The Kafkaesque World of Data Mining
In the surreal world we live in, reality has become stranger than fiction. The information super highway could have produced a completely transparent world, yet the elusive corporate and governmental nexus of Big Brothers has surrounded itself with layers of opacity, secrecy and deception. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are probed, exposed and have become open books to organizations such as the United States National Security Agency (NSA) and corporations that run search engines and social media. In one case, it is done in the name of security and prevention of terrorist attacks, in the other it is done in the name of commerce. Factual and fictional have become so blurred that many dreams have a more logical structure than current events. It is as if reality is trapped, like a fly in a spider web, in the matrix of a nightmarish and grotesque virtual construct. Perhaps the best way to understand this layered reality — both hyper-connected and paradoxically disconnected — is to look into fiction, especially the work of Franz Kafka.
Reality is Stranger Than Fiction
The general context of both The Trial and The Castle — which were started by Kafka exactly a century ago- is an exploration of oppression by a mysterious power and of the alienation of individuals. In both instances the power structure is opaque and removed from its victims. The premise of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center echoes Kafka’s Trial: people are arrested by a remote and not accessible authority while alleged crimes are not disclosed to the person detained and the public or reader. In The Castle, Kafka focuses on alienation as a by-product of bureaucracy. The main character, who is identified only as K, struggles, as a land surveyor, to get access to the mysterious power, residing in a castle, that governs the village below. K acts like a reporter trying to crack the opacity of power and reveal its deceptive nature. “All the authorities did was to guard the distant and invisible interests of distant and invisible masters,” wrote Kafka. This diffuse power fog could easily apply to the NSA’s overreaching or overzealous decision — authorized or not — to spy on more than 35 world leaders. Just like in The Castle, the elusive multi-layered “authorities” running our world, which does not mean the puppet figureheads used as window dressing, could say that “One of the operating principles of authorities is that the possibility of error is simply not taken into account…. There are control agencies, but they are not meant to find errors,… since no errors occur, and even if an error does occur,… who can finally say that it is an error,” wrote Kafka.
Spreading Paranoia and Despair
“One must lie low, no matter how much it went against the grain, and try to understand that this great organization remains in a state of delicate balance, and that if someone took it upon himself to alter the dispositions of things around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to destruction while the organization would simply right itself by some compensating reactions in another part of its machinery- since everything is interlocked- and remain unchanged, unless indeed- which was very probable- it became more rigid, more vigilant, severer, and more ruthless,” wrote Kafka in The Trial.
The rationale expressed above seems to be the governing principle of the rulers’ media sycophants. By constantly milking and peddling the NSA-Snowden story, media outlets promote passivity and inertia. They convey a sense of helplessness and despair, not any indication that something can be done. Fear and paranoia are ultimately amplified to make people believe that fighting a systemic anonymous monster is absolutely pointless.
The Victim as Hero
While it is true that whistle blowers like Assange, Snowden, Manning and Swartz are not traitors, it is difficult to see them as being heroic. Assange is in a golden cage at the Ecuadorian embassy in London; Snowden fled his country to seek political asylum in Russia; Manning is psychologically crushed and imprisoned; and Swartz committed suicide. If nothing else, all four are poster children for “Look what happens if you oppose us.” Heroes, providing they are not cinematic cliches, overcome the system they are fighting rather than become victimized by it. For better or worse, Charles de Gaulle, who headed and led the Resistance was the last heroic figure of France. Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro might well be the last ones standing in the context of true heroes of our times.
Further, these times call for strategic collective fights. Wikileaks, for example, was more powerful before Assange became a public figure. The Anonymous network draws it strength from operating below the radar. A system that is widespread, diffuse and opaque cannot be effectively opposed by individuals. Individuals are too easily muscled into deals or targeted for destruction.
NSA and “Dataveillance” Through Search Engines and Social Media
There is a great paradox and flagrant contradiction in all this. The data mining or data surveillance enterprises, public and private, want to know everything about you, but they don’t want you to know much about them. On one hand, they probe into the minutia of our lives — against our will in the case of the NSA , but with our active collaboration in the case of social media — and on the other hand, they want to maintain as much opacity as possible on why and how they do it. According to NSA staunch defender Paul Rosenzweig, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), “too much transparency defeats the purpose of democracy.”
“In the new domain of dataveillance, the form of oversight should vary depending upon the extent to which transparency and opacity are necessary to the new powers authorized. Allowing some form of surveillance is vital to assure the protection of American interests. Conversely, allowing full public disclosure of our sources and methods is dangerous and could be used by terrorists,” writes Rosenzweig, who has fully embraced the booming business of private security and data surveillance or “dataveillance”- as he calls it. As head of Red Branch Consulting (a homeland-security consulting company) and a Senior adviser of the Chertoff Group, Paul Rosenzweig represents the “creme de la creme” of the privatized security and data-mining business. Chertoff, Rosenzweig and co. are, in all respects, a lot scarier than even the NSA, because they are not subject to public oversight.
If the private business of security and data surveillance has a definite Big Brother neo-fascist flavor to it, the apparently friendly and borderline “warm and fuzzy” social networks do some thorough spying of their own, and collaborate with the authorities. In this case, the user is a willing victim. Though they should not be, some were surprised when it was revealed that social networks collaborate with the police or the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). It is naive to think that they would not. After all, social media are corporate entities, and as such they are invested in maintaining the status quo. On Saturday, October 26, 2013, thousands marched in Washington DC against the NSA’s widespread surveillance program in a “Stop Watching Us” rally. Needless to say, it is wishful thinking to imagine that “they” — the Big Bothers consortium leviathan of the NSA, Chertoff Group, DHS, search engines and social media networks — will stop watching us. They will not stop watching because they are asked to do so. What political activists can do is watch them, give them the middle finger from time to time and, as regards social media, set up their own independent nonprofit social media network.
Gilbert Mercier writes for the News Junkie, where this essay originally appeared.