The 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey featured a computer with a ‘life’ of its own. HAL is a computer almost impossible to switch off or control. In the end it becomes a deadly threat to the astronauts on the spaceship. When the film was released, the concept was seen as outlandish science fiction. Today, almost 16 years on from the fictional date when the film was set, it appears passé.
In 2015, there were 5.9 million surveillance cameras reckoned in the United Kingdom—a country that has a population of approximately 60 million. Two years on, no doubt, thousands more cameras have been added to this number. Our image is being caught constantly on these cameras. From dawn to dusk, as you move around London, there is a digital record of your life in a way no one could have suspected in 1968 and which the makers of 2001 would have considered far-fetched.
Throughout the day, in the public square, we are watched and recorded, spied on, often caught out, for the surveillance culture has proved to be an unforgiving one. In another dystopian fiction, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, there is the despotic Big Brother observing everyone and everything; this prophetic vision now appears to be coming to pass: Big Brother really is watching. And, just as in the world of Orwell’s Winston Smith, Big Brother’s gaze is merciless for those so ‘caught out.’ The lens that spies on us is intolerant. Make no mistake, just one mistake in public and you shall find it captured on camera only to be paraded before a viral court, soon after those so snared become a public laughing stock, or worse. Many lives have been ruined by public exposure of some ill-timed action that would have passed unnoticed in previous years. Now there is no escaping anything, anytime. All is being stored, ready to be repeated endlessly.
There is no aspect of life hidden from this ‘all seeing eye.’ Public buildings must now display the obligatory signs stating that cameras are recording at all times. When in such a recorded space, try standing for just long enough to be singled out by one of those cameras and then observe how they close in, and begin to follow your every step. It has an unsettling effect. It is meant to. Like some latter-day digital ‘triffid’, these invaders overnight have multiplied to the point where they are everywhere, and, just as in The Day of the Triffids, this malign presence is, ironically, robbing us of our ability to see what is really happening. But whether we see it or not, we are becoming ever more trapped in a sci-fi movie of someone else’s making, one with nightmarish possibilities.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis called for Catholics to view the cities they live in through an altogether different lens. He called for urban contemplation. This would seem to be the antithesis of the urban surveillance emerging around us.
“We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in [our] homes, in [our] streets and squares. God’s presence …dwells [there], fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice.”
What he meant exactly is not defined, let alone developed. Yet what the Pope seems to be calling for is an individual, loving response to the concrete ugliness in which many of us live: we must become contemplatives in the world. This world is one of dirt and depression, of concrete and crisis; it is not some imaginary Arcadian world of the past, or some utopian world of the future. No, now, today, on this street, in this city, by this over-running sewer, next to some piece of crumbling asbestos-filled Brutalism, beside these graffiti-scarred walls echoing back the wail of police sirens…
A tall order? Perhaps. But the Holy Father is not saying anything new. Many saints have called upon Christians to live in the world as contemplatives and, by so doing, to change it. Some Christians are called to flee the world and to pray for it: St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Bruno and many others. The vast majority are called to transform the world by remaining in it; to work in the world in which they live, not the world in which someone else lives, or even the world in which they would like to live.
Dangerously, though, just as national populations are more under public surveillance, the individual gaze of its citizenry appears to be turning ever inward. Their contemplative gaze is to the screen in front of them—at all times—and, increasingly, this is a flight from reality.
A generation has grown up knowing nothing else but computers and screens. They are called ‘digital natives.’ From morning to night they are attached to one device after another, all plugged in and zoned out, feeling it odd if they are not connected to something, anything. Perhaps that sector of society could be more accurately described as digital captives.
For this generation, the idea of privacy is an arcane notion. It is a notion made redundant by time spent online linked—willingly or unwillingly —with millions of others. In addition, one’s internet search history, there for all eternity, is a curious cyber record of almost every thought that ever entered your mind—a vast database for someone somewhere to check and cross-reference, examine and dissect, should someone, somewhere, decide that this is necessary.
Ironically, this is taking place in a society that ‘celebrates’ its godlessness and that feels it has ‘freed’ itself from the childish ‘hang-up’ of a divine ‘surveillance.’ Rejecting virtue we have sought only the viral, and, by so doing, boldly walk forward into a brave new world where we are told no God can see us.
The thing is there is still something watching us. Attempting to escape the presence of God, we have entered instead into a vortex of emptiness. Inevitably, into this vortex other forces move. Twisting and turning the gift that the digital revolution promised, they reiterate the lie that we need no God; they go further, we don’t even need each other anymore. Those same voices call us to a different contemplation. Onward and inward we travel, as the on switch is once more flicked, and with it real life recedes before a sea of virtual reality…
In Japan they have invented a word for this phenomenon: hikikomori. This is a medical term for hundreds of thousands of mainly men and adolescent boys who live lives as ‘reclusives’, with only their computers as company. The Japanese government estimates that there are now as many as 500,000 such male solitaries.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that one of the biggest players in this computer age has as an apple logo with a bite taken from it. It promises a new ‘Eden’ to which now we must go, whether we want to or not. If we paused for just a moment we might see that we are hurtling toward a Gehenna of our own design.
The gaze directed at us, via computer screens or on CCTV cameras, is becoming ever more dehumanising as the gaze reflected back at us is equally so transformed. We are losing sight of what and who really matters. In the process, we are screened from the only look that will heal us. The merciful gaze of a loving Father has been replaced by the lifeless stare of an Accuser, whether via a surveillance camera or a computer system that tracks our every move, and marks our every choice.
The astronauts of 2001: A Space Odyssey found out too late that HAL had turned from omnipresent servant to omnipotent tyrant; perhaps, we are already too late in discovering that that which is controlling our lives has no ‘off switch.’