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Some Picaresque Episodes

The Laptop Panopticon

by WILLIAM MANSON

First, I have a confession to make: I don’t exactly like computers—nor do I understand them.  For almost a decade, I pretty much ignored the Internet, simply reading and teaching in the manner in which I had grown accustomed in the late 20th century.  (Cf. Theodore Roszak, The Cult of Information, 1994.)  Only in recent years, after having left college teaching, did I finally become converted (in both senses of the term)—thus becoming, ironically, an enthusiastic contributor to such esteemed online newsletters as CounterPunch.  But I still know nothing about viruses and other such mysteries of “cyberspace”—nor can I summon the interest.  And in these past years, using an old, weather-beaten laptop, I’ve really had no problems using the Internet on a daily basis—until the immediate aftermath of Snowden’s NSA revelations.

I, like millions of others in the U.S. and elsewhere, was appalled.  I dashed off a short piece speculating about the obsessional psychology of the NSA technocrats–compelled to scrutinize each and every communication transmitted via the Internet.  I quickly e-mailed it to another online newsletter for which I sometimes write.  The following morning, knowing the time at which new articles are usually posted, I typed in their website—and, boom, instantly—my computer froze up and I was grandly informed that “Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool” was busily at work.  Nothing unusual, you say?  It was to me—the first time I can remember this happening.

I was simply flabbergasted—had I “hurt the feelings” of vulnerable NSA technocrats?  Were my comments “insensitive”?  Sure, I tried to be a bit provocative, aiming my Freudian speculations at these NSA “control freaks” (sorry).  But the piece was merely the commentary of a mild-mannered citizen concerned—to put it mildly–about the disturbing revelations about an (apparently) out-of-control, rogue agency.  More seriously: do super-intrusive agencies like the NSA, exhibiting colossal, “above-the-law” hubris, reflexively seek to squash the criticism of mere citizen-writers such as myself?  Last month, I tried to correspond with an American academic who happens to be  teaching at a university in the Middle East—but abandoned the effort when I noticed that the original text of my email had been “amended.”  After that, for a week or so, a short string of gibberish was inserted into my routine daily e-mail (certainly puzzling for the recipients).  Other such amusing incidents?  From time-to-time, my computer freezes up–“DSA.gnt.exe”–whatever that means.  Or more commonly: “Anti-Malware Executable.”  All very annoying—and ridiculous.

In our (besieged) democracy, such agencies still remain subject to rigorous public oversight and must exercise their functions entirely within the limits of the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.  And of course, obviously—such “intelligence” agencies should be run by civilian watchdogs, not by army generals specializing in data-collection or counter-insurgency.

I close with this rhetorical question to those “intelligence” professionals who may (secretly?) admire Snowden’s courage, integrity, and civic-mindedness.  Are you not subverting the very U.S.A. you claim to be “protecting”—by this wholesale, systemic violation of fundamental American values (specifically, amendments 1 and 4 of the U.S. Constitution)?  Edward Snowden—to his lasting credit as a defender of civil liberties—believed that you are.

William Manson, a psychoanalytic anthropologist,  formerly taught social science at Rutgers and Columbia universities. He is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press).