Serving Up Solitude: (Typing? We Don’t Need No Stinking Typing!)

This essay appears in CounterPunch and Fair Observer.

stinkin badgesGoogle Chairman Eric Schmidt made a splash recently at Davos with his quip about the vanishing Internet. Frankly, he does creepy better than obtuse, as when he all but begged the question: what the hell are the rest of us still hanging around for?

“We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

Strip a man of his keyboard and all that remains is a blinking cursor and his wordless nightmares. Perhaps we are the dead already—carbon-based anachronisms awaiting the Insidious Hand of benign neglect to make our post mortems official. Have we overstayed into the Silicon Era such that an Artilect now wants our seat on the bus? Google approaches as a guillotine dressed in geek’s clothing.

Humor us Mr. Schmidt. For you see, typing (or writing, as Truman Capote might allow for the better tappers in our midst) helps us to converge on where you seem dead-certain we already live. Yes, we’re slow, but interiority is such a tough habit to kick. Google Earth is a marvel to be sure. Yet there is no small number of keen minds for whom the non-locality of consciousness defies GPS coordinates. We might even live to survive your Panopticon and have a laugh about it on the Otherside. So I’d be careful with that hubris. Some trans-human demigod could swat you absently like a four-eyed mosquito. Then where would your stock options be?

section seperator

Schmidt is a particularly bad bad actor. He slips easily into an exasperated tone when asked to wax eloquent on that last stubborn fly in the ointment, humanity. It was as clear in the long faces at Davos as it was in Eurogroup Chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem’s withering glare when Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis put food for Greece’s children before George Soros: We’ve become a vastly populated nuisance. They want us out of here so badly, it hurts.

Imagine Zeus running out of thunderbolts and having to fall back on pushing strings. There would have been a mutiny on Mount Olympus faster than you could say Eurogroup Chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem—maybe even faster. Quantitative Easing never got anyone a job who wasn’t already on the BIS Christmas card list. Austerity is a boot out to squash a colony of bugs. In their ham-fisted efforts at herding us, the elite’s faltering touch is showing. Long term, this may be good. Short term, it’s incredibly perilous. Never embarrass a faltering elite in broad daylight. Their numbers are too few, and their cognitive hold over We of Far Larger Numbers too tenuous for open monetary farce to prevail for long. You’re only asking for WW3.

Mass denouement has been underway for some time now.

Sigmund Freud’s nephew Eddie Bernays (the inventor of Public Relations) saw us as little more than bracketed swirls of subterranean appetites to be mined and monetized. Our irrational pleasure centers were invaded subliminally. This led to what cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han calls the Neuronal Age where overactive receptors create unnatural fatigue; a sense of helplessness against outside entreaties presides. And boy do we have the pounds to show for myriad uninvited entreaties. People now routinely eat themselves to death. Speaking of entreaties or at least odious treats, no one ever woke up yearning for a Twinkie until a Twinkie was first made to exist and then advertised onto our burgeoning list of manufactured pleasures.

Yes, victimology can be overdone. Nonetheless we were helped along mightily by cues we never had the explicit option of refusing. Maybe Mom didn’t love us enough or Dad was a little too stern. Was it the market’s right to sell into our unfillable holes, banishing us forevermore to the husky section of Sears? But for another hug Mommy and our asses would look just fine in these jeans. Over the ensuing period, the will to power swept through humanity like a hundred-year war. We’re looking weary and ripe for supersession.

Something is dying to usurp us and usher in the post-consumer age. The anthropic economy was an unoiled rack of Newtonian gears and pulleys shuttling supply towards demand, groping in the dark for equilibriums, one month producing too much, the next month too little. The surveillance apparatus is not being constructed to better serve us in the sense of a market perfecting its answerability to consumer demand, although that remains the party line. They’re not cataloging our retinas to sell us cereal, in short. For one thing, we are dismally predictable and not nearly the unique snowflakes we often fancy ourselves to be. The average Internet user visits no more than a few dozen unique sites per month. They know us more than well enough by now.

Analyst Daniel Castro of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation recently estimated U.S. tech company losses due to government spying programs could amount to $35 billion by 2016. This is a decidedly post-economic development couched disingenuously as an undesirable consequence. Frankly my dear, what spook gives a damn? Even Senator Wyden noted the suspicious absence of alarm:

“When the actions of a foreign government threaten red-white-and-blue jobs, Washington gets up at arms. But, even today, almost no one in Washington is talking about how overly broad surveillance is hurting the U.S. economy.”—from October 8, 2014 Public Forum

This current slow-motion global economic collapse is not scheduled for either a happy ending or a people-pleasing recovery. No, the final business cycle is an abyss-by-design. We are being ‘descended into’ transient serfdom on the way to superfluity. The main actors, Central Banks, are wringing their hands in premeditated angst as they stagger about ‘trying everything’ alas to no avail; all pure theatre to keep the masses spellbound and agape.

All currencies are collapsing against the USD after which the latter will perform the very last swan dive. Then structured (price-signal) economics will vanish. The economy is being put out to pasture. Mad Max barter might play a role on wild, wide stretches of highway. But for the most part, Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand will be replaced by the Panopticon’s Invisible Eye.

The great underlying tension that girded capitalism for decades was something akin to the Keystone Cops. Capital was forever teasing out the maddening vagaries of human want, often with humorous results. The landscape is littered with Edsels and New Coke. Nothing was wasted though. These misfires fed powerful feedback loops. The ultimate goal was never for Capital to please man, but for Man to furnish Capital with the ultimate prize, perfect control. Otherwise, what a way to run a railroad, chasing every Tom, Dick and Harry as though their appetites amounted, in some qualitative sense, to a covetable hill of beans.

Market research, product placement and needs assessment were midterm gestures until manufactured consent could perfect the ultimate gloved fist of demand implantation. Rather than stooping to glean the silly ramblings of the man on the street—as if that mattered—real power looked forward to the day when it would know what the man wanted before he articulated the desire for it. This is Huxleyian dystopia. Consent becomes the organizing principle on the way to the final solution.

Capitalism was the interim stalking horse the Bankers used to perfect the Final Mousetrap. Widely available prosperity was the inducement that coaxed the best minds into an endgame endeavor that ultimately they nor their families would live to partake. And to think we fell for the myth of sustainable upward mobility! Who can’t feel it in the air? There is a sense now they have all that they need. It’s written all over Schmidt’s smug mug. Covert technology is thirty years ahead of what’s in the public realm.

You see, it was never about serving markets. It was about serving up servitude. The mark of the beast might get you a Twinkie when total submission becomes the new coin of the realm. Relax. Most people will enjoy the final act and they say Diet Soma is low in calories. Only the poets will suffer.

Until death do us part, comrade.

Serving Up Solitude: (Typing? We Don’t Need No Stinking Typing!)

To Davos, Dynamic Rooms and All of That

This article appeared previously at Fair Observer and Foreign Policy Journal.

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“The World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting convenes global leaders from across business, government, international organizations, academia and civil society in Davos for strategic dialogues which map the key transformations reshaping the world.”—from WEF Annual Meeting, 2015, Davos, Switzerland

When a handful of the world’s wealthiest and most influential people gather to strategically dialogue about their leadership roles over us, the ostensibly led, the definition of conspiracy is largely fulfilled, even if said strategizing does not entail patently nefarious and undisclosed ends. No doubt much is discussed outside the public forums. Are we the people better served by these confabs or is a ruling class that sings less from the same page more conducive to humanity’s betterment? Much depends on one’s feelings about globalism and consolidated power.

Speaking of consolidation an Oxfam report released, probably not coincidentally, with this year’s Davos gathering showed that the top 1% are on target to own more than the bottom 99% by 2016. Certainly talking amongst themselves has not been a pox on the top tier’s pocketbooks. Yet by the WEF’s own reckoning, the world has never been closer to war in the last 25 years. Causal or coincident? How about a three-year Davos moratorium to see if some alms tip the way of the poor?

In his book ‘The Rich and the Super-Rich’, Ferdinand Lundberg proves Alex Jones had precursors who were real grown-ups. Here he ponders a variation of ‘just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean a Mellon isn’t out to get you’:

“As the various [elite factions] are rivalrous at least in respect to making and retaining money, how and in what way do they act in concert, if they act in concert at all? Do they, in fact, act in concert in imposing faits accompli and policies on the nation?

To conclude that they more or less loosely act together as a moneybund is to proclaim oneself at once an adherent to what is pejoratively called the conspiracy theory, widely frowned upon by latter-day organizational academics in grey flannel suits…In a broad sense, as it has been observed by unabashed exponents of the conspiracy theory, all history is a conspiracy.”

All history is a conspiracy where front-row seating is tightly restricted. Where Jones is the ‘pejorative’ conspiracist (symptoms: palpable envy, unrequited inferiority and raging paranoia), Lundberg hints subtly at an elitism of untapped democratic potential:

 “One could hardly have an elite without a mass. If everyone was alert and on his toes, how could an elite ever show itself? The mass itself paradoxically, would be an elite, and perfect high-level democracy would prevail.”

Little could Lundberg have known in 1968 that the masses would be offered their high-level democratic platform in the form of Internet 1.0. When they failed to rise to their own occasion, Facebook emoticons filled the gap. Thus the same old elite shows itself every year at Davos. We watch them on Google’s Youtube.

This year they showed up beset by self-doubt. The old mesmerisms aren’t working. Central banks’ stone tablets have clay feet. Capital not labor sends the anointed to Davos. Capital is shrinking. Inequality is gapping and gaping.

Fortunately, technology can always be counted on for some diversionary whizz-bang. Google’s Eric Schmidt announced that, far worse than the corporate expropriation that was Internet 2.0, the Internet will soon vanish altogether to be replaced by the perfect Panopticon, a million-eyed membrane that will become “part of your presence all the time.” Like the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Schmidt goes on to paint his wagon in the rosiest terms [my underline]:

“Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.”

The off-hand quality of that underlined bit is as unsettling as it is vaguely condescending. The funny thing about surveillance, Orwell might say, is that it takes the quietest room and wakes it up to its dynamic potential. Seriously, there’s a lot of that in all of that. In a nearby room, Hillary Clinton was bemoaning mainstream media’s lost mojo. De-elite-ized translation? ‘Should consent devolve back to fractious self-manufacture, we will be hard-pressed to manage deflationary collapse.’ She has a point. Indeed Davos’ talking points were jumbled as, one day prior to Schmidt, a team of Harvard researchers solemnly announced the death of privacy. If privacy’s dead surely our permission, Mr. Schmidt, is moot. But thank you for pretending to ask.

Winnowing is in the air and at all levels. The Daily Bell detects a vibe at the current conference that the elite may be poised to eat some of their own. If anything, Darwin’s teeth grow sharper with each pyramidic advance. The elite had to clamber over billions of fellow humans in order to win the designation. Absent the underclass there is no rarified altitude to savor. So we both trouble and exhilarate them. They want us here in numbers large enough to validate their elite status. Yet they also want us quiet, preferably in dynamic rooms where they can listen in. They will fight like hell to keep where they are. Check that. They will have us fight like hell to keep them where they are. That’s why this year’s ‘best of breed’ Interstate Conflict risk is part warning and part promise.

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To a golden hammer every problem requires a golden nail. Globetrotters see a world parched for global solutions. Bono tackling hunger in County Wexford is a waste of aura. World hunger more befits his world-conquering self-image. (Hint: even when celebrities are doing good things, they’re really mostly looking in the mirror.) The preamble video shown at the World Economics Global Risk forum unconsciously betrays buckets of cosmopolitan self-love when it begins, “Technology has created a hyper-connected society. But the way we perceive the world remains fragmented. How can we protect ourselves from the biggest global risks that we face?” First of all technology is a tool, not a Founding Father. And is it the Davos ‘royal we’ seeking protection? From whom? Worried much, big guys and gals? There’s that word global again. Alas those recalcitrant fragments (communities, some might call them) are where most of us live and work. Our lives are not inclined to adjust themselves to your perceptual expectations. Your meditations on the hinterlands are touching nonetheless.

Localism stores a wealth of solutions. It just lacks scale for global ambitions. A little money down below would help—you know, where humanity lives. Hasn’t Piketty already solved this mystery? Big Capital has run away with the entire show, and at an accelerating pace. Big Capital, pitiless inhuman beast that it is, seeks the rarefied heights of consolidation where alas no one happens to live. Where’s Bono?

Monstrous greed, blind as a bat, can offer no solution for profound inequality. Nonetheless The Global Risks 2015 Insight Report tries: “our self-perception as homines economici or rational beings has faltered in the aftermath of the financial crisis.” Rationality is on the ropes because pathologic greed has curtailed all appeals to reason and equitability. The WEF notes geopolitical risks have overtaken economic ones with frightening rapidity. (The report looks forward on a ten-year basis; see chart above.) War is the climactic economic response to the last petered-out business cycle in a secular trend.

Who’s getting paranoid yet? Alex Jones claims WW3 will be necessitated when the elite feels its petard hoisting. The globalist ratchet always avails the fog of war, tightening further. The Swiss Central Bank just cried major uncle, signaling, in its monetary sanity, the end of an era. Jim Rickard’s currency wars are a prelude to the kind with bullets.

Whether war breaks out in oblique Lincolnian fashion (“[One party] would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”) or arrives under the concerted guidance of an untouchable few, it will hardly matter. The bombs always have a way of finding our backyards.

To Davos, Dynamic Rooms and All of That

Big Brother, Big Data & the Sustaining Power of Kellogg’s® Eggo® Waffles

This article previously appeared in Pop Matters and Foreign Policy Journal and The Pennsylvania Review

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Nobody is listening to your telephone calls… But by sifting through this so-called ‘metadata’, [the intelligence community] may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.”
—President Obama, 7 June 2013

One of the blind spots of the digitized form derives, paradoxically, from its ravenous, undiscerning and all-seeing eye. Raw data has no introspective mechanism and affixes no value-coefficient to its own informational content. This evaluative process is left to external entities; sentient, sifting human beings—or their algorithm-proxies—who realize that within oceans of data, trophy catches are few and sea garbage is the norm. Actionable or useful data thus swims against near-insurmountable odds of detection. The ‘promotion’ from data to information requires human agency and recognition. How can humans accomplish this crucial anointing when information must be dredged from a great dismal data swamp that retraces God’s infinitude a little more each day?

The statistics are suitably staggering: According to a recent CSC study, data production will be 44 times greater in 2020 than it was in 2009. A July 2012 BT survey reported,

“…a quarter of the decision-makers surveyed predict that data volumes in their companies will rise by more than 60 percent by the end of 2014, with the average of all respondents anticipating a growth of no less than 42 percent.”

This fantastic upsurge in digital effluence is commonly known as Big Data.

Faced with towering silos of bric-a-brac, poets tend toward metaphysical swoons, certainly one technique for navigating the meta-morass. So consider this fair warning.

That said, I can’t help but think of Carl Jung’s Answer to Job. God is a stalking horse for today’s Big Data in the sense that His infinity induces a moral blindness that only Job, a human agent of particular discernment, can instruct Him through. Seeing everything is not unlike seeing nothing at all. Human insight, by contrast, is a narrowed gaze. Vision demands a focal point, a seeing-eye dog, a discrete POV. Poets are the woofers amidst the tweeters, our first-order data miners. They name things and in so doing give form to chaos.

Database administration is a degraded form of poetry, really a meta-poetry whose administrators play in a sandbox beside the legislators of the world. This latter poetic function Sven Birkerts, channeling Ranier Rilke, identifies as the human being’s seminal role—raising the world into consciousness, not just, “collectively, into a noosphere, and not digitally, into a cloud of data, but subjectively, inwardly, into language.” (“The Room and the Elephant”, Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 June 2011)

All that has first been named can be data tagged but only after our fervency—Rilke’s word—has expended itself. Thus, those who prioritize the Cloud have it backwards. Technologists are the post facto manipulators, the illusionists in our midst whereas poets keep it real. That’s why the latter can’t find jobs in a Big Data world. Birkerts quotes the following lines from Rilke’s “Ninth Elegy”:

Are we here perhaps just to say:
house, bridge, well, gate, jug, fruit tree, window—
at most, column, tower… but to say, understand this, to say it
as the Things themselves never fervently thought to be.
—(C. F. MacIntyre, Translator)

Birkerts and Rilke invite us back to Jung’s subjective self whose universe exists only because we have the eyes to (data) mine it. God recognizes Himself through our cognition. We suspect this pleases Him immensely. The Book of Job becomes a pre-Mosaic prototype for the Anthropic Principle. Data, by contrast, is a retrospective, a cataloguing of prior ‘authenticities’.

Far and away most data, if not much of life itself, is hardly worth our powers of recollection. Yet in the Digital Age, every traversal of Sisyphus’ hill becomes a discrete negotiation, an indexable transaction. By now Sisyphus’ travelogue would require a supercomputer. There is no human act or gesture so beneath our retrospective radar that it can anymore slip, blithely undetected, into the veils of time. The NSA and its commercial doppelganger, Facebook, are committed to the eternality of the less-than-mundane. Interestingly, Sisyphus’ punishment derived in part from chaining Thanatos, a ploy aimed literally at cheating death. Life seizes the moment. The life force doesn’t look back. Data storage makes its bones with the dead. All these data-dependent claims on our past help to encourage a retro-reptilian-hoarding reflex.

There’s existential philosophy; then there’s existential practicality. We compound Big Data’s overhang by adding to it daily. However, it’s in the here-and-now where the potential for comprehension is greatest. A host of nimble and proactive analytics tools loom on the horizon which will better prepare us for what Anukool Lakhina of Big Data company Guavus calls ‘knowing the now’ (“We Need to Prevent Insights from Dying in the Big Data Avalanche” Gigaom; 6 October 2012). Humanity’s accumulated now‘s form Big Data’s past. The future must be seized knowingly. We can ill-afford to dither and let it just happen.

The past will not be relinquished lightly as the bankers have our coupon books to keep track of. Old Power and Money cements its power on the backs of our deeply regretted past transactions. Usura’s how they make their game in the present and promise the future to the image of the past. They are the celebrants of stasis. Under their rubric, we are going nowhere fast. All these data-dependent claims on our past help to encourage a retro-reptilian-hoarding reflex. IBM Global Business Service’s Teresa Pritchard in a recent exchange called it Dino’s Albatross:

“…we now see the head looking behind at an enormous tail, a tail so heavy that the creature can hardly move forward. It is a tail comprised of hoarded information, kept without any measure of true value.”

Big Media casts its own Big Data footprint. We desecrate the up-close and sacred naming task with what novelist Don DeLillo calls white noise, that is, the make-work routine of papering over the hard work of consciousness-raising with a dust-layer of bytes and suspect media coordinates (or as DeLillo terms it, that “dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.’‘— White Noise). Mediation is a diversionary campaign that traffics in the propagandistic terms of clarification and distillation; or, if you prefer the Fox News coordinates, fair and balanced.

Big Media’s Big Data diverts us from the task of Big Apprehension. We are kept to the realm of the observable. All that can be measured is pored over as though nothing else exists while Keats’ infamous Vale toils at the crucial work of soul-making at the subjective ‘unobserved’ level. Yes of course, the poets’ by-product, poems, are in evidence on the web. But the process of manufacturing soul through suffering evades the artifactual record. This flattening of poetry into bytes abets a shadow-project to equate poetry with food recipes and baseball scores. Suddenly at the time they are needed most, poets are marginalized further.

Fortunately, regular folks are more than taking up the slack. In the social media realm, we have the power to avert much of the Big Data landslide if only we could stop chattering amongst ourselves, continually giving up banal lives and journeyman repasts that surely drive our overlords to an ever rising contempt. Frankly, who could blame the Illuminati for its machinations as, handed the mic, all we could think to tweet was what we had for breakfast? My point Mr. Everyman, is that your grating ignorance and predilection for Eggo’s may have bought you a dystopia that’ll hang around well past the dinner hour. I told you to brush up on your Adorno and Marcuse. But nooo, you wouldn’t leggo.

The real little man disease is well-earned envy as the floodgates of Facebook fly open only to reveal oceans of drivel. How oceanic, you ask? “Just two days of the current global data production, from all sources — five quintillion bytes (a letter of text equals one byte) — is about equal to the amount of information created by all the world’s conversations, ever, according to research at the University of California, Berkeley.” (“Sizing Up Big Data, Broadening Beyond the Internet”, by Steve Lohr, The New York Times, 19 June 2013)

One could be forgiven for wanting to head some of this yadda-yadda off at the pass before the Word becomes flesh to make its dwellings among us. I mean, I gotta be me, you gotta be you. But must our Eggo’s leave behind minable contrails? The collapse in embedded processor pricing will soon allow for smart toasters. Every appliance will have a snappy retort. Every briefcase will carry an airtight alibi. The world is irrevocably data and sensor-rich and there’s no going back.

Going forward then, how can we vouchsafe an authentic human sphere within this sea of data? or is ‘soul’ ripe for a digitized deconstruction? The trans-humanists suggest Job v.2 will be a robot sent to teach the machine the ineffable nature of soul. That’s provided the ineffable (that transcendent, ‘extra-data’ realm which literature purports to stalk) is indeed antithetical to data and not subsumable within a Big Data skein. Stephen Marche suggests as much:

“Literature cannot meaningfully be treated as data. The problem is essential rather than superficial: literature is not data. Literature is the opposite of data.” (“Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities”, Los Angeles Review of Books, 28 October 2012)

Marche’s essay title hat-tips a vast field of endeavor known as Digital Humanities to which he (and I) probably give shamefully short shrift. Some of the mandates emanating from this new academic wing are tantalizingly terrifying. Here, Bruno Latour is discussing nothing less than Big Data’s potential for cataloging the ‘inner workings’ of the soul:

“The precise forces that mould our subjectivities and the precise characters that furnish our imaginations are all open to inquiries by the social sciences. It is as if the inner workings of private worlds have been pried open because their inputs and outputs have become thoroughly traceable.”
“Beware, Your Imagination Leaves Digital Traces”, Times Higher Education Literary Supplement, 6 April 2007

Wikileaks’ Julian Assange pointed out recently that the East German secret police employed ten percent of the population at one time or another as informants. That sort of high overhead will cripple any enterprise. No wonder the Soviet bloc collapsed. Fortunately, the fascio-corporatists have our backs. The genius of Facebook is that it is an emoticon-besotted surveillance apparatus through which friends rat out friends routinely, unwittingly and for free. Hey, if I’m sending my buds to the Gulag, I want beer money to help subsidize my tears.

Big Thinker Jaron Lanier proposes an even starker equivalence in his latest book Who Owns the Future?:

“Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for the value they contribute that can be steered or stored on a digital network.”

Despite his defense of regular folks, Lanier seems oddly acquiescent to our object status as though we are in fact mere data warehouses, albeit with a propped-open backdoor that encourages shoplifting and prevents equitable compensation. Nonetheless Lanier is onto something when he suggests the value-exchange is poorly understood by the average Facebook consumer-supplier.

In a nation of rip-offs, the thief is king, so it pays to study his M.O. Facebook aggressively runs all of its employees, regardless of formal function, through Big Data boot-camps in an effort to “promote a culture in which everyone uses data to test and ultimately roll out new products, design changes, and other improvements.” (“What I Learned at Facebook’s Big Data Boot-Camp”; CNN-Money-Fortune, by Michal Lev-Ram, 13 June 2013)

The Facebook micro-culture may augur the macro-culture, or is a nation of thieves unsustainable? Clearly, Facebook knows the trove over which it presides and the extractive capacity for all nearby hands to just dig in. Good for Facebook. Apply the distributive computing model over a massive pro bono user base, paint a solicitous happy face above the front door and the cost of data collection suddenly vanishes into the ether. Where the East Germans insisted on payment, we give ourselves and our loved ones up without a fight, without a nickel.

Alright, so everyone gets a shovel and we’ll dig ourselves to a collective nirvana. On the other hand (said one equivocating economist to another), might what Big Data pioneer Jeffrey Hammerbacher calls the impending renaissance of the ‘numerical imagination’ yield up the metrics of what poets have insisted on calling since time immemorial, soul? Perhaps there is no ghost in the machine. Perhaps it’s all machine. Perish the thought.

Poets notwithstanding, all that glistens on human lips has never been gold, anyway. That our fingers excel at capturing every demiurge now with dispatch on one PDA or another does nothing to burnish the archival value of the utterance. Would Zeus have been less cruel, more circumspect in his meting out of punishment, had it also fallen within his purview to store the repetitions of his wrath?

Perhaps human data generation should consist of a finite annual allotment of bytes per year, per capita much like a carbon tax. No doubt Al Gore can invent the apt paradigm. Perhaps we are discovering the darker side of near-universal literacy, you know, those same seven billion souls who can’t wait to share what they had for breakfast on Facebook.

Are we being incorrigible elitists even to suggest such things? The carbon analogy is not as facetious as it sounds. In some sense, data is an exhalation. Of course there’s money in the quotidian. Facebook makes a fortune monetizing our errant chatter. But is there transformative meaning? Surely we’re not here only to make money (an imaginal exercise itself) only to have them listen to us very closely so that they can take it all back again—echoes of Sisyphus in his green-eyeshade permutation? Studies have shown three-quarters of all data has the retention value of an empty gum wrapper.

No, the human race didn’t wait for the Digital Age to dawn so that it could suddenly exhale en masse. What has changed is that we are all now affixed with carbon dioxide monitoring devices, low-cost handheld appliances that record our every hiccup. Our heart beats. Our data emits. Barely audible, off-hand remarks—veritable verbal tics—that our own spouses have the good sense not to query for clarification are being cataloged by digital devices.

Nor am I deaf to the durable idealistic notion that all human musings (nothing less than the murmuring of souls) are inherently valuable, certainly of a higher order than, say, other excretions, e.g., perspiration, waste product and the like. Indeed the democratic impulse is offended by the notion that quotidian effusions do not merit attention. This was not always the case.

In his 1994 essay, “The Future of the Book”, Umberto Eco reminds us that broadly prevalent literacy is a relative blip on the human culture timeline. All the hand-wringing over our TV-besotted age (a phenomenon Eco refers to sardonically as “mass media criticism of mass media”) forgets the profound illiteracy that preceded it for many centuries: “We can complain that a lot of people spend their day watching TV and never read a book or a newspaper, and this is certainly a social and educational problem, but frequently we forget that the same people, a few centuries ago, were watching at most a few standard images and were totally illiterate.”

Eco delineates further between publishing and communicating. With the advent of handheld devices, many of us have migrated unwittingly into the realm of publishing (fossilized entrails) versus ephemeral (sound wave-dissipating) communications. Indeed the NSA has conscripted all of us into the publishing game without so much as a referendum. Police states are funny that way. Every hiccup has a shelf-life. Long live the permanent record.

For the moment, Moore’s Law is still finding cupboard space for our personal effusions. But even that venerable efficiency curve is flashing the fault-lines of fatigue. (Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku predicts its collapse in ten years.) Only Uncle Sam has the real estate and the mindless profligacy to even try and keep abreast of the tsunami. In a   Russia Today interview (4 December 2012), whistleblower and former NSA crypto-mathematician William Binney suggested well before the Snowden revelations that the NSA is collecting everything from everybody (what a shrewd discerning beast, that Uncle Sam!), thus the need for the 1.5 million square foot, $2 billion data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah:

“I don’t think they are filtering [the totality of society’s data]. They are just storing it. I think it’s just a matter of selecting when they want it. So, if they want to target you, they would take your attributes, go into that database and pull out all your data.” (William Binney, “Everyone in U.S. Under Virtual Surveillance”)

On one level, the NSA’s strategic plan seems to have stepped out of a French existentialist novel. It collects the data because, well, it and the data are there. Of course, part of the plotline involves forgetting that the Constitution is there, too—or once was, anyway. For the moment, storage capability and analytics techniques are evolving briskly and the government is flush enough to afford them. The day has arrived when, if the government decides it doesn’t like you, it will simply data-mine you to backstop all the reasons why it doesn’t like you.

Alas, profit-making entities do not enjoy the same boundless access to acres of Utah desert and public largesse. Big Brother enjoys scalability whereas profit centers cannot forgo front-end data analytics techniques. Capitalists have to take out the trash because data warehousing is a huge and growing expense. In a perverse twist on the crowding-out effect, the private sector could ultimately contract under the onerous burden of data storage costs (even as the business value of the stored data is known to be de minimus), while the public sector sits smug atop your paramour’s pet name. You call that fair, Mr. Orwell?

Studies have shown three-quarters of all data has the retention value of an empty gum wrapper. This is one way of saying the legal profession has zero interest in its liability value (and don’t think for a minute that defense against potential lawsuits isn’t a big part of the anal retention bias). IBM’s Pritchard, again:

A large part of the inability to push a delete button is the result of legislation requiring businesses to maintain certain identifiable information to ensure transparency when ostensibly working on behalf of stockholders. In addition, a business of any size being sued, or suing to protect its rights, better be able to produce evidence to prove its case. Court sanctions have been swift and harsh in the evidentiary arena.  Attorneys have responded to keep it all. Attorneys are focused on risk. They look in one direction, strictly adhering to the law, torpedoes be damned.

Fortunately, there are countervailing forces within the enterprise. IT departments, threatened by the predations of data storage costs on their budgets (and the resultant brakes on innovation and development) are as eager to take out the trash as in-house general counsel are to let the refuse just pile up. Nor did enterprising CIO’s climb the corporate ladder for the purpose of becoming graveyard caretakers. And yet a recent McKinsey & Company report (“Big Data: The Next Frontier for Innovation, Competition, and Productivity, May 2011) projects 40 percent growth in global data generation per annum versus five percent growth in global IT spending. With fewer allocable dollars contending with explosive and unabated data generation, Big Data risks becoming the dumpster that ate The Next Big Thing.

How will innovation maintain a place at the IT table? Slowly, senior management is coming to realize that the security blanket is really an anvil in disguise. The fact, is Big Data threatens to be a major job and productivity killer. With more bytes and less people, the machine wins again. Frankly, how many more battles can We the People afford to lose?
Even today, only two percent of all existent human data is on the Internet. Oh good, only 98 percent more to plow through! Rilke would be struck by the frivolity of the task, indexing the totality of (ever-expanding) human data, tantamount, one suspects, to moving every grain of sand on every beach from the left side of the beach to the right side and vice versa.

Suppose Sisyphus managed just once to tip his boulder over the crest of the hill. Would it not just careen into a meta-valley on the other side? How is our wisdom, our knowledge enhanced by the reptilian impulse to catalog everything under the sun or, as Sven Birkerts characterizes, the replicative meaninglessness of the so-called ‘digital path’, to invent:

“…a parallel realm… [that] would move us away by building a new world, with new human rules, and placing it squarely atop the old.” (“The Room and the Elephant”, Sven Birkerts, Los Angeles Review of Books, 7 June 2011)

Should the day ever arrive (it would have to be at the end of history) when the universe becomes fully indexed on the Internet, does the Internet not become the universe? or at the least a parallel meta-universe? What will we do then? Re-roll our boulders to their originating valleys? Admit the inevitable and collapse our souls into avatars? Who will conduct the first-order, up-close reconnoiter, what Emerson, anticipating Rilke describes as, “…the poet nam[ing] the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other”? Metadata names names, making it at least one step removed from the poet’s sacred project. Our transformative energies are wasted on filing chores, relegating us to glorified machine-language adjuncts. Steve Lohr looks ahead to this very prospect:

“Decisions of all kinds, [Big Data experts] say, will increasingly be made on the basis of data and analysis rather than experience and intuition — more science and less gut feel…what psychologists call ‘anchoring bias.’” (“Sizing Up Big Data, Broadening Beyond the Internet”, The New York Times, 19 June 2013)

Anchoring bias sounds a lot like poetic voice, that woefully inadequate yet durable nemesis of analytics everywhere, the human soul. The impending Big Data train-wreck cries out for a deeper reckoning to which we must rally our poet-technologists, all five of them. If we would only self-listen with proper gnostic intensity our data footprints would collapse like the nervous babel they mostly are. Big Data is the shadow-form of all we could not bring ourselves to reflect upon. Intuition will not be indexed.

Therein lies its value. Intuitives risk being hunted to extinction by the NSA State. If you cannot tweet it, it will not exist, an assault on Rilkean consciousness Patriot Act IV will surely codify. The apotheosis of P. K. Dick’s black iron prison (and Bentham’s Panopticon) is the Internet in its late-stage authoritarian form. Even Hammerbacher asks rhetorically if belatedly, “What does it mean to live in an era where things and people are infinitely observed?” Thank you, Mr. Hammerbacher, for tossing circumspection on the pyre of scientific advance.

But then, scientists are famous for plunging ahead and leaving others to look like ridiculously out-of-step Luddites. Allow me to dig my heels in first: If the wonders of Hiroshima have taught us anything, it is that the huge potential of Big Data will be met with a mushroom cloud of compensatory magnitude. Thus, it is precisely the breathless claims of Big Data analytics that have me shaking in my boots. We must relight the early Christian catacombs somewhere off the grid as the soul is being driven underground, once again.

I’m also prompted to offer an updated definition of that cagey yet ineradicable word ‘soul’ as being the human region which proves resistant to data collection and surveillance, not because we erect a killer (and thus someday, ‘with the right technology’, surmountable) firewall; but because there is something within the very fabric of soul that is antithetical to data collection and looms one step beyond Hammerbacher’s ‘infinite’ field of observation. The proof for soul? That Sisyphus’ punishment is so incomprehensible in magnitude and scale that no data silo can ever hope to contain it in the shuttered language of binaries. Capture is impossible. Only poetry can evoke it.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. If the soul proves to be but a billion points of convergent data, we will brush through the trans-human era on the way to machine-hegemony and human extinction. There’s a whole human movement working earnestly towards this capitulation called Singularitarianism —how traitorous, how charming. Absent this forever vouchsafed realm, the poetic project collapses like a metaphysical hoax perpetrated against the centuries. As goes poetry, so goes the soul. Historic man cannot be so far behind.

In the meantime, we are high-tech beasts of burden dragging stones towards a Great Collective Pyramid of Cyber. Had we realized the Digital Revolution would enlist us in a massive water-carrying project instead of emancipating us to pursue a Greater Meaning (the manna-headstone of information), we might never have picked up those damned Blackberry’s in the first place. Now we’re hooked. But please, just hold that thought. Don’t type it.

Big Brother, Big Data & the Sustaining Power of Kellogg’s® Eggo® Waffles

BLAST from PAST: This Is Your Brain on YouTube

This essay appeared previously at Pop Matters, September 2011

ball-brainonyoutube-splsh

There’s no doubt we are being trained into voyeuristic equanimity. When the word “surveillance” no longer has a pejorative ring, you will know we have fully arrived. It’ll be about the same time you manage to prance naked through a roomful of strangers with nary a blush. Exposure will usurp privacy as a societal ideal.

Here’s a statistic which, at first glance, packs a Pac-Man visual wallop. YouTube receives 48 hours of uploaded video every minute. That’s right. Two days worth of stuff happening (though not necessarily hap’nin stuff) arrives every 60 seconds. Clearly the digital world is gobbling up the known world at a remarkable clip. How much more voracious can it get? Well conceivably, if all seven billion earthlings were armed with camcorders, seven billion minutes of available ‘per minute’ video would result—and we haven’t even counted Big Brotherly surveillance cams and other unmanned video devices.

Indeed at some point, if we haven’t reached it yet, pre-Internet “legacy” video will have been entirely subsumed. Of course copyright issues are a current sticking point. But these will be ironed out in time through one payment regime or another. Viewed in this context, 48 hours per minute represents a tiny fraction of observable human reality. We have barely scraped the opening credits of this movie.

We seem headed towards a videosphere that captures and subdues the totality of human activity like some goopy, billion-eyed, grass-roots-driven surveillance cam. Perhaps the social utility of eliminating torture, reducing human rights abuses, locating lost children, etc., will mitigate the intrusiveness of mounting a camera on every earthly noggin. That may well be how the Hobson’s Choice is posed when the government arrives to affix your Halliburton-issue mandatory head-cam. We are already affixing windows into our souls, certainly our beliefs and buying habits, by tossing out the welcome mat to Facebook’s obsequious advance.

Talk about putting lipstick on an Animal Farm pig. One can imagine George Orwell expressing bemusement at the inroads social media has managed to achieve. Have civil liberties ever been handed over with such eager abandon and at such a bewildering rate of speed? Somewhere in the patriot-wing of Heaven, Johnny Tremain is bemoaning a lost, misspent youth as, across Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia every day, nearly 400,000 people join Facebook—an apparatus that will almost certainly be turned to more nefarious ends once some unforeseen (to our eyes) tipping-point is attained. Taken at face value, smiley-faced emoticons are, well, blank-faced bits and bytes. So I wouldn’t put much credence in the fluffy social veneer. It’s merely the enticement that frames a gambit of far larger ambitions.

When I think of Facebook, I can’t help but picture that scene in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where the nice candy man entices the children onto his wonderful candy truck only to have the confectionery facade collapse and the child-catcher’s black cage appear. By that time, the children are captives of the cage. Off they go up the mountain to face their fate at Castle Google.

Betting on the continued geniality of social media seems a high-stakes gamble, and for what, the convenience of connecting with high school sweethearts? In the unconnected days of yore, the ‘barriers to discovery’ made it easy to let sleeping flames lie. Often gumshoe detectives were needed to track down the faraway objects of our adolescent affections. There’s a recent statistic, offered up by someone in a white lab-coat, suggesting 20 percent of all divorce petitions in America today cite Facebook as a contributing factor.

I’ve met three couples over the last few months who are reunited childhood sweethearts. They credited their rapprochement to the Internet, in one case classmates.com; the other two are indebted to Facebook. I’m suspicious of idealized childhood sweethearts only because I have a hunch they grow up to be garden-variety pains-in-the-asses just like regular people. The point is folks are harking back to a gauzy, bygone era, splitting from real lives and real families to chase interludes that in most cases are best left in the mists of time and 10th grade study hall. Think well my friend, before you accept that friend request from the high school prom queen.

But suppose these retro-lovebirds are on the cusp of a broadly based, dump-reality trend? Though resembling unhappy middle-aged adults on a sentimental, adolescent tear, they are in fact a vanguard of cyberspace Amerigo Vespucci’s. Idealization can be a real high-bar bitch. Are pixels on the verge of overwhelming primates? Speaking of the agony of da feet, what chance do a husband’s smelly socks stand (yes, some socks can actually stand) against the odorless, tasteless, colorless sublimity of a match.com Prince Charming with a 20-year-old profile pic? People, the real kind, better clean up their acts fast or it will be curtains for the quiet desperation of real life. Then who will stock the ponds of our Internet soul-mate searches?

Nothing that happens in Vegas will ever stay in Vegas again. Future social status will be measured by how many hours of video down-time an individual is allowed. In a clandestine take on Club Med, there will be ‘black-resorts’, holiday locales where, for a substantial fee, head-cams can be left in a locker. This privilege will be reserved for the extremely well-connected. It will also necessitate some level of government approval. (You wouldn’t want well-heeled terrorists vacationing off-cam with you.) People will relish unobservable moments like gourmet coffee breaks. Tomorrow’s Castaneda’s will descend into the world of the unobserved reporting back on a spirit-realm beyond the videosphere. Children will giggle over their grandparents’ tales of getting lost for six hours in a forest or slipping away to get married. By then, there will be an embedded sensibility that the videosphere is reality. The state will use its police power to enforce this sensibility. But there won’t be much need for enforcement as the populace will have embraced it.

This is why video ubiquity is so prized by the powerful. Shadowing reality’s every move, it supplants, and in a very odd sense, repeals the need for a first-order reality. Observation will become the new action. Virtual reality games will become so compelling that authentic action will seem tame by comparison. Venturing outside has always been fraught with small nuisances: inclement weather, the chance of a fender-bender on the way to the park, mosquito bites, high gas prices. As virtual reality improves its game, authentic experience will confront fresh, new hurdles. The passivity feedback loop will yield more passivity. Legs will atrophy. Dissent, too.

Sex—a practice once held to be among the most private, intimate of human acts—adorns the Internet like tits-and-ass-print wallpaper. Even if sex is not part of the control paradigm, it’s fun as hell to talk about—so bare with me. In a classic media-informing-message dynamic, the video-ubiquity of sex accentuates its visual, surface features. The camera favors physicality, not spirituality. It charts movement not catharsis. To even the most casual observer of pornography (or so it’s been reported to me), the sexual activity portrayed reveals a dispiriting sameness. After all, two arms, two legs, a smattering of additional anatomical features and what really are the possible permutations?

I mean, since the product launch of the Kama Sutra manual in the 2nd century CE, pigs haven’t exactly sprouted new wings. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous pornography benchmark was, “I know it when I see it.” Indeed seeing it, seeing anything, is the eclipsing sense-faculty of the videosphere. Perhaps the real obscenity of pornography is that it mounts yet another assault on the unseen, as though Lady Gaga wasn’t enough (though I find her better seen than heard.) If observability cannot be produced, the veracity of the unseen will increasingly be questioned. The unspoken intimacies of sex will face an increasing struggle to assert their continued presence. By the way, anyone is free to join this struggle by having tons of sex behind closed doors with the lights out. If you need a partner, there’s always match.com.

In a similar vein, the realm of metaphysics—souls, spirits, Big Foot and the like—will suffer a further cultural blow as an abysmal threshold of observability subjects it to ever-deepening wells of skepticism. The electro-shock treatment should have been enough. However, this trend promises to push the voices in my head right over the edge.

Speaking of insanity, a brisk walk down any main street in America today provides the best argument against grooming further madness. We are awash in it—madness that is. And yet the Internet marries a hall of mirrors to an already-dicey population. There is the apocryphal tale of a lesbian who developed an intense multi-year relationship with a long-distance lady. After months of rejecting opportunities to meet in the flesh, the “lady” finally conceded that she was no lady at all. In fact “she” was a burly truck-driver from Duluth named Matt. It is a special hell to be separated from your soul-mate. It is yet another inner circle of hell to discover that your soul-mate consists of tape, glue and countless lonely hours spent at Beefy Moe’s Truck Stop. The last report of the “real” lady was that she had dematerialized, leaving no forwarding IP address. I’m thinking she’s a forlorn ghost circling evermore the cloud’s infernal machine.

I know what you’re thinking: “Hey dude, it’s one thing to record every human moment and gesture. But it’s quite another to sift that mountain of data and extract actionable information.” First of all, please don’t call me dude. But yes, this would be true except that new computers with astonishing processing power will break the data-information logjam. Huge video-data-mining computers endowed with powerful algorithms will isolate and identify, from scads of home-movie-like material, problematic body language, giveaway nervous tics, gestures of implied criminality, physical features that suspiciously resemble many of my former girlfriends, etc. This will birth a whole new genus of political prisoner. Eccentricity, the very wellspring of human creativity, will be singled out for particular scrutiny, if not hounded out of existence altogether. The poet and artist class will be decimated. Plebeian uniformity will become the new aesthetic.

There’s no doubt we are being trained into voyeuristic equanimity. When the word “surveillance” no longer has a pejorative ring, you will know we have fully arrived. It’ll be about the same time you manage to prance naked through a roomful of strangers with nary a blush. Exposure will usurp privacy as a societal ideal. The current crop of reality shows are soldiers in the trenches, chipping away at the gauzy veneer and bourgeoisie bad faith of distortive production values. We watch people, celebrities often, brushing their teeth or divvying up household chores without the least sense anymore of a private space being invaded. Besides sanctioning our observation of once-private activities, these reality shows achieve the added benefit of demystifying celebrity-hood generally.

Great money and effort was expended by ‘40s-era movie studios to cultivate a divine separateness among its stable of stars. Since the onset of the television age, we have been eroding this mystique. Power is no longer served today by fostering a coterie of mortal gods. Hollywood was constructed around the rather low-order power model of dream-fulfillment: providing fantasy in exchange for money. Today, power is in the early stages of donning its invisibility cloak. Inducing envy and longing (and selling the products that answer those yearnings) serves no further purpose.

The current phase could be called the Great Leveling Project. This is a social engineering algorithm. By reducing standard deviation in a system, the system approaches stasis. In short, the more similar to one another that we can be made, the closer the perfect control ideal becomes. Disruptive social movements, i.e., trends with the potential to buck the system, vanish; not because they must be suppressed, but because everyone is, temperamentally, of a likeness.

Money was a great entrancement, the ultimate carrot affixed to the ultimate stick. But it was always merely an instrumentality, a means to a moneyless end. Google parlayed the traditional metrics of money, market capitalization, purchasing power, etc., to reach precisely this point. However, at a certain point-beyond, control becomes the new currency. Just as the logic and psychology of money appears to be breaking down, money is bowing out, having served its interim purpose well.

This is where the gold-bugs are mistaken. We are not engaged in the age-old process of currency debasement, i.e., sliding down the credibility curve from fiat currency to hard money. We are vaulting off the venerable store-of-value continuum altogether. Once the threshold of complete control is crossed, money will no longer matter. The motive for it is withering away. There will only be total perfect control. Perfect control won’t feel like control. It will feel like oxygen which is to say, we won’t feel it at all.

How we reach a totalitarian state is the difference between consent and coercion. This is a crucial point, ‘the manufacture of consent’ is a term coined by Walter Lippmann and later developed by Noam Chomsky. For perfect control to claim legitimacy, it must appear as though we have brought the condition upon ourselves. Though no great fan of Orwell, Chomsky expanded upon Lippmann’s phrase as, “an Orwellian euphemism for thought control. The idea is that in a state such as the U.S., where the government can’t control the people by force, it had better control what they think.”

Why, you may ask, must perfect complete control be concerned about its legitimacy? Well, it’s a little tautological, but if total control feels like suppression, it falls short of perfection. We have to build it. We have to embrace it. O’Brien could just as easily kill 1984’s Winston. However, it’s important that Winston’s consent be extracted.

Human imagination can still subvert the machine. Imagination is the unseen screen against which video can only aspire to the crudest approximations. You must become an unabashed weirdo, a bedeviling mass of contradictions to the reductionist Gestapo-template.

Manufactured consent is a fascinating, if eerie, concept. Let’s say, over a generation or two, certain media masters succeed in manipulating a society into the enjoyment of only two things: Simon Cowell and Harry Potter. Within these two spheres of interest, ‘libertarian’ latitude is allowed. None of this goes down in an overt or suppressive way. The people have exactly what they want. Of course someone worked diligently behind the scenes to conform their interests to this restricted sphere of activity. When was the last time you visited the local library to see whether Catcher in the Rye was still a state-approved title? What, you no longer visit the library? Then it shouldn’t concern you that we burned Salinger out back with Twain.

Does a burned book make a crackle in an oblivious society? When freedom of expression atrophies to the point where only a handful of “expression-tracts” remain, no one expresses outrage over the huge chunks of culture gone AWOL.

Manufactured consent is the velvety sieve that delivers tomorrow’s authoritarian system. Today’s America is already an authoritarian system wrapped in a democratic mythos and a red-blue fictional narrative. In many respects the Internet cloud crashed the party. Slowly it is being recast in an authoritarian frame.

The huge tragedy is that we are handing this wonderful distributed system, the Internet, back over to centralized overlords. The topology of the Internet meshes with radical democracy. In many ways, the Internet is a fulfillment of democratic aspirations. Every node is equal. The websites of the powerful begin with www just like Pee-wee Herman’s. Though jesus.com is taken, Godaddy assures us follow-jesus.com can be had for $11.99 a month. Yes, the cloud is nothing but the sum of its nodes. We have arrived: E Pluribus Unum!

There’s cachet in the obverse of that venerable Latin phrase, as well. In his landmark TV essay, 1993’s E Unibus Pluram, the late David Foster Wallace explored the layers of irony that govern television as a cultural phenomenon. Of course his essay was written prior to the blight of reality TV, you know, during the halcyon era of, ah, Friends. There are for example the people on TV who know they’re being watched and ‘act’ accordingly (in fact we have a name for them, actors.) Then there are the watchers who often love nothing more than to hate the people they are watching while at the same time envying or worshipping, the people who play the people. This synopsis hardly does justice to Wallace’s elaborate investigation (intended largely for a fiction-writer audience.)

Irony shares a common feature with money. Both require a split-screen. Money facilitates transactions between two parties. Irony permits asynchronous appraisals between two points-of-view. When Shakespeare’s prophecy is fulfilled and the world truly becomes a fully-non-collapsible, rotating stage, the bifurcation of screen and sofa, us and them, will wither away because the ubiquity of the observable will extinguish it. The incongruities that allow irony, two discrete observation posts, will be simultaneously exposed and melded into an “indistinguishable one”. Ironic distance will collapse.

Power accrues and never disbands. There is this chaste notion that the Rothschild family acquired huge swathes of earthly wealth and power only to, what, forsake it all? This view commits yet another variant of the fallacy of mistaking the unseen for the nonexistent. When a certain critical mass of power is reached, the ego-need to parade it disappears. Only the nouveau riche seek the cover of People magazine, whereas real multi-generational power is comfortable in its own brocade skin. There’s no one left to impress, no one to curry favor from for the purpose of securing a promotion. This is because, in certain rarefied strata of society, there are no promotions.

While I’m not a wild-eyed conspiratorial type, having invoked that surname, it’ll be interesting to see if I make it through ‘til morning. There’s little question that wealth has been on an inexorable ascent back into the pockets of the well-heeled. After a brief flirtation with middle-classes and libertarian ideals, societies are returning to their inherent plutocratic predispositions. For the most part, they are accomplishing this in a silent “trickle-up” fashion. Remarkably, the hue and cry one might expect has, for all appearances, been “manufactured” away.

What is the only defense, you ask? We need the poet’s eccentricity, but on a massive (though not mass) scale. Yes, you too can be a poet and it won’t even cost you $19.95. Forget, if you can, all the word-fixation that clouds the essential orientation that is poetry. You can polish your metaphors later. We need poets in their natural role as agitators of the status quo.

How does a poet put one foot in front of the other? If the received wisdom turns right, he turns left until such time as he finds himself accompanied by a growing army of like-minded poets. Like-mindedness is the poison, not the antidote. When the antidote becomes the poison, as it is so often does, he crouches down and howls at the moon. Or he climbs a nearby tree. Human imagination can still subvert the machine. Imagination is the unseen screen against which video can only aspire to the crudest approximations. You must become an unabashed weirdo, a bedeviling mass of contradictions to the reductionist Gestapo-template.

The Spanish Civil War was an indispensable crucible for birthing socially-astute poets (not to mention that aspect of poetry which one runs the risk of overstressing in times of great social need, the poems themselves): Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz; then the martyrs, Federico Garcia Lorca and Miguel Hernandez.

Vallejo’s poem Mass could just as well be an inverted parable for that corpse-like Mohican, the last man to adopt Facebook:

Mass

At the end of the battle the fighter lay dead. A man came to him
and said: ‘Don’t die! I love you too much!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Two came to him and again said:
‘Don’t leave us! Take heart!
Come back to life!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Then twenty, a hundred, a thousand,
Five hundred thousand, came, crying:
‘So much love and yet so powerless against death!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Millions surrounded him,
pleading together:
‘Brother, don’t leave us!’
But the corpse, alas, went on dying.

Then, all the men on earth
stood round him. The corpse eyed them sadly,
overwhelmed. He got up slowly,
embraced the first man, started to walk…

(translated by Paul O’Prey)

I’m reluctant to offer much more on this subject for fear of spawning poetry collectives. That would ruin the whole thing. Poets must be solitary and profoundly disconnected. Librarians and Facebook groups turn them into schools and movements. Gathered up, even with the best of intentions, a poet’s singular vision dissolves into incoherency or mildly stirring slogans. We have so many venues for the muffled shuffle of the crowd’s feet. Facebook is only the latest, and most efficient, gatherer in a long, ignoble line. A poetic sensibility is the only bulwark against the overwhelming, regimenting forces of conformance, the prelude to totalitarian hell. Yes, some ineffable Fuhrer may be waiting for us behind the Internet storm-cloud. By spewing torrents of earnest, albeit journeyman poetry from all corners of the globe, we can extend the game until, say, about 2018. As for reaching 2020 in a reasonably unshackled condition, I just don’t see us having the poetic vision for it.

BLAST from PAST: This Is Your Brain on YouTube

Book Review: Internet Police: How Crime Went Online and the Cops Followed (by Nate Anderson)

This book review appeared previously at Pop Matters

reviewed by Norman Ball

In a global economy parched for growth and a buying public stretched for boots-on-the-ground mall time, progressively invasive online protocols promise to brook fewer and fewer complaints. Soon, if not already, online commerce will be deemed too big to fail. We will be asked to throw our cellular particulars into the fray, and you know what? We’ll hand over scraped skin cells like the big wussies we are. Hey Patrick Henry, you wanna job or not?

internet popo

Recently, I put a question to the CIO of a large financial services firm at an Internet privacy group event: When you compound the emotional and financial toll identity theft exacts on affected consumers with the frequency of high-visibility data breaches, is tolerance for online commerce potentially exhaustible? My point was that while the industry can theoretically indulge a spy-vs.-spy ‘attack-counterattack’ dynamic forever (all the while perfecting its defenses with each successive data breach and of course passing the cost onto us) the battle is asymptotic. Final victory is unattainable. We consumers, on the other hand, have but one social security number to give our economy. Life is short. Particulars are few. No one wants to spend every third weekend resurrecting his or her commercial viability. Confirming Upton Sinclair’s claim (well sort of) that it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his IT budget depends upon his not understanding it, this particular CIO smirked before shifting into techno-acronymic mode and rattling off a series of eerily dystopian countermeasures that loom on the horizon: biometrics, fingerprint recognition, retinal scans, contextual ID’s and identity wallets. I suppose in a pinch and for the right product features, there’s always a consumer’s first-born child as genetic proof-positive. Prepare for identity daycare centers, at least for big-ticket items.

Though blessedly less prosaic than what just passed above, my question was, I realized, more rhetorical than reality-based. After all, 2014’s Cyber Black Monday posted record sales, undaunted it would seem by last year’s Target and Neiman Marcus data breaches which potentially compromised tens of millions of identities. In a global economy parched for growth and a buying public stretched for boots-on-the-ground mall time, progressively invasive online protocols promise to brook fewer and fewer complaints. Soon, if not already, online commerce will be deemed too big to fail. We will be asked to throw our cellular particulars into the fray, and you know what? We’ll hand over scraped skin cells like the big wussies we are. Hey Patrick Henry, you wanna job or not?

This is a normalization process. Eddie Bernays’ century-old project of body-snatching citizens and leaving consumers in their wake has yielded the desired hyper-appetitive blobs. Increasingly, our commercial identity is who we are. How sad is that? After all, no one camps out days in advance at a polling booth. We reserve that kind of fervor and conviction for Best Buy in late November. The real crime is our civic lassitude. Watching the beastly display of citizen-buyers wrestling on the floor for the latest plastic gizmo—as though their identities depended on it—brings to mind one thing: Affixing the Beast’s mark will be a protocol that barely registers comment.

In the meantime, this horrible abdication must be policed and democracy kept safe for commerce. To that end, the private sector has been joined mightily by law enforcement agencies. In his recent book The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online and the Cops Followed, (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014), Nate Anderson offers a fascinating primer on how the policing effort has evolved after a rather slow start. Anderson, Deputy Editor at on-line IT journal Ars Technica, offers a series of case studies where the implicit dilemma tends to circle around the old Dionysian-Apollonian vexation: how to balance the anarchic spirit of creative epiphany against the stodgy old control-paradigm of put your hands up and don’t move!  Somehow, evil must be kept at bay without smothering innovation beneath a blanket of thin blue lines. Another crucial point Anderson makes is how the lines have blurred between spy-craft and policing, a development as troubling as it appears inevitable. Police surveillance smacks of something between pre-crime monitoring and voyeurism. My goodness, isn’t there enough post-crime to fight?

Throughout the book, Anderson’s examples range from the utopian to the creepy to the prurient to the jaw-droppingly accessible. Apparently, Needle Park has gone on hiatus. Mail-order heroin is just a click away.

The Sealand/HavenCo story reads like an Internet version of ‘The Mouse That Roared’. Sealand was a circa 2000 attempt at creating a principality in North Sea waters in the cement leg (yes!) of an abandoned WWII naval fort. HavenCo was the data hosting service that operated in Sealand for the purpose of hosting companies with controversial material via a satellite Internet link. Both were established with the loftiest libertarianism in mind. However in short order the principality and the business clashed as the former aspired to act more like a sovereign nation (it even had a prince); HavenCo accused Sealand of nationalizing it while discouraging some of its more off-color customers. One of the last straws for HavenCo was when Sealand embraced international copyright law. Sell-outs! Of course as Anderson points out, the larger world was closing in anyway, all across the globe. HavenCo had overestimated the impregnability of its chilly North Sea platform. Since connectivity implicates at least two loci, in-border crime—albeit originating from international waters—becomes eminently prosecutable when the dodgy content terminates in your precinct’s backyard. It had just taken the authorities a little time to figure their latitudes and crack down. That’s a large theme in the book, by the way: Keystone cops forever shimmying up a learning curve all parties are ascending with the bad guys always one shimmy ahead.

Other essays range from spam king Oleg Nikolaenko who provided much of the impetus for the CAN-SPAM Act to the music industry’s full-on assault on single mom Jammie Thomas for illegal music downloads. As Anderson points out rather sardonically, the “optics weren’t great—faceless coastal corporations against small-town Midwestern mom.” Nonetheless much was riding on the case for the industry. The ensuing trials proved a nightmare for all parties, though the industry ultimately prevailed against Thomas to the tune of $222,000, an amount as yet unpaid.

On the creepier side, there’s the tale of the overly curious webcams controlled by remote access tool (RAT) software, often a malware download which allows unknown voyeurs to control webcams on stranger’s computers, take photos of the victims and send them detailed instructions that clearly indicate the users are being watched. The psychological trauma resulting from this activity can be understandably quite acute; nor is the sense of personal invasion mitigated when it turns out law enforcement is the perpetrator as in the case of one substitute teacher who was arrested after a period of on-line surveillance for allegedly receiving stolen property (her PC). There are also warrant issues as Anderson points out with the FBI’s attempt to judiciously use Computer & Internet Protocol Address Verifier (CIPAV) to monitor the email activity of a suspicious machine. Often these warrants are set for extremely finite periods of time. In fact the FBI’s formidable suite of in-house cyber-surveillance tools are closely vetted with bureau attorneys for legal compliance. The point Anderson makes is that even legally-sanctioned surveillance is, well, creepy.

Meanwhile the judiciary is on the look-out for government fishing expeditions. As one Texas judge opined of the FBI’s surveillance software, “what if the target computer is located in a public library, Internet café…what if the computer is used by family or friends uninvolved in the illegal scheme?” Good questions indeed, Your Honor.

Another essay deals with early FBI packet sniffer Carnivore where the same argument is made:

“It might be looking for Joe X. Terrorist’s e-mails in transit, or it might try to monitor his instant messages, but yours and mine might also pass through the same router.”

Somehow discriminating searches have to be kept to their narrow charters. The recent news of NSA employees going through the personal information of acquaintances is hardly encouraging.

Anderson is a great writer with a lucid style. The stories are at times humorous yet consistently informative and his grasp of recent jurisprudence is formidable. Even more important, he writes without obvious ideological bias. This agnostic approach gives reasonable voice to all sides.

Sealand/HavenCo’s John Barlow makes a final, surreal appearance in the book speaking at a 2011 e-G8 meeting in counterpoint to French President Nicolas Sarkozy who, one suspects, is oblivious to the subtly patronizing premise of his views when he intones:

“Don’t forget that behind the anonymous Internet user there is a real citizen living in a real society and a real culture and a nation to which he or she belongs, with its laws and its rules.”

And the Internet is what, Mr. President? A La-La Land for time-wasters bereft of all cultural and societal coordinates? Sacré bleu and cue Janet Jackson—we are a part of the cyber nation!

Much to his surprise, Barlow is met with applause when he responds that the meeting’s focus is nothing more than an attempt to impose, “the standards of some business practices and institutional power centers that come from another era on the future, whether they are actually productive of new ideas or not.” In the end, there is no end, or as Anderson says: “We’re never going to engineer the mess out of [the Internet].” The best protection against creativity and innovation is public vigilance, pragmatism, tolerance and informed policing. And have I got the midnight shoppers to champion this high cause (not).

In the final analysis, Anderson’s studious equanimity and telling of all sides, while serving as the book’s primary strength, leaves this reader with a vague disquiet nonetheless. I probably violate the eminently reasonable scope of Anderson’s endeavor when I suggest that, maybe just maybe, there’s more to this enforcement racket than a bunch of well-meaning cops trying to get along in a good game of chase. Indeed there are nefarious agendas within law enforcement about which Anderson seems too polite to ponder. Our freedoms are most imperiled, not from some villain du jour glaring down from a wanted poster, but from a tech-laden government assiduously giving him chase, all for our ‘protection’. Then again, that might just be my own ideological druthers talking, a failing which Anderson has the good sense to avoid.

Book Review: Internet Police: How Crime Went Online and the Cops Followed (by Nate Anderson)

Security versus Privacy: A De-Actualizing Formulation

The slightest variations on this essay (I reserve the perpetual right to tweak!) appear at Foreign Policy Journal and Global Research. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs offers a way into the privacy debate. As Tennessee Williams said, there is, “a conspiracy to destroy the sensitive people of the earth.” The same essential conspiracy seems hellbent on privacy destruction too.

maslow needs

Security versus Privacy: A De-Actualizing Formulation

“Self-actualizers (no more than 2% of any population) require, “privacy and solitude more than others do”. Once again—this time courtesy of Maslow—we find the privacy-security equivalency embroiled in an apples-and-oranges quandary. Security is a deficiency need. The desire for privacy is an ascendant characteristic. Might the public policy fixation on security—as though it were an ascendant societal aim—covertly harbor the desire to unseat our rare and precious self-actualizers?”

On the rather tight-lipped matter of privacy, there was more than a little fear-mongering going on in President Obama’s January 20th State of the Union address. Warning against legislative inertia that threatened to, “leave our nation and economy vulnerable” complete with malevolent hackers invading the privacy “especially of our kids” the President was clearly not above resorting to rhetorical flourishes that, while not devoid of truth-content, tend also to mask the privacy trade-offs inherent in centralized information sharing between government and industry. In the words of Mark Jaycox, legislative analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, data-sharing between the private and public sectors, “creates this perfect storm for the potential of of your personal information to be shared”. Thus a more measured approach seems justified given the high stakes.

Then again, perhaps measured responses have gone the way of powdered wigs as an even bleaker assessment was presented by a Harvard research group days later at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Privacy is dead or at least it will never be resuscitated in any manner resembling, “how we conventionally think of it”, to quote researcher Margo Seltzer.

Certainly measured responses on the issue of privacy have proven elusive on the public sector side. One longstanding narrative is that security and privacy share a continuum. The strength of one comes only at cost to the other. However, this security-privacy construct is a false one. Government officials are nonetheless particularly fond of tossing these loaded dice. Here’s President Obama from June 2013:

“I think it’s important to understand that you can’t have 100 percent security and then have 100 percent privacy…We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

Then, former NSA Security consultant Ed Giorgio in 2008:

“We have a saying in this business: ‘Privacy and security are a zero-sum game.’”

Absolutes are practical non-starters. This is no less the case in the privacy debate. Absolute security, theoretically possible, would require a ban on crossing the street. As for absolute privacy, solitary confinement has its champions. However that seems more punishment than aspiration. Ultimately, all continua are couched within that great overarching zero-sum called life, a 100% fatal enterprise in all cases. Suffice to say, we’re forever balancing extremes. Zero-sum formulations in the privacy arena make for particularly bad straw-men. When government trots them out, there’s often more than bumbling bureaucratese at work. For reasons we’ll show, the security-privacy dichotomy is falsely constructed by design.

Indeed the real trade-off is not between security and liberty at all. Since at least the early aftermath of 911, Bruce Schneier of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society has been monitoring and deconstructing the semantic mischief in his weekly ‘Schneier on Security’ column. Here he is in May 2006: “Too many wrongly characterize the debate as “security versus privacy.” The real choice is liberty versus control.” Now there’s a trade-off with some cognitive heft.

Immediately one sees why government might be hedging its intent with obfuscating continua. After all, ‘control’ conjures unpleasant images of incarceration, restraint, repression, loss of autonomy. Better not use it even when one means it. No government is going to pre-announce a decided turn toward despotism. Instead it will couch the turn in security terms. Trundling out the terror bogeyman greases the despotic skids.

There’s an argument Government is unwittingly conflating its security with ours. That is, in a bid to secure its power, Government might have convinced itself society-at-large is best served by curtailing our liberties. However, motive shouldn’t matter when the end result is the same. We’ve all heard about the road to hell where good intentions are well-beaten pavestones. Should the historic footnote end up reading, privacy perished in America through a series of well-intentioned, bureaucratic missteps, our locked-down condition will be no less restrictive. (For an interesting chronicle of the advancing cyber-security state, Nate Anderson’s 2014 book ‘The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online, and the Cops Followed’ is worth a read. This author reviews it here.)

Have Americans gained any security upticks, even by accident, from the over-decade-long, multi-billion dollar prosecution of a false dichotomy? Schneier intends no sarcasm when he suggests only three modest benefits: “reinforcing the cockpit doors, passengers realizing they have to fight back and—possibly—sky marshals.” The rest, he calls ‘security theatre’. Incidentally, none of the three security enhancements invaded personal privacy.

Patrician equivocations from our Government have a historic precedent. In a 1971 speech before the National Press Club, CIA Director Richard Helms launched a broadside both at our nation’s divided system of government and Congressional oversight with an oddly plaintive justification for extra-constitutional espionage. Repeatedly asked about the CIA’s covert forays in foreign lands, he declared: “You’ve just got to trust us. We are honorable men”.

Blind trust is a nonstarter. On the subject of good guys and bad guys, the Constitution is cynically agnostic by design. A dark vision perhaps, but absolute power has a perennial tendency of stripping men and women of their honorable dispositions.

In the final analysis, no one can be a friend to privacy except the People themselves. But only if they feel their privacy warrants protection. Every day on Facebook, millions of people share with the world what they had for breakfast. Privacy must be re-esteemed at the grassroots, one breakfast table at a time.

Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at The Cato Institute, offers a very workable definition for privacy [my italics]:

“…the subjective condition people enjoy when they have power to control information about themselves and when they exercise that power consistent with their interests and values.”

Harper echoes Schneier in recognizing control as an essential aspect of privacy. Not being able to do things is a palpable deprivation everyone can feel and understand. Through the exercising of self-control, an individual’s privacy maintains its inherent sanctity. And yet, Government invariably begs to differ. Here’s Donald Kerr, principal deputy director of National Intelligence, (from You Get Privacy When Your Definition Matches Ours’ Ars Technica, by Ken Fisher, Nov 11 2007):

“Americans need to shift their definition of privacy to center instead on the proper maintenance and protection of personal data by government and business entities…privacy, I would offer, is a system of laws, rules, and customs with an infrastructure of Inspectors General, oversight committees, and privacy boards on which our intelligence community commitment is based and measured.”

First of all, the paternalistic tone is off-putting and instructive in and of itself. Shouldn’t proposed shifts in privacy be a grassroots referendum and not a top-down directive from the spy community to the open society that ostensibly employs it? Kerr seems to be suggesting nothing less than that Harper’s ‘subjective self’ report immediately to the public square for government inspection. This creates a conundrum since a human being’s private realm, ordered to present itself for review before Kerr’s battery of boards and ‘oversight’ committees, relinquishes its private status solely by virtue of showing up. This is a Rubicon dilemma. Once de-privatized, privacy content can never be re-privatized. The NSA is clearly pressing a third category: collected but not actively reviewed. Call it restored virginity. Who’s buying that on their wedding night?

Clearly, mass and indiscriminate surveillance is, for Kerr, a settled debate. (That’s because the NSA had already settled it unilaterally and to its own satisfaction. The 2007 quote would betray its cagey circumlocution in the subsequent Snowden revelations.) Our data was already in their hands. Privacy has thus already been co-opted by a great, indiscriminate and a priori NSA vacuum cleaner. The debate for Kerr thus begins after surveillance has occurred i.e. at a bumped-forward time-zero. To use an operable government euphemism, Kerr was being ‘less than candid’ with us.

Or as Ken Fisher puts it, Kerr artfully skips a page right on over to, “…how such data is safeguarded” once it has been collected. Of course had it never been collected in the first place, all talk of safeguarding and maintaining it would be unnecessary. That public debate never occurred. Government is indeed reprising Helms’ shadowy third way. Trust us. We are honorable men.

So, we’re up against two very different definitions of privacy in America. One is apriori, inalienable and subjectively sacrosanct to the individual. The other defines a privacy that can be ‘won back’ from a surveillance apparatus that invades it at the outset as a matter of course. This is more than a little unsettling as Government seems to be making of a zero sum a less-than-virtuous closed circle: ‘Because we are everywhere, we are nowhere’. Excusing demagoguery on the grounds that it’s surreptitiously accomplished an approximation of godlike omnipresence is unchecked, unbalanced and unconstitutional in the extreme. In true Orwellian fashion, we’re left with a definition of privacy that’s the antithesis of privacy.

Another conceptual demarcation crucial to the privacy discussion and yet prone to its own form of vagueness is privacy versus liberty. Our Constitution may betray its age most vividly here as, in the pre-electronic age, notions of ubiquitous surveillance were technical non-starters. Can we say private lives in 18th century ‘unwired’ America were uncontested givens? In ‘The Two Western Cultures of Privacy: Dignity versus Liberty’, James Whitman lays the privacy crisis at the feet of the modern era:

“It is a commonplace, moreover, that our privacy is peculiarly menaced by the evolution of modem society, with its burgeoning technologies of surveillance and inquiry.”

Thus while the Bill of Rights explicitly enumerates various rights and liberties, the closest we get to a ‘right to privacy’ resides, albeit implicitly, in the ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’ clause of the Fourth Amendment. Privacy rights are also implicitly addresses elsewhere in the Constitution and in subsequent court cases such as the landmark Roe vs. Wade.

Whitman goes on to suggest the varying American and European notions of privacy spring from two different value systems, each finding its essential origins in the 18th century: “On the one hand, a European interest in personal dignity, threatened primarily by the mass media; on the other hand, an American interest in liberty, threatened primarily by the government.” Furthermore, neither of these worldviews is necessarily exclusive as, “the contrast…is relative and not absolute. Moreover, there is no logical inconsistency in pursuing both forms of privacy protection.” For our purposes here, we’ll stick with the American version of privacy and liberty where, as Whitman suggests, liberty (in direct contraposition to government control) enjoys a much more storied tradition.

An argument could be made that the government is seizing the initiative to cast privacy in a decidedly authoritarian frame because no explicit privacy right is asserted by the Constitution. This ‘government goes first’ approach upsets the notion that un-enumerated rights belong to the People while only expressly codified powers belong to the government. Yet, in this anxious and bewildering age where terror has proven itself such a potent, if controversial, organizing principle, the authoritarian model enjoys remarkably uncontested traction.

In the healthcare field, recent laws such as HIPAA and HITECH define Personally Identifiable Information (PII) for specific privacy protections. Indeed the evolution of privacy law in the U.S. tends to follow and augment preexisting industry-specific laws. Nonetheless as Dr. Tim Godlove points out in his upcoming book ‘Guide to Healthcare Information Protection and Privacy’, the judicious handling of PII creates a work environment riven with, “perpetual contradictions making security and privacy policies difficult to enforce.”

There is no doubt privacy and liberty are conceptually adjacent, if not in some sense zero-sum. For example, I cannot exercise my liberty to the point of infringing upon your privacy as would happen if I was to peer through your living room window. We have here a legitimate continuum worthy of negotiated accommodation.

Beyond the very real cultural differences that inform notions of privacy the world over (and which will increasingly assert themselves in business interactions between the US and EU), the tensions between government claims and personal sensibilities here in the States are where the real fireworks are most likely to occur.

While constitutional delineations of privacy may be lacking, the field of psychology offers much on the human need for privacy. In his Wired article ‘What Our Top Spy Doesn’t Get: Security and Privacy Aren’t Opposites’, Bruce Schneier (who’s frankly reached ‘guru’ status in the privacy space though he bristles at the term) touches briefly upon psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous work:

“Even if you don’t subscribe to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s obvious that security is more important [than privacy]. Security is vital to survival, not just of people but of every living thing.”

Schneier is really onto something that warrants further exploration. Indeed Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs offers yet another way into the security-privacy false dichotomy. Maslow’s hierarchy can be summed up thusly:

“The most fundamental and basic four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs” or “d-needs”: esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. If these “deficiency needs” are not met – with the exception of the most fundamental (physiological) need – there may not be a physical indication, but the individual will feel anxious and tense. Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.”—from Goble, F. (1970). The Third Force: The Psychology of Abraham Maslow, Maurice Bassett Publishing. pp. 62.

Maslow based his research on exemplary individuals. He believed psychology’s perennial attention to ‘crippled and stunted’ individuals yielded a ‘cripple psychology’. [This author notes that the term ‘cripple’ has become offensive to many in the decades since Maslow’s use of it; alternate descriptions will be used hereon.] That may be so. But as we will explore shortly, power has an unfortunate habit of attracting the psychologically impaired. Thus pathology and dysfunction among the powerful may be the rule and not the exception. The truth is there are fundamentally insecure people for whom security/safety needs can never be adequately met. When such individuals acquire power over others these deficiencies have a multiplicatively adverse effect. A manipulative few can also wield fear-mongering to heighten the perceived deficiency in security measures beyond all rational considerations. (Tellingly, Maslow happens to call all needs below self-actualization ‘deficiency needs’.) Thus the security/safety need fixation can serve as a cul de sac to which many people (if not entire societies) are forever relegated.

Then there is that copacetic vanguard in our midst, the self-actualizers. Maslow cites fifteen characteristics of the self-actualizing individual. It’s not hard to imagine a security-fixated society being hostile to most of these ‘break-out’ characteristics. They are expansive and libertarian in tone, anti-statist and stridently individualistic.

Maslow 15

One of these characteristics is of particular interest to the current discussion. Self-actualizers (no more than 2% of any population) require, “privacy and solitude more than others do”. Once again—this time courtesy of Maslow—we find the privacy-security equivalency embroiled in an apples-and-oranges quandary. Security is a deficiency need. The desire for privacy is an ascendant characteristic. Might the public policy fixation on security—as though it were an ascendant societal aim—covertly harbor the desire to unseat our rare and precious self-actualizers?

Absent proper checks and balances, we can see how the state security apparatus could decapitate the self-actualizing process. A retrograde, fear-based project of de-actualization works to dehumanize a society. Take an individual’s longstanding walk around his neighborhood—for him or her, a crucial interlude of self-reflection suddenly discontinued for fear of an alleged neighborhood terror cell. This tiny retreat from personal self-actualization becomes a victory for the security apparatus. Imagine such prohibitions magnified a thousand times in a thousand different ways across an entire society?

Often, intelligence officials will offer, ‘if you only knew what we’d protected you from, you’d gladly welcome and appreciate our incursions into your private life’. Of course the very secrecy (state privacy?) that the government insists upon for itself precludes it from telling us exactly what we’ve been saved from. We are back to the honorable men conundrum, leaving us to prove negatives or blindly trust those who increasingly appear to be wielding near-absolute power over us.

If the security-at-all-costs dynamic succeeds in ‘protecting’ us by extinguishing the American way of life, what have we been protected for? In crucial and fundamental ways, We the People and the privacy that defines us have been sacrificed. The same river is never crossed twice. Is any security measure really ‘for us’ if it succeeds in making us unrecognizable to ourselves?

Security versus Privacy: A De-Actualizing Formulation