Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tolkien on the surveillance state

What can literary fiction teach us about recent revelations that the National Security Agency has aggressively been gathering massive amounts of data on American citizens? The novel one usually turns to, of course, is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its terrifying vision of the Thought Police. .... Orwell’s book, however, isn’t the most compelling or accurate literary prediction of modern surveillance. That award goes to a less obvious title: J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien’s most potent and intimidating image of centralized surveillance, the Eye of Sauron atop a tower, taking in the whole world, has resonated with those who are paranoid about government monitoring. But it’s Sauron’s vulnerability that has the most relevance for America today. ....

Tolkien’s vision offers at least three lessons for present-day America. ....

1. All-Seeing Is Not All-Knowing

...[T]he world he created allowed Tolkien to address problems that conventional realism had seemingly abandoned. The most important of them was the distinction between omnipotence and omniscience. In Orwell’s work...those two terms are nearly synonymous: The Thought Police always know what Winston Smith is up to. But for a believer like Tolkien, only God can know everything. And in Sauron, Tolkien is able to imagine a figure of godlike power and seemingly infinite resources, but crippling interpretive fallibility.

Sauron’s main problem, in a nutshell, is a lack of empathy: He is unable to conceive of anyone possessing a set of values fundamentally different from his own. For Sauron, power—embodied by the one ring—is self-evidently a good in itself. Therefore anyone who possesses the ring will attempt to use it and thus fall into his clutches. The thought that someone might choose instead to destroy the ring (and possibly destroy himself in the process) never crosses Sauron’s mind. He suffers from a crippling case of “confirmation bias”—a fundamental problem for every intelligence agency. We see the things we want to see, which is a problem when one’s enemies have worldviews utterly different from one’s own. .... [more]