Scientology sure sounds a lot like the surveillance state

As I watched the recent HBO documentary, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, I paused for a moment on John Travolta’s face as I got up to go get something to drink.

Being an insufferable millennial, I couldn’t resist tweeting that this was what had ended up on my screen when I went to pause the movie, mentioning it by name:


Ever since, I’ve been getting ads for Scientology whenever I open Twitter on my phone.

This is the world now, one in which Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple all soak up information users voluntarily provide online — like what films they watch and tweet about — and mine that data for profit. Essentially, every time we interact with social media of any kind – any time we say or even click something online – that activity is being recorded and, more often than not, used to advertise to us. Sometimes the targeting is way off; other times it’s downright creepy.

Data about our most deeply personal information, from browsing history to our phone’s location, can find their way into the hands of advertisers via so-called “data miners,” who sell it to everyone from online shoe stores to our health insurance companies with potentially dire consequences. Not to be left out of the spying game, U.S. government agencies like the NSA have an all-access pass to this veritable smorgasbord of data too.

So as I kept watching “Going Clear,” I was struck by the strange impression that Church of Scientology and the Surveillance State were cut from the same cloth. This isn’t to say they’re exactly the same, but simply that they are eerily similar in terms of how they attract people to them, maintain their user base and subsist on unpaid labor.

It all starts with free services that are anything but. Scientology entices new members with offers of free “auditing,” a process billed as a kind of psychotherapy. But what the Scientology website doesn’t say about auditing is that throughout the whole process, they wiretap you.

As with auditing, many services on the Internet are apparently free, at least in the sense that no one pays for them up front. Instead, today’s Internet companies turn users’ data into a product for sale with a cost all its own.

Director Paul Haggis has spoken in various interviews about how the Church lured him in after hearing that they give out free psychological and spiritual help. Haggis was going through relationship troubles when he found some “long-haired” Scientologists who asked him the question “what’s ruining your life,” which struck him as very powerful. He felt drawn to the countercultural mystique surrounding Scientology – a mystique not unlike the one surrounding Silicon Valley – and soon enough, he found himself, an atheist, intrigued by how Dianetics pitches itself as a “system” or “technology” that you could take or leave on your own.

The reality of Scientology, however, is that once you’re in, it isn’t exactly easy to leave. In “Going Clear,” interviews with former Church of Scientology members reveal how the detailed records the church collects in the auditing process effectively keep high-profile Scientologists like Travolta or Tom Cruise in the fold. It turns out, the auditing machine is bugged and works like “half a lie detector test,” with the transcripts of each session being passed on for review by Scientology clergy. So if a celebrity wanted to leave the Church, every last one of their secrets could be held hostage to keep them from doing so.

And that’s the thing about surveillance in general: it places enormous constraints on one’s ability to act freely. We know this to the extent that in 2015, even mentioning Foucault and the panopticon feels like a silly cliché. Meanwhile in the Bay Area, counterterrorism officials with enormous power and little responsibility monitor the Internet activity of Black Lives Matter protestors. In an environment in which cops brazenly fabricate evidence all the time, the death of privacy is as good as the death of innocence before guilt.

Of course, Facebook and Twitter aren’t exactly keeping us from jumping ship by threatening to reveal anything more than what we’ve already told them. Instead, they have their own insidious ways of keeping us in their grasp. Social networks are, oddly enough, natural monopolies – and just as it doesn’t make sense for multiple railroad companies to build competing railways, additional digital infrastructure that connects people like Facebook does is just redundant.

Like the Golden Fang in "Inherent Vice," Scientology even operates its own drug treatment program, "Narconon International"

Like the Golden Fang in “Inherent Vice,” Scientology even operates its own drug treatment program, “Narconon International”

For a competitor to usurp Facebook, it would require an enormous number of people to make the switch in order for the new network to acquire the critical mass necessary to become the social network. And even if that were to happen in the United States, it wouldn’t mean much: Facebook has made such huge advances in connecting emerging markets in developing countries that millions of Facebook users in Indonesia don’t even know that the technology they’re using is actually called the Internet.

Much like the way social networks like Facebook keep us under their thumb because their ubiquity makes them essential to stay in contact with friends and relatives (Facebook also makes it practically impossible to delete your account), Scientologists who attempt to leave the church are threatened with “disconnection” if they follow through with it. The term itself even sounds like it could come from Facebook, though it is in actuality much crueler. When Sara Goldberg’s son went against the Church, Scientology’s clergy pressured her to abandon him. When she refused, she was labeled a “suppressive person” and cut off from her daughter, who remained in Scientology. Facebook’s methods may not be quite as openly coercive, but they are similarly effective.

Belief’s a helluva drug. Take for example how some extraordinarily devout Scientologists join the Sea Organization, or Sea Org, signing a “billion year contract” to serve the church for this and all subsequent lives with little to no compensation. Sea Org began as L. Ron Hubbard’s private navy while he gallivanted around the Mediterranean looking for treasures he buried in his past lives. Currently, it boasts some thousands of members who more often than not join as children and live their whole lives in separation from the outside world.

In the grand scheme of things, much of the digital labor that goes into making the Internet what it is goes similarly unpaid or underpaid. From Filipino comment moderators who deal with psychological trauma over the combined horror of the images they see to the immaterial labor Internet users do as they generate the content that brings people to sites like Facebook and Twitter, so much of the value created on the Internet is produced for absolutely nothing.

Yes, Web 2.0 is just like Sea Org. While Tom Cruise, John Travolta and whatever teen Vine stars bask in luxury, those of us at the bottom of the pyramid do the heavy lifting that makes the content mills spin. Perhaps more often than not, in dimly lit, emotionally intense and withdrawn circumstances.

In the book version of Going Clear¸ journalist Laurence Wright explains that his motivation for exposing the Church of Scientology’s inner secrets is to learn something about the nature of belief. “Few Scientologists have had a conversion experience,” he points out. “More common is a gradual, wholehearted acceptance of propositions that might have been regarded as unacceptable or absurd at the outset, as well as the incremental surrender of will on the part of people who have been promised enhanced power and authority.”

It’s a strange process by which we surrender our agency over to faith. I don’t know about you, but it sounds awfully familiar to me, maaan.

James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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