Saturday, March 09, 2013

Of surveillance and scholarship

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 joke.

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 Capital, The Communist Manifesto, and even the notoriously unreadable Grundrisse?"

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 display.

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.
Big Brother Barack?

Commenting on another forum gave me the idea that those advertizing blimps you see overhead at festivals and sporting events could be precursors to a drone program. We know they make good camera platforms and could easily hide cell phone transmission equipment.

But drones are in our future because the technology is expensive and makers can command high prices that obama will be willing to pay as Quid pro quo for donations.
I am convinced that sometimes a false data trail is planted in a computer, or its existence simply alleged, falsely. Why wouldn't they do that in a crunch?

They certainly plant drugs on people, use throw-down guns after an unwarranted shooting, etc.

If someone were officially cyber-setup, I doubt there would be much forensic evidence to support the defense that it was planted.
So Alexandria burned twice, eh Joseph?

If you told us before how you lost your great library, please point us to the archive of the tragic account.

If not, steel yourself against renewed grief and tell us NOW.

We thank you and sympathise in advance.
I don't know why the story would interest you. All our belongings were in storage. For complex reasons, we were under the impression that we had paid six months in advance. We hadn't. And for another set of complex reasons, the storage place couldn't reach us. That's all I'm prepared to say.

I also lost my paintings.
I do sympathise. Deeply. What one assiduously collects and creates eventually becomes a part of one's core sense of self.

So why would the story interest me, Joseph? Because I had a dear friend from years gone by who, like you, had also built a huge personal library specialising in occult studies, alternate histories and conspiratorial rantings/diggings/discoveries.

Alas, he lost it all when his precarious employment situation turned "code red" and he was eventually reduced to selling off his vast-and-strange library (for "mere pennies on the dollar") to Shylockian used-book dealers -- first volume by painful volume, and then shelf by whole shelf.

Fortunately for obsessively curious me, I had already borrowed and read through a great deal of it before the crisis hit and my lending (and friendship) privileges were revoked. (He also started hitting the bottle hard when he hit bottom, and I was in no financial position to bail him out.)

In contrasting my former friend's tragedy to the coming world of e-books, I am also led to ponder as to how folks of the future, who had comparably invested hugely, but only in "licensed" (and increasingly cloud-stored) literature could ever even legally dispose of it (to pay the bills in hard times) when all they would own would be non-transferable, limited-access "rights".
Alas, he lost it all when his precarious employment situation turned "code red" and he was eventually reduced to selling off his vast-and-strange library (for "mere pennies on the dollar") to Shylockian used-book dealers -- first volume by painful volume, and then shelf by whole shelf.

Media Monitoring
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