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The Triumph of Technique – The Logic of the NSA (part 2)

[this is Part 2, and though understandable {and shorter} independently, you may want to consider reading Part 1]


Big Data is something of a troublesome concept, not simply because it exists at all, but because when one refers to Big Data one seems to be referring to informational outputs without recognizing the essential moment of inputs. In other words, Big Data has a hard time being very big if it isn’t supported by millions of smart phone users, Google searchers, and Facebook “likes.” What emerges when Big Data is appropriately viewed in such a context (one that sees beyond the data to the sources from which the data is culled) is a larger system, one of which it could be claimed, in the words of Jacques Ellul (in his book The Technological Society):

“it can be truly efficient and scientific only if it absorbs an enormous number of phenomena and brings into play the maximum of data.(Ellul, 125)

Telecom companies are finding many profitable uses in gathering all of this information, and it is of little surprise to learn that the NSA is interested as well. Lost in the anger over the NSA’s snooping is the recognition that the NSA was doing relatively little that was actually new. Verizon already had all of those records of phone calls…the NSA was just getting  a copy of them; Facebook already has a detailed map of your social connections…the NSA just wanted it too; Google already knows enough about most people’s habits to make the head of a police state blush…the NSA just wanted the information too. These are all groups (from the NSA to Google) functioning within the context of technique (as Jacques Ellul used the term), and as such they cannot let a good source of information go to waste. If Google does not use all of that information one of its competitors will, and if the NSA does not make use of all that information than one of its competitors will. One needs only be aware of the number of people (and contractors) currently working on the spymaster payroll to realize that tracking all of your data is very profitable. Yet one needs to also be aware here that the real key is that “this information” is available.

Why? How did that come to happen?

The world as we know it has emerged as the true Technological Society of Ellul’s title, for our world finally functions in a way that fully serves the needs of technology and in which the technology fully serves the needs of those pushing the system forward. It cannot be restated often enough that at the core the NSA was simply making use of the functions already embedded within modern technology. Indeed this is why technological skeptics and some civil liberties group have been able to take on a sort of “we told you so” attitude about the NSA affair (but remember that paranoia is not a tactic). It was always clear that our phones could track us, that our computers could track us, it was simply that we figured if anybody was watching (and the advertisements always proved somebody was) that it was Google and not the government. Yet in a system with technique as its logic to not use the full capabilities of the system is a form of irresponsibility. Technique is all about the smooth functioning of the system, and just as it is under its auspices that Google runs better and better so too does its promise aim to make for an ever more efficient surveillance state.

What gets caught in the middle of all of this, naturally, is people. Those going about their every day lives using the technologies on offer with little awareness of the logic of technique which has receded into the background. When we use a smart phone we enjoy the ease of use, when we perform a web search we are pleased to find what we want, and when we shop online we are thrilled to see endless shop shelves in which what we want is always in stock; what we do not see is that this is a stream lined system of efficiency in which our informational inputs just serve to bolster the data that makes it run more easily. In particular what we do not see is that the information we feed into the system serves any group with the ability to make use of it. To return to an earlier example (from part 1) a person’s purchase of 1984 can provide much more information to many more sources than we imagine. This is not the “it’s all connected” gushing of some new-age philosophy, but what would seem to be the mad ramblings of the paranoid character in a techno-thriller. Yet we remain stuck within the logic of technique, for it has conquered our daily lives. As Ellul understood:

“To be in technical equilibrium, man cannot live by any but the technical reality, and he cannot escape from the social aspect of things which technique designs for him. And the more his needs are accounted for, the more he is integrated into the technical matrix…What technique envisages as needs is social needs as revealed by statistics” (Ellul, 225)

Thus if a person is to function in modern society they have little choice but to conform to a greater or lesser extent with the technical requirements of the day. Just try to get a job, or accepted to university, without an e-mail account. Yet instead of viewing this as oppressive we see in these devices the satisfaction of our needs, regardless of whether or not these are new needs forced upon us.

The importance of thinking through the NSA’s actions as more than simply being an incident of Big Data gone bonkers, is to enable us to see that the problem is not how the NSA is using the information currently available, but that the way that information is currently made available makes it inevitable that a group like the NSA will use it. With efficiency as its watchword we are watching the emergence of a calm technical state of affairs in which we willingly participate. If you want Google to be able to really “guess what you’re looking for” than you must recognize that this will enable the government to know the same.

What this comes down to is the need to couch criticism more broadly. People are not wrong to be angry about the NSA recording their metadata, but they are misguided. After all this is one of the rare examples of government functioning at peak efficiency. The information is out there and by-golly the NSA is going to make sure that they’re getting as much out of it as Google is. Call it the NSA, call it Google, call it Microsoft, call it Facebook, or call it whatever you like, but all of these groups are simply the smiling corporate face or the glaring spying eye of technique. Insofar as resistance is offered in a way that protests the NSA without also challenging Google, than the resistance is simply a periodic outburst that helps to strengthen the system.

If we are genuinely concerned with the NSA using this information than we must target our opposition at the emergence of this information in the first place; for once it is created we are naïve to imagine that it won’t be used. That technique is not seen as the culprit in these systems is well within the logic of technique, which prefers to function as a massage than a bludgeon. Indeed:

“The further we advance, the more the purpose of our techniques fades out of sight.” (Ellul, 430).

And thus the challenge that emerges is for us not to challenge the NSA, but to challenge the entire technical framework of technique of which the NSA’s only guilt is in making use. Unless we are willing to tear up technique at its roots all that we will ensure by challenging the NSA is that some other group will be watching us, and (compared to many a corporation) the NSA is at least nominally accountable to the citizenry. After all, would anybody have shrugged if Snowden had been a Google employee coming forward and saying “Google knows it all!”

Search engines and smart phones pay fealty to the same technique as the NSA. If you want to use the former, don’t be surprised when they are used by the latter.

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

3 comments on “The Triumph of Technique – The Logic of the NSA (part 2)

  1. N Filbert
    June 22, 2013

    well done. bravo.

  2. Pingback: The Triumph of Technique – The Logic of the NSA (Part 1) | LibrarianShipwreck

  3. Pingback: In Which Country Do You Dream? | LibrarianShipwreck

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