A Window Into a Surveillance State

I recently read Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. Several years after the wall was torn down, Funder went to Germany to talk to people who had lived in the East German state, known formally as the GDR (German Democratic Republic). For her book, she interviewed victims and agents of the Stasi, and explored not only what their life was like back then, but how it changed once the wall fell.

The Stasi, or secret police, enacted a pervasive and powerful surveillance system. They amassed copious amounts of information on private citizens, including all kinds of mundane details. They collected information in a variety of ways, from intercepting mail to using informants.

When reading about the effects of the Stasi’s tactics, I started thinking about the surveillance we live under with the Internet, with cameras everywhere, with data harvested by governments and powerful corporations, with various algorithms making decisions about our lives, and with people eager to be informants and judges. I’m not claiming that my life in the U.S. is like living in the East German state. But it’s important to think about what Stasiland shows us, the dangers we face in a state of exposure and surveillance, including:

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Which Kinds of Mistakes Do You Accept in a Nonfiction Book?

In one nonfiction book I’ve been reading recently, I found an inaccurate description of a novel.

In another nonfiction book, the author mischaracterized a Jewish holiday. The author himself is Jewish, but not observant, so maybe he bought into an inaccurate interpretation.

On the one hand, I understand that each of these books has a lot of information backed by hundreds of footnotes. Probably some mistakes are inevitable.

On the other hand, I don’t know how many mistakes the author is making. I picked up on the two I mentioned earlier, because I already knew about the holiday and the novel under discussion. But what about the topics I don’t know about? Can I trust the author to give me accurate information?

Maybe the nature of the mistake makes a difference. For example, getting a date wrong may not be a big deal, if it’s just a typo. Though even that kind of error can be confusing and misleading in certain contexts.

Nonfiction authors often do use fact-checkers, so I’m hoping that many errors will already be caught before publication. Meaning that the book will largely be accurate, with maybe a few minor errors slipping past detection.

But I’m interested in what the line is. Which kinds of mistakes would lead you to put the book aside? And which would you respond to with more lenience?