“THOU God seest me.” In the 1960s, clever people scoured junk shops to snap up Victorian tiles emblazoned with this admirable text and display them amusingly in their lavatories — because, of course, since God did not exist: there was no one watching you.
Now, in the 2020s, we realise that there is, indeed, universal surveillance, but most of us, wedded to its benefits, don’t really care. The god who notes our every desire was investigated in Amazon: What they know about us (BBC1, Monday of last week). Jeff Bezos, now the world’s richest man, was an algorithmic trader when he devised the formula governing the process of online selling more cheaply, and delivering more instantly, than anyone had considered possible.
He focuses on customers, building up the most detailed picture possible of everything that interests us, refining our individual profiles so that he can tempt us into buying stuff that we never realised we wanted. His avowed aim is to bring us “customer ecstasy”; the enormous robot-controlled warehouses where the 250 million goods are kept are called “fulfilment centres”. There are religious parallels: its creed is instant gratification, untroubled by the consequences, such as the end of bookshops, the evisceration of the high street, and no more personal contact.
The number of former executives now publicly recording their disquiet about the underlying morality of this process was striking. The personal data might be used to more sinister ends than retail: to push us in this or that political direction, and reinforce this or that racial prejudice.
And now, with Alexa, we proudly install Amazon centre-stage in our living rooms (not in mine), eager to gratify our urgent desire, but also listening, and relaying back — if only potentially — to head office more and more private information. Our personal autonomy is merely a fond illusion: predestination, driven by commercial profit, has now decisively trumped free will.
Baghdad Central (Channel 4, Mondays) is a superior detective thriller, set in US-occupied Iraq. As a hero, it has neither someone British nor American, but native Inspector Muhsin. Will helping to restore law and order to his devastated society make him merely a tool of the incompetent and venal occupiers? Everyone is morally compromised; no one’s motives are direct and clear. The deeper he digs, the more he realises that he might be hunting those he loves most — perhaps his missing beloved daughter. Is she a terrorist, an enemy, or a sacrificial liberator?
I assume that those Welsh crime dramas, rain-sodden, bleak, and miserable, of which Hidden (BBC4, Saturdays) is a splendid example, are — to put off any Englishmen considering buying a holiday cottage — commissioned by Plaid Cymru.