I spy: from Paradise Lost to Brave New World, literature has long explored the hidden self. Image: Richard Wilkinson
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Private parts: writers and the battle for our inner lives

Imaginative writing is tied intimately to privacy, to the struggle to tell this story, to convey the singular texture of this experience, and no other.

At the end of last year, an international group of writers drafted a petition decrying the escalation of state surveillance and calling for a digital bill of rights to protect the privacy of all global citizens. Scattered among the numerous expressions of solidarity in the online comment boxes were a good few barbs aimed at the presumption of a self-appointed elite of “arch-pseuds” that their writerly status conferred on them some special authority to speak on this question. Why, after all, should a petition of writers carry any more weight in the debate on privacy than one of welders or florists?

A few weeks later, I had an encounter with an author that brought to life the specific and urgent link between literature and privacy. The writer was Otto Dov Kulka, the winner of this year’s Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize, for which I was on the judging panel. A distinguished Czech-born Israeli historian of the Nazi genocide, Kulka received the prize for Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death (2013), a personal and philosophical meditation on his experience as a child survivor of Auschwitz.

Receiving the prize, Kulka spoke of having dedicated his life after Auschwitz to documenting Nazism’s crimes in the rigorously disinterested language of the historian. But alongside this contribution to the public record, he had silently amassed a personal archive of memories, dreams and images of his time as an inmate of the so-called family camp at Auschwitz, which he called his “private mythology”.

No one could fail to be moved by the undisguised delight and incredulity with which this slight yet robust old man received the award. The source of that incredulity was not false modesty but the genuine conviction he’d had when writing the book that the experience to which he was giving voice was too private to be shared – echoing the terrible recurring dream related by Primo Levi, of telling his experiences of Auschwitz to a group of oblivious listeners. Landscapes is the fruit not of any long-held literary ambition on Kulka’s part but of his search for a language that would do justice to the terrible singularity of his story. The form of the book wasn’t so much chosen as imposed on him by the privacy of the experience he sought to convey.

Freud suggested something similar when he wrote of being struck by the impression “that the case histories I write should read like short stories”. There is no way of rendering the detail of the inner life without falling into ambiguities and complexities, “such as we are accustomed to find in the works of imaginative writers”.

Imaginative writing, in other words, is tied intimately to privacy, to the struggle to tell this story, to convey the singular texture of this experience, and no other. And this may be why the defence of privacy is such an urgent imperative for contemporary writers and artists. At stake in the incursions of the state, the media and corporations into our everyday lives is the right to an inner life as much as to the protection of our personal data. A self coerced into permanent visibility will come to feel constrained not only in what he can say but eventually in what he can think and imagine. In externalising the self, a surveillance society – not only the persecutory monitoring of the totalitarian state envisioned by Orwell but the more tacitly imposed, pseudo-benign mutual monitoring of our social media culture – threatens our interiority, our right to a private self that ensures we can never be fully transparent, to others or to ourselves.

In a culture driven to render us ever more transparent to one another, literature and art may be among the few spaces in which to keep hold of this understanding of the private self. Without an implicit claim to privacy, to an external and internal room of one’s own, there can be no literature. A self without privacy is a flattened self.

Literature’s concern with privacy is not new. Milton portrays Adam’s new-found capacity to hide from the all-seeing gaze of God as the birth of the human being. In the work of Shakespeare, Rousseau, Hawthorne, Henry James and Virginia Woolf, the drama of selfhood is rooted in the division between light and darkness, between a knowable face and an unknowable heart. And modern fiction is filled with dystopian visions, most famously Orwell’s and Huxley’s, of the violent or surreptitious drive to destroy that hidden dimension of the self.

The most explicit recent fictional exploration of the state of our privacy locates this eclipse of the concealed self not in some ominous future but in the recognisable present. Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle envisions a northern Californian tech corporation – a monstrous condensation of Google, Facebook and Microsoft – that has acquired a monopoly on its users’ identities: “Your devices knew who you were, and your one identity – the TruYou, unbendable and unmaskable – was the person paying, signing up, viewing and reviewing, seeing and being seen.”

The novel’s protagonist, the new “Circler” Mae Holland, rises to become the poster girl for the corporation’s world of total and permanent visibility, agreeing to submit herself to the perpetual gaze of the world by means of a wearable camera (a scenario Eggers has no need to imagine – the web is already home to many “lifeloggers” recording and broadcasting their every waking and even sleeping moment).

The book’s pivotal scene is a sly rewriting of Wordsworth’s “act of stealth/And troubled pleasure” in the stolen boat episode of The Prelude, in which his younger self, rowing in the lake under cover of darkness, finds himself overwhelmed by the sudden appearance of “a huge peak, black and huge”, and hastily steers the boat back to the willow tree on the bank where he found it. The inhuman sublimity of the peak sends him for days into the despondency of disturbed dreams and dim waking perceptions.

In Eggers’s version of this scene, Mae makes an impromptu nocturnal stop at the kayak-hire beach hut and rows herself out to a rugged island. The journey into the bay leads to a blissful solitary epiphany, a communing with the depths of marine life and of her sense of self, a moment of redemption from the Circle’s imperative to be visible at all times, in which she can “take comfort in knowing that she would not, and really could not, know much at all”.

Where Wordsworth’s act of stealth is allowed to remain concealed in the privacy of his memory, Mae’s moment of stolen solitude is swiftly discovered and criminalised. When she is caught handling the kayak by the police, her act of petty larceny and personal risk is pounced on by the Circle as a “teachable” error, an object lesson in the dangers of privacy that will result in her consenting to submit her waking life to the eyes and ears of millions of global watchers.

Eggers’s novel is infused with a spirit of menacing cheeriness, encapsulated in the slogans that are projected across the Circle campus’s glass surfaces: “SECRETS ARE LIES/SHARING IS CARING/PRIVACY IS THEFT”. It projects a world bent on eliminating any residues of Wordsworthian darkness or ambiguity.

Published a year before The Circle, Ben Marcus’s novel The Flame Alphabet offers a still crueller vision of the fate of privacy, a kind of demonic mirror image of Eggers’s phoney paradise of transparency. The family at its heart is riven by a virus carried not by birds but by language. The words of children, who are themselves mysteriously immune to the virus, ravage the bodies of their parents, turning the home into a place of primordial enmity and danger. As the plague spreads, it amplifies its reach and virulence, so that eventually all language, spoken, written or gestural, becomes toxic to its users.

“This crisis is different,” the sinister survivalist Murphy tells the protagonist. “It will be met with muteness . . . This is a plague among cavemen, and soon we’ll only be grunting to each other about it. You can’t exactly describe a poison with more of itself, write about how poisonous writing is.” If the horizon of Eggers’s dystopia is the fully externalised self, in Marcus’s book it is this consignment to an exitless prison of interiority, the self abandoned to its own incommunicable thoughts. Perhaps, wonders the protagonist towards the end of the novel, thinking will be the next casualty of this creeping toxin, “another basic human activity that will slowly be taken from us. Oh, I fucking hope so.”

The contrast between these two fates – the loss of a private self in Eggers and of a public self in Marcus – masks an underlying affinity. The loss of one impoverishes the other. Selfhood is made meaningful by the play of revelation and concealment, by the paradox of what the British psychoanalyst D W Winnicott called “the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found”. The reading and writing of literature demands both the solitude of the “unfound” state and its communication to others. A culture of permanent visibility may herald the externalised self imagined by Eggers. But it may also give rise to an atomised privacy as the only possible refuge from the toxic noise of coerced sharing.

A purely public self is empty, while a purely private one is blind. Each needs the other in order to preserve and cultivate itself. The delicacy and precariousness of this relationship is central to perhaps the most powerful contemporary fictional treatment of privacy, Javier Marías’s monumental trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. Recruited to a nameless branch of the British security services, the Spanish émigré narrator and protagonist, Jacques Deza, is tasked with interpreting and predicting the behaviour of the random stream of individuals he interviews or covertly watches, so as “to know today what face they would wear tomorrow”.

This pointedly low-tech and seemingly harmless mode of surveillance involves an incursion into the heart of the other. The latent brutality of this operation is embodied by Deza’s sinister recruiter Bertram Tupra, a master of controlled psychological and physical violence. The counterpoint to this malignant father figure is the quiet indifference to power of Deza’s father. In the first volume of the trilogy, the latter recounts his devastating personal and political betrayal by a close friend during the Spanish civil war. How, his son wonders, could he have failed to discern his friend’s impending betrayal in his face? Didn’t he suspect anything? “No,” his father replies, “I simply found it incomprehensible, inexplicable.”

The elder Deza’s willed ignorance of his treacherous friend’s soul offers a profound ethical contrast to Tupra’s ruthless psychic mastery of others. It hints that we can renounce as well as exploit the powers we have to penetrate the other’s private self.

If “surveillance is theft”, in the words of the writers’ petition, to which Marías, Eggers and Marcus are all signatories, it threatens the robbery not only of our personal data but of our imaginative freedom.

Josh Cohen is the author of “The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark” (Granta Books, £20)


This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.