by John Kendall Hawkins
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster; when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
“Are you sure that you can skin griz?
– line from film Jeremiah Johnson
Edward Snowden’s newly-released memoir, Permanent Record, is a timely and welcome entry into the current clown show debate on whistleblowing that has filled the Big Tent in Washington with hot air, old farts, and effete lions sitting around eating bon-bons and reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness — in French. Because, among other things, Snowden’s book strives to ignite an albeit self-serving ‘national conversation’ on whistle-blowing, how it differs from mere leaking, and why he qualifies for the protections afforded those who cop a whistle against government abuses. Indeed, not only is he arguing his own patriotic virtues, but he is calling on government-embedded “geeks,” like himself, to wake from their slogmatic dumber and pull a BogieBugle for the team. You want some liberty — or don’t you?
Snowden insists there’s a serious distinction between a whistleblower and a leaker. “A ‘whistleblower’ … is a person who through hard experience has concluded that their life inside an institution has become incompatible with the principles developed in…the greater society outside it, to which that institution should be accountable.” Snowden has often referred to Daniel Ellsberg, distributor of the Pentagon Papers, as a model for the type. And he sees himself in this vein. He compares this to leaking, which refers to “acts of disclosure done not out of public interest but out of self-interest, or in pursuit of institutional or political aims.” As Liberty might inquire, a la Bobby Dylan, “Are you willing to risk it all or is your love in vain?”
By Snowden’s rule, the recent anonymous hand-ringing CIA figure who dobbed Trump in to Congress is — well — still working and presumably, being anonymous, available for future leaks. He sounds more akin to what Snowden describes in the book as a politically-motivated ‘conscience’. These kinds of leakers tend to be practicing tradecraft (Snowden knows; he worked for the CIA), and can be likened to what Obama did — coyly denying the existence of drone warfare, while spending Terror Tuesdays personally selecting a new joker from his “disposition matrix” card deck to ‘take out’.
Writes Snowden, “By breathlessly publicizing its drone attack on al-Aulaqi to the Washington Post and the New York Times, the Obama administration was tacitly admitting the existence of the CIA’s drone program and its “disposition matrix,” or kill list, both of which are officially top secret. Additionally, the government was implicitly confirming that it engaged not just in targeted assassinations, but in targeted assassinations of American citizens.” Where was the whistleblower for that? Snowden seems to wonder. This is the lawlessness he just couldn’t hack any more.
But Permanent Record is far more than simply a personal appeal to be regarded as a hero in the public’s eye; it is a continuation of his alarm ‘call to arms’ against the serious “criminal behavior” of the US government and the catastrophic threat to democracy and privacy that its intentional actions have wrought with the rise of the surveillance state out of the ashes of 9/11.
To recap what’s at stake, according to Snowden: The American government claims ownership of the Internet. All of it. In America. In Europe. In Asia. And some day, inshallah, on Mars. They haven’t ‘officially’ announced it, but that’s how they’ve decided to proceed. They invented it. They developed its working protocols and technologies. They know more and more people will rely on access to it religiously (45% online now, according to Snowden), and they intend to keep people hooked on the sugar for life. First mass surveillance, then mass control. It’s monetized; it’s militarized; it’s locked and loaded with a full metal jacket of jingly algorithms. Not a gift to the world at all, like, say, America’s Deluxe Democracy for The Betterment of Mankind™.
Such a “Frankenstein” system is a long way from the Internet Eden Snowden claims we started out with. Far from merely describing a government on a temporary, and unconscious, surveillance sugar high, Snowden makes sure we understand to our roots that it’s much worse than that. “The president’s office, through the Justice Department,” he notes, “had committed the original sin of secretly issuing directives that authorized mass surveillance in the wake of 9/11.” Once that 9/11 serpent offered the US government that Apple of the Eyes, there was no turning back.
Snowden contends that we’re handing over more and more data, more of our lives, to the control of these unknown demigods in the clouds of Cyberspace. Who are they? Fantasists — all dem Deep State geeks, like Snowden, before he broke good, and Bush and Cheney, and Rove, saying shit like,
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
But they’re not at liberty to talk about it.
Snowden grew up reading Aesop’s Fables and Bulfinch’s Mythology and so is steeped in the stuff of heroes and gods and chimaera, parables and symbolism, deus ex machina, and the whole Lord of the Flies thing about wanton gods. But you can tell there’s a certain class of sleazester that grubs its way into national politics alluding to the glories of our shared classical Greco-Roman past (without which we Exceptionals would be nothing), dropping names and taking names, set on seeming and beaming. Types that make a more humble man, standing across the room seeing such seeming, cold-cock his fist as an instinct.
This God stuff really pisses Snowden off. You can tell by the way he introduces legends and mythology to the narrative, like he’s trying to speak their Dungeons and Terrorists language on some kind subtextual level that has sadistic overtones. My favorite bit comes when he comes up with a kind of origin story for his surname. He relates the tale of Rhitta Gawr, monster king of Wales, who took on and killed every king around him, cutting off their beards before he cut off their heads, and making a hair suit out of the scalpings. “Enraged at this hubris,” writes Snowden, “Arthur set off for Rhitta Gawr,” they fought and Arthur split Gawr in half with a sword on a mountain called …Snaw Dun….”
Rhitta Gawr would seem to represent American imperialism, and King Arthur would be the hubris-sapping champion of virtue and noble causes. Snowden is no Arthur, but he is invoking his spirit, his courage, his determination to slay tyranny, while at the same time making it clear he’s just an ordinary patriot. In fact, Snowden goes through some pains to recount his Mayflower heritage, family military history, and civil service roots. Sometimes he goes too far in the telling, as when he recounts the demise of his paternal ancestor who died at the hands of the British during the Revolution. He adds, seemingly gratuitously, “(Legend has it that they killed their POWs by forcing them to eat gruel laced with ground glass.)” Funny way to recall a relative’s death.
Speaking of family history, his most bizarre, and perhaps most revealing, tidbit of personal history is his mention of the founding of Fort Meade, Maryland, the location of NSA headquarters. The land on which the fort is built was once owned by Snowden ancestors. It was a plantation, but they “abolished their family’s practice of slavery, freeing their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.” But there’s some strange, residual resentment. Snowden claims that the plantation was “expropriated” by the federal government to house Civil War soldiers. Head-spinning stuff.
Snowden emphasizes throughout his memoir that the terrorist-seeking, “surveillance capitalist” state is striving to have a permanent record of every human on the planet. All information going back perhaps even to birth — every phone call, email, text message, every trip taken, every purchase, medical data, service records, and a digital link to everyone you know. A permanent record without probable cause, waiting for you to be accused of a crime to be named later.
Snowden worked in a system in which, “[E]veryone’s information was being collected, which was tantamount to a government threat: If you ever get out of line, we’ll use your private life against you.” The government as goombah. A dystopia similar to the film Minority Report, but with algorithms, machine thoughts, replacing pre-cogs, cutting out the middle-seer.
Snowden spends considerable time reiterating his revelations of the specific secret government surveillance programs he shared with journalists beginning in 2013. He had originally intended to contact the New York Times, he writes, but remembered how they had quashed James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s important piece on the Bush administration’s illegal wireless surveillance of Americans (revealed later by Snowden as NSA’s StellarWind program) that “well might have changed the course of the 2004 election” had it run. The story ran more than a year later to shrugs.
Instead, a second Bush/Cheney term allowed the NSA and CIA to expand their global surveillance programs. Snowden revealed further evidence of extra-Constitutional data-gathering. He writes:
“PRISM enabled the NSA to routinely collect data from Microsoft, Yahoo!,Google, Facebook, Paltalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple, including email, photos, video and audio chats, Web-browsing content, search engine queries, and all other data stored on their clouds, transforming the companies into witting co-conspirators.”
These criminal co-conspirators, above the law themselves, were treating everyone else as potential terrorists, sleeping cells of personality disorder that could erupt at any moment and reveal themselves by “keyword” Google searches for trouble, such as “Mr. Google, what ever happened to the photo and DNA evidence of bin Laden’s Abbottabad execution?”
There were also a couple of monitor-level programs that were mind-boggling and disgusting, such as XKeyscore, “which is perhaps best understood as a search engine that lets an analyst search through all the records of your life.” Everything. Anybody. Anywhere. While you were getting over the shock of that, Snowden pointed to another salubrious practice — LOVEINT — “in which analysts used the agency’s programs to surveil their current and former lovers along with objects of more casual affection—reading their emails, listening in on their phone calls, and stalking them online.” Creepy, and probably rife, considering that no one’s likely to get prosecuted, “because you can’t exactly convict someone of abusing your secret system of mass surveillance if you refuse to admit the existence of the system itself.” Secret men’s business. High five!
Most everyone agrees that 9/11 was the catalyst for the political acceptance of mass surveillance. The pollies conned the People into buying into the “limited” and “temporary” need for security-enhancing privacy annihilation hastened the transformation from intensified vigilance to full-blown panopticon intrusiveness. Snowden sees two main causes: one, the transfer of paper data to digital data, stored online; and, two, contracting. To get around agency hiring limits set by Congress, contractors, not counted as employees, were hired. Snowden calls them Homo Contractus. He was one. Said to be working for, say, Dell computers, but actually doing the work of the NSA or CIA.
Homo Contractus has become an evolving species of worker for the US government. It is perhaps the most dangerous development of all, given that such contractors are the eyes and ears of the surveillance machine. Suddenly, agency analysts go into early ‘retirement’, only to put up a quick WordPress business website and hang a shingle out as ‘consultants’, who then get re-hired by the system they retired from. When such consultants start working overseas, in places like the UAE, they are mercenaries who can hack away as they please. They bring their skill sets, toolsets, and target lists with them; the US government cannot stop them. It was no surprise to see The Intercept, a publication for whistleblowing revelations, being hacked from the UAE.
Permanent Record is an excellent read. There is a sub-text to the narrative that makes you wonder whether he is pulling your leg at times. And a few seemingly contrived anecdotes, such as the tiny play child Snowden has with mom about the need for taxes; another childhood exchange with mom where she explains the immorality of opening his sister’s mail; and, the chapter, “From the Diaries of Lindsay Mills,” which are, ostensibly, entries from his girlfriend’s (now his wife) diary. I was surprised that this chapter didn’t qualify her for a byline. But also, the section was so finely manicured that it felt like an inauthentic voice. In a novel that’s okay.
I have questions. Like why the push to get people to use the Tor Project? Snowden says that setting up a Tor server can help others in highly controlled societies (he cites Iran) reach out beyond their cyberwall. But the safety of Tor use was debunked years ago, when it was revealed US spooks had cracked its encryption and were on to users setting up bridge servers. But a bigger mystery to me was the inclusion of a reference to the bin Laden execution of 2011: “a dialysis patient shot point-blank in the embrace of his multiple wives in their lavish compound.” By all other reports, bin Laden was shot dead from the stairwell, there were no “multiple wives” embracing him, and the compound was anything but “lavish.”
Responses to what Snowden did in 2013 seem to locate his actions somewhere between heroic and traitorous. One political analyst, however, believes he’s beyond such easy good or evil. David P. Fidler, editor of The Snowden Reader, writes in his introduction to the volume that Snowden’s actions “disrupted the trajectory of political affairs and forced democratic societies to reconsider fundamental questions, the answers to which help define the quality of the democratic experience.” This is, of course, vague, and maybe entirely unhelpful, but does give an idea of his reception of the intellectuals who may influence his fate, should he ever return to America.
The picture Snowden paints in Permanent Record is so bleak and — like he alludes to — such a fall from more relatively edenic times that there seems little hope. However, he does, like Julian Assange, assert that one place to start fighting back is for people to implement encryption — sealing their documents and using a safe VPN. Snowden notes, with hope, “The year 2016 was a landmark in tech history, the first year since the invention of the Internet that more Web traffic was encrypted than unencrypted.” In addition, many other people, like Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, are pushing for the adoption of John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Meh. But the truth is, more radical actions may be required.
Personally, I believe we need a more benign, colossal catastrophe. For instance, I was reading the other day about the chances of Earth being spit in the eye by a giant hot loogie from the Sun. I read:
“In today’s electrically dependent modern world, a similar scale solar storm could have catastrophic consequences. Auroras damage electrical power grids and may contribute to the erosion of oil and gas pipelines. They can disrupt GPS satellites and disturb or even completely black out radio communication on Earth.”
Such damage, if it lasted long enough, might just be the best goddamned thing to happen to this planet in a long time. We’d talk more, face to face.
When the Australian parliament passed the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018 last week, it became the first country in the world to pass a law that allows government agencies to force companies to give secret access to encrypted information. Ostensibly, the bill will allow law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access data useful in investigating terrorism and criminal activity. But critics of the legislation point out that, like many terrorism-related laws these days, the language of the bill is broad and unclear and may lead to interpretive abuses in the future. The law passed without debate and overwhelmingly.
Specifically, agents from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) and the Australian Federal Police (AFP), agency equivalents to the CIA and FBI, can now go to the provider of encryption products, such as WhatsApp and Signal, and require them to provide access to encrypted data of a target, and to do so secretly. One problem, a technical one, is how to gain such access to the data, since the provider would not have the key.
ASIO and the AFP want providers to hand over “technical details’ of their encryption process that would allow the agents to exploit “systemic vulnerabilities”. The agencies claim that they would not be requiring providers to build in a “backdoor” for remote government access, but critics, such as Apple, Facebook and Google, who have apps that would be affected, argue that exploiting vulnerabilities may do just that — open up a system to other, more nefarious hackers, and make the encryption unsafe to use. Providers who don’t cooperate with the government will face fines and possible jail time, making them unintentional agents of potential government overreach.
Furthermore, ASIO and the AFP already have the power to infiltrate end-user computers to surveil before data is even encrypted, so it is hard to see the justification for further powers. At Policy Forum, Monique Mann, a law lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology, writes, “There is no evidence that any new powers are necessary, or proportionate, when viewed against existing police powers and investigative capabilities. Yet the stakes could not be higher for cybersecurity and digital rights.”
There is also some scepticism of how the requirements of the law would hold up in Australian business dealings with companies from other countries where data rights and online privacy are more legally protected. Of course, with a backdoor-that’s-not-a-backdoor, created by the government’s exploitation of systemic vulnerabilities, no one would really know, including the provider, if their data had been decrypted. And though a warrant issued by court is required to go ahead with a decryption, if America’s FISA court, which essentially rubberstamps government requests for secret access, is any example, such court-ordered warrants from Australian judges is no re-assurance — Australia has no Bill of Rights underwriting the integrity of such requests.
Along the lines of human rights and governmental accountability (a cornerstone of a functioning democracy), the new law allows not just the targeting of the usual criminals, such as child pornographers and scam artists, as well as so-called terrorists, but also “whistleblowers.” In short, the law would help prevent someone in Australia from dumping files at, say, Wikileaks, or even submitting documentation supporting government abuses to a whistleblowing sight in Australia, if said potential exposure could be seen to “weaken” national security.
Perhaps the world’s greatest champion of encryption, and its power to protect privacy, is that over-exposed guy holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He rejects the common notion that such laws have no bearing on the doings of everyday people and scoffs at “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” arguments often expressed with a naive smugness. “No worries, I use a VPN,” they might smile. But VPNs can be just as vulnerable.
It’s almost ironical that Assange, who grew up in Australia and cut his hacker’s teeth here (breaking-and-entering secret Pentagon servers as a teen), is now a virtual exile (his work would be criminalized here and has been called “illegal” in the past by a prime minister) who has almost single-handedly fought a war against the dark, corrupt secrets of government, while also attempting to protect individual privacy, the core of our humanity.
In his 2012 Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, that he calls a “warning” rather than a “manifesto, Assange makes clear what’s at stake for us all and how encryption is a “key” to protecting ourselves from losing the last vestiges of privacy (and the consequent humanity that goes with it). Of the stakes he writes, “The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen….within a few years, global civilization will be a postmodern surveillance dystopia, from which escape for all but the most skilled individuals will be impossible. In fact, we may already be there.” In the post-Snowden cyberscape, it’s hard to argue.
Assange’s answer is encrypt, encrypt, encrypt. “Encryption is an embodiment of the laws of physics, and it does not listen to the bluster of states, even transnational surveillance dystopias,” he writes. “Cryptography is the ultimate form of non-violent direct action. While nuclear weapons states can exert unlimited violence over even millions of individuals, strong cryptography means that a state, even by exercising unlimited violence, cannot violate the intent of individuals to keep secrets from them.” Keeping these secrets, our thoughts — this is the last frontier. “If we do not [redefine force relations], the universality of the internet will merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control.”
Imagine: You leave your house for work and the light sensor over your door records the time and snaps a picture. You hop into your car and before it will start a quick substance-abuse check is performed as you hold the steering wheel. Once you’re allowed to drive, your car’s “black box” records your speed and braking habits, and sends a graph to police analysts and your insurance company. Your car and Android pass on your GPS coordinates to some unknown Authority and to Google, who turns around and sells the information to target marketers. At a traffic light your licence plate is recorded, along with a thermal image showing how many passengers are in the car. In addition, an unseen drone overhead zooms in your face and reads its mood and ‘tone’ and matches it up against that day’s ‘known threat types’ in a disposition matrix. Still sitting at the light, you look left to see a teen in the next car wearing Google Glasses and recording your face; indeed, a few moments later, Instagram notifies you that your expression has been entered in a daily polling contest and already has 5 up-thumbs. Your car radio senses your rising anxiety and begins playing some easy listening tunes to calm you. Dread of work begins to envelop you—having to face the eye scanner to enter the building and the finger-print scanner to log on to your PC, and where you’ll be careful of how you answer emails, extra conscious of how you speak on phones, afraid to use the coffee machine, because it counts your cups and sends stats off to a work productivity study with unknown ramifications. And the coworker in the cubicle opposite you keeps flashing you a proud new prosthetic vagina that was extruded from a 3D printer at home. You decide to call in a sickie and turn the car around. Sensors and alarms go off. Your car questions your move. An app pops up on your Android and scans your features. You make it home, the light sensor recording your return, alone. You go into the kitchen and the fridge immediately calls out that ‘milk is low’ and your open laptop has a pop-up list of items needing replenishing that your fridge has passed on. You piss and the toilet tells you how many blue flushes are left. You take to bed and curl up in the foetal position, your blanket warming to an ‘optimal soothe’. Your bedroom lights read your distress and come on and a floating voice asks you over and over if you are okay, while simultaneously passing the moments on to your insurer, which immediately alerts a counsellor, whose voice in the room now says you need to spend more and sends you a scrip for Valium and a set of discount coupons that you hear arrive in your Inbox with a mystical ding…
Once upon a time this vision qualified as dystopic and its message cautionary. But as Thomas P. Keenan makes clear in Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy, we have entered a new Kuhnian paradigm that doesn’t necessarily include a future for the human species—at least as we know it. As Keenan puts it, the digitalization of humanity is now as unstoppable as climate change. Its impact can be reduced with certain uncomfortable adjustments, but the lag in any collective action will make it utterly reactionary and useless.
Keenan lays out the evidence calmly, methodically and without polemics: he lets the evidence speak for itself. This is not to say the book is devoid of humour—far from it! But his wit, like his politics, takes a back seat to the civil and civic-minded purpose of his endeavor. In 15 separate but related areas of human activity, Keenan provides examples of the way technology is bleeding over into the very essence of human life. He makes a convincing case that humans’ capitulation to the Machine has been, like the switch of data transmission from analog to digital, welcome, blind and unstoppable. And we have been hurtling along ever faster since.
Thomas Keenan is himself a lifelong technologist, with roots in the birth of modern computing in the 1950s, so his understanding of the current landscape carries the weight of developmental insights. He expresses his thesis more as a set of observations than as a theoretical proposition. He begins by stating his purpose:
So much is happening that is out of our view and beyond our control. Like a network of mushroom spores sending out subterranean tendrils to silently exchange genetic material, our technological systems are increasingly passing information back and forth without bothering to tell us.
Far from warning the reader about the imminent doom, a la Orson Welles’ infamous Martian Invasion radio broadcast, Keenan assumes an intelligent readership and presents his case in a provocative but personal manner. “This book,” he writes, “is about the unseen ways in which technology is already changing our lives.”
Then we come to technology and what is ‘creepy’ about it. The term ‘creepy’ is popularly associated with dark sexual auras that play on one’s fears, but Keenan has a more nuanced take, likening it to what Freud describes as “The “Uncanny.” In his essay by the same name, Freud describes “a quality of feeling” and “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar,” a world of ‘doubles’ shadows and the occult, or what Julia Kristeva calls the magical realm of the ‘semiotic’ that precedes object-relations and the ‘symbolic’; the realm of the infantile. The ‘creepy’ seems to activate the ‘uncanny’ presence of that archaic realm of doubles, of objects brought to life by the mechanisms of desire.
Thomas P. Keenan
What follows in Keenan’s book is a grand parade of creepiness: Intelligence Creep, in which ‘the line between machine and human thinking is blurring’ and we are confronted with the unsettling experience of an object exhibiting realistic human behaviour; Camera Creep—whether thermal imaging that can ‘see’ through buildings and surveillance systems to thwart terrorism is being co-opted by commercial interests; Image Creep, whereby ‘your face is becoming a key that unlocks a vast amount of personal information about you’; Sensor Creep, with its Internet of Things that conspire to anticipate (your) needs and desires; Tracking Creep, with its ubiquitous RFID chips and real time bidding by corporates for ‘access to your eyeballs’; Sensation Creep, with its Pavlovian popcorn piped in to make you desire; Bio Creep, with its DNA profiling and databasing; Body Creep, with its fingerprint scanners and promise of coming-soon ‘software-based humans’; Time Creep, such as the time-lining of one’s everyday existence so that every moment is accounted for; Government Creep, not only with mass surveillance but with the manipulation of collected data for political purposes; Deception Creep, wherein language is drained of meaning and ‘you never really know who or what to believe anymore’; Physible Creep, as with 3D printers which imply that ‘now, within reason, anything can be anything else; Child Creep, where overexposure to the Internet is destroying the privacy of childhood; Pet Creep, where cosmetic testicles help repair the damage done a pet’s spayed ego; and, Robot Creep, whether allowing kids to hack the nervous systems of ants or robotic sex workers replacing human prostitutes.
What is most cause for concern in the area of Intelligence Creep, where quantum and neural network technologies abound, is that despite still requiring human sequential input the “apparent paradox is that many computer programs have already surpassed the comprehension of any one human mind.” It should be clear that such paradoxes represent a real danger, once you get past the euphoria of Geek bliss and narcissism. For such programs are capable of locking us out of key systems we put them in charge of overseeing.
With Image Creep it is as if the predatory male gaze, which has offended and objectified people for millennia, has suddenly run amok—as if, in Freudian terms, the ego had been universally subsumed by the super-ego, leaving no middle ground between the id’s chaos and the super-ego’s authority. It begins with Google Glass, says Keenan, with everyone recording everyone else and all of it stored, tracked and analyzed by forces inimical to freedom and privacy. So advanced is facial recognition software that, when combined with a technology like Google Glass, one can expect “that you will soon be able to point smartphones at someone and learn quite a bit about them in real time.” This likelihood has already spawned a counter-industry in ‘facial weaponization’. One company, Realtime Glamofage, “helps people create masks with weirdly-morphed versions of their actual face, hoping to bedevil the recognition software.” Do we want to live in a world where every day is Halloween and our identities are the treat to be fought over by corporate predators hungry for a taste of your face?
Perhaps the most disturbing Creeps, however, are in Keenan’s Bio and Body categories, where final physical and psychical barriers are breached, and the synthesis of operator stimulant on operant flesh is most fully realized. The celebratory hoo-ha that resulted from the astonishing work of the Genome Project, with its definitive and triumphant production of DNA sequencing knowledge, is also the stuff of totalitarian wet dreams, a yearning eugenicist’s Siegfried moment. This DNA capture begins at birth in a hospital, when samples of blood are drawn from the newborn, put on filter paper and stored. Keenan puts it in all its inglorious perspective: “In fact, newborn screening may actually be the Holy Grail that many governments have been lusting for – a national database of all its citizens.” The NSA revelations of Edward Snowden may be the proverbial tip of a melting iceberg.
Another study under way by technologists delves into the nature of human memories and how they can be manipulated by external stimuli. Keenan cites Steve Ramirez, a researcher from the RIKEN-MIT Centre for Neural Circuit Genetics, who says, “Our data demonstrate that it is possible to generate an internally represented and behaviourally expressed fear memory via artificial means.” That is, it’s possible to make a sensible, rational person suddenly terrified of the Bogey Man. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is actively working on truly invasive “narrative network” technologies that can essentially hijack a brain, the way remote assistance controllers can now take over the functions of a pre-wired automobile, planting false memories and performing other tricks of the mind.
In perhaps the single most warped example of coming creepiness, Keenan cites contemporary French philosopher Rebecca Roche, who sees a time when, say, a prisoner’s mind can be uploaded to a computer and their mental cycle manipulated. By such means, she notes with only a touch of French jocularity, one could take the mind of a killer sentenced to 1,000 years and provide the equivalent experience of imprisonment in something like eight hours. As Roche puts it, “the eight-and-a-half hour 1,000-year sentence could be followed by a few hours (or, from the point of view of the criminal, several hundred years) of treatment and rehabilitation.” Keenan adds, rather less dryly, “So that vicious serial killer or hardened terrorist could be home in time for supper.” And he doesn’t say it, but presumably a way will be found to reconstitute the victim’s body, their memories downloaded from the cloud.
This, of course, leads to other philosophical considerations. If such memory manipulation, along with the synthetic reconstitution of the body (or a trade-in for a better model), is probable in the middle future, then it raises questions of immortality, and a kind of time travel. But if time travel happens in the future, wouldn’t it already be happening now, our descendants revisiting old stomping grounds, and, if so, what then constitutes the real?
Given the enormous stakes of all this technocreeping, one might expect considerable popular resistance to the current war on privacy. For, whatever else it may be, the War on Terror, with its unleashed global surveillance apparatus, most certainly is, in effect, a war on subjectivity and the private, whereby the government watches all and feeds their corporate sponsors, who turn around and manipulate the desires of the universal gaze. “Aside from the occasional blinking light,” Keenan says of the surveillance apparatus, “they tell us nothing. We tell them everything.” And yet, aside from the usual roundup of leftwing complainers, there seems to be a resounding celebration of the Internet of Things, with its ubiquitous sensors and data recordings, designed to tell us what we need; we don’t seem to mind apps that allow a nosy neighbour to point an iPhone at someone’s home and see what the occupants are doing; most will blithely accept being sprayed with GPS nano chips the way they now shrug at being sprayed with insecticide by flight attendants as they enter highly-restrictive countries, such as Australia. A lot of the acceptance has to do with how the invasiveness is packaged, of course. As Keenan points out, a sensor that casually allows you to monitor your neighbor “would have been greeted much differently if they had called it the ‘Anne Frank Finder.’” Perhaps, but then again, this is the age of irony.
Keenan, a deeply experienced technologist who has worked for both government and private interests, reckons that the deterioration of resistance to digitalization and the consequent dehumanization of personhood, which is summed up in the actions of the computer conquistadors, have been steady and irresistible since the 1950s. Keenan is not the only observer of this trend, of course. French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul’s seminal work, The Technological Society(1954), described how the tools and techniques of technology have gone from being an important means to an end (i.e., the betterment of the human condition through the gradual development of civilization) to becoming an end in themselves, and in the process the dialectical activity which has defined humanity and given it breadth and reason has been subsumed into technological activity, from which there is no escape. The system is the solution, Marshall McLuhan once said (a meme Bell Telephone was quick to co-opt and use in its ads of the mid-70s), and the system no longer requires politics, or the staggering inefficiencies of democratic choice.
Perhaps the weakest part of Keenan’s Technocreep comes when he sets up some cursory counterarguments to his thesis. He ventriloquises the optimist dummy who notes only, in so many words, ‘but technology will save and enhance humanity—by curing cancer, replacing body parts, lengthening our lives, keeping us safe and entertained!’ Perhaps Keenan felt that any reader who had gone through his book and reached this late stage of his study and still maintained a blind optimism was probably too delusional to worry with further reasoning. Likewise, he poses the commonly heard pop tart’s lisp, ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.’ And rather than get into a debate about tossing the Bill of Rights, with its guarantees of privacy, to the wind, he merely reminds his lispeners that today’s model citizens could easily be tomorrow’s national security threats.
Keenan closes his book by offering up a chapter meant to lift the spirits, presumably, with a series of steps that techno-citizens can take to reduce their vulnerability to the System: various ways to ward off trackers, digital predators, government snoops, neighbourly eavesdropping, and the whole carnivalesque rompin’ stompin’ of the machine matrix of processed desire. Some of his advice includes living your digital life in a sandbox, using encryption to store data and communicate, and living with multiple identities. But such precautions, such necessary fortressing and deceiving, serve to accentuate the notion that real war is not on terror, but on what ‘terrifies’ the System: the unpredictable spanner-in-the-works known as individuality. Keenan’s remedies hardly inspire confidence. After all, these solutions suggest a fait accompli whereby democracy is finished and future survival depends on how one adjusts to the Machine’s requirements. Perhaps it is as philosopher Donald Verene posits in his essay, “Technological Desire,” (Verene, 1984):
Things in history, like human lives themselves, come to ends. The question is not the reform of technological society; it is the question whether human meaning is possible in its world… The technological society reduces the human spirit to desire, just as an individual life can be reduced to one of its dimensions.
Though one might be inclined to draw a similar conclusion after reading Keenan’s work, the book is clearly written with activists in mind. Indeed, it concludes with an exhaustive reference section that allows the reader to re-trace the author’s steps and access primary materials to study. In that sense, at least, it ends on an upbeat note.