Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
It may be an understatement to claim that 2013 was an interesting year. Though it may also be a rather meaningless statement seeing as any year could be described as “interesting.” So, what were the defining features of 2013? What were the occurrences of real significance? When the stand out moments of the year are considered it may well be that 2013 was the year in which it was made clear that it is later than we thought. Indeed, it may ultimately prove that George Orwell was just off by thirty years. But whereas a utopia requires the active contribution of all of its citizens the road to dystopia only requires the active apathy of its citizens.
There is a degree to which contemporary times can always be viewed as a moment in a journey, we experience time linearly, and it seems to us that we are en route towards some destination. However, the events of 2013 suggest that the destination we are sliding towards may prove to be a place we do not particularly want to go. Furthermore 2013 may be evidence of the fact that we have slid much closer to that destination than we had originally anticipated.
So, what defined 2013 (at least in the US)? It seems that the easy candidate is government surveillance; and yet, the revelations about the actions of the NSA must be considered in a broader social/political/economic atmosphere that encompasses a variety of other aspects. Even as Edward Snowden fled to the – relative – safety of Russia, 2013 saw Chelsea Manning and Jeremy Hammond (to name just two) sentenced to lengthy terms for revealing the crimes of the government. Granted this was also a year in which the US government continued to prove the degree to which it has become incapable of being much more than a space for theatrics as was demonstrated by the government shutdown and the hysteria over the flawed rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile the effects of the economic crisis of 2008 continued to be felt across the country (and the world) particularly as the US government took periodic pauses from inept inactivity to further deepen austerity policies. And of course, all the while, climate change and environmental destruction continued with little being done to halt their advance (and with the state of political slapstick making it ever more questionable whether there is the political willpower to confront the issue).
Granted, 2013 was a year that had a few moments worthy of positive acknowledgement. The Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the Supreme Court, a wave of strikes and political actions rippled across the country in an attempt to agitate for living wages, under the watchful eye of their own smart phones activists gathered to demand the surveillance be stopped, a politician running on a distinctly left-wing populist message was elected to replace the face of plutocracy, and (in a more international term) no less a prominent figure than the Pope emerged to loudly decry the excesses of capitalism. These are small successes, especially as most of them have not had much in the way of tangible benefits (and holding out hope for an elected official is a sure route to disappointment). Yet these scant rays of sunshine reveal an important truth in a year that was largely negative: people are still willing to fight back, and there is an audience waiting for a critique of capitalism, the power being granted to technology, and the status quo.
All of which is to point out the rather obvious fact that there were a few good things in 2013, and quite a few things on the far opposite end of the spectrum – which is another point that could be made regarding just about any other year. The important matter that remains is to consider the trends which emerged in 2013, for despite the presence of a few victories (the emergence of some positive trends even) that which needs to be analyzed is the larger drift occurring. For the drift is not unlike the unseen shifting of tectonic plates, those atop the plates may be able to deliver all manner of rousing positive oratory but the ground upon which they stand has shifted. Unless we are able to see how the earth beneath us moved, our ability to honestly engage with what 2014 shall bring will be greatly hindered.
2013 was the year of surveillance, but more specifically it was the year in which we realized the degree to which we have been complicit in being watched. While there have been some over the course of the year who have responded to these violations of privacy with statements about how “everybody shares everything anyways” such points fail to acknowledge that there is a difference between selectively sharing (all online sharing is selective) and having all of one’s activities vacuumed up. After all, there is a difference between publicly declaring that you “like” something and allowing one and all to read all of your e-mails or peruse your browser history. The trouble that has remained is largely one of the trade-off, as it has seemed in 2013 that one of the prices of contemporary technology is privacy, and thus we are forced to consider whether or not having a smart phone, tablet, laptop, or a new gaming console is an acceptable trade-off for forfeiting a great deal of privacy – a matter which is only further complicated by the ways in which privacy is itself a shifting concept and set of values.
Furthermore, or rather part and parcel, there emerges a degree to which there may not be too much that a person can truly do as an individual to protect their privacy. Certainly there are resources available, and some may choose to give up certain devices, but as the closing of Lavabit makes clear the forces of surveillance are eager to chip away at the safe havens and in a society awash in cameras and tracking devices there is only so much that one can really do to protect one’s information. This is usually the juncture at which somebody derisively makes a comment about how “if people are so concerned they should go live out in the woods!” Yet the problem there is that individual solutions to societal problems fail to bring about real political change; and to shrug-off attempts at advancing a critique of technology as simple technophobia is ultimately to do the footwork for the surveillance status quo, a sort of way of saying “stop complaining and go back online.” While those who pine for living technology free in the woods risk embracing an apocalyptic fatalism that romanticizes an imagined “coming doom” rather than fighting to halt such an eventuality.
Surveillance has undeniably become s a political issue – one of the few moments of bipartisan anything in Congress in 2013 was the (almost passed) Conyers-Amash amendment that would have reined in some of the NSA’s excesses, but despite such attempts (or the words of Senator Wyden) it seems likely that the political discussion will be largely superficial. A review board may suggest extensive changes but the point of such a group is to create the façade of reform, not actual reform; whilst the court cases thus far (one judge ruled against the NSA and another judge ruled for the NSA) suggests that this is a matter that will eventually make its way (maybe even in 2014) before the Supreme Court where its fate is questionable…but it would be foolish to be overly hopeful.
Government surveillance is nothing new, and the NSA hardly makes the US the only country engaged in watching its citizenry, but what we saw repeatedly in 2013 is the ways in which modern technology has allowed an unprecedented level of surveillance to such an extent that those being watched are supplying most of the information themselves. Or, to put it more honestly, people are supplying this information to the various resources they use (Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo!, Microsoft, etc…) and at some point (with varying degrees of cooperation) this information winds up held by the NSA as well. That many of these companies are worried about the potential financial ramifications of what they participated in only demonstrates that despite their propaganda about “openness” and “sociability” their primary concern is simply profit.
Though based on the amount of money that the NSA was paying these companies for your information over the course of the last few years, you would think that you would qualify for a tax write-off or extra refund in 2013 (but I digress).
What shall set 2014 apart from 2013 is largely that in 2014 some of the old excuses are no longer as readily usable. As Snowden’s revelations began being published people could honestly state their frustration and anger – they truly were surprised. Yet in 2014 people can no longer feign surprise at learning that their e-mails are being vacuumed up, nor can they fall back on corporate catch-phrases like “don’t be evil” when 2013 demonstrated that to corporations “don’t be evil” really means “don’t be unprofitable.” As Google annexes ever more of the world, as Facebook continues to be a defining feature in our social lives, as Apple introduces biometric technology in its latest devices – we are now forced to fully embrace the responsibility that the makers of technology have flouted. If those creating technology refuse to think through the implications of their creations, it puts even more onus on users to consider the implications before embracing those creations. At the very least we need to enter 2014 with a healthy amount of skepticism for the “good news” of the technological evangelists.
In 2014 the NSA and the tech firms have resolved to continue watching you, even if they do so behind a gloss of reform. Unless we continue to voice our outrage and are willing to challenge the technological status quo that has led us to this point, there will be no resolution.
If you think it’s hard to challenge the surveillance state at the end of 2013…just wait and see how much harder it will be at the end of 2014.
Unless, that is, we resolve to act.