Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Revelations of government misconduct can inspire a sort of paralysis: we want to take action but cannot figure out exactly what to do. This is particularly severe when it is not entirely clear what an appropriate reaction would be. Such is one of the challenges of the ongoing NSA story, how is one to react? Outrage and concern are obvious, but what about definite actions beyond simply vocalizing discontent to our associates?
What makes this question particularly discombobulating and jarring is the pervasiveness of this government misconduct and the seeming unwillingness on the part of any parts of the government to provide meaningful oversight or response. At a time when US politicians mutual loathing has reached such a height that they would be unwilling to agree that ice cream is cold there is nevertheless a beautiful moment of bipartisan unity taking place wherein politicians across party lines support the NSA’s actions. It would actually be a reassuring moment, proving that members of Congress can agree, if only the conditions for the coming together were different.
If the story revealed by Snowden and reported on by Greenwald (amongst others) is shocking, perhaps more shocking is the thoroughly lockstep and lackluster response of the politicians who many would rely upon to take some form of action. As Democrats bite their tongues lest they criticize President Obama, and as Republicans remain quiet whilst watching a scandal that Americans actually care about, the groups that seem vindicated are those that had previously warned of the growth of the national security state and sought to inform people of the risks embedded in the technologies that people use every day. It is less a matter of the “paranoid people” being proved correct than it is a case of most people having eagerly ignored the truth as long as possible. And thus, though Greenwald’s “NSA Files” stories expose many important things, the content of such revelations was hardly a surprise to those who had been consistently following Greenwald’s work in the previous years.
Which returns us to the question of what should a person do in the face of this altered view of reality? Clearly there are the various advocacy groups emerging, promising to organize and take some type of action; these range from groups taking legal action (ACLU) to newer ones that as of yet appear to be focusing on putting together a petition of sorts (StopWatchingUS), and while there have been scattered street demonstrations our actions have remained rather limited. Kettled in by the orange netting of a problem of such pervasiveness as to leave us with so many foes that we know not where to start?
Angry at the NSA? Fine, but who authorized the NSA? Furious at Verizon? Fine, but are you going to be hit with a whopping fee for trying to get out of your contract early. Mad with Google or Microsoft or Apple or [add the implicated tech company of your choosing]? Fine, but if you trade in your smart phone or computer today, will your replacement options be just as tainted? Angry with the government? Fine, but is there going to be a better option on the ballot come election time?
Or, to restate yet again, what does it mean to resist at the moment? Signing a petition is not without some merit, and making a donation to one of the groups waging the legal battle is respectable, yet to what extent does either action really accomplish much? Though valid, actions such as the aforementioned ones, fail to truly engage us in resistance or struggle; they’re “online button click” activism for a problem created by clicking too many buttons online. We are in a situation where it is easy to resign ourselves to quiet defeatism born from the enormity of the problem and from the slow recognition that we are totally entangled within it. Such is the sentiment on display in John Naughton’s piece at the Guardian titled “The NSA has us snared in its trap – and there’s no way out,” an article which charts our acquiescence before concluding (italics his):
“The moral of this? Simple: we’re screwed either way. We’re so hooked on the services provided by Google et al that we can’t contemplate boycotting them, whether or not they’re collaborating with the Feds. We walked cheerfully into the trap, folks. All that remains now is to live with the consequences.”
Whether or not one actually agrees with Naughton’s analysis, one cannot help but recognize in his piece a certain – not wholly surprising sentiment – namely that to take action we would need to unleash our fury (at least economically speaking) against the technology firms that complied with the NSA and PRISM. And that we are really the ones at fault here as we’re “hooked on the services” and as we “walked cheerfully into the traps” (though some would argue it was really “walked blindly”). Thus Naughton suggests that the problem we are facing with the NSA needs to be couched in the sources that the NSA exploits; after all, if you don’t own a smart phone, avoid Google, and keep your technology usage minimal the amount of information you’re generating for the NSA to scoop up is somewhat limited. But in the aftermath of the NSA revelations most people are still hesitant to look at their smart phone and recognize the little police spy for what it is. And, again, we’re “hooked.”
Thus what emerges as a solution is not a true questioning of technology, the state, or the big business enterprises that either directly profited off of this whole to do (Snowden was a contractor) or sold us the tools for our own oppression, but simply another consumer option. And such a choice is even suggested by Naughton’s mention of a “boycott,” for a boycott of Google is not the same as boycotting Internet technology in total. What emerges as a solution is captured in a recent article by Timothy Stenovec at the Huffington Post titled “Privacy Apps and Services are the Only Tech Companies Winning the NSA Surveillance Scandal,” a story that comes replete with an image of somebody wearing a tinfoil hat. It is as Max Horkheimer wrote in Eclipse of Reason:
“the object of laughter is not the conforming multitude but rather the eccentric who still ventures to think autonomously.” (Horkheimer, 80)
Regardless of the fact that the eccentric was proven to have point, they’re still wearing a hat made of tinfoil. Stonovec explains how privacy services and apps are experiencing a surge in usage and downloads as people switch over to more secure devices; even as the tinfoil hat image serves to subtly chide the article’s readers that they don’t really need to take this too seriously – these are services used by paranoid people, and you don’t need to really be paranoid. Do you? Of course you don’t… Granted, for those seeking something more concrete to “really do” switching to DuckDuckGo or the Tor Project has more active feel good force than merely signing a petition, and many groups (including us) have cobbled together lists of pro-privacy, but still pro-technology, resources for those looking to use their devices more safely (our resource guide is available and continually being updated).
Yet, rarely seen amongst such resource guides is the type of solution that might make General Ludd smile: take a hammer and smash your smart phone to smithereens. But that’s not an option most would consider, likewise avoiding technology, hence the suggestions of better apps and services for those who still want to “enjoy life” in technological times.
A smart phone filled with privacy apps, a computer running on GNU/LINUX, web surfing done through TOR, and a fierce avoidance of all things Google is all well and fine…but you are still using all of the technological toys that got us into the mess in the first place. The concern and further question needs to be whether these privacy apps are a panacea or whether people are using them as a stand in for taking more widely spread action. It is better to switch to TOR than to do nothing, but switching to TOR without rethinking your reliance on technology and organizing more broadly is to take a moment of political resistance and subsume it back into the world of consumer options. Concerned about the NSA? Well, you need not take to the streets, now you can simply switch the apps on your phone and carry on knowing that you have taken action. Yet your only real action was hitting “download” and then “install.” Again, this is not to minimize that such an act is worthwhile, but insofar as it just serves to reintegrate the would be resister back into the technological society it is insufficient. A “Droid” phone serves Google whether you’re using Google search or DuckDuckGo.
What the slew of privacy apps and services helps to show is the degree to which technology (including services and apps) has become just another aspect of today’s culture industry, as Theodor Adorno described (in “Culture Industry Reconsidered”):
“The culture industry fuses the old and familiar into a new quality. In all its branches, products which are tailored for consumption by masses, and which to a great extent determine the nature of that consumption, are manufactured more or less according to plan.” (Adorno, 98)
New shiny phones, sparkling apps, and super cool operating systems are more products in which we deposit our identity, and there are devices and services on offer for those who want to stake out a position on the fringe of the consumer society while still actually keeping them within it (you can download the anti-Google apps through the Google app store). Horkheimer was not specifically speaking about technology, in the following lines, but the sentiment holds:
“Motion pictures, the radio, popular biographies and novels have the same refrain: This is our groove, this is the rut of the great and the would-be-great—this is reality as it is and should be and will be.” (Horkheimer, 96)
If we add consumer technology (along with apps and services) between “Motion pictures,” and “the radio,” the description still works, and thus what we are told to treat as tools for freeing ourselves simply bind us back into the system, and keep us in a “rut,” it does not challenge “reality as it is.” witching to DuckDuckGo or TOR does little to undermine the larger system (indeed it may help signal you out to those watching as being a person of interest). The mantra of the individual choice channels angry resistance back into individualized actions, Horkheimer again:
“Just as the slogans of rugged individualism are politically useful to large trusts in seeking exemption from social control, so in mass culture the rhetoric of individualism, by imposing patterns for collective imitation, disavows the very principle to which it gives lip service.” (Horkheimer, 107)
What is intended is not to further the thesis that “there’s nothing you can do” but to note that there is a great deal you can do, and there is a great deal that we can do, but switching over our apps is not enough. This is a mass problem that impacts millions of people, it can not be addressed simply by having several thousand people switch to better apps, especially if such a drive takes those who would be organizing broadly and contents them to continue tapping away at their phone screen. The “resistant individual” in Horkheimer’s parlance:
“does not shrink from persistently confronting reality with truth, from unveiling the antagonism between ideals and actualities.” (77)
Resistance may start as an individual act and yet it loses its force if solely focused towards personal actions. The revelations regarding the NSA and PRISM have laid bear a threatening reality, and it is one which must be “persistently” confronted “with truth.” You can fill your phone with better apps, but the actuality is that the phone itself (good apps or bad) is part of the problem. Paranoia is no substitute for a systemic critique, and downloading better apps is no substitute for organizing and building real resistance. The challenge for those of us enraged by these revelations is to build resistance in defiance to this entire system of surveillance (which includes the makers of our phones), a resistance that consists of more than making individualized consumptive choices of which apps to use.
Otherwise we will just find ourselves in a similar situation in a few months or years time, watching in inured silence as yet another scandal unfolds to which the solution is: “oh, just download this.”
Adorno, Theodor. The Culture Industry. Routledge, 2001.
Horkheimer, Max. Eclipse of Reason. Continuum, 2004.