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A Prequel to 1984? Just look around…

If George Orwell had decided to write a prequel to his novel 1984 it is conceivable that the tale would look very much like a description of our current times. One can imagine it as a story of increased surveillance and militarized policing under the banner of “keeping you safe” whilst a digitally distracted public ignores the warnings of a big bully slowly morphing into Big Brother. Perhaps the quotation on the first leaf would have come from Lewis Mumford’s essay Irrational Elements in Art and Politics (collected in In the Name of Sanity):

“Too many of us have already descended to the level of the docile robot, manipulated by remote control.” (Mumford, 156)

As for those who have not yet descended to such a level?

People with the bravery to stand up to those in power are frequently met with reprisals ranging from intimidating threats to far worse. Thus, while the behavior seems almost absurdly Orwellian, it comes as little real shock that David Miranda – the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (who has been doing much of the reporting based on Edward Snowden’s whistle blowing) – was detained in Heathrow airport, threatened with imprisonment, interrogated, and had his various technological devices confiscated.

While Miranda’s treatment sparked a fair amount of worried outcry – from some – the sorry fact remains that much of the visibility around Miranda’s treatment is related to the status of Greenwald (the story – and its aftermath – was headline news in many [albeit online] places). Alas, journalists (as well as their allies [to say nothing of activists]) being bullied and harassed is nothing new, and though a fair amount of attention and outrage has been generated what befell Miranda is not something unheard (Trevor Timm at the Freedom of the Press Foundation wrote an excellent piece on this).

If the early reactions to Miranda’s treatment were strong, the frustration only grew in the wake of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s article “David Miranda, schedule 7 and the danger that all reporters now face.” The article presents an account of what occurred to Miranda but situates the events within a larger context of intimidation and governmental meddling – one that he links back to the Guardian’s involvement in publishing materials from Wikileaks. Rusbridger’s article, filled as it is with example after example of threats aimed at the Guardian, builds to a particularly stunning conclusion wherein Rusbringer describes agents from the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ – a UK intelligence agency):

“overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement”

so as to eradicate the offending files that were thought to be found on the drives. It is important to note that the destruction of drives and much else that Rusbridger discusses took place in the UK, which has different laws regarding the press than the US – but to fall back on such a view as a reason not to worry about things in the US is nonsense. After all, the US government knew that Miranda was to be detained, and even if they did not specifically say “do it” they also do not appear to have cautioned restraint.

Yet, an element that seemed particularly interesting, if less sensational, in Rusbridger’s article was not the treatment of journalists and their loved ones, so much as the way in which the article simultaneously celebrates the tools technology has given to journalists while recognizing that these same tools can be extremely dangerous.  There is an almost cartoon like thuggish image in Rusbridger’s mentioning of the hard drives being smashed – did these agents from an intelligence service not realize that in an age of digital information it was ludicrous to think the only copies of a given file were on a single hard drive? Likewise, was it really believed that the only place where a newspaper would have copies of files was in a UK headquarters whilst the publisher operates offices (and had journalists working) all over the world?

Beyond the case of the hard drives, Rusbridger’s article includes a level of wariness towards certain types of technology and the dangers it may portend for journalists. After all, if this whole matter is linked to revelations about governmental spying on electronic communications is it really a surprise that Rusbridger writes:

“it would be highly unadvisable for Greenwald (or any other journalist) to regard any electronic means of communication as safe. The Guardian’s work on the Snowden story has involved many individuals taking a huge number of flights in order to have face-to-face meetings. Not good for the environment, but increasingly the only way to operate. Soon we will be back to pen and paper.”

This sentiment is returned to, and indeed amplified, at the end of Rusbridger’s article where he warns that:

“The state that is building such a formidable apparatus of surveillance will do its best to prevent journalists from reporting on it…We are not there yet, but it may not be long before it will be impossible for journalists to have confidential sources. Most reporting – indeed, most human life in 2013 – leaves too much of a digital fingerprint.”

What is particularly interesting about Rusbridger’s dirge for the safety of digital communication is that it is twinned by his recognition that many of the aspects of digital communication are precisely the elements which make attempts at governmental intimidation not particularly effective. Rusbridger’s discussion of the fact that the destruction of the drives will not represent the total destruction of the “offending” files, that the confiscation of devices from Miranda will have at most a minimal real effect on halting Greenwald’s reporting, and that the Guardian will do its reporting on the Snowden revelations from offices not in the UK all point to the way in which information in a technological society has taken on an ephemeral quality that makes it difficult to simply smash to bits in the basement. Although, one cannot help but wonder if some of the actions of the government are expressions of frustration at this reality.

Thus what emerges in Rusbridger’s article – beyond Orwell’s unwritten prequel – is an interesting example of wrestling with what digital technology means for journalists (and by extension the rest of the public). While the nature of digital information may make this information safer from the crushing heel of the jackboot, it is simultaneously easier for it to be seen in transit by an eye wreathed in flame (governmental documents are encrypted in the Black Speech of Mordor). And the need for increased face-to-face meetings (to avoid the eye) presents more opportunities where one may be caught beneath the heel of the boot. Indeed what can be found within Rusbridger’s article is in some ways an echo of a sentiment voiced by Lewis Mumford in his essay Authoritarian and Democratic Technics (more on that here) wherein Mumford wrote:

“I would not belittle, still less deny, the many admirable products this technology has brought forth, products that a self-regulating economy would make good use of. I would only suggest that it is time to reckon up the human disadvantages and costs, to say nothing of the dangers, of our unqualified acceptance of the system itself. Even the immediate price is heavy; for the system is so far from being under effective human direction that it may poison us wholesale to provide us with food or exterminate us to provide national security, before we can enjoy its promised goods.” (Mumford, 7)

The tools that are provided in a technological society may provide journalists with the ability to communicate across vast distances and disseminate news effectively, but even as truth tellers are empowered those who would bury these truths behind walls marked “classified” are given a new truncheon to wield. The repression and intimidation of journalists and their loved ones is an important warning sign of which to be aware but it needs to be seen in the context of our current technological environment wherein journalists are being persecuted (if not yet prosecuted) for reporting on a surveillance state to which they open themselves up as targets by reporting. What Rusbridger’s article raises the specter of is the unparalleled spying powers concentrated in governmental hands, and here again it is worth turning to Mumford’s warning (in Irrational Elemetns in Art and Politics [collected in In the Name of Sanity]) where he wrote in a passage worth quoting at length:

“We are living in an age when finite human beings, subject to sin and error, beings of plainly limited intellectual capacities, open to erratic promptings, have assumed control of energies of cosmic dimensions. That dangerous fact has been made infinitely more dangerous by the wall of secrecy that has been erected around these powers, and by the atmosphere of fear, suspicion, isolation, noncommunication that the very nature of these destructive weapons and instruments has helped to produce. As a result, issues that concern humanity as a whole have been treated as if they were of purely national concern; plans and policies that should have been subject to open discussion and earnest moral debate have been made in closed chambers without benefit of public reflection by men with minds even more tightly shut than the doors that guarded them…Nowhere have moral judgments been more completely paralyzed than in the very area where moral judgments alone could preserve our humanity.” (Mumford, 157/158)

Mumford was primarily writing (in the above quotation) about the threat posed by nuclear weapons, yet his words still resonate with the threat of a rapidly expanding surveillance state that cloaks itself in secrecy whilst the public is told to trust in those who have routinely proved themselves unworthy of trust. Rusbridger’s article is not so much the sounding of a siren, but a mournful plea for people to realize that the siren has been sounding for quite some time.

Big brother laces on his jackboots slowly, and each attack on journalists and their loved ones, every attack on the civil liberties of the citizenry is the lace going through another eyehole – that governments become so panicked by the reporting by journalists like Greenwald demonstrates that individuals like him could have been candidates for the lamentable hero’s role had Orwell penned a  prequel to 1984.

But Orwell did not write that book. We have an obligation to not write it with our inaction.

Works Cited

Mumford, Lewis. In the Name of Sanity. Harcourt, 1954.

Mumford, Lewis. “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics.” Technology and Culture, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Winter, 1964). pp. 1-8


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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