Sunday, August 18, 2013

Everyday spies - postmodern surveillance

As the tendrils of the NSA continue their silent attempt at infiltration, it's a whirlwind to understand exactly what the fall-out of Snowden's "revelations" are. I can see myself flitting between and falling into 3 different responses, each of which may be just as dangerously fallacious as each other:

1. Carry on as normal. Normal people don't care about all this. They just want to share photos and comment on each other's kids. Nothing to hide, etc. I'm still blogging via Google's blogger.com, aren't I?

2. Shrug and say "told you so". As a self-labelled, semi-practicing cypherpunk it's tempting to think you were working on the assumption that everything is surveilled anyway. Paranoia is the best form of defence. Be careful about what you leak.

3. Get outraged. I was right - but it's even worse than I thought! Cypherpunk efforts need to be redoubled. Everything needs to be self-hosted, resilient, and strongly-protected. Just in case. Be angry, be very angry, that there are a bunch of people who think they own you.

In fact, simply falling into one - or any - of these is a mistake. Why? Because they all follow the same model - the idea that state security is at one extreme, and everyday users (using commercial services) are at the other. That there is a difference, a very thick line, between the worlds of global security and funny cats.

This is an outdated model based on antique technology. It is a steampunk model - romantic, but useless in reality. The world has changed too much.

The reality is this: we are in an era of economic power struggles. Right now, a lot of people are desperate to keep control of the world. And this entails maintaining a population happy to exist in an economic-power mindset to support this - people that fit into a specific notion of how economics should work, and how "value" should be transferred.

The very notion that you are at the "bottom" or the "middle" or the "top" of society. That you fit into a class that has ever finer degrees of hierarchical granularity. That as you grow, you move upwards. All of this is essential to producing that economic-power model.

As we have moved into a more linked society, this hierarchy starts to break down - the segmented society (public/private/state/individual/commons) we like to categorise everything into has little meaning. Companies know everything about us. States know everything about companies. We know too much and yet too little about each other.

There is no "hierarchy" that you can make progress against, only a mesh of platforms and power within which you live your life. All those forces acting on you are there deliberately. Every time you wish you could afford something. Every time you get angry something goes wrong.

Deliberate.

Economic power.

We can't think about global security in a James Bond way any more because 'spying' is now so integrally woven into the fabric of what we do, from CCTV cameras to rubbish bins, from search engines to loyalty cards. "Prosperity" is in the early, yet all-encompassing, stages of depending on this inherent level of surveillance to survive. The economic power model would be "inefficient" without it.

This is the fundamental paradigm shift we - as individuals, but also as communities, as companies, as organisations, as families - will struggle to understand, partly because we're not used to it, partly because it changes all the time, and partly just because we don't want to think about it. It's confusing and scary and unromantic.

But it's a model which will increasingly affect every single hour of every single day, from the weather when you wake up, to how you get to work (if you go to work), to what your political opinions are (if you have any), to what phone you buy and how much cooking you do. It will affect where you live, whether you have children, whether you get married, whether you have a pension.

It will affect whether you smile.

I wish democracy could find a way of circumventing this level of invasiveness, but I doubt "democracy" is a thing in itself any more. In our romantic view of the world, democracy is set apart from Politics, a lone bastion of philosophical standing. In reality, all we have is a handful of lack-lustre parties, an antiquated voting system, and insufficient openness or effort for anything to be truly influenced. Democracy is dead.

I'm not sure what's left in its place. Reality, perhaps. The idea that we don't really need any of these networks after all - we got sucked into them because we thought they were safe, convenient, somehow better. But maybe we just didn't think that one through.

Maybe it's time to do less. Care less about the stuff we thought we cared about. Stick two fingers up at things like "entertainment" and "pineapples". Ignore Instagram. Find stuff just by asking about. Do some weeding on a massive scale.

The whole point about weeding is not that you're left with empty ground. It means you're left with potential for something else - something you really want, something you actually care about and can actually use.

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