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Eavesdropping a Part of our Culture, Says Lehman Professor in New Book

November 1, 2010


Dr. John L. Locke

Eavesdropping isn't just a guilty pleasure, it's an intrinsic part of our culture whether we realize it or not, according to Dr. John L. Locke (Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences). In his latest book, Eavesdropping: An Intimate History (Oxford University Press), Dr. Locke, a professor of linguistics, examines the evolution of this curious behavior in the species and traces its history—from the intense surveillance of the hunter-gatherers to celebrity watching and our use of social media like Facebook and Twitter.

"Eavesdropping is a form of communication," he says. "It's the theft of information, and it's intensely thrilling to all human beings."

To illustrate how deeply entrenched eavesdropping is in our society, Dr. Locke, who began work on the book more than twelve years ago, asks how police would solve crimes without it. "Think of the 'star witness' for the prosecution," he says. "Often witnesses are someone who saw something—a document, an event—that they weren't meant to see."

One only has to think of local neighborhood watch groups or the MTA messages on the subway—If you see something, say something—to get his point. Then there's gossip— Locke terms it "eavesdropping's near twin"—which is one of the most powerful forces in our society. Wanting to know what is happening in the lives of other people, particularly famous people, helps drive a large part of the media and has created our celebrity-obsessed culture.

"Think of the paparazzi," says Dr. Locke. "They know that the right photo can feed a family of four for a year. And if they 'capture' a celebrity in a bikini at St. Tropéz, it could bring more."

But eavesdropping on ordinary people is also titillating, Dr. Locke argues in his book, which has garnered reviews and mentions in The New Yorker, the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph, and USA Today. "There's an allure to what's happening on the other side of the wall," he says. "Perceptual trespassing can produce a shudder of emotion."

Next spring will see the publication of Duels and Duets: How Men and Women Came to Talk So Differently (Cambridge University Press), in which he argues that the differences in how the sexes communicate are rooted in biology rather than culture. He is also the author of The Child's Path to Spoken Language (Harvard University Press, 1993) and The De-Voicing of Society (Simon & Schuster, 1998). He received his B.A. at Ripon College, his M.A. and Ph.D. from Ohio University, and his postdoctoral training at Yale University and Oxford University. He also teaches in the doctoral program at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Learn more about the book in a CUNY podcast with Professor Locke.