The Digital Humanists’ (Lack of) Response to the Surveillance State
Cyberspace: a digital, networked simulation of physical space envisioned by Sci-Fi authors like William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Philip K. Dick, Bruce Sterling, and others. The metaphor implies that, just as in the “real” world, back alleys and seedy establishments exist that you would do well to avoid, lest you attract attention from the wrong people. Today, those “wrong people” prominently include the government of the United States. The seedy locales? The obvious are online forums devoted to topics like bomb-making, terrorist methods, pirated software, and child pornography (the fact that the unauthorized copying of data can logically appear in the same list as the abuse of children and methods for mass murder says something about corporate power, doesn't it?). Less obvious and more nefarious: sending email to the wrong people (whose identities you cannot know) or sharing the wrong information (whose contents you cannot speak about). Even searching for the “wrong” keywords may lead to a SWAT team at your door.1 The recent revelations about the NSA's massive domestic spying operation that implicates nearly every major USA-based technology company that provides a service in exchange for the voluntary submission of more data about ourselves, our connections to others, and our lives make an understanding of the politics of the digital more pressing than ever. Yet, to paraphrase Alan Liu, where are the digital humanists critiquing the growing surveillance state?
The synthesis of our training in traditional humanistic modes of inquiry with our proficiency in network analysis, text-mining, metadata, and the other methods the US government uses to monitor its own people in a (I would argue, misguided) search for threats should lead to a proliferation of analyses, arguments, and action. To date, however, I have heard only quiet murmurings in the community. Kieran Healy's excellent social network analysis of Paul Revere stands as a notable and powerful exception, the type of which would be so good to see more. Another good example: "Me and My Metadata" by Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at MIT.
A search for blog posts that mention “surveillance” on HASTAC turns up a reasonably healthy amount of discussion (see, for example, "Why the definition of 'metadata' matters", "Questioning the Cloud", "Google's Virtual Light"), but HASTAC is not a stand-in for the DH community. Most of the bloggers there are graduate students interested in pedagogy, digital media, online learning, and the like, not scholar-practitioners of social network analysis, text-mining, and metadata, which are some of the tools of the government's surveillance.
Is there a chilling effect already in place? Are we afraid to speak out against the expanding erosion of privacy? Or are we already so reliant on Google, Facebook, and the other digital oligarchs that we have resigned ourselves to being watched by Big Brother's ever-vigilant eyes? Consider, in contrast, the brave decision by the founder of the secure email service Lavabit—used by Snowden—to shut down rather than to comply.
A critically-engaged, ethical digital humanities demands that practitioners teach, discuss, and research those areas of life where they are most well-positioned to have an impact, to explain things in new ways, or to provide resources for students, colleagues, and the public so that they can understand and respond to the US government's actions, which I would argue are both misguided and paranoid. While I see my peers doing fascinating work on literature, maps, data visualization, and the entire vibrant range of projects in which we are collectively engaged, I worry that too few have heard the implicit call to put their expertise in service of educating others about the extent of the NSA and other agency's activities and—most importantly—about the history, meaning, and possible futures of these oppressive and chilling activities.
There are compelling narratives to be told, from the PATRIOT Act, to the UK's pervasive security cameras, to the revelations by and persecution of Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and others, a narrative that demands the skills of the humanist who is also conversant with technology, new media, social networks, data visualization, text-mining, et al. We are using the same techniques that the government uses to spy on us. Who better to explain how they work, what their limits are, how they can be misused and abused, and how to try to escape the digital Panopticon that is being built behind our backs than digital humanists? There was, rightfully so, an outcry from the community over the tragic harassment of Aaron Schwartz, who even JSTOR, the ostensibly injured party by his actions, did not want prosecuted. Now, when the stakes are even higher, and the government's abuse of its power extends beyond the individual to, it seems, all its citizens2, where is the response?
Maybe, though, the apparent lack of a sustained response from the DH community (and it's quite possible I've missed it; if so, clue me in) results less from a lack of interest than from a sense of despair towards what seems inevitable. We may use Gmail, Google docs, Facebook, Twitter, and other online services with no expectation of privacy. William Gibson, in a typically prescient Op-Ed he wrote in 2003 for the New York Times, remarks:
Driven by the acceleration of computing power and connectivity and the simultaneous development of surveillance systems and tracking technologies, we are approaching a theoretical state of absolute informational transparency, one in which ''Orwellian'' scrutiny is no longer a strictly hierarchical, top-down activity, but to some extent a democratized one. As individuals steadily lose degrees of privacy, so, too, do corporations and states. Loss of traditional privacies may seem in the short term to be driven by issues of national security, but this may prove in time to have been intrinsic to the nature of ubiquitous information.
Has the long history of predictions about surveillance from authors like Orwell, Gibson, and others made it all seem so inevitable that we despair of fighting back? I don't know. I have, as you can tell, far more questions than answers, but in the meantime, here a few resources to help you think about online privacy and to protect your own—if privacy is something you care about...
1. The details about this particular story may be sketchy, but the militarization of police and the routine use of excessive force is another terrifying trend. Join it with global surveillance and let your paranoid fantasies fly.
2. Supposedly, one need only be a few hops away from a suspected terrorist to fall into the NSA's digital dragnet. That's a lot of people, but still not everyone. At least we can trust the NSA to follow its own rules, right?
Last modified Tue, 7 Oct, 2014 at 16:01