Welcome to amateur historian hour! I’ve been reflecting on what will soon be two eight-year sets of two very different US presidential administrations. Perhaps it is only because this time period will make up the bulk of my politically-aware life, but it seems that the world has changed substantially in ways most of us don’t fully understand yet. The internet has transformed into the Cloud, and online social networking has become so pervasive that life, online or off, has myriad new modes for communication, entertainment, economics, marketing, and surveillance. In a way this is all old hat, tapping into our desire to gain and share knowledge, but at a scale and speed unimaginable even in the ‘old days’ of the web. I doubt we are anywhere close to settling into the final forms for these new add-ons of humanity, but if they ever do settle down into a stable set of customs, I doubt they’ll be predictable or recognizable – while at the same time, I would bet that humans themselves will stay very much the same precocious apes we are today.
But while Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Kickstarter, and all the rest (all soon to be superseded, I’m sure) may be the medium for contemporary life, they also provide a convenient way to gather information on us. It’s funny that when I learned of Snowden’s revelations of US government spying on its citizens, I was not particularly surprised. I think I’d always assumed they were watching and reading. And while we probably should be upset, the issues of privacy and security are not clear cut. For one, there is always the balance of security and liberty to consider. But even before that, there is the muddled idea of what we’re protecting in the first place.
On my sixteenth birthday, I went to school and played mini-golf with my family and friends in the afternoon. But the whole time I had one eye and at least half my attention glued to the television screen: the Twin Towers were falling endlessly on loop, and the once-comedic George W. Bush was giving serious and determined speeches. It was all too big and too far away to take in. At first there was a bout of patriotism, but soon the Neo-Conservative administration was swinging its weight (and its scary amounts of money) around, leading to increasingly violent foreign conflicts and a crack-down at home. All actions were justified with the rhetoric of protecting and spreading Democracy. But what the heck did that mean if Muslims, immigrants, and advocacy groups were targeted for persecution, illegal domestic surveillance was being conducted on a wide scale, suspected terrorists were being thrown in jail without trial, and any impediment to expedient government action was being removed? The threat of America becoming a warmongering police state got many Americans worried – my parents talked about, and eventually did, move abroad (for a brief stint, anyway).
My friend Emily pointed out that terrorists were probably not a real threat to the structure of the American government or two American lives and infrastructure. Which may be why the idea of Weapons of Mass Destruction was invented, to make Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein seem like viable enemies worth risking American lives to take down. But what they actually threatened was a set of ideas about American identity – they threatened our totem, the emblem of American solidarity, supremacy, and righteousness. The administration could remove individuals’ liberties, even threaten individuals’ wellbeing, all while acting in the name of security. The trick was that the thing they were trying to ensure the safety of was not people or even an institutional structure, but an abstract idea system.
It backfired, of course. They tried to strike fear into the citizenry in order to gain power and control, the way the government was able to do in the Cold War, but after the Weapons of Mass Destruction turned out not to exist in the first place, after the amped-up airport security was revealed to be merely security theater, and after more Americans, Afghanis, and Iraqis were killed than we could stomach in the name of protecting something that didn’t seem to need much protecting anymore, the myth of America the Great and Powerful soured anyway. Too many lies and too much death that in the end to protect no one’s safety.
The liberal and the progressive and the war-weary peaked out of our apathy bunkers when Obama came along, though, promising transparency and realism in place of misplaced idealism. I’m not sure what I expected, but what we’ve gotten is better than I feared and worse than I hoped. I’m still psyched about Obamacare, thank you very much, and the imminent threat of a new American imperialism has been slinking into a corner. Instead… we have a near-future-science-fictional world of mass surveillance operations and drone warfare.
It is probably too late to apply old notions of security and privacy in this vastly interconnected, online age. Convenience drives the sharing of this information, and people who had no say in whether the TSA was going to invade airports and take away your toothpaste have much more control over the inconvenient safeguards of the Cloud. Which is to say, there won’t be many. To secure your information, you have to give up the freedom of sharing it.
The government has simply taken advantage of the innately open nature of lives lived in the Cloud to get the information it really wants to do its job. I doubt there’s any twirling of mustaches involved – we’ve all rooted for the fictional cop breaking the rules to catch the perpetrator. We watch and read about characters who we know are on the side good perform an illegal wiretap or break into a building without a warrant. Red tape only slows our heroes down. But when we do not know the character doing the snooping, and especially when we’re being snooped ourselves, such vigilantism suddenly takes a sinister turn. It’s invasion of our privacy. And what you rarely see in fictional media is the number of false starts and fallacies that lead to innocent people getting investigated, arrested, and killed. More information can be helpful to create a more accurate picture, perhaps mitigating for our imperfect judgements, but it can also lead to more criminalization. To prevent real crimes, why stop things at thought crimes?
I’ve been riveted to the show Person of Interest. Now in its third season, it is positively prescient of the level of domestic spying being done by the NSA. Of course, unlike in the show, we don’t have a nearly sentient AI watching our every move nor a kindly team of vigilantes saving regular civilians and only aiming for kneecaps – but the show is careful to portray even the government’s interest in mass surveillance in a nuanced light. The intention is always good, it just manifests in warped ways. The government has a habit of setting priorities in such a way that it is willing to sacrifice the welfare of individuals for the good of the country. At least in the current Obama administration, it looks like what is being secured is supposed to be people rather than an ethically irrelevant totem.
The negotiation about security continues – the safety of individuals as balanced against the solidity of the government, the good of the few against the good of the many, the flesh-and-blood humans against the myths that define the nation-state. It’s been going on since the birth of this country, and much earlier besides. But so often the rhetoric forgets to define who and what is being protected when we talk about security. When no one bothers to make this explicit, we end up working at cross-purposes: the Bush administration jailed and killed innocent civilians along with dangerous criminals in order to fend off threats to its image and its power. Sacrifices to the God of America, to whom we should owe fealty. Now the rhetoric is more personal, more about individual safety and wellbeing: healthcare for all, drones and missiles that allow us to target enemies without risking our own troops (and theoretically minimizing the deaths of other civilians), and even the NSA’s spying. American Express recently put out ads vaunting its own benevolent surveillance AI. It’s meant as a personal protection service.
‘Are you too comfortable?’ What is this, dystopian fiction? It sounds like a government PSA from 1984!
Even benevolent protection can go awry. Police have shot many an innocent black man holding a can of soda, all because they were looking for patterns of threatening behavior. As a society, we have decide which entities need protecting, and how much convenience and freedom we are willing to sacrifice to that security. If a principle like civil rights gets high priority, then perhaps individuals should be disallowed from protecting themselves with guns. If the secrecy of our private information and communications is paramount, we may need to handicap our digital social networks and live with the fact that national security organizations will be working with certain blinders on. How and where we martial our forces of protection is not a matter of right or wrong, good or bad – it is a matter of compromise and politics. It is a conversation taking place at dramatic scales and involving the lives of millions. That is, I think, what has enlivened the soon-to-be-past sixteen of history. And why the world will continue to be unsettled, as new subjects, objects, and means of security unfurl in rapid succession, asking new questions before we’ve had a chance to fully consider the old ones.