A Truthout writer named R. Lila Steinberg has made an interesting observation
about our wonderful new world of surveillance. In this world, we are all presumed guilty -- and the guiltiest of all are the scholars, the researchers, and the intellectually curious.
Steinberg links to this video
, which I have not yet watched, although I plan to do so soon. Apparently, the video features a conference on the NSA's snooping abilities and how the FBI uses this data for criminal investigation.
Since 9/11, sweeping and indiscriminate digital surveillance of all computer and telecommunications users has been conducted, and more recently, systems have been developed to store every byte of that information forever. This means that if actors within some government agency decide to target you, they can immediately access every telecommunication: email, phone call, etcetera, that you have made or sent for years, as well as every web site you have visited.
So how does electronic surveillance impact scholarship? How does our constant state of cyber-nudity stifle intellectual curiosity?
By claiming falsely that reviewing materials, for example, about creationism, makes one necessarily a creationist, or reviewing materials about jihad makes one a jihadist, or that reviewing materials about anarchism makes one necessarily an anarchist, and, further, that reviewing anything or even claiming these titles is the same as actually committing any crime, the surveillance state is effectively abolishing your right to be a critical thinker.
I think I know what Steinberg is getting at.
In the days before the internet, I sometimes told my friends: "God forbid I'm ever a suspect in a serious criminal case. Newspapers would talk about how the cops searched my apartment and found an entire bookcase filled with works about Nazis."
That was a joke. But a serious
This world is filled with idiots who don't know the difference between interest and advocacy. In their eyes, my lifelong passion for reading about outre
topics makes me an advocate for all sorts of extreme beliefs.
An investigator doing the Sherlock-scan of my former abode would have hopped to all sorts of conclusions, and not just because I had collected lots of books about Adolf and Co. I also had a nice selection of works about Joseph Smith. "Obviously, Watson, the man who lives in this apartment must be a former Mormon! Ah -- but look here, Watson. At some point, our former Mormon turned into a bolshie. Why else would he own copies of
The Communist Manifesto, and even the notoriously unreadable
Of course, I also had The Wealth of Nations
sitting on a shelf, not far from a whole bunch of mondo-bizarro offerings from the John Birch Society and their ideological confreres. There were books about Freemasonry. Books about serial killers, including a formidable Ripperology section. Scads
of books about spies. Lots of stuff by and about dear old Uncle Al
. Another whole bookcase devoted to political assassinations.
And then there was the notorious black
bookcase. That's where I stashed the really
freaky reads -- things I dare not mention here.
A friend once gave me, as a gag gift, Yaraslovsky's notorious Landmarks in the Life of Stalin
, which I kept on the mantle next to Psychopathia Sexualis
, The Teddy Bear Catalog
and a small collection of plastic dinosaurs. (A house is not a home without plastic dinosaurs.) One shudders to think of what a would-be Sherlock might make of that
And the files! Oh god. Box after box after box
, filled with enough weird shit to freak out even Alex Jones. A conclusion-hopper's paradise.
(As a side note, perhaps I should mention that young artists are often subjected to a variant of the pseudo-Sherlockian conclusion-hop. Just as many idiots presume that only a Nazi sympathizer would keep Shirer on his shelf, idiots of another sort are firm believers in that familiar mantra: "If you draw a picture of it, you must want to fuck it." So if you're male and you draw nude men -- as all artists once did, in order to learn anatomy -- you must be gay. If you draw nude women, you're a perv and a sexist. Grade schoolers think that way; so do New York art critics. I always wonder how these creeps interpret Audubon and George Stubbs.)
Much of the above was written in a light-hearted vein, but the underlying point is serious. We now live in a surveillance state, and that situation is only going to get worse -- unless we do something about it.
In this surveillance state, you do
have a squad of would-be Sherlocks snooping around your home. (Having lost my library some years ago, I now consider my computer to be my home. You probably feel similarly about your own computer.) The snoops are there to make judgments about you. They are very paranoid and very arrogant, and you can't see
the sneaky little bastards as they go about their filthy business, rooting and snorting through your private materials.
Don't kid yourself: The NSA Sherlockians really are there, every second of every day, magnifying glasses in hand, deerstalkers perched atop their damnable devices of data-mining. They know that you visited an anti-Semitic website back in 2003. They know that you Googled "Ted Bundy" in 2008. They know that you've been using Google Earth to cyber-visit North Korea. They've seen your pron. They've logged your sex chats.
I can guess what you're thinking: "You're being paranoid, Cannon. Sure, the spooks may have access to all of that information. Maybe they have it all filed away in their supercomputer wonderland in Utah. But that doesn't mean they care
about small potatoes like you and me."
True, perhaps. But what if the situation changes? What if ambition or happenstance takes you out of the "small potatoes" category?
One day, you may lead a more interesting life than you do right now. If you ever stumble into prominence, you may suddenly have to justify
all of your cyber-activities. You will be open to blackmail. Pressure.
Socrates got it wrong. The examined
life is not worth living.