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On Eavesdropping

Eavesdropping has a bad name. It is a form of human communication in which the information gained is stolen, and where such words as cheating and spying come into play. But eavesdropping may also be an attempt to understand what goes on in the lives of others so as to know better how to live one’s own. John L. Locke’s entertaining and disturbing  new book, Eavesdropping: An Intimate History, explores everything from sixteenth-century voyeurism to Facebook and Twitter. Below is a short excerpt from the book’s prologue, explaining why he finds eavesdropping so fascinating.

On a flight from Milan to London I was slumped down in my aisle seat, deep in thought as I reviewed an early draft of the manuscript that has become this book. Unbeknownst to me, I was being watched by a woman in the middle seat of the row immediately in front. After we had landed and the passengers were commencing the customary disembarking ritual, the woman startled me by looking over her headrest and pointedly asking if I was writing a book. I answered that I was. What’s it about, she asked. I said my book concerned the intense desire of members of our species to know what is going on in the personal lives of others. At this, the woman burst into ironic laughter since first in watching, and then in asking, she had just expressed two different forms of that very desire.

Watching and asking produce a form of intimate experience, which can be enjoyable in its own right, as well as intimate images, which may be re-experienced when privately brought to mind or – as information – shared with others. Intimacies tend to circulate preferentially among people who know and trust each other, and they usually move swiftly. Since many of these “secrets” ultimately become public knowledge, a look at how intimate material travels enables us to understand the social foundations of scandal, rough justice, and the “news,” even “history.”

I smiled in response to the lady on the plane but I could just as well have laughed, too, for here I was, writing a book about a subject on which there was little in the way of directly relevant research. Indeed, until I began to study eavesdropping –  one of the more important ways that ordinary people express the desire at issue –  I had never, in many years of research, encountered a behavior whose actual significance was so greatly at variance with its recognized importance. Look for books on social behavior with the word “eavesdropping” in the index section and you are likely to be severely disappointed. Enter the same word in computerized literature searches and your screen will display a list of books on wiretapping and other forms of electronic surveillance. But the word was coined centuries before telephones and recording equipment were invented, and the practice of eavesdropping documented nearly a thousand years earlier, when people were happy to entrust to unaided senses the question of who was doing what to whom.

Just after I began my studies of eavesdropping, a colleague asked me why I had chosen to address this particular subject. It must have seemed a radical departure from my previous work on the psychology of language. I told him that I had come across Marjorie McIntosh’s analysis of court records indicating that five and six centuries ago, English citizens had, in impressive numbers, been arrested for eavesdropping. I wondered what, in the medieval mind, would have caused this behavior to be criminalized, and what the “criminals” themselves were doing, or thought they were doing, when they went out at night and listened to their neighbors’ conversations.

I had also begun to study ethology, a field that deals with behavior in a broad range of species, and had encountered the work of Peter McGregor. He pointed out that birds increase their chances of survival by monitoring the long-distance calls of other birds –  signals that are not even intended for their ears. Such interceptions, McGregor noted, are ignored by all existing models of animal communication, which are uniformly dyadic, that is, focused exclusively upon two parties –  “the sender” and “the receiver.” These models contain no provision for any other individuals that might be partaking of the experience from obscure or distant positions.

Models of human communication are also dyadic. They emphasize the back-and-forth channeling of verbal information between two individuals. But in the lives of humans, not just birds, additional ears are often in operation – we know this because our own ears are among them. If real people also tune in to each other, and become usefully informed in the process, then theories of human communication must explain these things that real people do.

But they have not done so. Animal behaviorists have been able to document eavesdropping because they study birds, fish, lizards, and other species, either naturalistically or in structured experiments, and their research subjects do eavesdrop. The reason why social scientists have failed to document equivalent levels of eavesdropping in humans, however, is not because they looked for it and discovered that there was nothing to be seen. They never looked in the first place.

Why they did not, I think, is linked to a long-standing tendency of philosophers and psychologists to put humans on a pedestal, to regard our species as more intelligent and rational than other animals. This view could not be sustained if humans were on a continuum with other primates and mammals, so they concentrated on the behaviors accounting for, and related to, Man’s best and highest accomplishments. Central to these was language, the symbolic code that enables speakers to consciously transmit thought to willing listeners. This kept other animals safely at bay but, paradoxically, also excluded important facts about human communication.

Eavesdropping is communication, and it has two features that make it unusually interesting. The first is that it feeds on activity that is inherently intimate, and is so because the actors are unaware of the receiver, therefore feel free to be “themselves.” The second feature that makes eavesdropping so interesting relates to the way the information travels. It is not donated by the sender. It is stolen by the receiver.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kirsty McHugh, Casey Parry. Casey Parry said: Eavesdropping's everywhere, it seems, @BuggedProject: http://blog.oup.com/2010/06/eavesdropping/ [...]

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