"More than machinery, we need humanity."
The technological landscape of today is quite a bit different from what it was in the fall of 2001. This point is so obvious as to be banal, but to provide some clear examples for the sake of context: in 2001 nobody had an iPhone, nobody was on Facebook (or even Myspace, for that matter), the term “selfie” had not yet entered the lexicon, and Netflix was still sending subscribers DVDs by mail. The height of the time’s technological-cool was released on October 23, 2001 when Apple began selling the very first model of the iPod – an exciting consumer technology event that took place three days before President Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act into law.
Having the technological context of the times in mind can be helpful when thinking about the period in which the Patriot Act was passed, particularly as the current debates around the renewal/extension/modification of the Act are taking place when things are quite a bit different. At the moment much of the renewed brouhaha surrounding the Patriot Act revolves around Section 215, which is set to expire on June 1 – it is this section that has been interpreted by the NSA as granting it authority to collect phone records in bulk. Or, to put it another way, Section 215 is what permits the NSA to gather the proverbial haystack instead of just the needle. And with the 2016 presidential elections seemingly around the corner, grandstanding in opposition to Section 215 provides an excellent opportunity for political theatrics. Though the previous sentences should make it quite clear that attitudes towards the Patriot Act have shifted in some dramatic ways since people became aware of the ways in which the act was snooping on them. After all, speaking out – at length – against the Patriot Act is no longer political suicide for an elected official; it is instead a useful campaigning/fundraising strategy.
And yet the point here is not to mull over the Patriot Act, or Section 215, and the goal is not to analyze the performances that are put on in the process of presidential races. Rather the goal is to consider the ways in which the excesses allowed by Section 215 are themselves reflections of a desire for ever greater technological excess. One of the subtexts of the various stories about the NSA’s surveillance is that people’s embrace of new technologies is making a mountain of information available – and when such a bounty of information is available there are numerous organizations, from corporations to governments, that are going to want it.
This is not to say anything novel. We know this, or at least we should know this. Your phone can give you directions because it can tell where you are, the search engine you use can personalize its results because it remembers what you searched for in the past, wherever you go online you are followed by advertisements that are targeted at you based on your past online behavior, and so forth and so on. Some people may make use of privacy plug-ins for their browsers, avoid particularly spy prone search engines, keep sparse social media profiles, but to a certain extent growing accustomed to being on-line has made people rather inured to being constantly tracked.
Given this it is worth considering the direction in which new technologies seem to be moving – at least according to celebratory tech blogs and the companies they praise. Wearable technology – from the Apple Watch to fitness trackers – is an area where much growth is projected as these new devices promise to make technological experiences even more frictionless. And the promise of the Internet of Things projects a world in which things that had seemed just fine before can now be made “smart” by the wonder of connecting them to the Internet. At risk of oversimplifying – one can sum up wearable technology and the Internet of Things as just being new things that will generate more information about your behavior. Your smart watch will track your heart rate and will be able to tell if you tossed and turned last night, even as your smart fridge will know that you are running low on milk. But to bring this back to the focus of the discussion: given what we know about technologically enabled surveillance – which goes beyond Section 215 of the Patriot Act – what makes us think that all of this new information we are generating will be used solely for purposes of which we approve? If we are concerned about rampant surveillance, perhaps we should not continually hook our lives up to proprietary devices that function precisely by keeping a constant watch on us.
Nevertheless, there is an understandable temptation not to give in to such pessimism – it is not simply about wanting to “have your cake and eat it too,” but about wanting to eat unlimited cake without it rotting your teeth or otherwise negatively impacting your health. To keep with the cake metaphor, it may be that things such as Section 215 function as wretched toothaches that make us painfully aware of the risks of eating nothing but cake; however, it is worth remembering in such situations that we were warned about these dangers. Yes, there were voices cautioning against the early adoption of the Patriot Act, and there were many who were railing against the Patriot Act before Snowden’s revelations – but in this case it is important to remember that long before the Patriot Act there were some cautioning against the embrace of technology which things like the Patriot Act would be able to exploit. For critics of technology, such as Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford, the expansion of technology was seen as dangerous insofar as such growth was yoked to a society bent on control, and thus the growth of technological power simply served to concentrate ever more power in the hands of those who were already powerful. Ellul described this as the way “technique” had become the overriding and controlling principle in society, while Mumford wrote of the way in which all of society was becoming incorporated in a “megamachine.” Considering the way technology was changing society Mumford wrote:
“As to the megamachine, the threat it now offers turns out to be even more frightening, thanks to the computer, than even I in my most pessimistic moments had ever suspected. Once fully installed our whole lives would be in the hands of those who control the system, much as the life of an American conscript is now in the hands of the Pentagon and the White House, and no decision from birth to death would be left to the individual…the facts have been staring at everyone all the time without being noticed,” (Mumford to Osborn, July 31, 1968, 443)
The above lines were penned in 1968 – many years before smart phones, social network sites, or the Internet of Things, and yet they still tell us a great deal about our present predicament. Not simply due to Mumford’s recognition of the risks of ever expanding technological excess but in the way that Mumford notes that “the facts” are staring at everyone. It is these uncomfortable facts that we are still having a difficult time wrestling with as we consider smart watches, Internet connected refrigerators, and the dozens of devices to which we have become accustomed. What things like Section 215 represent are moments where we are forced to “notice.” It is important to demand that Section 215 be allowed to expire; however, such a demand is risky if it is desired so that people can return to not “noticing.” While there are certainly important reasons to oppose Section 215 and rampant government/corporate surveillance, what is important is for us to fully come to terms with “the facts” that are “staring at everyone” and for us to genuinely notice them. As Mumford wrote, in considering the potentials of technology versus the way such technology is actually implemented:
“the only effective way of conserving the genuine achievements of this technology is to alter the ideological basis of the whole system. This is a human, not a technical, problem and it admits only a human solution.” (Mumford 1970, 352)
Luckily we are not yet at the point where “no decision from birth to death” is “left to the individual,” and yet the “ideological basis” of the system is continually reified in piles of new devices and platforms. It is important to stand in opposition to surveillance, but one worthwhile way to do so is to “notice” how much around you functions by relying upon society.
Sometimes, simply choosing to press the off button can be a magnificently simple solution.
Hughes, Michael (Ed.) The Letters of Lewis Mumford and Frederic J. Osborn: A Transatlantic Dialogue 1938-70. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.
Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine, vol. 2: The Pentagon of Power. New York: A Harvest Book, 1970.
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“Sometimes, simply choosing the off button…” Your perspective is consistently enlightening and a pleasure to receive. Thank you.