A famous Leftie once told me about a conversation with an author, a fellow Leftie (and a fellow hottie), on the phone. They were discussing surveillance and wondering if the government was listening in right then. These were the days of phone tapping and the two started an immediate line of extra sexy banter, saying, “Oh, I hope you are listening, Indian government!"
I thought of those tap-tap-tappers recently. First, when the Pune police ran around arresting activists and lawyers, asking them questions about their bookshelves and accusing them of a comically inept terrorist conspiracy. Second, when I bumped into a boring young man at dinner. This fellow yammered on and listened to no one, a characteristic that only became hilarious when someone told me that his tech company helps social media giants eavesdrop on your phone conversations. The thought of Facebook actively listening to my phone conversations with the help of boring young men in the outskirts of Bengaluru was so absurd, I couldn’t take it seriously. Like those old Lefties, I could only think that the listeners need steamier activities to eavesdrop on.
Is your phone listening to you? Is your internet listening? Most of us are sort of reconciled to the fact that we often have no privacy. But for young people, the idea that someone is watching is a many-headed, sometimes seductive, sometimes hostile, monster.
Mumbai-based writer Richa Kaul Padte tweeted last month that someone had attempted an extortion scam on her. The scammer(s) had messaged her saying that they had access to her webcam and had footage of her masturbating to porn and would make it public if she didn’t pay up. Several others responded to Padte saying that they had either received the same message or heard of it. Much serious discussion ensued, though, not enough of it, I felt, was focused on the all-knowing, all-seeing scammers not having registered the detail that 31-year-old Padte is the author of the much-admired Cyber Sexy, a book on Indian women and our porn habits, which was published by Penguin Random House earlier this year.
Padte said to me, “My first reaction was ‘Haha, this is OBVIOUSLY a scam’ and I said as much right away to the person I live with too. But inside, there was this knot of...not fear, exactly, but a sort of sick feeling. Maybe, yeah, fear….And the thing is, I know enough about the internet to know that it was a scam, but I also know enough about technology to know that we are kidding ourselves if we think no one is watching us through our webcams. Sure, it might not be some hacker, but Google/Facebook/Apple? They’re watching for sure. And I think that knowledge, combined with the way sexual shaming works against women, meant that I definitely felt uneasy. I mean, I just wrote a book on porn, where I talk in detail about my own sexual experiences throughout, but there the narrative was in my control, and here it certainly would not be. Even the narrative of the threat was not in my control, which is why I put it all on Twitter, I guess—to make it mine."
Then Padte said something stupendously honest. “God, you know what my most pervasive thought was? It was that if this really ever happened to me, I obviously won’t be wearing make-up or be aware that someone is recording, so I won’t LOOK GOOD. I feel like there is something meaningfully feminist to be said here, but maybe you can say it instead of me. I’ll tell you this though: I’ve now covered my phone’s front camera with flower-patterned washi tape. Watch me now, f*****s." Padte’s overall chutzpah is cheering but this last bit made me laugh a bit more. Only an hour before speaking to Padte, I had read someone on Twitter say that millennial culture is taping over the front camera of your computer. In fact, there is a robust line of “FBI agent assigned to my phone" memes from young Americans about the dull things the government would see if they were actually watching. A subset talks sardonically about how nice it is to know at least someone is listening when one is sad.
This week, a 21-year-old Bengaluru-based student activist and I discussed how strange it was to think that the dull worthies on our bookshelves—hers and mine—can be seen as seditious by the police. We’d both had the brief impulse of putting up photographs of our bookshelves and decided that was just pretentious and also politically idiotic. It’s not as if the cops have true moral crises about our Goodreads lists. Instead it was that other thing, the Cardinal Richelieu quote, “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged." As that old Leftie once told me, “If the government wants you in jail, they will find a way."
Meanwhile Padte has continued her tour of sass-and-surveillance. This week in Delhi, at her book launch, someone stole her bag. Very soon, Padte tweeted bits of the CCTV footage asking people if they could identify the oh-so-casual thief. The video is edited, labelled to indicate the bag, the thief, and irresistibly set to Nicki Minaj’s Chun Li.
Which only leaves that famous haiku, written by the Zen Buddhist monk Ryokan, for us to send to cops, robbers and all the others who take precious things from us. Listen.
left it behind-
The moon at the window.
Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.
She tweets at @chasingiamb