Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
The crowds gathered at a public protest seldom represent the true numbers that agree with the protestor’s cause. Whether prevented from attending by the physical obstacle of distance, financial obstacle of being able to afford to go (bus tickets, lodging, etc…), the emotional obstacle of fear of making oneself a target by being seen at the event, or any one of a number of other obstacles, there is always another crowd attending a protest in spirit.
Thus, one should not be overly pre-occupied with the actual numbers present at the Stop Watching Us rally held in Washington D.C. on Saturday, October 26, 2013 (the twelfth anniversary of the Patriot Act) – it is not a true reflection of those who care about the NSA’s surveillance. Furthermore, even had the crowd at the rally been twice the size, or five times the size, it is pretty simple to imagine the government’s response to such a gathering: “we’re glad you’re expressing your right to assemble, but we told you not to worry about this, now go home and watch tv.” Which is a more eloquent version of the NSA response when prompted with the demand “stop watching us!” to which the agency would respond with a simple shrug and one word: “no.”
The revelations regarding the NSA have become something of a shaggy dog story, the tale just keeps going, more and more keeps being revealed even as the journalists churning out these stories promise they have lots more material, and yet we all seem to know that the punch line will be: yes, all of our electronic communications are being monitored. And just as the NSA was largely unaffected by the government shutdown, so too the articles about the NSA have continued. The rally on October 26 coincided with the US’s European allies growing increasingly frustrated as it was made clear that the US had been spying on the communications of other world leaders. Angela Merkele, of Germany, may have been forced – in the name of general political decorum – to express outrage at the scuttlebutt about the NSA, but when it was revealed that she was the target of such spying this outrage ceased to be just a performance for the sake of public opinion.
It is not that those who care should eschew political protest – certainly not – but it is important to recognize that public expressions of discontent can have a subtle repressive aspect if they just take the form of a brief “blowing off of steam.” Which is another way of restating the earlier point – even had a million people gathered at the rally, it is unlikely that the NSA would have fundamentally changed its behavior. Protests act as important gathering points at which those who are passionate about a cause can meet each other and in which participants can feel reaffirmed that they are not “fighting this thing alone;” it is certainly worthwhile to engage in such protests, but it is a folly to think that they will spark change (had the rally not dispersed but camped out at the doorstep of the White House [a la Occupy] it might have been a different matter). Yet in the age of spectacle and spectacular politics (which is what the shutdown was all about) acts of protest with costumes and humorous signs act as part of the spectacle, as Guy Debord notes in Society of the Spectacle:
“The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of sleep.” (Debord, 21)
Protests that make demands on the system such as “stop watching us” are calling upon the system to make adjustments that the protestors know at base that the system will not make. Making demands such as this of the system is angrily expressing that one has been aroused from sleep, and the protests take the form of requesting that cosmetic changes be made so that sleep can be resumed. Granted the type of sleep to which modern society wishes to be returned is not one of fluffy pillows and warm blankets but the technological dream state of that many have become accustomed to in modern society. The tools of technological society – particularly in their consumer electronic manifestations like smart phones, tablet computers, social networking sites, and the Internet – have simultaneously created a vast fantasy land in which people are incorporated whilst supplying powerful new abilities to those who can harness these tools. The dream has been that we can revel in all of the good aspects of this technology without having to worry about the potential downsides (“Don’t be evil” is less Google’s motto than a reassuring prayer we repeat to ourselves). As Debord noted of “spectacular technology,” it has:
“not dispelled the religious clouds where men had placed their own powers detached from themselves; it has only tied them to an earthly base…it no longer projects into the sky but shelters within itself its absolute denial, its fallacious paradise.” (Debord, 20)
It may be an obvious point to make, but in order for the NSA to be reading your emails you have to be sending emails, for the NSA to be tracking your actions online you have to be doing things online, and so forth. The NSA cannot track your smartphone unless you have a smartphone. Protesting in D.C. creates an excellent spectacle of disapproval, but it fails to properly locate the source of this trouble. Many people clearly find it unacceptable for the NSA to be spying as it currently is doing, but this is ultimately not as much a question of governmental misuse of technology as it is simply a tale of governmental use of technology. In a time when massive (massive) amounts of information become available, collectible, and translatable – it should come as absolutely no surprise that the government is harnessing these tools. Even a cursory study of the history of technology reveals that from weaponry to transport to communication governments have generally been quite savvy in harnessing new technological developments for repressive purposes. The terrain occupied by governmental forces here was captured by Jacques Ellul (in his book The Technological Society) where he wrote:
“The technical problem can be simply stated: given a certain machine, how can it be used most efficiently?” (Ellul, 276)
the above line should be considered in concert with another line that appears a few pages later:
“technical advance gradually invades the state, which in turn is compelled to assume forms and adopt institutions favorable to this advance.” (Ellul, 278)
Presented with the vast troves of information made available by electronic technology, advances which “gradually invade the state,” it is no wonder that state agencies adapt to make efficient and favorable (for their purposes) use of this information. This is partially why many people expressed so little initial shock at the early NSA revelations, it seemed obvious to many that the government had to be watching, seeing as they had the technological capability to do so. After all, the difference between the NSA harvesting all of your data and Google doing the same is simply that the NSA is more transparently repressive. Yet in both cases the facts remain the same with a certain technological capability, “how can it be used most efficiently?” To which the answer is obviously: by sucking up as much information is available regardless of who it should come from. Thus the NSA story is a reminder that (Debord again):
“the society of the spectacle is on the contrary the form which chooses its own technical content…this equipment is in no way neutral but is the very means suited to its total self-movement…the concentration of “communication” is thus an accumulation in the hands of the existing system’s administration, of the means which allow it to carry on this particular administration.” (Debord, 24)
The NSA revelations are galling, but they are just manifestations on the skin of the body politic of a disease that has already ravaged the central nervous system of our society. Thus it is somewhat humorous to consider that the undercover police officers at the Stop Watching Us rally must have been far outnumbered by the undercover police officers brought to the rally in the pockets and backpacks of protestors. In the face of the ongoing NSA revelations it is time for those who are furious about the spying to ask themselves whether they are aiming their ire correctly, for the NSA is simply a particularly foul cough as a result of a technological infection.
If we do not want to genuinely challenge the infection we will likely be stuck with the cough, even if protest rallies force the government to ply us with lozenges.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Black & Red, 1983.
Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Vintage, 1964.