In the age of surveillance, what do any of us have left to hide?
To be young now is to be hounded for personal data in exchange for trinkets and services
Emily Watson in Apple Tree Yard: “One of the most fascinating things . . . is her preoccupation with being witnessed. ‘You made me feel important,’ she tells her lover, and her unimportance seems a persistent fear.”
Sting has a tale. The man who wrote Every Breath You Take, the stalker anthem with an appropriately arresting melody, was alarmed to discover that it had become a staple of wedding celebrations.
Written during the acrimonious break-up of his first marriage and recorded by a bitterly fractious band, its lyrics had been directly influenced by Big Brother, the figure who is always watching you in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. An eager couple once told The Police man that the song had provided them with their first dance. “Well, good luck,” Sting muttered.
Maybe they didn’t need it. To judge from popular culture, they may have been ahead of the curve. It has taken the best part of two decades, but as the concept of privacy has steadily eroded, from Patriot Acts to social media, the idea of surveillance has shifted from a deep intrusion towards something more like a personal validation. Someone’s watching you.
It was possible to look at Apple Tree Yard, the BBC’s recent adaptation of Louise Doughty’s novel, in a number of ways: adulterous thriller, revenge tragedy, finger-wagging morality tale. Still, its most consistent theme is that of a pathologically secretive couple who, underneath it all, were begging to be noticed.
Affairs are cliched devices in television drama, and Apple Tree Yard was aware of heavily trodden paths, as a middle-aged couple – a scientist and a security “spook” – found thrills in broom-cupboard trysts, untraceable phones and fumblings in sheltered alleyway. Even as the plot darkened considerably, it remained a parable about privacy and publicity.
The affair begins impulsively (and pointedly) in an underground chapel in the bowels of Westminster, where the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison once hid herself away in a defiant gesture for women’s liberation. Davison famously met her demise under the galloping hooves of King George V’s horse, and writer Doughty invites a mocking comparison with her modern inheritor: “We can sleep with whomever we like,” the book’s protagonist reflects on Davison’s legacy. “We are safe, surely.” Do they want to be caught?
One of the most fascinating things about Emily Watson’s scientist is her preoccupation with being witnessed. “You made me feel important,” she tells her lover, and her unimportance seems a persistent fear.
Even her decision not to report her brutal rape at the hands of a colleague is partly bound up with it: She was the first scientist “to qualify the Wedekind experiment”. (Another sly joke: Frank Wedekind, a German playwright, was a scold of the bourgeoisie.) She now worries that she will be known only as a victim, as though her ultimate humiliation will be at the end of a Google search.
The laneway from which the drama takes its title is more significant: another apple tree marking a point of discovery, like the first couple whose eyes were opened “and they knew that they were naked”. London’s so-called ring of steel is a kind of coiling serpent, and so another couple, wary of being watched but finally worried they will never be witnessed, are caught with their pants down.
There is also some security in being monitored in Enda Walsh’s play Arlington, which has just transferred to the Abbey Theatre in Landmark and Galway International Arts Festival’s production. It is, like most of Walsh’s work, a depiction of an eternally confined space. This one, a bland, cavernous waiting room overlooked by CCTV cameras, is an oddly sustaining prison.
Isla (Charlie Murphy), the young woman who has been kept here alone since childhood, has grown accustomed to her captor, “a good listener”. “I thought we had got close,” she tells the new guy (Hugh O’Conor), a nervy sudden replacement. The world outside seems apocalyptic, but Isla has a kind of power under surveillance: she’s worth watching. She imparts stories down a microphone, or relates her dreams, which are recorded in a cluttered office and sometimes accompanied with music and visuals.
These dreams, Isla has been told, are being made for her beyond the towers. This may be a ruse, but it gives Isla and her audience a more recognisable fantasy: even in this disintegrating, disordered world, she matters.
Last year, the musician Anohni played with a similar idea, making a rapturous fetish out of surveillance culture in the song Watch Me, addressing the NSA, or whomever, with a mock coquettish chant of “Daddy!”: “I know you love me because you’re always watching me.” True, it is unlikely to feature in many weddings, but it nailed the zeitgeist. If you can’t resist surveillance culture, the next best response is an ironic submission.
Just ask someone under 30. To be young today is to be constantly hounded for personal data in exchange for trinkets and services. “It’s not that they don’t know about privacy issues,” a lecturer friend told me recently. “It’s just that they don’t care.”
To see Nineteen Eighty-Four return to the best-sellers list in these early days of the Trump era might beckon a readjustment of those individual privacy settings. But in the age of Gogglebox, Orwell’s dark ideas about “telescreens”, receiving as they transmit, may strike new readers as positively quaint.
“There was no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment,” goes the dystopian classic, so you just assumed “every sound you made was overheard . . . every movement scrutinized.”
You don’t need to be Edward Snowden to find that prescient. But Orwell didn’t anticipate the complicity of such a narcissistic age. Why wouldn’t someone want to watch us? What do we have left to hide?