Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
People generally do not like being spied on, but what people like even less than the actual spying is having to recognize that it is going on when they had previously been able to pretend it was not happening. This, in some respects, is the sentiment behind much of the discomfort in the recent NSA and Verizon tale that is unfolding; people knew that the government had the capability to demand all of this information, knew the government was probably doing it, but until Glenn Greenwald’s expose in the Guardian they were able to pretend that all was hunky-dory.
On the heels of the NSA story riling people up a sibling scandal is emerging, this one revealing a secret government program that has been collecting information on foreigners for several years through companies including Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, and a few others. Though this program – which goes by the wonderfully Orwellian name Prism – is apparently only being used to target foreigners (read about this here [link to New York Times]).
The emergence of both of these tales is leading to no small amount of justified outrage, which is manifesting itself in some areas that have previously been more than willing to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt for his less than stellar record on surveillance. Indeed, as the stories broke the Huffington Post changed it’s front page to the headline “George W. Obama” replete with an image featuring the two men’s likenesses merged, whilst the New York Times was even more damning in an editorial (“President Obama’s Dragnet”) which states that regarding promises that such steps are all about safety:
“The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue.”
There is a certain dark irony to these stories. Over the last few months Republicans (in and out of Washington D.C.) have been struggling to find an Obama administration scandal that sparks public outcry. And now that one seems to be emerging that is actually infuriating people across the political spectrum…those voices are largely silent. Republicans who were furious that the IRS looked a bit more skeptically at Tea Party groups are much less concerned that the government is looking at all Verizon users. Granted, these stories were not really news in D.C. where politicians of the legislative branch seemed aware of these programs. Indeed, according to the political class these programs are actually quite legal and we are expected to believe that they are integral “to keeping us safe.”
It is very easy to be furious at the government over this overreach, and such anger is largely justified. Technically legal though this may be it represents a galling overreach of authority that reveals quite clearly the police state heart that beats within the provisions of the PATRIOT Act. And yet all of this focus on the government in the midst of this obscures a larger issue in this scandal, and thereby gives cover to groups who we should be equally furious with: the telecoms and technology companies that cooperated in this program, and far more importantly ourselves as we merrily went about using our digital devices in willful ignorance of the information that was being created by our activities.
Indeed it is tempting to read all of these headlines and claim that this is “insane,” and yet what makes this matter so terrible is precisely that this is an extremely sane and coldly logical undertaking (which is not the same as moral). Governments spy on their people, this isn’t news; however, in recent years the amount of information being created by people has exploded exponentially and it has expanded through channels that make this information easy to capture, save, and then process thanks to the capabilities of faster computers (Big Data has come to town). It would almost be “insane” for a government not to collect this kind of data.
Where once an army of secret police would have been needed, now this can all be accomplished by tapping into the secret police officer following you at all times: your smartphone. Where once a team would need to wait for you to leave your home before searching through your files they can now access them much more simply: your emails (held by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc…). Where once analysts would spend days mapping out all of a persons social connections they can now view this easily with little work on their end: thanks to your Facebook.
Modern technology and social networking provide the essential tools by which the government can monitor the activities of a population with minimal actual intervention into the lives of those people. Thus, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen (both of Google) now seem vindicated (as if it was needed) in their warning that modern technologies can easily be used for authoritarian reasons (though they weren’t concerned about the US really [and they were writing about this even as Google was cooperating with the US’s authoritarian overreach]). Yet before the government, or a corporation, can make use of the information coming out of these devices people must first decide to use these devices, and they must decide (consciously or not) to use them in a way that leaves behind rich data tracks.
In an age where some fear that technology will lead to people becoming illiterate, these stories actually reveal that people are actually technologically illiterate and dangerously ignorant of the capabilities of the devices that they make use of everyday. We must be aware, on some level, that when we use smartphones or Facebook that we are creating information that is passing into hands (and through servers) that can use this data for purposes other than those which we have intended. This is part of the tradeoff in using technology: you use it, and it uses you. Furthermore, this recognition is not new, and it is something that theorists have warned of for years. Writing in 1986, in the book The Whale and the Reactor, Langdon Winner noted that:
“As people handle an increasing range of their daily activities through electronic instruments…it becomes technically feasible to monitor these activities to a degree heretofore inconceivable. The availability of digitized footprints on social transactions affords opportunities that contain a menacing aspect…unless steps are taken to prevent it, we may develop systems capable of perpetual, pervasive, apparently benign surveillance. Confronted with omnipresent, all-seeing data banks, the populace may find passivity and compliance the safest route, avoiding activities that once represented political liberty.” (Winner, 115)
Those words, which were written over a decade and a half before the PATRIOT Act and more than two decades before these scandals, serve as a telling reminder that the government is simply making use of a capability embedded in the devices that apparently make our lives easier. Winner’s point is also worth noting as it raises the question as to whether or not people will further modify their behavior now that they know that the government is watching them through their technology.
People should alter their behavior, but not in terms of what they’re doing, but in terms of how they’re doing it. People need to become cognizant that their smart phone is not their friend, that Siri is a police informant, that Facebook is a file maintained by and for the police state, and that your calls may be being monitored after all. Our modern technologies are sold to us under the promise of liberation but they wind up enslaving us twice, first to the device itself and then to the data regime that emerges from the information we blithely help create. With technology we sew our own straight jackets and skip into digital cells. The outrage and surprise around these recent scandals shows a woeful failure to understand how our technology functions and our fury at the government acts as a convenient cover so that we do not have to accept responsibility for helping build this situation by our uses of these devices.
Technology (and the telecoms empowered by it) are the purveyors of the mass culture in which we live, and within it we participate in a pernicious tradeoff wherein we trade our privacy, and anonymity to vast untrustworthy servers in exchange for making our lives slightly easier, and we then react like petulant children when we are forced to acknowledge what we should have known all along: that these companies were never worthy of the trust we invested in them. It is as Theodor Adorno wrote in Culture Industry Reconsidered (collected in The Culture Industry) in terms of people’s interactions with the culture industry:
“People are not only, as the saying goes, falling for the swindle; if it guarantees them even the most fleeting gratification they desire a deception which is nonetheless transparent to them. They force their eyes shut and voice approval, in a kind of self-loathing, for what is meted out to them, knowing fully the purpose for which it is manufactured. Without admitting it they sense that their lives would be completely intolerable as soon as they no longer clung to satisfactions which are none at all.” (Adorno, 103)
We have invested too much faith in our technology and then we react in blind fury when we feel betrayed, though this betrayal should have always been obvious to us. These companies can be relied upon to churn out shiny products but not guard your rights (after all, it is not “don’t be evil” Google or “friendly” Apple that revealed this story). The lesson that we must take away from this whole sordid story is that we must become more engaged and aware of how the technology that we use actually uses us. We can see, if we dare face it, the truth of Lewis Mumford’s prediction (in The Myth of the Machine: II. The Pentagon of Power) that:
“it has become obvious that our own culture has fallen into a dangerously unbalanced state, and is now producing warped and unbalanced minds. One part of our civilization—that dedicated to technology—has usurped authority over all the other components, geographical, biological, anthropological: indeed the most frenetic advocates of this process are proclaiming that the whole biological world is being supplanted by technology, and that man will either become a willing creature of his technology or cease to exist.” (Mumford, 283)
The real scandal is not that the NSA obtained millions of phone numbers from Verizon, it is not that through Prism the government spied on people online, it isn’t even that the technology companies went along with all of this. It is that we adjusted ourselves to a technological society without pausing to confront that all of the previously mentioned threats would be become a reality under the aegis of technology. Anger is justified, but we must reserve some of this anger for ourselves, instead of just directing it at the venal technocrats who populate political office and the ethically stunted tinkerers who populate Silicon Valley.
It is time for us to remember Charlie Chaplin’s exhortation from the end of his film The Great Dictator:
“We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….
Don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!”
Let’s act like it.
Adorno, Theodor. The Culture Industry. Routledge, 2001.
Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine: II. The Pentagon of Power. Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers (1970)
Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. University of Chicago Press, 1986.