Image Source: Escapist Magazine.
In the new Millennium, online surveillance comes hand-in-hand the media's external imposition upon, and transformation of, internal thought. It is not news that Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) has arrived as a horrendous reality, although the UK is not yet known merely as Airstrip One. In some ways, the arrival is so horrendous that a portion of the public lives day by day in denial or willful ignorance, because it is easier to believe that things are not as bad as that. On 3 March 2014, Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick reported on the GCHQ collection of Yahoo users' video feeds and insisted, yes, it is as bad as that; we are living in a science fiction novel, where our own word processors are subject to outside control:
Whenever British journalist Luke Harding, working on his new book about spying whistleblower Edward Snowden, wrote something disparaging about the NSA, a weird thing would happen.
“The paragraph I had just written began to self-delete. The cursor moved rapidly from the left, gobbling text. I watched my words vanish,” Harding wrote in the Guardian this week.
The deletes kept happening for weeks. “All authors expect criticism,” wrote Harding, author of the new and astounding The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man. “But criticism before publication by an anonymous, divine third party is something novel.”
Finally, Harding politely asked whoever was doing it to consider stopping. A month later, they finally did.
He has no idea who did this. Were they American or British, a hacker or an offended National Security Agency analyst? We know they were reading Harding’s words as they were written but were they also watching him via a Skype-like device?
The news that GCHQ— the British surveillance agency that teams with the NSA and spy agencies in other allied “Five Eyes” nations, including Canada — has been intercepting and storing Yahoo webcam chats globally is eerie. We knew they could read what you typed, we suspect they can do this in real time, but now the massive Snowden leaked papers reveal that they can watch you talking to your nearest and dearest. Worse, you may have been naked at the time.
A program codenamed Optic Nerve gathered millions of stills from webcam chats between 2008 and 2010 and sent them in for viewing. In one six-month period alone, Optic Nerve scooped up images from more than 1.8 million Yahoo accounts around the world, the Guardian has reported.
Yahoo says it knew nothing of this.
In case you would like to know, the word processor that Guardian journalist Luke Harding was using was OpenOffice, which plainly lives up to its name. The Guardian has been in the thick of the Snowden leaks from the beginning. Harding admits that the entire staff felt paranoid. This post asks whether Orwell's dystopia is really here; or whether his Nineteen Eighty-Four world can still become a 'near miss,' a terrible alternate history that can still be narrowly avoided.In effect, people’s computer screens have become devices from Nineteen Eighty-Four where humans watch a screen that watches them back. But at least Winston Smith knew he was being watched.
You don't need to be a Guardian reader or a Snowden alarmist to observe the trends. George Orwell suggested that the abbreviation of language and universal use of acronyms and short forms was one of the primary signs of approaching totalitarianism. The vocabulary morphs and propaganda is born. The simpler the choice of words, the more streamlined language is to serve efficiency and abbreviated time for communication, the less room there is for independent or complex thought. Deplete the language and transform reality. With the current obsession with fast-paced Millennial life, we are not haphazardly ending up in Orwell's dystopic future. We are stampeding toward it down a sixteen-lane highway.
Since the recession, there has been a coincidental shift in attitude dismissing the arts and humanities. See my posts, here and here, where I noted a report that listed the 10 'least valuable' degrees as:
(1) Anthropology and Archaeology; (2) Film, Video and Photographic Arts; (3) Fine Arts; (4) Philosophy and Religious Studies; (5) Liberal Arts; (6) Music; (7) Physical Fitness and Parks Recreation; (8) Commercial Art and Graphic Design; (9) History; (10) English Language and LiteratureIn other words, degrees in disciplines which teach us the history, meaning and context of written, vocal and visual vocabularies - have been dismissed as worthless, earmarked for funding cuts, and labeled by career advisors on business and tech sites as tantamount to financial suicide for university students. To study the arts and letters, is to 'misallocate talent' away from the high tech sector. For venture capitalists in the Silicon Valley, the hub of the Communications Revolution, English Literature is a waste of time, a marker of low technical knowledge, and a sure path to non-dynamic employment, low pay or unemployment.
Dr. Damon Horowitz argued that computer programming offers its acolytes a Faustian bargain and an intoxicating lure of wealth, social ascendancy and power, starting with "the ability to make any inanimate object follow your command" (11 May 2011); he stepped back and got a PhD in Philosophy to inform his work as a technologist. Video Source: Youtube (Hat tip: Open Culture).
Others disagree with this attitude. Some Silicon Valley leaders are highly educated in non-tech disciplines; some disagree with the prevailing anti-arts attitude; and 60 per cent of startup CEOs have degrees in the humanities. Others warn simply that the pursuit of technology demands a tempered human awareness.
The counter-critique that defends the arts faces huge financial and mechanistic pressures. Evidently, the term, 'Communications Revolution,' did not refer to a rapid advancement in communications. It referred to a revolution in the way we communicate and what we communicate. The Communications Revolution is stripping global languages of their etymologies and 18th-to-20th century processes of standardization. The algorithmic streamlining and monitoring of language use implies an overhaul of society, government and the economy. To enable widespread scrutiny, programmers must facilitate the functioning of surveillance programs; and to do that, our means of communication must become more simplified. Politicians on both sides of the fence have gained one voice in dismissing the humanities disciplines which block that progress.
The technocratic revolt against higher education even extends past the humanities. I wondered about the Miseducation of Edward Snowden. How did a high school dropout eventually attain a CIA contract position? He did achieve his high school equivalency, but how then did he by-pass a Bachelor's degree and go straight to a Master's programme in 2011 at the University of Liverpool? How, with this level of qualification, was he made privy to so much confidential information? This was possible because Snowden comes out of a culture which rejects conventional higher education as a gateway to professional activity and favours direct streaming, based on raw talent, a scant bit of vocational preparation, and practical apprenticeships.
But even those who support the apprenticeship system would wonder at another trend: the use of temporary contract labour which replaces established professional careers. In other words, an attack of one sector of education devoted to traditional communications, critical thinking and independent responsibility accompanies the collapse of the career as a 20th century workforce institution.
Ironic, is it not, that the centre of greatest surveillance, the Web, is the place where people now flock to express their freedoms and exercise liberty? It is still not clear which side will prevail. Here are 15 quotations from Snowden:
#1 "The majority of people in developed countries spend at least some time interacting with the Internet, and Governments are abusing that necessity in secret to extend their powers beyond what is necessary and appropriate."
#2 "...I believe that at this point in history, the greatest danger to our freedom and way of life comes from the reasonable fear of omniscient State powers kept in check by nothing more than policy documents."
#3 "The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight. The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to."
#4 "...I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."
#5 "The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything."
#6 "With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your e-mails or your wife's phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your e-mails, passwords, phone records, credit cards."
#7 "Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector, anywhere... I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President..."
#8 "To do that, the NSA specifically targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default. It collects them in its system and it filters them and it analyzes them and it measures them and it stores them for periods of time simply because that's the easiest, most efficient and most valuable way to achieve these ends. So while they may be intending to target someone associated with a foreign government, or someone that they suspect of terrorism, they are collecting YOUR communications to do so."
#9 "I believe that when [senator Ron] Wyden and [senator Mark] Udall asked about the scale of this, they [the NSA] said it did not have the tools to provide an answer. We do have the tools and I have maps showing where people have been scrutinized most. We collect more digital communications from America than we do from the Russians."
#10 "...they are intent on making every conversation and every form of behavior in the world known to them."
#11 "Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you're being watched and recorded. ...it's getting to the point where you don't have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life."
#12 "Allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest."
#13 "Everyone everywhere now understands how bad things have gotten — and they’re talking about it. They have the power to decide for themselves whether they are willing to sacrifice their privacy to the surveillance state."
#14 "I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under."
#15 "I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy, and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity."
George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) Official Trailer. Reproduced under Fair Use. Video Source: Youtube.