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Reading, Looking, Listening, . . . Questioning

Snowden, Foucault, Microsoft

CitizenfourThis piece is excerpted from a longer essay: “Snowden, Jesus” (click for pdf).

When faced with the canvas that Edward Snowden, his colleagues and others have—with not a little idealism and courage—painted for all eyes to see, it is possible to feel frightened, panicked even, and helpless. Most everything we are doing with the aid of electronic devices—the places we are going, the words we are using, the people we are contacting—all this is being constantly tracked. Not only have we little privacy, but should it come to seem (correctly or incorrectly) that we are in opposition to reigning powers, we may be arrested or have our travel restricted. Or, in the extreme case, we might be killed by a drone.

I have tried to take refuge in the possibility that computers are without self-interest.

One may try—I have tried—to take refuge in the possibility that it is computers that are collecting all this data and scanning it, and computers are without self-interest. So the question becomes: Who controls the computers and has access to their information? Is it my friends or someone else’s friends? Is it ISIS, the Chinese, the Russians, or the US? From this perspective, and particularly as regards industrial or economic espionage, the battle for information seems not all that different from previous battles for land, oil or other resources. Such battles can turn deadly, of course, but they are the devil we know, all too well.

But this is not how Snowden and others have presented the reality, nor is it how many of us see this situation most of the time. Although the battles over patents and other intellectual property and economic secrets may have large effects on our lives, we are not personally holding tight to such information, nor are we directly engaged in the battles for Africa’s natural resources or along the front that now runs, roughly, from Kiev, through Kabul, Damascus, and Baghdad, to Cairo and Somalia. For us the battle is, or seems to be, for individual “freedom,” autonomy, and privacy. In the Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour, Snowden frames this in political terms: How can the people of a putative democracy talk freely about what sort of government and governmental policies they would like if the government is tracking most everything they say and do? (And this “government” could be either a specific US presidential administration or police department, or the permanent government of the police and of bureaucrats at NSA, the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, the Defense Department.[*])

Our behavior may be less affected by the trouble we get into for saying this or that than by how we ourselves limit what we say or think.

In the documentary, Snowden astutely points to the problem of “self-policing.” Our behavior may be less affected by the trouble we get into for saying this or that than by how we ourselves limit what we say or think in order to avoid getting into trouble. A ready example is how, through centuries, fears (to include of pregnancy and disease) and a desire or need to conform led one woman after another, more or less on her own, to limit her sexual behavior and responses, and even to shape her desires, her feelings, to deaden her nerves. The self-policing concept brings us, too, to the nineteenth-century idea of a central prison watchtower from where guards could see into every cell, arranged in a circle around the tower. If the guards could see everything the prisoners did, then the guards did not even have to look. Thinking they were being watched, the prisoners would limit what they did.

I am writing of the Panopticon, about which Michel Foucault, in the late twentieth century, made so much. “The major effect of the Panopticon,” he writes in Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish) is “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” And while each individual can be seen, “he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”

“If the product is free, you are the product.”

I am reminded of a twenty-first century saying about gmail, et al.: “If the product is free, you are the product.” I note, too, that both the housing complex where I live and the large organization where I work have, in addition to electronic pass systems, eye-like cameras placed throughout their facilities, and there are rooms where the images from these many cameras are playing on screens that are in fact watched by security staff. And the other day Microsoft—whose Word software I am using, for example, to write this text—came on my computer screen and showed me a list of all the words it had been finding in my documents. Microsoft, or its computer systems, seemed to be thinking that it was asking my permission to use the information it had gathered in order to improve its spell-checker for future customers, but what I felt above all, or underneath all, was a chill: Microsoft was already collecting the information, already reading every word I checked, if not every word I typed.

That in the current period we also seek to celebritize ourselves; instead of keeping private journals and family photo albums, we put it all online, where most anyone can see it—this must be the subject for a future piece.

— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Executive Editor


Image was used in the advertising for Citizenfour.

Citizenfour, directed by Laura Poitras, produced by Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky, released October 2014.

Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir. Alan Sheridan’s English translation: Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Vintage, 2nd edition, 2012).



[*] I happened to read recently of a group of Soviet scientists who were briefly imprisoned and then kicked out of their profession because they asked their secretary to make a samizdat copy of a banned book. Having long worked in a bureaucracy, I understood how this happened. The secretary was not necessarily a supporter of the government or an opponent of the particular book (Leon Uris’s Exodus); she was eager to protect herself from being assigned work, and particularly extra work, not directly connected with the group’s more purely scientific work. Her action might be seen as an individual act or as a moment in the class wars that have raged since social classes first emerged, in human pre-history. I also read once about how, after the Russian Revolution, young mathematicians got in the habit of denouncing their elders as anti-communist reactionaries. This led to the older mathematicians losing their jobs (and worse), which in turn allowed the younger generation to get “good” jobs. We see in these examples how “information,” be it computer-based or not, can end up being used in power struggles, to advance personal and class interests. (Samizdat anecdote appeared in “The Weight of Words: One of Russia’s most famous writers confronts the state,” by Masha Gessen, The New Yorker, October 6, 2014.)

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