomes the metaphor for God’s omniscience. What was once said of God—“O Lord, you have searched me and known me! / You know when I sit down and when I rise up; / you discern my thoughts from afar”—can now be said of the surveillance state.
The de facto displacement of the experience of God’s omniscience by techniques of surveillance is profoundly disquieting, especially if one considers the internet as a kind of world wiki-mind that reaches deep into individual lives. Advertisers now routinely draw upon traceable personal information, such as websites visited and online purchases made, to target their ads to individuals. Several years ago, users of Gmail began to notice ads popping up in the margins obviously chosen based on words in their private correspondence. Even though the process was completely automated and anonymous—no person was reading their emails—many didn’t like the feeling of intrusiveness.
And no wonder. Such processes expose a deep vulnerability in privacy. Everything confided to this wiki-mind world—where most people now spend much of their lives and invest their souls—can be revealed and used. If algorithms can gather the information, so can anyone who knows how to access it. Anyone with the skill can spy out anything stored on any device connected to the network.
Surveillance adds the dimension of unsettling (“creepy,” as Marcus Yallow would put it) intentionality to the vulnerability to technology most people already feel. The problem is not only this power granted little by little to a system of connectivity that increasingly draws us into itself but also what it, as a metaphor for God, begins to do to the contemporary imagination. Homeland explicitly explores this metaphor. Since Little Brother, Marcus has fought against the system so successfully that at the beginning of Homeland, now nineteen, he’s not only free, he’s in the freest place he can imagine: with his girlfriend at Burning Man, the yearly festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.
Outside the temple at Black Rock City, which is brought into being for Burning Man and completely destroyed afterward, he receives a flash drive containing the equivalent of a huge WikiLeaks cache (800,000 documents) with information that will compromise powerful people. His charge from his endangered source is to release it publicly. Doing so, however, will bring him trouble from the DHS agents and black-ops mercenaries he fears most.
He tries to cover his tracks in ways apparently comprehensible to initiates. A friend convinces him to release the documents on a “darknet” site: “So you’ve got these rendezvous points, they’re servers that know some other servers that know some other servers that know the way to reach the darknet site . . . so every time you visit the site, there’s a different, random way to reach it. What I want to do is grab a cheapo server-on-demand VM and slap a ParanoidLinux install on it—nothing unencrypted, ever. Then we slap a copy of your data on it, and a clone of Google Spreadsheets. Grab a doc, put its title in the first field, a description in the next field”—and so on.
Doctorow immerses his reader in the arcane language, or “leet speak,” of a hacker milieu alien to most adults. The novel draws heavily on terms such as “pwned” (a corruption of “owned”) which first arose in video-game culture and signifies a total, embarrassing loss, or a sense of being completely dominated.
Eventually Marcus begins to suspect that the computer in his office, and perhaps every computer he uses, has been “pwned” by an unknown agent. Someone can turn on his webcam and watch him without his knowledge. He sits frozen: “My computer sat there, staring at me from its little webcam, a ring the size of a grain of rice. The mic was a pinhole-sized hole set into the screen’s frame.” After a moment, he begins to speak to whoever might be watching him: “You’re in there, aren’t you? I think it’s pretty creepy, I have to say. If you think you’re helping me, let me tell you, you’re freaking me out instead. I’d much rather that you talk to me than sneak around spying on me.”
Here Doctorow makes the theological metaphor explicit. The “stupid and awkward” feeling of talking to his computer leads into a page-long excursus about the only time in his life he ever prayed. When he was about ten or eleven years old, Marcus was temporarily obsessed with the idea that God was going to damn him and his family because none of them believed in him. After a week or so of anxiety about the “insurance policy” (his version of Pascal’s wager) represented by belief, he knelt down beside his bed and tried to pray, at which point he found himself pouring out all sorts of worries that he had not even realized he had.
Despite the revealing effects of this experience, he felt no response from “the universe.” As Marcus puts it, “no words had come back. No feeling of presence. No feeling of being listened to, or heard, or understood. I had spoken to the universe, and the universe hadn’t given a damn.” As a result, in the space of an hour, young Marcus went “from an anxious agnostic to a carefree atheist, and I’d stayed that way forever after.”
Doctorow implicitly contrasts this terror of God to an earlier experience in the novel when Marcus engages in mindfulness meditation and feels the calming and hopeful effect—natural, not supernatural—of “just being right there.” But the strong suggestion is that the God associated with any kind of moral order, any kind of judgment on one’s interior dispositions, becomes another metaphor for “the system” that has to be escaped. God, if he exists, would represent a kind of Department of Homeland Security with the power to damn Marcus eternally. Since this “creepy” surveillance Nobodaddy (as William Blake called him) does not answer the young Marcus’ earnest entreaties on the spot, he does not exist. Nevertheless, the technological equivalent of an all-seeing, all-judging divinity with the capacity for absolutely intrusive surveillance does exist.
When Marcus speaks to his computer, “the universe” answers him back. A new text document appears on his screen with the words “ooohhh busted.” Marcus realizes that he has been witnessed in ways that terrify him: “I tried to keep a poker face, staring into the eye of the camera over my screen as one of my biggest fears in the world came to life before me.” What kind of fear? Fear of total surveillance, of being “pwned” in some absolute way.
Homeland appeared with an afterword by Aaron Swartz, the twenty-six-year-old founder of Reddit and political activist, less than a month after he committed suicide. Swartz was under indictment for downloading academic documents owned by JSTOR with the intent of releasing them into the public domain. Surveillance tracked a leak at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology back to a laptop in an unlocked utility closet. The university put a hidden camera there that recorded him. The police arrested him two days later.
Swartz writes to Doctorow’s young readers: “I can tell you something you wouldn’t believe if it came out of the mouth of any of those fictional characters: This stuff is real.” He means, of course, that the powers of surveillance and everything they represent are real. Swartz goes on to urge readers to get politically involved: “I know it’s easy to feel like you’re powerless, like there’s nothing you can do to slow down or stop ‘the system.’ Like all the calls are made by shadowy and powerful forces far outside your control. I feel that way, too, sometimes. But it just isn’t true.”
It’s not? Doctorow’s young readers might ask. It’s not difficult to misinterpret Swartz’s suicide (which no doubt had much deeper causes) as his response to the surveillance state.
Traditionally, this kind of fear—Marcus’, to be sure, and perhaps that of Swartz—has been understood religiously: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But for young Marcus, what might be awe before the omniscience of God is supplanted by the desire to escape from surveillance. Don’t worry about God, Doctorow says. Worry about surveillance.
Surveillance works in two major ways. In one of them, it’s necessary for the subject to be completely unaware of being watched, as Marcus has been so far. The other depends entirely on the subject’s awareness of it. The use of closed-circuit television as a deterrent in stores and parking lots, for example, works on this principle. Its sinister forms have been most memorably explored in 1984—“Big Brother Is Watching You”—which adds technological surveillance to the networks of betrayal and mistrust familiar to all citizens under tyrannies.
This new surveillance had already been anticipated in 1791 by Jeremy Bentham with his Panopticon, a prison with a central tower looking out over an axial array of completely visible rooms. Michel Foucault explains in Discipline and Punish that the panoptic effect is “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power . . . . The inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.”
Both kinds of surveillance have theological parallels. The souls coming to judgment in Matthew 25 who ask when they did (or did not) feed or clothe Christ realize that they have been seen without seeing. By contrast, the panoptic effect of knowing oneself to be seen is like what Paul Tillich says of being witnessed by God in a sermon on Psalm 139 called “The Escape from God,” published in the 1940s: “There is no ultimate privacy or final isolation. We are always held and comprehended by something that is greater than we are, that has a claim upon us . . . Nothing can be hidden ultimately. It is always reflected in the mirror in which nothing can be concealed.” Hence the attractiveness of atheism before the oppressiveness of God’s omniscience: “We do not even wish to be known by ourselves. We try to hide the depths of our souls from our own eyes. We refuse to be our own witness. How then can we stand the mirror in which nothing can be hidden?”
What Marcus Yallow really fears is this kind of mirror. In order to be a “carefree atheist,” he has to jettison the idea of any moral judge once and for all. It might be bearable to be under God’s surveillance if God actually cared about him. But he prays, hears no words, feels no presence, and “God,” as a result, instantly vanishes, to be replaced by “the universe,” which is not a person at all and therefore does not know him or judge him.
Tillich’s sermon reveals the roots of Marcus’ atheism in images of God as “omnipresent like an electric power field, and omniscient like a superhuman brain”—an uncanny anticipation of “the system.” This material God is easy to dismiss, because he is a questionable object among other objects whose existence can’t be doubted. St. Augustine cannot doubt God without doubting his own existence. In the Confessions, he asks God, “Why, then, do I ask thee to come into me, since I also am and could not be if thou wert not in me?”
Marcus can get rid of “God” without feeling any shame, because he never suspects that his own “I” has its being only in I Am.
Where God might have been is Big Brother. The surveillance state most successfully estranges the subject from the ground of his being when it convinces him that it owns that ground. Big Brother exists not as a person but only as the personification of total surveillance. He does not sustain Marcus in being but steadily threatens him. And his very essence is not creative, self-emptying love, but sheer power.
Showtime’s television series Homeland (no relation to the novel) presents a fascinating twist on Big Brother. Sgt. Nicholas Brody, suspected of having been turned by a Middle Eastern terrorist organization, is put under surveillance by CIA agent Carrie Mathison. Sitting in her apartment, she can watch every minute of Brody’s life at home in every room of his house. She’s trying to see whether something he says or does will reveal his affiliation with the terrorists. Mathison can see everything about Brody except in the one place hidden from the surveillance cameras: his garage. Away from his family, who would never understand his conversion, Brody prays—as a Muslim.
This spiritual dimension of his life is the one thing free from Mathison’s surveillance, and it is the one thing that would give her incontrovertible proof that Brody has been turned. It is heavy irony, of course, but irony that points to curious similarities and differences between being under unsuspected surveillance and willingly, trustfully, putting oneself before the all-seeing God, who might require one to attack the regime.
Civil religion—Big Brother embodies an extreme of it—has always been considered supremely useful by political philosophers, because it allows the regime to control the behavior of citizens by imbuing them with a sense of communal participation and a feeling of being seen and judged by their gods. Ideally, religion is surveillance without the technology. The problem with Christianity has always been that participation in the kingdom of God by its very nature pulls citizens away from the political regime. The powers of the city or the state become almost negligible next to the powers and dangers of the kingdom of God, an issue that St. Augustine addresses in The City of God .
In the TV show Homeland, the problem is not Christianity but Islam. Brody’s loyalty to his new religion trumps his loyalty to his country and makes him into a potential terrorist—the very possibility that leads Mathison to put him under surveillance in the first place. The religion that escapes surveillance is the very thing that justifies surveillance.
But a situation like Brody’s poses a different kind of problem for Christians. What if the understanding of God is confused by the political usefulness of belief? If God is Big Brother in any sense, then God’s omniscience is already surveillance, an externalizing “letter” of being judgmentally watched instead of sustained by the inner Spirit. It is certainly fair to say that many Christians have experienced their faith in precisely this way. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories about the theocratic New England Puritans suggest that their “fear of the Lord” is the cowed response to a panoptic regime rather than the beginning of wisdom. Arthur Dimmesdale agonizes about letting Hester Prynne take the whole blame for their adultery, but his real suffering begins when Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s estranged husband, arrives in Boston and puts Dimmesdale under his surveillance.
Chillingworth tells Hester when she says that she will never reveal the identity of her lover, “Believe me, Hester, there are few things—whether in the outward world, or, to a certain depth, in the invisible sphere of thought—few things hidden from the man who devotes himself earnestly and unreservedly to the solution of a mystery. Thou mayest cover up thy secret from the prying multitude . . . . But, as for me, I come to the inquest with other senses than they possess.”
What God sees, in other words, Chillingworth also sees, but with an intuition born of hatred. Yet in the action of the novel, God arguably works through Chillingworth to bring about Dimmesdale’s eventual confession and death. Still, is this sense of excruciating guilt, born of the attempt to make Christianity a political regime, what St. Paul calls “the glorious liberty of the children of God”? Or is this kind of guilt, inextricable from the phenomena of secrecy and observation, rather the kind of thing that Tillich understands as making us want to “escape from God” altogether?
How Christians imagine the omniscience of God has the greatest import. In fact, if Doctorow’s general exhortation to the young to embrace a carefree atheism is any evidence, it represents the most pressing theological question of our time. Moral freedom is being reconceived as freedom from being witnessed except on one’s own terms. To be fair, Doctorow understands a version of community and he shows that Marcus grows most from the experiences that he does not choose. But he never acknowledges the true connectedness that might underlie our being known: “We all know that we cannot separate ourselves at any time from the world to which we belong,” Tillich writes. “The most intimate motions within the depths of our souls are not completely our own. For they belong also to our friends, to mankind, to the universe, and to the Ground of all being, the aim of our life.”
But I doubt that Tillich’s next questions can be heard by a culture that understands God as Big Brother. “Does anybody really believe that his most secret thoughts and desires are not manifest in the whole of being,” he asks, “or that the events within the darkness of his subconscious or in the isolation of his consciousness do not produce eternal repercussions? Does anybody really believe that he can escape from the responsibility for what he has done and thought in secret?”
The sense of the presence of God is not truly available, one could reasonably argue, to any but the prayerful—that is, to those who deliberately put themselves into a posture of openness to God’s scrutiny, as the psalmist writes:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
Even as I write this, some inimical agent could be watching, unseen, through the camera on my owned laptop—a chilling thought. But it’s still more fearful to know that I am always and everywhere comprehended and encompassed, known from the time when I was in my mother’s womb through all my days. The thought of being pwned makes me want to turn off my laptop, unplug it, and take out the battery, as a friend who’s worked in military intelligence strongly recommends. The thought of being comprehended and encompassed by God prompts me to wonder. It reminds me of what Rilke says in the First Duino Elegy: “For beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror we’re still just able to bear, / and why we adore it so is that it serenely / disdains to destroy us.”
Glenn C. Arbery is d’Alzon Professor of Liberal Education at Assumption College.