The word “eavesdropping” was coined centuries before telephones and recording equipment were invented:
[T]he practice of eavesdropping documented nearly a thousand years earlier, when people were happy to entrust to unaided senses the question of who was doing what to whom.
The drive to invade the private spaces of others is universal. The English term “eavesdropping” derives from the practice of standing under the eavesdrop — the place where rain water falls from the roof to the ground — in order to hear conversations occurring within the home. In French, to eavesdrop is écouter aux portes, to listen at doors, as is the Italian equivalent, origliare alla porta. In Spanish, escuchar sin ser visto means to listen without being seen. In Tzotzil, a language spoken in the Mexican Highlands, there is a verb that means “to observe in secret, from a hiding place.”
German, Swedish, Polish, and Russian languages follow suit; all have to do with an auditory invasion, excluding one that is observed, smelled, or touched. And today in particular: read seems noticeably absent, as the book itself does indeed cover services like Twitter.
John Locke, author of the new text on Eavesdropping, offers two defining features:
The first is that it feeds on activity that is inherently intimate, and is so because the actors are unaware of the receiver, therefore feel free to be “themselves.” The second feature that makes eavesdropping so interesting relates to the way the information travels. It is not donated by the sender. It is stolen by the receiver.
Bicycled legs, silks, cobblestoned Sohos, cafe tables, stemmed glasses, skinny alleys — New York City, all cities, social spaces — give us a stage to be eavesdropped on. Studying, whether with the ear or the eye, is part of the design.