The Idea That God — or Someone — is Always Watching Comes to Life With Technology

Surveillance cameras. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

On his 40th birthday, ad executive Daniel Miller bought himself a BMW to celebrate the happiest day of his life.

Then, in a 1990s version of distracted driving, Miller took his eyes off of the road to grab a loose CD and ended up in a fatal head-on collision with a bus.

That accident in the opening scene of the 1991 film “Defending Your Life” lands Miller, played by writer and director Albert Brooks, in “Judgment City,” a resort hotel version of purgatory.

In a scene that foreshadows today’s culture of surveillance — where a camera appears to always be watching us — the trial features a highlight reel of Miller’s life where he has to face up to his past decisions, both good and bad.

“Every second of every lifetime is always recorded, and as each one ends, we sort of look at it,” his defense attorney Bob Diamond, played by Rip Torn, tells him. “Look at a few of the days. Examine it. And then, if everybody agrees, you move forward.”

In Brook’s version of the afterlife, Judgment City is devoid of God, and those who run the universe care not about morality but about a defendant’s capacity to overcome fear. But his vision that someone is always watching us — and has a recording device handy — existed in religious contexts long before the advent of modern technology or science fiction.

More than 17 centuries ago, the rabbi Judah ha-Nasi warned we are all under divine surveillance.

“Know what is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and that all of your actions are being written in a book,” he said in “Ethics of the Fathers,” a tractate of the Mishnah, which was codified around the year 200.

And even earlier, Ecclesiastes cautions against cursing the powerful even in one’s inner chambers, because the walls, essentially, have ears.

“The fowl of the heavens carry voices,” the Old Testament book states, “and the winged will say things.”

George Orwell, author of “1984,” drew on a religious vocabulary when creating his fictional surveillance state where if you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.

Orwell modeled his totalitarian state, Oceania, on the Roman Catholic Church, said David Rosen of Trinity College and Aaron Santesso of Georgia Tech, co-authors of the book “The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood.”

The chief “1984” torturer, named for a parish priest, parodies Catholic confession in his torturous methods.

“Orwell saw the confessional as the most effective means of surveillance before the modern era: the presence of an all-seeing God, acting through a priestly caste, motivated the individual parishioner to tell the truth about his or her thoughts and deeds,” Rosen and Santesso said in an email.

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Source: Religion News Service