Spies, God, and Solar Storms

We’ve been under surveillance for millennia, since the last Ice Age perhaps, and certainly to the Cold War and beyond. But who do you prefer watching over you, God or the NSA?

Leaks to the media are getting bigger all the time. Now we know it’s true our governments make machines to listen to all our stuff. It’s not big brother, it’s big weird uncle. And yet we knew it all the time, didn’t we, deep down. Someone somewhere was listening in. It was just better not to think about it. And now we have to.

Whistle-blowing is a relatively safe activity in Europe, defined quite clearly since a slew of cases in the late 1990s. But that doesn’t mean plain sailing for whoever tells. Julian Assange is still holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge. At a cost estimated at £3 million for the past year, he’s an expensive house guest. And he just never leaves! His plaintive wish for some springtime fresh air was cruelly quashed by the English dogs keeping him at bay until he can be spirited off elsewhere or perhaps talked into confessing his crimes on live TV.

Any solitary confinement veteran will tell you their keepers can take everything but they can’t take your thoughts. At the present rate of knots in technology, within twenty years that will be possible too. And yet, perhaps we have a sense of what this is like already, maybe even have yearned for it. Do our secrets not make us dirty? Isn’t truth beautiful? Once the skyline of London, like many cities, was a spread of church spires, designed to reach towards God, to bring our prayers nearer his ear and his thoughts nearer to our hearts.

Before the Great Fire in 1666 there were about 100 churches in an area of only one square mile. We lived with the idea that our thoughts were known and our behaviour was ultimately judged. Only the last few decades have eradicated this worry, and the notion there’s a keeper looking down who is beyond our control.

But the government web we live in now is hardly much in our control either, and without the mainstay of benevolence and wisdom we attribute to the Almighty. It hurts to be fodder for the system’s machinery, however much we may believe it’s for society’s good.

Elsewhere, the much-loved Post Office is set to be privatised, after much to-ing and fro-ing, like so many national institutions were in the 1980s. Keen timing, as its finances look rosy for the first time in years. Prices will go up no doubt, and services will be cut in some farther-off places. Our naïveté dwindles apace. No need to lick and stick your envelope shut, just tuck the letters in like well-behaved children and trust that only good people will read them. Or better still, if privacy really is run into the ground, only use postcards. Save on the cost of envelopes altogether.

The skewering of privacy will make us wonder if the thoughts we hold are safe to utter or even to think in the first place, and we’ll start to mould them accordingly.

And yet, dear Google, dear NSA, dear spooks of Britain and the USA, remember we’re long overdue for a solar EMP, or electro-magnetic pulse. The sun’s storms, in a massive burst of plasma, can make for a geomagnetic mess down here. The last big one recorded, known as the Carrington Event, was in the late summer of 1859. Giant flares from the sun were visible from all around the planet. The state-of-the-art telegraph system failed completely, electrocuting several operators. This month, the insurers Lloyds of London published a report, in a joint venture with the Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) in the US, estimating the cost of a similar disaster today at $2.6 trillion.

It could be time to invest in carrier pigeons and to practise our telepathy. Stock up on food and water and medical supplies. And never tell anyone ever again any private thoughts. It’s better that way. Pity the poor workers having to sift through all our rubbish, wondering if we’re a threat.

Fear, they say, can manifest the very thing it worries about. Nobody wants to be stared at, checked out, inspected and filed away, every day, all the time, least of all by machines linked to spies linked to corporations. And it’s hard to forget something once you know it. Expect at least to see a lot more furtive chats between friends on benches with code words and secret messages. Thanks Cold War movies – you taught us well.

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2012-03-24 16.22.43-1