The Prism

Our expectations with regard to privacy and secrecy. In 1844, the British government was accused of opening people’s mail. Lepore compares the case to the NSA’s alleged digging into our digital lives:

“The particular technology matters little; the axiom holds. It’s only a feature, though, of a centuries-long historical transformation: the secularization of mystery. A mystery, in Christian theology, is what God knows and man cannot, and must instead believe. Immortality, in this sense, is a mystery. So is the beginning of life, which is a good illustration of how much that was once mysterious became secret and then became private. Anciently invoked as one of God’s mysteries, the beginning of life was studied, by anatomists, as the ‘secret of generation.’ Finally, citizens, using the language of a constitutional ‘right to privacy,’ defended it against intrusion. Theologically, the beginning of life, the ensoulment of new flesh, remains a mystery. Empirically, uncovering the secret of generation required tools—microscopes, lenses, cameras—that made the creation of life both visible and knowable. Only after it was no longer a mystery, and no longer a secret, only after it was no longer invisible, did it become private. By then, it was too late: contraception was already in the hands of the state.”

Source: The New Yorker
Published: Jun 16, 2013
Length: 15 minutes (3,912 words)
Read the story