Poetry & the Surveillance Society

Tyne Daile Sumner:

As historian Robin W. Winks observes in his 1987 book Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, many of these were English graduates who could apply literary techniques to intelligence analysis and cryptic expressions.

While it’s hard to think of poets as spies, poetry and surveillance actually use very similar styles of information gathering such as close observation, abstraction, subversion, fragmentation and symbolism. 

Today, we live in an era of unprecedented surveillance. Our personal information is routinely tracked and collected, while sophisticated analytics and algorithmic systems are being designed to predict, influence and ultimately control our choices and behaviour.

And it’s changing the nature of how we see ourselves. The ubiquity of surveillance and social media is challenging the very idea of the private individual as people increasingly adopt public personas. The scholar Julie Cohen described digital culture as bringing about a ‘surveillance-innovation complex’ in which surveillance is now privatised, commercialised and increasingly participatory.

To help us comprehend, and perhaps ultimately better shape, the complex social and technological change we are caught up in, we could do a lot worse than turn to that close cousin of surveillance – poetry.