Paul Virilio offers up this observation taken from an unknown science-fiction story:
There are eyes everywhere. No blind spot left. What shall we dream of when everything becomes visible? We’ll dream of being blind.
What I dream of is a day that, unfortunately, I know will almost certainly never come. At least, not in my lifetime. A day when technology — yes, if necessary, even the technology that allows me to write this blog post — is somehow destroyed.
Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate, a professor who knew that I knew a lot about computers tried to get me to help him create an “electronic textbook.” We talked about using a Mac program called “HyperCard,” with which I had some experience.
Ultimately, I decided against working on the project. When asked why, I said that I was concerned that computers were going to cause the breakdown of our society. I think I sounded like a tin-foil-hat-wearing idiot at the time. Perhaps the prof even thought I was making something up, just to avoid doing the project. At the time, though, I had already been introduced to the Internet.1 The World Wide Web did not yet exist. There were no web browsers; I don’t think Mosaic was invented until possibly two years after this. But experiences on IRC — Internet Relay Chat — and on Usenet (where I later became a moderator) convinced me that there were problems to interacting with others primarily through technology.
And my fear grew that our fascination with computers would cause us to interact with one another in a direct fashion less and less often. I thought we would begin to lose “people skills.” We would lose the ability to interact well with others. We would destroy ourselves.
Well, in that sense, I guess that computers haven’t actually resulted in a “breakdown of our society,” and I suppose many people still have people skills that work out just fine. Still, some of the nastiest human behavior comes out of us via the Internet.
Now I can’t expect that those links will always be available, so let me briefly mention what they’re about.
By now, most people who keep abreast of “the news” are aware of what the National Security Administration (NSA) has been doing.
A top secret National Security Agency program allows analysts to search with no prior authorization [i.e., no warrant!] through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Snowden — hero to freedom-loving humans everywhere; reviled by the United States government as a traitorous spy — told reporter Glenn Greenwald:
“I, sitting at my desk,” said Snowden, could “wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email”.
The government, unsurprisingly, denies this. The only way we could be surprised on this is if the government came out and admitted it. Frankly, the government is not to be trusted when it comes to this issue. I mean, do we really think they’d tell us that they’d completely cast aside the United States Constitution and started tracking every single fucking American citizen’s private correspondence, Internet traffic, and chats?
The second linked story above concerned this:
The Oakland City Council voted unanimously early Wednesday to move ahead with a controversial surveillance center that could eventually allow police and city officials to continuously monitor video cameras, gunshot detectors and license plate readers.
And the third?
A Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling this week will make it easier for police to track your movements through your cell phone after the court decided police aren’t required to obtain a search warrant to track you.
Let’s not forget the random stops and searches of American citizens — complete with checkpoints and requests analogous to the old German regime’s “show papers” requirement — that have been occurring throughout the United States for some time now.
We really need just one more piece to complete the picture. The technology already exists to permit it. The government has already shown it does not care whether the law permits it. The next “logical” step from the point of view of law enforcement is to give those folks sitting in Oakland’s surveillance center access to the NSA data.
And how long do you think before police departments try to do this? After all, other federal agencies are already complaining about not being allowed to have access to the NSA data:
Agencies working to curb drug trafficking, cyberattacks, money laundering, counterfeiting and even copyright infringement complain that their attempts to exploit the security agency’s vast resources have often been turned down because their own investigations are not considered a high enough priority, current and former government officials say.
So why not local law enforcement? Wouldn’t it be that much easier to
prevent crime before it happened clamp down on the citizenry?
It is, of course, banal these days to talk about George Orwell’s surveillance society, outlined in his novel, 1984. The book is undergoing a resurgence in popularity following the revelations of the scope of the NSA surveillance. If you ask me, Animal Farm is equally important in regards to what is happening. (Although I guess there is a bit of a problem with the fact that the puppies in our story have a fetish for shooting dogs.) When I look at what is happening in our cities — to our privacy, to our police, to our polity — I cannot help but think that the United States has become a collection of Animal Farms.
A similar observation of another democracy in an earlier time should serve as a warning:
“What no one seemed to notice,” said a colleague of mine, a philologist, “was the ever widening gap, after 1933, between the government and the people. Just think how very wide this gap was to begin with, here in Germany. And it became always wider. You know, it doesn’t make people close to their government to be told that this is a people’s government, a true democracy, or to be enrolled in civilian defense, or even to vote. All this has little, really nothing, to do with knowing one is governing.
“What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.
“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.
“You will understand me when I say that my Middle High German was my life. It was all I cared about. I was a scholar, a specialist. Then, suddenly, I was plunged into all the new activity, as the university was drawn into the new situation; meetings, conferences, interviews, ceremonies, and, above all, papers to be filled out, reports, bibliographies, lists, questionnaires. And on top of that were the demands in the community, the things in which one had to, was ‘expected to’ participate that had not been there or had not been important before. It was all rigmarole, of course, but it consumed all one’s energies, coming on top of the work one really wanted to do. You can see how easy it was, then, not to think about fundamental things. One had no time.”
“Those,” I said, “are the words of my friend the baker. “One had no time to think. There was so much going on.”
“Your friend the baker was right,” said my colleague. “The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your ‘little men,’ your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about— we were decent people— and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?
“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it— please try to believe me— unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”2
I don’t know about anyone else, but I find Paul Virilio’s dream as unsatisfying as my own dreams concerning technology are unrealistic. I don’t want to dream about being blind.
I want the rest of you to open your eyes, and act.
Update [8/5/2013]: It would appear that, this morning, a story breaks showing that my conjecture about local law enforcement is true.
A secretive U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit is funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.
Although these cases rarely involve national security issues, documents reviewed by Reuters show that law enforcement agents have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin – not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.
- And so, to make matters worse, a couple years later I ended up working at a couple of Internet start-ups, and then became Director of Information Systems at Valley Yellow Pages. [↩]
- Mayer, Milton (2013-05-31). They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 (pp. 166-168). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition. [↩]