Inquiry: A Brief Introduction to the Ancient Pleasure of Espionage by LJ Frank

Credit: Jean Philippe-Cypres, photographer

Espionage is associated with competition, money and power in its multiple shapes and forms along with the desire of rulers and heads of states, nations or tribes to enhance their ascendancy and dominant status while strangling dissent and channeling potential conflict. Psychologically it might be classified as strategic voyeurism with manipulative intent.

Historically, a person(s) spied on another person or people for the sake of a competitive advantage or control, be it economic, political, cultural, military, technological or involving significant resources such as access to food, water, slaves (both female and male), textiles such as silk or elements such as gold, silver or diamonds among others.The concept is ancient dating back to the Babylonian and Indian dynasties, Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese emperors among other rulers, thousands of years ago. Sociological context, physical geography and resources were and are compelling underlying factors.

The ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese and people of India felt comfortable thinking of themselves as “modern” several thousand years ago. They weren’t ancient at the time. Time has a gravitas all its own. The dangerous pleasures and intrigues of espionage were pursued with the techniques and communication tools available at the time whether wrapped in papyrus, leather or messages in hollow reeds or individual letters and numbers on a stone tablet or meanings hidden within selected words in a manuscript or book or literally the whispering in a receptive ear.

Whether a secret rendezvous in the middle of the night in ancient Athens or Beijing, or the muted voices of two lovers over a bottle of wine in Venice during the so-called Middle Ages, or the passing of a slip of paper between “friends” in Istanbul during WWI and the electronic coded messages of World War II, or the face to face meetings between “colleagues” in a coffeehouse in Prague, Marseilles or Amsterdam, espionage was and is pervasive and intimate. There was the thrill, the tragedy and the loss the history of espionage alludes to. The famous spies have a celebrity quality attached to them but it’s the unfamiliar names or those known only to inner circles of power that have affected the outcome of events and in some cases, the overthrow of governments.

A significant difference in clandestine activities in the twenty-first century and those of a few thousand years ago are the tools such as the less intimate use of cyber and satellite and artificially devised channels of secret communication to serve as a means to obtain, exchange and selectively appropriate and even share information and disinformation, with an adversary.

Today the purpose from such information gathering activities also includes, industrial and corporate mechanisms that offer a strategic, advantageous position. The value of espionage is ancient – money and power under the metaphors accompanying fear and security. It’s the process in which one finds the fog of intrigue and the mist of pleasure.

As an addendum: In the United States, espionage was considered essential from the War for Independence and on. Espionage was not without controversy in the new republic. See The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, and The Espionage Act of 1917  (text) and Sedition Act of 1918  (wiki) enacted and followed by the slightly less contentious National Security Act of 1947  (text), that opened the physical and ultimately, digital doors and windows to covert activity of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. The amount of material on known espionage activities is voluminous in print, digital format and otherwise, online.

The twenty-first century has witnessed an elaborate mushrooming of digital and satellite espionage and mass surveillance activity. The future? Will there be a greater merger of corporate, military and government programs and projects to such a degree that humanoid and human activity become a more essential interwoven tool of espionage? Does one of the emerging questions then become whether humanoids are inadvertently programmed with the personalities of their programmers and resulting pleasures open to more complex deterministic relationships? The questions are endless. The core values of competition, money and power remain the same as do the metaphors of fear and security.