Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Christian Life Under Total Surveillance

'This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God's people,' says the Book of Revelation
Icon of St. Alexei Mechev and his son St. Sergei, two 20th century Russian Orthodox priests who died under the Bolshevik yoke

Hello — sorry to be away, but the Internet has been out here in the Baton Rouge bureau. I couldn’t write my Substack letter last night either; don’t worry, subscribers, you’ll be getting a make-up issue this weekend. I’ve been trying to post this for several hours, but Cox Cable says the system won’t be fully up till later today.

A reader sent in this cheering news from the world of surveillance technology:

Picture: military interrogators are talking to a local man they suspect of helping to emplace roadside bombs. The man denies it, even as they show him photos of his purported accomplices. But an antenna in the interrogation room is detecting the man’s heartbeat as he looks at the pictures. The data is fed to an AI, which concludes that his emotions do not match his words…

A UK research team is using radio waves to pick up subtle changes in heart rhythm and then, using an advanced AI called a neural network, understand what those signals mean — in other words, what the subject is feeling. It’s a breakthrough that one day might help, say, human-intelligence analysts in Afghanistan figure out who represents an insider threat.

The paper from a team out of Queen Mary University of London and published in the online journal PLOS ONE, demonstrates how to apply a neural network to decipher emotions gathered with transmitting radio antenna. A neural network functions in a manner somewhat similar to a human brain, with cells creating links to other cells in patterns that create memory, as opposed to more conventional methods such as machine learning, which employ straightforward statistical methods on data sets.

The team, led by Yang Hao, dean for research at the faculty of science and engineering, used a small transmitting antenna to bounce radio waves off subjects. They used the signals to put together a database of different heart rhythms as those subjects watched emotionally-charged videos that elicited relaxation, fright, disgust and joy. The team also connected the subjects to an electrocardiogram to make sure that the signals that the antenna were picking up were correct. The team ran their data through the deep neural network and found that their system accurately classified the subjects’ emotional state 71 percent of the time.

The same reader sent in this story from three years ago about a “smart classroom” in China, in which the school uses AI to monitor the students’ moods, based on their facial expressions. Here’s a video showing it in action:

Let’s imagine this technology deployed in a US corporate setting. Employees are seated in a room receiving Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training. Do their faces betray anger, sadness, or any negative emotion? Mark that down and put it in the system — those are potential bigots. Don’t promote them. The software will be sold to companies under the guise of helping them build a stronger, more cohesive team by weeding out the troublemakers.

From Live Not By Lies:

Your smart refrigerator is sending data about your eating habits to someone. Your smart television is doing the same thing about what you’re watching. Your smart television will soon be watching you, literally. Zuboff reports on prizewinning research by a company called Realeyes that will use facial data recognition to make it possible for machines to analyze emotions using facial responses. When this technology becomes available, your smart TV (smartphone or laptop) will be able to monitor your involuntary response to commercials and other programming and report that information to outside sources. It doesn’t take a George Orwell to understand the danger posed by this all-but-inescapable technology.

“Sir, overnight data from the Smith home shows that four out of the five people watching the ’60 Minutes’ segment on transgendered male pregnancy registered disgust. I’ll forward that on to the Department of Diversity in Washington. This is not going to look good on their social credit rating.”

This will come as no surprise to many Evangelical readers, I guess, but it did surprise me: last week I learned that in ancient Rome, slaveholders marked their slaves with tattoos on their foreheads, hands, or elsewhere, to make it impossible for those slaves to escape. Wherever they went, everyone would know who they were, and would return them to their owner. That gave me insight into this famous passage from Revelation 13:

15 The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. 16 It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, 17 so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.

What if “the mark of the beast” is not a literal mark, but a symbol of slavery to the totalitarian system? China is moving very quickly to a cashless system. If you live in a society where all economic transactions are electronic, you had better make sure that you stay on the good side of those who administer the system, or you will find yourself unable to buy or sell. The system they are building in China will also reward or punish companies based in part on the social credit ratings of their employees. People with low social credit scores — that includes non-conformists of all kinds — will find it hard to get good jobs. If these individuals become blacklisted, they will not be able to buy or sell. There is no way to escape monitoring in China, either.

We have much the same technology in the United States. What we lack — for now — is the political will to implement it. Watch for the national security state to begin manufacturing consent to increase monitoring of domestic extremists, with the stated goal of preventing another January 6. Look for media and corporations to support this, on grounds that it’s important to identify bigots, white supremacists, and other deplorables. The cultural groundwork has already been laid for this kind of policy among elites, who have accustomed themselves over the past decade (at least) to close monitoring of speech for “microaggressions” and suchlike, and implementing illiberal punishments for non-conformists.

(This, by the way, is why it really matters when The New York Times leadership allows itself to be bullied by woke militants within the paper, into firing a longtime employee with almost irreplaceable experience in a critical field: Don McNeil is one of the most valuable reporters on the planet regarding the Covid crisis. But not even his decades of loyalty to the Times, or his obvious value to the paper’s mission, was enough to save him when Nikole Hannah-Jones and the woke mob turned on him. You may not give a hoot about what happens at The New York Times, but things like this lay down markers for how elites behave within institutions. They matter. They matter a lot. And, given the paramount importance of the Times in driving the reporting agendas of media organizations throughout the US, the kind of people who decide what should go into the paper are making decisions that shape the national narrative. There’s a reason why the national media aren’t discussing the incredible story about the transgender cult’s takeover of schools, pediatrics, and other key institutions.)

Now, imagine a future in which China’s social credit system spreads to the entire industrialized world. Imagine a future in which the systems are integrated. Where would you go to hide? Borneo? How would you get there, if you can’t buy or sell, and all your movements are monitored?

For Christians with an eye on the End Times, there is also this from Revelation 13:

5 The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. 7 It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. 8 All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.[b]

9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.

10 “If anyone is to go into captivity,
into captivity they will go.
If anyone is to be killed with the sword,
with the sword they will be killed.”

This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.

Emphasis mine. Some people have expressed to me, publicly and privately, frustration with both The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies, saying that both are counsels of defeat. Their argument is that both books, in complementary ways, address the challenges of living under defeat — in TBO’s case, in a post-Christian and even anti-Christian society, and in LNBL’s case, living under a form of totalitarianism that persecutes faithful Christians and other dissenters. Why don’t these books instead tell us how to keep the bad things from happening?

You might as well have gone to Father Tomislav Kolakovic in 1943, as he was putting together groups of faithful Catholics to prepare for the coming Communist persecution, and tell him that he would be better off teaching the young people how to fight to keep Communism from coming to their country. Father Kolakovic would have told you that you were very shortsighted. He could read the signs of the times, and he knew that the Red Army was going to be in control of Czechoslovakia when the war ended. He also understood the Communist mindset, and grasped that the Russians were going to make the nations of Eastern Europe into vassal states. It would be impossible, or at least extremely unlikely, to resist the Red Army’s force. To place all one’s hope in that far-fetched outcome would leave individuals and the churches vulnerable to wipeout.

So Father Kolakovic prepared his people to be faithful under persecution, and to practice patient endurance. His followers were not conformists — in the early 1950s, in the first wave of persecution — most of them went to prison, but they dedicated themselves to building the networks, structures, and internal spiritual practices that could help them hold on through the long Communist night.

In a similar way, in these two books of mine, I am trying to prepare the small-o orthodox churches, families, and individuals to live in a world of intensifying adversity for people who believe the things traditional Christians do. (Things will go well for progressives like this ELCA pastor who hated LNBL; the world now coming into being is made for them.) The Benedict Option is not focused much on persecution, but rather on the plain fact that we live in a world in which traditional Christianity is fast fading from our culture, in the same way that Roman paganism dissolved in the fourth century. Live Not By Lies is very much focused on persecution. There is nothing in it that directs people not to fight politically and otherwise to protect our religious liberties, and so forth. But in it, I make the case that we are facing something like the Red Army, with regard to the power of invasive technologies and the ideological capture of elite institutions by zealots who have no interest in tolerating those who disagree.

Ask yourself: what has the Republican Party done to stop this stuff? President Trump made some moves, but they were easily overturned by the new administration. Besides, a more irreligious nation — we have all seen the data on the Nones — is a nation whose people will be far less likely to comprehend the value of protecting religious liberty. What’s more, the Millennials and Generation Z are far less committed to defending classical liberal values regarding free speech and expression.

The bottom line: these are the signs of the times, and they point to the movement of tectonic forces through the culture — forces that cannot be stopped by politics alone. We have to believe that ultimately they will be turned back, but in the short term and in the near long term, the orthodox Christians, as well as Orthodox Jews, traditional Muslims, and other religious and social conservatives, are going to have to develop the skills to live under occupation, so to speak.

Americans don’t want to hear that. Which is why a lot of us in the conservative churches are going to be smashed flat by what’s coming.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now