"More than machinery, we need humanity."

The Triumph of Technique – The Logic of the NSA (Part 1)


How might a person understand a collection of millions of phone records? The easy answer is that they would not. Millions of records is too much for a single person to try to wrestle with. Therefore, perhaps a simpler question should be asked: what do your phone records look like? Just yours. Really.

Try to map it out mentally, or take a piece of paper and create an actual guide. All kidding aside, it’s a worthwhile exercise. In the last week who have you called, how many times did you call each of those people, where were you at the time of the call? Next add another level of information: who were the people who called you in the last week, how many times did they call you, where were they calling you from and where were you at the time of the call.

I hope you have a big piece of paper, because we’re just getting started.

Now move on to all of those other people (the ones who called you and the ones you called), and try to think of all of the people they called and all of the people who called them. Might any of the people they called also be people who you called? Clearly you’re going to need to do some guesswork here, as you are (probably) not privy to the phone records of those with whom you communicate.  Yet one thing should be becoming quickly clear as you attempt to make this communication map: this is more information than most people can easily make sense of by themselves.

Indeed, to make sense of it would require the ability to know who everybody is calling and also necessitate some way in which to make sense of it all. A pen and even a really big piece of paper are not going to be sufficient.


Information quantity can be a troublesome concept to comprehend. Humans, though good at seeing large abstract designs, are better at understanding small-scale endeavors, things that are relatively easy to process. Thus, it is easy for people to understand small-scale activities of intelligence gathering: the detectives pursuing a single suspect, the agents conducting surveillance on specific terrorists, etc… The scale is small enough, personal enough, and human enough that it is easy to make sense of, it is why people enjoy the “ah-ha” moment in a crime show wherein the audience figures out what has occurred at the same pace as the investigators. The human element remains and the amount of information stays limited enough that it functions under the control of humans. We are not overwhelmed by the quantity of information.

Those who have watched programs like The Wire have seen surveillance being used by state forces (and sometimes by other groups), but in these contexts it is always rather limited. The Wire may have shown that it is possible to monitor cell phone calls but it also presented this in the context of a rather onerous legal apparatus wherein the only calls being monitored were ones tied directly to “persons of interest.” Popular culture has informed the public that “your calls can be monitored” but has always reminded us that the “your” in that statement only refers to those who have done something (legally) wrong.

This breaks down swiftly in the broadening. The reaction to the Guardian’s release of information about wide spread surveillance by the NSA demonstrates this dissonance between what we knew to be technological capabilities and our sense of who it was being targeted. There is a chasm wide gulf between the concept of a few criminals being watched and the recognition that millions of people are having their records watched by the NSA. Part of the issue here is the challenge it poses to people’s conception of who is watching, and what they are watching. To return to the last paragraph’s example, the NSA program makes clear a level of watching that far outstrips that of the tv detective, and the amount of information being gathered transcends the amount of information that we can easily comprehend. It makes the actions of villainous police states (as seen in the movies) seem downright quaint.

Advances in technology are a gift from Orwellian gods to governments interested in accumulating more information. The surveillance organizations from the days or yore were skilled at building up dossiers about individuals yet even these groups faced some of the challenges that an individual would encounter in trying to map out all of their own records; it’s simply too much information, and it’s difficult for humans to map out all of these connections. It’s a game of six degrees of separation played simultaneously in all directions for the whole populace, only a version of the game that is just as interested (if not more so) in the eighth, fifteenth, or thirty-fourth degree of separation as the sixth. It would be as if the television detective stopped watching just the criminal, but also began tracking everybody the criminal had ever talked to, and everybody who those people hade ever talked to, except instead of a “criminal” it’s you.


The NSA story is a tale of Big Data come to town. What Big Data represents is the technologically enabled state of affairs in which all of the information we create in our daily activities can be captured and contrasted with all of the other information we create in our daily activities. It is the collation of who you call with what you buy online with your social networking connections with your location data with what you purchase on your credit card (even not online) with all of the other information which follows you like a shadow. The evangels of Big Data (often corporate forces like Google) see in Big Data the promise of an easier age wherein our wants are known and responded to before we are even aware of them. It is a realm of total informational awareness of sundry details wherein our actions make us ever-easier targets for advertising. Yet just as your past purchases enable Amazon to better offer you deals on particular products, this same information can easily serve to tell other users of that Big Data even more. Not every group that gets that data is just interested in selling you shoes.

In the aftermath of Greenwald’s pieces about the NSA it has been reported that sales of George Orwell’s book 1984 have risen. Whereas this may help online retailers suggest other books to those buyers, it may also alert – say – the NSA of the people who are more concerned about governmental overreach. And perhaps these are the very types of people that the NSA is most interested in keeping tabs on. Under the aegis of Big Data the ordering of 1984 can be connected to site visits to the Guardian along with the phone call that person placed to an old friend involved in privacy activism and thus the web of information is constructed. Although in this web of connections we are not the spider, but the foolish gnat that has become entangled therein.

The authoritarian possibility embedded in modern technologies is no secret (just ask Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt of Google), but it runs parallel with a faith that most people maintain that they need not worry about what they would view as a “misuse” of this technology. Yet a technology that can be used for authoritarian observation (such as your smart phone) is not one that is misused when it is turned into a monitoring device, it is simply a technology that is being used in one of the many ways that it is built to work. The NSA (and by extension) the US government is not hijacking your devices, and using them to spy on you, they are simply using a device that is already spying on you. Big Data cannot exist without the devices that furnish the information necessary for Big Data and these required technologies range from the powerful computers that can find connections amongst the muddle of millions of pieces of metada to the smaller (yet still powerful) devices that we use every day that create those informational moments that are of so much interest (and value) to the Big Data systems.

While Big Data is certainly part of the NSA tale it is not accurate to lay all of the blame for this predicament at the doorstep (or cave entrance) of Big Data. After all, Big Data is part of a larger system that in turn relies on numerous other pieces of that system in order to generate meaning. What is needed, in order to fully understand this state of affairs, is a framework that encompasses Big Data but that also sees that Big Data is just one of many tools.


The revelations about the NSA do not lend themselves easily to a single “ism.” And though “totalitarianism” and “authoritarianism” are enjoying a new surge in usage, neither of these terms is quite accurate. This is not to suggest that the actions of the NSA aren’t reflective of a certain ideology, but the ideology they are reflective of is a subtle one that can function equally well within a Democracy and within a full-on authoritarian society. What is at work in the NSA’s actions is the attempt to subject all information to the processes and awareness of a larger system, it is the recognition that all of this information is available and thus it should be put to some usage. It is a state of affairs that covers a range of societal uses and is at much at work in Google or Facebook connecting all of your dots as it is in the NSA and PRISM doing the same. It is part of the logic at work not merely within technology but rather within the society that creates technologies and imparts to them certain biases (as is evidenced in the smart phones that track their users). The philosopher Jacques Ellul called this overarching system “technique” in his book The Technological Society, wherein Ellul defined technique as:

“the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” (xxv)

In the course of The Technological Society (the original title of which [in French] is actually La Technique) Ellul maps out the multifold ways in which the system of technique pervades all of human life, activity and society. Thus the title of Ellul’s book is actually a bit of a distraction, for though it might seem to be about a technological society it is more apt to think about the book as being about society functioning as technology, for it is the subjecting of every aspect of the society to technique that produces the technological society, not the subjecting of every aspect of the society to technology that create s a technique society. Certainly machines play an important role in the development of modern societies; however, a major societal shift must take place for the machine to become a truly dominant and powerful force. As Ellul described:

“Technique integrates the machine into society. It constructs the kind of world the machine needs and introduces order where the incoherent banging of machinery heaped up ruins. It clarifies, arranges, and rationalizes; it does in the domain of the abstract what the machine did in the domain of labor. It is efficient and brings efficiency to everything.” (5)

Thus the machine becomes just another tool used by technique in ensuring that all is run and all works at maximal efficiency. And this realm of technique is one that works across societal spheres, infiltrating and then running a society be it through the economy, organization, or human activity. What technique seeks to do away with are the unpredictable and potentially antisocial actions of individuals that can undermine the efficient state of affairs towards which technique advances. In order for technique to triumph (which to Ellul seemed imminent) human activity needed to be assimilated to and by technique. The conquering of human caprice by Technique is what finally gives rise to the technological society of the books title. In defining this, Ellul writes (italics his):

Technical civilization means that our civilization is constructed by technique (makes a part of civilization only what belongs to technique), for technique (in that everything in this civilization must serve a technical end), and is exclusively technique (in that it excludes whatever is not technique or reduces it to technical form).” (128)

For Ellul the functions of Technique could be seen across a range of seemingly different societies, and he finds as much evidence of the forces of technique in liberal democracies such as the United States and France as amongst totalitarian countries typified by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.  What matters less is the specific functions used to bring society in line than the quieter underpinnings; be it the subtle propaganda of the advertisement or the blatant propaganda of the party leader, individuals are forced into line to fulfill with maximum efficiency the tasks required of them by society.

Even periodic rebellious remissions are built into technique as the system needs to allow for constructive and non-threatening expressions of discontent lest such sentiments should fester and become true resistance. As can be inferred, in order for Technique to be most effective it must be able to grasp humans in all aspects of their affairs, it is not enough for work to be regimented by technique but leisure and personal desires must be similarly controlled. Thus advertising and entertainment (the culture industry in Frankfurt School parlance) serve not as escapes but as structures that further reinforce the power that technique holds over humanity. In this way technique cannot be anything but authoritarian insofar as it must command complete authority. As Ellul explains:

“Technique cannot be otherwise than totalitarian. It can be truly efficient and scientific only if it absorbs an enormous number of phenomena and brings into play the maximum of data. In order to co-ordinate and exploit synthetically, technique must be brought to bear on the great masses in every area…It is totalitarian in message, methods, field of action, and means…When technique has fastened upon a method, everything must be subordinated to it. There are no longer any neutral objects or situations…Technique can leave nothing untouched in a civilization. Everything is its concern.” (125)

It is important to recognize that at the time of Ellul’s writing (the early 1960s) the world of technology looked significantly different than it does today. The technical tools at technique’s disposal to shape humans to its will were relatively weak. True, a militarized system of production had transitioned from the heat of WWII to the cold war and the emergence of mass culture was still (relatively speaking) in its early stages. Yet from Ellul’s perspective the trends were already at play within society and the economy to ensure that the further developments were to be in line with technique; a system that has as its end not the happiness of humanity but only the ever more efficient running of itself. Thus the technical devices (the actual machines) that would emerge in the age of technique would be those created by and for technique, it would prepare humanity for the machine by making humanity more machine like. And thus:

“when man himself becomes a machine, he attains to the marvelous freedom of unconsciousness, the freedom of the machine itself…Man feels himself to be responsible, but he is not. He does not feel himself an object, but he is.” (226)

Humanity and society in Ellul’s dour gaze were to become little more than whims of technique, activities and actions taking place within a narrow frame of choices wherein all things simply helped strengthen the whole. Ellul did not live during a time period where a security agency could easily gather millions of phone records and use super computers to make sense of it all.

But it is likely that this development would not have surprised him.

This will be continued in part 2…

Books Cited:

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Vintage, 1964.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

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