So you think surveillance is oppressive today?

In recent weeks, the public has learned a lot about the extent of surveillance in our post-9/11 world. The Guardian’s story about the NSA’s activities set off a frenzy of speculation and comment. Naturally, Orwell was invoked by many commentators and Huxley by a few. My own thoughts turned to the small town where I grew up, to the intense and personal surveillance that did so much to knit the community together.

I spent my childhood and teenage years in a Western Canadian hamlet that was home to about 45 people. The surrounding farming population had already begun to dwindle as farms grew larger and families smaller. It was an intimate setting, where joy and pain were shared and no one made the mistake of thinking they were invisible to their neighbors.

  • The region had been settled for 60 years, so the families in the area had at least two generations of memories about each other. They remembered the hopeful years of early settlement, the near-despair of the Hungry Thirties, the worry and deprivation during WWII, the arrival of electricity in the 50’s and 60’s. And they remembered the courtships, births and deaths, community dances, rowdy brawls, sports days, church events and political campaigns that provided the context for our lives. Everyone had a history, and everyone else knew a good part of it.
  • Phone service was a party line. It was prudent to assume that no conversations was private. Fortunately, you knew who was listening.
  • Farmers’ fields were always open to inspection by their neighbors. On a relaxing Sunday drive through the neighborhood, anyone could see who wasn’t keeping their weeds down, who’s furrows weren’t straight, who’s harvest hadn’t been taken in quickly enough.
  • Since most of the grain was sold through the Wheat Board, with controlled quotas and pricing, everyone could estimate their neighbor’s income with a high degree of precision.
  • Most farmyards were open to view from various angles. At least one person I knew used a strong set of binoculars to keep tabs on nearby farms from her kitchen window.
  • The weekly newspaper in the nearby small city ran a social column about each of the hamlets in the region. Wednesdays brought a fresh batch of reports of Sunday visits, anniversaries, and various milestones, published for all to see.

Was this communal life unstintingly painful? Not at all. For every inconvenience or intrusion, there was at least one offsetting gain. The deep knowledge of one’s history conferred an undeniable dignity on each person; however frayed the bond, we belonged in each others’ lives. The party line was a lifeline which informed the entire community instantly whenever fire, accident or bereavement struck. Farmers who were struggling because of ill health did not have to ask for help because the need was evident in the state of their fields. The financial pain of depressed prices or hail-damaged crops was shared by all. No one grieved, worried or celebrated alone.

The surveillance was real, intimate, and omnipresent. In that corner of the world, it was more penetrating than today’s anonymous monitoring of emails, phone calls and Facebook posts. On balance, it contributed to a more intense social life which is preferable to the anomie currently endured by so many in urban centers.

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