Look, it appears now that power suffers the fate today that it has always suffered: those who have it believe that it is, and they are, indispensable. They know their own souls, and they know their intentions, and they know their colleagues and friends, and they understand their competency, and they alone "stand on that wall" between us, in our overstuffed recliners, and the rampaging darkness of savages bent upon our destruction, and they know that secretly we want them to have power. We need them to have power. Civilization itself depends upon it.
Oh, sure, the speech in Wheeling might have been an exaggeration. Perhaps it wasn't necessary to hunt down Communists inside the U.S. Army, but those were silly mistakes made by people back then. Today's threats are existential -- not like the Soviet Union or the international menace of Communism. After all, any shopping bag could be a bomb, and that's sufficient to justify every shopping purchase being a spy-bot.
I get it.
Our guy isn't like their guy. Our guy is smart, and their guy was dumb. Our guy wouldn't freak out unless the threats were really freaky, while their guy was easily spooked.
Fine. It doesn't matter, anyway, because the courts won't listen, and elections appear to have little capacity to move the debate. Therefore, I have a suggestion for making this all to the good. Follow me below for a proposal for making all the data acquisition an unequivocally good thing.
N.S.A. and it's fifteen or more major private corporate partners, plus the myriad private contractors with Classified clearance, have power that is hard to conceptualize. The N.S.A. can't use its super-powers to fire a death ray, and Stratfor can't use its intelligence work to have a squad of super model assassins with cybernetic implants to do its bidding. . . so far as I know.
No -- no Bond villains, no adolescent fantasies of wealthy boys. Instead, imagine the old philosophy of phenomenology. The thing-itself of any thing is elusive. We cannot know the thingness of things -- the essence or noumena of them -- because both our senses and our language keep us from it.
Philosopher: "What do you mean?"Phenomenology points out that even if we satisfactorily communicate to another person what we intend, we are describing around the thing, not actually describing what makes the thing itself and no other. Therefore, they set out to describe phenomena surrounding each proposition. By getting a complete catalog of all the things the thing is not, the transient and accidental portions of the thing, the shadow left in the center of the catalog will be the thing itself.
Person: "This board."
Phil: "What board?"
Pers: "The one in my hand."
Phil. "You mean the yellowness or the woodness?"
Pers: "Both, obviously."
Phil: "Is it the same thing when it's not in your hand?"
Per: "Of course."
Phil: "So yellowness, woodiness, but hands don't matter?"
Per: "It's not a board if you can't use it."
Phil: "So it has to be in your hands some of the time to be a board?"
Per: Hits Phil with the 2x4
(All this, and Hegel didn't apparently smoke marijuana. He was just German.)
Lord Acton said that power corrupts, but what power really does is contort, and the power that Facebook, Google, and Amazon have is, like the power of FBI, NSA, and IRS, the power of knowledge. They love points of data that can become several different person's story -- the clothing shopper, the credit card holder, the deadbeat, the person without a new car. They're giddy phenomenologists. They are happy with Heisenberg, because they don't care where the thing itself (that's you) is, so long as they see the disruptions it makes in the universe of capitol.
Knowledge-Power of the Novelist vs. the god
The corporations that run analytics on us collect actions. Suzy Shopper is not a person. "She" is a plot -- a thing to bind together the actions in a story that the data miners collect. The free market has the power-knowledge of a novelist. VISA will never ask you who you are or what you like. Amazon.com is praised by other businesses for basing its recommendations not on what you tell them you're interested in, but on past purchases. Amazon.com knows that I am "Wire Change Becomes Us, audio CD, Thomas Pynchon Bleeding Edge book, a stack of not-approved public domain texts from Project Gutenberg, and Spirograph, collector's tin." The novelist's knowledge-power is, "What have you done?"
The N.S.A. seeks the power-knowledge of a god. To them, you may not be anything so unhelpful as a citizen, either, but you are a weighted token in a network, and you may gain and lose weight according to the weight of the lines connecting to you. The lines create identity, which is always sliding, always adding weight and never, ever losing it. Thus, "Yemen national, northern half" might be a heavily weighted identity, and all the lines going from that token will gain charge, as it were, and "arrested protesting NSA" might have weight (who knows? we're not allowed to), but the lines create charge, with each node (source of communication/data) being like a resistor or transistor. The god's knowledge-power is, "Who are you? What are you?"
Because the power here is knowledge, people can pretend it is not actual (i.e. cannot affect reality) even as they praise themselves for the important accomplishment of gaining power. Indeed, because they're miles away from Bond villains, they can claim to be so intellectual as to be pure. Company workers and government contractors may think that nothing more is at stake than spam e-mail or a few people getting hassled at the airport. While comforting lies are common enough, the fact that the power is only "data" allows even the people with kill lists to deny that they have any real power.
Listen, though, when people speak. Target Stores, to take a hapless example, will boast of its data collection and the power it offers them to please customers with one breath and then, in the same breath, say that this data doesn't amount to incriminating information that hackers could want. President Obama can say that he has found no incidents where NSA went wild (implying "did anything illegal"), can say that the data collection is not intruding on privacy, and then turn around and say that the data collected by NSA has helped prevent terrorism.
Is all the data collected by novelistic methods powerful because predictive, and therefore a reason to buy stock in this company, or is the data no intrusion, no profiling, no parallel and threatening narrative created without consent? Pick one. Is NSA and its unnamed helpers collecting so much data that "nothing is beyond their reach," and therefore we may sleep soundly (after saying a prayer of thanks to our dark warriors on the wall), or is the industry of governmental data collection tantamount to national search and seizure?
Don't ask the people in charge. They want to "serve" us by advertising effectively, and they want to "protect" us by searching only for dangerous people.
Power contorts, and knowledge-power is elephantiasis. In this case, software is the mosquito whose saliva contains an anesthetic. People sign end user license agreements and agree to arbitrate, etc., and so what people are doing (shopping, talking, writing) gets to be ignored because there was a new method for lawyers to talk about.
All data will be collected for us, but never by us.
I get it. No Republican will ever seek to reduce the domestic spying going on by the U.S. government, and it seems that no Democrat can be convicted enough to say "no" to the power of illusory omniscience.
The free market finds the randomness of people less profitable than the purity of a series of chapbooks, each starring the business, each with a happy ending. The government has moved its duty from regulation of individual and state interests or providing for the common weal to George W. Bush's definition: "My job is to keep the American people safe." (If you clicked that link, are you surprised by the date?) Once the duty of the president is to be the shield of captain America, then the purpose of the budget is to find businesses and agencies to provide national police protections, and political gain means being on camera cracking down on nation-crime. For both, though, omniscience is omnipotence. Neither, then, can ever say "no" to a new way of getting what seems like information.
If it seems to you as if I am being too hard on our guy, I'd like to say that he has earned it. More, though, what I am really lashing is the "why" of a professor of constitutional law flipping out and embracing every one of the tools that he knew were against the constitution before the spooks came to give him direct, unfiltered briefings. There is a philosophy and a method now that is irresistible to any executive. Frodo would put this ring on his finger and never take it off, even if it meant a double gainer into Mount Doom.
Barring anyone honoring the 4th and 5th amendments of the United States Constitution, we should make all the data in the NSA and FBI open to the public after twenty-five years.
Resolved: Twenty-five years after its collection, all data on United States citizens, permanent residents in the United States, and persons with work permits in the United States shall be made open to the public for search. This shall apply solely to data collected, and no comments, actions, evaluations, or agency officials involved shall be included in the records. This shall apply to all data collected by electronic means and telecommunications intercepts.Scholars figured out, at long last (and perhaps only temporarily), that none of us is completely correct. It took a long time for us to disrespect ourselves, for us to realize that we, like government and corporate spy-bots, want more information. However, we have taken as our paradigm a skepticism rather than positivism (for the most part). We either have provisional answers only, and the American university system depends upon some jerk writing a paper disagreeing with our paper as soon as we write it, so our process is a battle royale. We gobble up information with a pessimistic faith that we will never have enough for a conclusion.
You see, the reason we know about our past is because people wrote things down and threw things away. People who were not very important wrote down what they thought, and people who were important wrote down what they thought. Both sorts of people wrote about the weather, about gambling debts, about common colds, about the cost of living, about malcontents, and all sorts of ejecta of life. Court records had testimony exact. Samuel Pepys not only wrote about every woman he accosted, but he wrote about every play he went to see. Armies wrote down incident and action reports, had tons of requisitions, and left mountains of memoirs and diaries. Instead of just trusting that the brilliant general gave a grave command and the proles in the army executed it to win a glorious victory, historians can find out that the enemy stood in mud and was starving and that an N.C.O. improvised on the field and saved the day, while the great general was desperately trying to get to the battlefield from his headquarters in the rear.
Additionally, when sociologists want to say anything about anything, they go to the statistical abstracts. They have to. When epidemiologists work, they need population densities and water levels. Anthropologists would love to have catalogs of every person's material and cultural output.
It's unlikely people in 3000 will know much about 1985 - 2020 outside of the official voices, because our records will be e-mails on hard disks on servers that will die, in formats that will be superseded. A copy of WordPerfect 4.2 will be needed, and someone will need to translate CP/M. The AOL Instant Messenger SMTP's will be gone forever, and the bulletin boards will have been forgotten. All that Twitter, all those texts, all the "letters" that are done by telephone will be gone, and this doesn't even touch the official life that has been intentionally diverted to private devices.
"No one writes letters anymore" may be greatest cliche of all time, but, indeed, people do not write them much anymore, even though we write more often than ever before. So, if we have lost our constitution to the amygdala and narrow visions of personal gain, perhaps we can at least let scholars, who are the only ones who don't believe in omniscience, use the mountains of snapshots that the novelists of money and the gods of security have been collecting.