We are Now Living in the Golden Age of Eavesdropping

“Our English reasons for vaunting our superiority to secrecy and spies are of very modern date.”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

I once knew a weaselly  fellow who had the habit of looking through other people’s mail and listening under other people’s windows.  This was evident because he also had the habit of dropping sly allusions to information he could have acquired in no other way.  This was when I was in graduate school and, like most of my fellow students, had my mail sent to the department in order to avoid frequent changes of address.  The graduate-student mailboxes were in the graduate student lounge, which this weaselly fellow haunted like a resident specter, and where he rifled through the mail when everyone else was away.

His aim, so far as I could tell, was to make other people uneasy by these small and completely deniable violations of their privacy.  I don’t believe he actually steamed open letters, but he was more than happy to read a postcard and take notice of catalogues and the names and addresses on personal correspondence.  And, as I said, he merely alluded to what he discovered.  If I received a postcard from a friend who had visited the Statue of Liberty, the weaselly fellow would within a day or two mention the Statue of Liberty.  It may have been my imagination, but he always seemed to have a gloating expression when he did it.

His gloat seemed to say, “I have intruded upon your private business and there is nothing whatever you can do about it.” Well, what I could do was form the opinion that he was a weasel and a creep.

He was also an eavesdropper of the literal lurk-under-a-window sort.  I attended graduate school at Syracuse University, where summer evenings are warm and the houses rented by graduate students have (or at least had) no air conditioning.  Thus windows were normally open and front porches were frequently employed.  So often did the weaselly fellow allude to the substance of private conversations that I had by an open window or on an open porch, that it was a joke to call out his name when the leaves rustled or a twig snapped.

I believe that such sounds may have been, in fact, the original inspiration for the word eavesdrop.  The word certainly refers to snoops and spies who lurked under the eaves of a building with the aim of “overhearing” words not intended for their ears, and their haunt under the eaves was within the drip line of water that would shed from off the roof.  Hence the word eavesdrop.  I cannot prove it, but nevertheless suggest that the word eavesdrop may at first have referred to the soft rustle and crackling that is made by falling eavesdrops, and likewise by the stealthy movements of an eavesdropping spy.

Here is an early and interesting use of the word from a pamphlet published by John Milton in 1642.  In this pamphlet the young Milton is defending some vigorous denunciations we wrote in a prior pamphlet.

“Was it such a dissolute speech, telling of some politicians who were wont to eavesdrop in disguises, to say they were often liable to a night-walking cudgeller, or the emptying of a urinal.”*

I say this quote is interesting because it evokes the world of seventeenth-century eavesdropping with its mention of disguises and exposure to the hazards of mugging and chamber pots.  It is easy to picture a muffled figure slipping from shadow to shadow on a crooked street of London before the Great Fire.

The twenty-first century is, however, the golden age of eavesdropping, because digital communication causes all of us to converse on what amount to open front porches on a warm summer evening in Syracuse.  An open front porch surrounded by an infinitely capacious hedge of sheltering shrubbery.  Hear those leaves rustle?  Hear those twigs snap?

“Hey (insert name of weaselly graduate student), is that you?”

* * * * *

This website is a sort of open front porch on which Tom, Richard and I nowadays do most of the talking.  Many well-intentioned readers join us on the porch simply to listen, presumably because they are interested in what we have to say, and for these readers we are forever thankful.  A few readers break into our monologues with comments, and for these were are more thankful still.  But like all virtual front porches, this one is surrounded by an infinitely capacious hedge of sheltering shrubbery, and in that sheltering shrubbery there are lurkers who are also interested in what we say.

But not in a good way.  They are eavesdroppers, snoops and spies.

There is more than one reason that the internet has made the twenty-first century the golden age of eavesdropping.  One can, of course, “overhear” conversations without risking cudgels, chamber pots, and the scratches that come with hiding among bushes; but one can also travel back in time to eavesdrop on old conversations, and lazy eavesdroppers can use a machine to home in on incriminating and treasonous words.

How envious that muffled and furtive figure from seventeenth-century London would be.

I began to think about these things when I noticed a blip on this website’s traffic meter just the other day.  It appeared that a time-travelling eavesdropper was listening to what I wrote last year about the 1896 triple lynching in Bryan.  That post still attracts interested readers of good will, but I suspect this blip was caused by the secretive Title IX investigation into what I have written here, or by one of the sinister scoundrels who triggered that gross defamation.

I take the old-fashioned view that I have a God-given right to say whatever I believe ought to be said about the 1896 triple lynching, or about anything else I think worthy of comment.  If I abuse this right and say what ought not to be said, that is between me and the God who gave me this right.  It is not between me and the snoops that lurk under virtual eaves, or that spy from beneath virtual shrubbery.

In my epigram, Charles Dicken’s notes that traditional English liberties were of very recent date at the time of the French Revolution.  England had not long before been a land of “secrecy and spies,” and there was nothing but the Englishmen’s new revulsion against such things to prevent a swift return to the days when muffled figures risked the cudgels of footpads and the contents of chamber pots to dig dirt on their enemies.

It appears that many twenty-first century Americans have lost their revulsion for “secrecy and spies,” and that their renewed appetite for “dirt” came at exactly the time when the new communication technologies tempted free-speakers to throw open their windows and repair to their front porches for semi-private conversations.  I’m sure that weaselly student from my old graduate school is in heaven.

And this is why we are now living in the golden age of eavesdropping.

*) John Milton, “An Apology for Smectymnus” (1642)

18 thoughts on “We are Now Living in the Golden Age of Eavesdropping

  1. Pingback: We are Now Living in the Golden Age of Eavesdropping | Reaction Times

  2. This is a public site; reading it is not eavesdropping under any definition.

    If you want privacy, use email or put the content behind a password that you only give to friends. That probably won’t stop hackers and government agencies from reading it, but then at least it would actually be eavesdropping.

    It’s extremely foolish to think that writing in a public internet forum is like a front porch conversation among friends, rather than making a permanent archival record that is instantly findable and readable by anyone from anywhere on the globe.

    I’m sympathetic to the desire for private and semi-private spaces on the internet, but this ain’t one of them.

    • Just to be clear, I don’t think of you as an eavesdropper. You are a contrarian, which is a role I often play among people like you. Having played the role, I know that one of its routines is dogged literalism. This post is a wild flight of fancy in which I imagine a world in which there are no malicious eavesdroppers, and in which people with minority opinions do not have to communicate with encrypted messages.

      • A “good flogging” might also be interpreted as a “good drenching with the contents of a piss bucket,” specially reserved for the likes of eavesdropping busy bodies of a different color.

      • One warm summer evening in Syracuse, I once dumped a bucket of water on a couple that was loudly copulating directly below my bedroom window. Sleeping in the heat was hard enough without adding their grunts and groans.

      • One warm summer evening in Syracuse, I once dumped a bucket of water on a couple that was loudly copulating directly below my bedroom window. Sleeping in the heat was hard enough without adding their grunts and groans.

        Ha! Good for you.

        When I was growing up, along the Northern banks (or at least within a short distance to them) of the Mud Creek, in Jefferson Co., Oklahoma, I slept a many a summer night on our porch or camped in the yard to escape the infernal residual heat and humidity that had accumulated inside the house during the heat of the day and would not dissipate until the very early hours of the morning. Our nearest neighbors lived, at the time, a half a mile from us in either direction on or near the cardinal points, so that if there were any couples copulating on any given night within a certain distance in radius of our house, I would never have heard them.

        Eighty-five years before, a group of twelve families (including the J.H. Morris family) made its way by wagon train to very near the same location, where they set up camp for a time along the banks of the Mud. I speculate that this is how the descriptive “Mudcreeker” first took root; that it was first applied to that little ‘motley crew’ of migrants from Ellis Co. TX. Some fifteen years later (1905) the then bustling little town called Cornish, I.T. (Indian Territory) had formed well enough only a few miles to the north to boast, among other notable achievements, at least three separate printing presses turning out their own weekly publications.

        When I read little items such as the following contained in said publications, I should imagine that one thing the good towns people in Cornish were determined to avoid like the plague was the inevitability of experiences such as yours were they not to expend every effort to nip a common cause of such occurances ‘in the bud.’ The item of which I speak is dated April 6, 1905, and was published on that date in The Orphans Home Journal, to wit:

        It is reported at this office that certain town parties have bought the HUGH KERLEY property for the purpose of running a gambling hall and saloon. Now boys, you know J. B. JONES has just returned from South McAlester where he delivered a horse thief, and we people of Cornish have just as much love and respect for a horse thief as we have for a gambling-saloon-keeping-thief.

        I am reminded as well of the following account of happenings in the little town of Washington, GA, shortly following the end of hostilities in the WBTS.

        [The occupying Union forces] have established a negro brothel, or rather a colony of them, on the green right in front of our street gate and between Cousin Mary Cooper’s and Mrs. Margaret Jones’s homes. Whenever Mett and I walk out in company with any of our rebel soldier boys, we are liable to have our eyes greeted with the sight of our conquerors escorting their negro mistresses. They even have the insolence to walk arm in arm with negro women in our grove, and at night, when we are sitting on the piazza, we can hear them singing and laughing at their detestable orgies.

        This establishment is the greatest insult to public decency I ever heard of. It is situated right under our noses, in the most respectable part of the village, on the fashionable promenade where our citizens have always been accustomed to walk and ride in the evenings. I took a little stroll with Capt. Hudson a few evenings ago, and my cheeks were made to tingle at the sight of two Yankee soldiers sporting on the lawn with their negro “companions.” There is no way of avoiding these disgusting sights except by remaining close prisoners at home, and Cousin Mary and Mrs. Jones can’t even look out of their windows without the risk of having indecent exhibitions thrust upon them.

        My Morris ancestors have been reliably traced to Blount Co. AL as far back as 1815. We find the family, in the 1870 U.S. Census, making its way through Mississippi, en route ultimately to Ellis Co. TX., settling in and around the county seat. From there, a group of them (including my direct ancestors) made their way northward to what was Pickens Co., I.T., and later re-named Jefferson Co. after statehood. The little community of Cornish I.T. was established (along with several others) during this time, made up of honest, sober, hard-working (farming) families seeking to establish a better life for themselves in the fertile virgin soil surrounding Mud Creek. But of course, where there is prosperity brought about by honest labor, intelligence, and industrious habits, there is also attracted a certain “gambling, saloon-keeping thievish” element and their propensity to put on, as described in another item from the same publication, “those [drunken] high-heeled hoedowns which are disgracing our little town.” And where these high-heeled hoedowns end, the grunts and groans of copulation between some of their attendees invariably begin.

        Not that the above items denouncing saloon keeping, “gambling dens,” “high-heeled hoedowns” and such had the fullness of their desired effect at the end of the day, but I can honestly say that the first time I was exposed to the sunken degeneracy so commonplace in the Tulsas and Dallas’s et al of the world, I was literally stunned and shocked by the level of human depravity achievable in ‘a whole ‘nother world.’ The little “high-heeled hoedowns” I got mixed up in as a youngster were a “Sunday-go to meetin'” events by comparison to what I witnessed when my eyes were later opened, ‘knowing good and evil.’

      • It is very hard to strike the proper balance between flesh and spirit. Societies can take repression of instinct too far, and this has the terrible consequence of triggering a backlash in the opposite direction. But controlling instinctual drives is like rolling a boulder uphill. You can push it too far, but it will not get out of control and begin rolling uphill on its own. Removing controls on instinctual drives is, on the other hand, like rolling a boulder downhill. The instincts, like gravity, are doing half the work. The boulder is soon rolling on its own and it doesn’t stop until it reaches the very bottom of the hill.

      • When I read the aforementioned items from the likes of The Orphan’s Home Journal, The Cornish Times, and so on, I always read them with at least slightly bated breath. On the one hand, these “news” items are, at least from an historical perspective, very informative and therefore worthy of their places; on the other hand, I have to wonder what business it was of the average Cornish and surrounding resident, that Mrs. J.H. what’s-her-name visited the family of Mr. M.P. what’s-his-name sometime this past week. Sometimes I get the strong impression in reading these little items that “social media” is just the natural progression (technological advancement) of busy-bodies of days gone by.

        Of course I can still remember when my little section of the country was still on the “party-line” system of AT&T telephone service, whereby all sorts of untrue rumors are said to have gotten their start. I can certainly verify that at least a few of those rumors erupted in that God-forsaken rumor mill, but I couldn’t of course put an exact number to it. Nothwithstanding, when the “party-line” system gave way to its next advancement, ladies in the rumor mill simply ‘used other means.’ Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. This still persists to this day, of course.

      • Social notices served partly to sell newspapers, it being a fact known to all small-town editors that people will buy a newspaper if they or their child’s name or photo is in it. This also accounts for local papers informing their readers of the name of every boy who completed the mile at the middle school track meet, right down to twelfth place. But, setting cynicism aside, I think the old social notices also reflected a community where everyone knew everyone else, and so were interested to know that “Mrs. Cornelius Crutwell was in town to visit her sister, Mrs. Obadiah Swiller, who has been poorly since she fell down the stairs last March.”

      • But, setting cynicism aside, I think the old social notices also reflected a community where everyone knew everyone else, and so were interested to know that “Mrs. Cornelius Crutwell was in town to visit her sister, Mrs. Obadiah Swiller, who has been poorly since she fell down the stairs last March.”

        Very prescient observation. You’ve obviously read a great many of these (antiquated) notices. Interestingly enough, I and my little “brood” am/are “into” Astronomy. As such, I have a growing collection of telescopes in my possession. Some two or three years back there was that lunar eclipse that occurred. It was only partial from our vantage point here in Okie land, but we nevertheless took full advantage with our moderate-sized reflector, and the kids took a bunch of photos of the event through that lens. Several days afterward I got a message (either email or phone text, but I don’t recall which) from the local newspaper owner requesting I add some written perspective to the photos she had on hand of our little eclipse-watching event. They were great photos, no doubt, but I was initially flabbergasted by the knowledge that she had somehow gotten hold of them. The kids later ‘came clean’ and informed me that they had ‘shared’ the photos with other towns folk, which, in turn, shared them with the local newspaper editor.

        Two-hundred years from now, some fellow or the other is going to be looking through those old newspaper archives and is going to run across that “story,” run by the editor because, well, she didn’t have anything better to run at the time.

  3. “Snitches get promotions!

    Masks — eavesdropping — denunciation. Add the Internet.

    I would bet that your denouncers are zealous mask-wearers, every one of them. I would bet that they wear masks even when alone — while driving their cars, for example. Denunciation is mob-activity. So is mask-wearing. Both are gestures of deliberate self-depersonalization. We live in an hour where people by the millions want eagerly to abandon the obligations of personhood. Such obligations have, for them, become too onerous to bear. The promotions to which you refer are infinitesimal elevations in a domain evacuated of meaning.

    • It is the end game of Equality. The human face is the physical seat of our individuality. This is the theory behind the much-ridiculed “missionary position,” and behind discouragement of bestial positions in which the eye rests on more anonymous parts of our anatomy. As you say, denunciation fits this pattern because it fears all deviation as dangerous. As history has shown, this ends with denunciation of those who stop clapping first.

  4. These days, the kids refer to dirt as ‘tea’ (which makes sense since tea is merely dirty water.).

    When one wishes to release this dirt, it is referred to as ‘spilling the tea.’ I’ve been known to spill the tea every now and then, the traditional introduction is ‘I’ve got some tea to spill.’


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