"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Would you be willing to get rid of your smartphone to protect your privacy? What about e-mail, would you close your account if it meant that you could be certain that nobody else (corporate or governmental) could read your messages? Would you be willing to swear off social networking in order to extricate yourself from a closely scrutinized network? Might you consider only going on-line in “privacy mode” (and only using browsers with “privacy mode”)? What about only going on-line for a very particular purpose and getting back off-line as soon as the task was accomplished? Would you keep your phone turned off except when you actually needed to use it?
While the above questions are purposely antagonistic, the basic notion at the core of these queries is: would you be willing to give up technologically enabled convenience for the sake of privacy? After all, it is much more difficult to continue to spy upon people who are not actively assisting the watchers. Granted, “more difficult” is not synonymous with “impossible.”
The questions regarding “would you be willing to give up” are an important – if seldom mentioned – corollary to the ongoing revelations about the NSA’s actions (not to mention the ever changing ways in which tech companies seek to harvest and harness your data). Amongst the most recently disclosed stories is the detail that the NSA is able to scoop up user data from Yahoo and Google. While the importance of this story should not be minimized, it nevertheless seems worth remembering that this is not the first NSA leak to suggest that the NSA has gotten information from those tech giants. Frankly, just because Yahoo or Google or Facebook claim a sort of monopoly on the data that you allow to flow through their services should not be overly comforting. The main difference between a tech company spying on you and the government spying on you is that in one case it’s a company that shrugs at demands for privacy and in the other case it’s the government that shrugs at demands for privacy.
Thus we return to the question of what constitutes an appropriate response. The rallies and actions called by groups like Stop Watching Us (who held a rally in Washington D.C. on October 26, 2013) are an important element of a response, insofar as they publicly dramatize the demand. Yet a nagging question lingers about such demonstrations: how many of the attendees brought their smartphones with them? How many of the attendees posted to Facebook (or some other social networking site) that they were going to the event or in attendance? How many people organized their carpools through e-mails that flowed through Google or Yahoo? At risk of being accused of fear mongering (what we’re aiming for is to be “critical thinking mongering”), the NSA probably knows the answer to those questions.
Some may harbor fantasies of a Luddite (or Neo-Luddite) response to the technological apparatus that has so empowered agencies like the NSA and enriched companies like Google; however, it is doubtful that many people are prepared to take a sledgehammer to their electronics (that’s at least five massive revelations away). That there are tools and resources that people can use for protecting their privacy whilst using technology is obvious; however, the shutting down of Lavabit should serve as a reminder that all of these services are simple bandages on a festering wound – it may temporarily keep things from getting worse, but for how long? And that’s still quite the wound. It is in this context that it is worth considering a line from Langdon Winner’s book Autonomous Technology, where he writes:
“There is a point, after all, where compliance becomes complicity.” (Winner, 322)
This comment should act as a sharp kick to anybody who is concerned about the NSA (or tech companies) surveillance capabilities but is unwilling to seriously consider altering their behavior in using technology. At this point, based on the revelations that have been made public thus far, to still be using the Internet and electronics blithely is to an extent to be complicit in your own surveillance. Likewise to still be using Facebook or Google or Yahoo or [insert the name of another social networking site you use] is to be complicit in the company policies that violate (and systematically redefine) your privacy; just as buying an iPhone 5 makes you complicit in giving biometrics a sneaky way into public life.
Certainly, we live in a technological society, where to swear off technology may render one an “outsider” and result in one being sectioned off from much of “what’s going on” (if all of your friends communicate on Facebook and you leave Facebook there are likely social implications); however, rallying in the streets without being willing to think seriously about acts of media refusal is to be failing to fully think through the solutions. Rallies and petitions are all well and fine, but it may be more effective for Stop Watching Us to begin organizing mass boycotts of the tech companies that have enabled the NSA. These companies throw a lot of money around in Washington D.C. and if angry tech users start harming the companies bottom lines we might see such companies begin to put actual pressure on the government beyond the comical “outrage” that comes from the corporate spokespeople when a new revelation hits the news. Nevertheless, even should that come to pass we should not be too trusting, (Winner again) for:
“We may firmly believe that we are developing ways of regulating technology. But is it perhaps more likely that the effort will merely succeed in putting a more elegant administrative façade on old layers of reverse adapted rules, regulations, and practices?” (Winner, 320)
In other words…perhaps you really do need to consider getting rid of your smartphone. Or at the very least, perhaps you really need to think through this matter. A critical thinking tool that can be of great value when contemplating technology is to run any technology through the contemplative gauntlet of Neil Postman’s Six Questions for Technology (to which this writer has affixed a seventh question) as elaborated by Postman in his book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. While thinking through these questions regarding a particular technology is always useful, perhaps what is needed is a slight reworking of some of these questions so that they better target us as individuals. After all, the first question:
“What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” (Postman, 42)
provides a fair amount of wiggle room for individuals to pull themselves out of the equation and instead focus upon some abstract societal issue that a technology could be seen as addressing (and in a technological society it seems that “life in technological society” becomes a “problem” for which a given technology may be “the solution). Yet it is in a deeper consideration of Postman’s fourth and fifth questions –
“What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?” (Postman, 45)
“What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?” (Postman, 45)
– that it becomes evident how badly we need to rework that first question. The recent news stories have made it undeniably clear that the answers to the fourth and fifth questions involve the NSA and information hungry tech companies, and the new problems and gathering of ever greater “economic and political power” demands a reassessment of the first question. Indeed, it seems that the first question in our current context should clearly read:
“What is my problem to which this technology is the solution?”
While Postman’s second question should be changed to:
“Is this really my problem?”
While it is always valuable to think critically about the world – and about technology – the answers we arrive at to these questions must compel us to some type of real action in our own lives as regards our technology usage, otherwise we risk remaining “complicit.”
Consumer electronics and the Internet provide us with an infinite circus (one that we can use to order and easily pay for bread), but the acrobat doing flips high above the ground is named privacy and this acrobat keeps crashing to the floor. And thus we return to our original line of questioning: would you be willing to give-up any of your technological devices to protect privacy? Would you be willing to, at least, alter your technological usage for the sake of privacy? If the answer to both questions is “no,” than it is time to stop feigning surprise and outrage when these technologies are used against you. The acrobat named privacy won’t stop falling to the floor because we demand the ringmaster install a safety net, it will stop falling when we insist that privacy should not be on the trapeze.
And when we leave the circus.
Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. Vintage, 2000.
Winnger, Langdon. Autonomous Technology. MIT Press, 1989.