Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
The shock has worn off.
At first we reeled and balked out of a sentiment of betrayed fury, but eventually we grew glumly quiet – and gradually we opened our fists so we could resume tapping at our screens.
It has now been more than a year since the first wave of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) were published, and it may be that the main difference between where we are now and where we were a year ago is that now we can no longer pretend that we aren’t being watched. As for how much has changed…well…does anybody find government and corporate inaction really shocking?
Jarring though they may have been the Snowden revelations have gone through a fairly predictable societal cycle wherein the initial surprise and outrage has gradually been channeled and subdued. The government, which had initially raised such fury at the leak, eventually embraced remarkably banal reforms that could nevertheless be pointed to as proof that the issue was being addressed. Media, which was never terribly interested in the content of the story, merrily turned the major figures in the story into the story as a clever way of seeming to discuss the matter without actually having to discuss it. Whilst the corporate forces that had been so integral to the success of the NSA publicly denounced the government action they had helped facilitate so as to protect their flow of funds – which was always more important to them than protecting user privacy. Meanwhile issues like Net Neutrality acted as switching posts that redirected anger and activism towards different causes. Is it really that the NSA has stopped watching, or that our response has become a shrug?
Reflecting on the information made public by Snowden, after a year has passed, is to recognize not that society has changed particularly much but to see the laughable extent to which technological society is shot through with surveillance. After all, what the stories about the NSA have made starkly clear is the ways in which the NSA has simply been able to harvest the information that people were merrily creating in their everyday activities whether it was by e-mail, text, social networking profiles, or so forth. This is part of the reason why any resistance and opposition to the NSA on the part of the public has always seemed rather muddled – for our technological use has made us complicit in the routine violation of our own privacy (thus some even declared privacy to be more-or-less dead).
As for privacy – regardless of the Snowden revelations – it should be fairly obvious that the last year has seen some remarkable corporate advances when it comes to demolishing privacy. From Google’s forward march with Glass (brazenly ignoring the privacy concerns of many), to Apple’s new health tracking operating system, to “smart home” technologies that turn ever more aspects of daily life into sources of data for corporate coffers, to Internet providing drones, to facial recognition software, and news that Facebook is eavesdropping – we can hardly pretend that it is just the NSA that wants to know what we are doing at every moment. Furthermore it has been by latching on to the services of many of the aforementioned companies that the NSA has been able to gather so much information. The tangled knot of corporate and government surveillance is a Gordian knot so thick that no sword can cleave through it.
When viewed from this context the frustrated fuming of the tech sector take on a particularly amusing coloring. After all, it is highly amusing to see corporate executives demanding a reform of government surveillance when those same executives scoff at any who dare criticize the regimes of corporate surveillance they have built and are continuing to build. While some of these executives may care on a personal level about the growth of the surveillance state they seem unwilling to truly confront the degree to which they have built (and continue to build) its infrastructure. As a result the appeals to Congress and the President all have a distinct whiff of self-interest – it only has to do with privacy on the surface, the real concern is about the ways in which these revelations have jeopardized these corporations ability to profit. In issuing fiery press releases and public letters to politicians the anointed representatives of technology firms are trying desperately to avoid a public recognition or discussion of what Ivan Illich noted many years ago:
“Certain tools are destructive no matter who owns them, whether it be the Mafia, stockholders, a foreign company, the state, or even a workers’ commune.” (26)
This is not to signal out a particular tool as by default “destructive;” however, it is meant to suggest that since Snowden’s revelations there has not truly been a discussion of our “tools.” Which is significant seeing as much of the current question seems to hinge on the matter of whether or not massive information gathering is invasive, repressive, bad for privacy, and all together “destructive” regardless of whether “stockholders” or “the state” is in command.
Government surveillance is nothing new, it is not an invention of this century, nor was it an invention of the previous century. Nevertheless, the tools that a government has available for surveillance purposes have increased in power to a startling extent. Technological society is simultaneously enthralled and in thrall to the massive systems that at once promise access to a share of the technologically created surplus of “goods” while speeding past any discussion as to whether or not these have anything to do with “the good.” As ever more segments of society steadily fall under the controlling logic of technology – which reduces everything to quantifiable bits of data – human beings gradually fall under such control as well. Indeed, many people happily embrace the tools that technological society makes available to them. Though we are aware that Google scans our e-mail, that Facebook is mapping our faces, that our iPhones are tracking our every movement, that Amazon is becoming indistinguishable from “the company store” of yore – we remain bound to these tools. It is as though in our technological society – to quote Illich again:
“having come to demand what institutions can produce, we soon believe that we cannot do without it.” (18)
This is the place where we find ourselves a year after Snowden’s revelations – enmeshed in a technological world wherein we know that our participation in society is largely reliant upon our willingness to subject ourselves to constant surveillance. There are certainly alternatives – as any adherent to cryptography will tell you – but insofar as these remain “alternatives” and not “standard” they do little to challenge the driving domineering logic of technological society. The news about surveillance has been genuinely worrisome, but as with stories about climate change, the scale of the problem has made action seem difficult to fathom, and difficult to take. Most peopele are not going to ditch their smartphones in the name of privacy, even simple steps (like deleting a Facebook account) can seem to represent a worse social sacrifice than enduring surveillance, as Julia Angwin’s recent book demonstrated surveillance is very much a part of contemporary society.
And yet, we are all sure that we have done nothing that merits us being watched. Granted, that is an oft heard refrain returned to by groups throughout history that have suddenly found themselves the target of governmental repression. While simultaneously we have learned that from the corporate perspective everything that all of us do is worth watching. It is incorrect to think of these matters as “needles in haystacks” – for what technology does is turn everything in the pile into needles – and the age of Big Data is premised on the recognition that there is tremendous value in all those needles.
Thus it is that a year after Snowden’s revelations we are at a point where startling little of significance has changed: massive troves of information are still being gathered on us through our technological usage by private companies and much of that information is likely winding up in government databases. Any attempts at reform wind up as tepid public relations insofar as they address the surface revelations without recognizing that the symptom on the surface is just the sign of a much deeper, and more dire, disease. What Snowden revealed, even if it was not put in exactly these terms, is the growing sickness at the center of technological society a shiny surveillance fever that hops from host to host with great rapidity. When we mildly treat a momentary flair up we simply give the core disease time to adjust, become resistant, and become more resilient. The solution has never been simple government reform for it ignores the degree to which the government surveillance is simply the twin of corporate surveillance. If we genuinely want to address the matters revealed by Snowden we must be willing to confront the technological realities of our society and recognize that a reform that only changes the surface is not even worthy of being called reform.
That these conversations can still take place demonstrates that this space still exists – but as corporations continue to trot out more invasive devices it may be that this space is getting smaller and smaller. Though our technological predicament is serious, it should be a cause for renewed action not for despair. Ours is a situation akin to that of which Lewis Mumford wrote thusly:
“We are not, in other words, prisoners of the machine; or if we are, we built the prison, we established the prison rules, we appointed ourselves the jailers: yes, we even condemned ourselves to a life-term within the grim place of confinement. But those prison walls are not eternal. So far from being given by nature, as the more pious believers in the machine have almost fooled themselves into believing, they are the outcome of the human imagination, concentrating upon one particular aspect of experience; and they can be broken down as fast as the walls of Jericho, as soon as the human spirit blows its horns and gives primacy, not to things but to persons.” (157)
Snowden’s whistle blowing put a crack in the technological “walls of Jericho” – but it remains up to the rest of us to turn that whistle into a mighty horn blast that will bring those walls crashing down.
The shock may have diminished, but the need for action has not.
Illich, Ivan. Tools for Conviviality. Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973.
Mumford, Lewis. Art and Technics. Columbia University Press, 2000 (originally published in 1952)