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Good Panopt, Bad Panopt: Does It Make A Difference?

The Harry Truman Show double-tapped the “Japs” in ‘45, not to end World War 2 ASAP, but to flourish the Yankee saber before the Ruskies at Potsdam and ensure they knew who the sheriff was in the new world order that followed, according to some accounts.  Like two ancient warrior tribes, the Anglos and the Vikings, say, the Americans have been rattling words and swords ever since, from Sputnik to Stuxnet, from Lee Harvey Oswald to Edward Snowden. They are inextricably linked in modern history and, like the synthetic product of a Hegelian dialectical struggle, have revolutionized the world together.  

You could draw a straight line from Sputnik to Stuxnet, from the early battle to control outer-space to the World War Cyber we are currently in.  Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, was seen as a Russian warning shot across the bow of the growing American talk-soft-Exceptionalism-and-carry-a-big-nuclear-stick empire.  Out of the ensuing reactionary panic, the Pentagon developed the first internet (ARPANET), which was designed, in part, to be a Doomsday communication system to ensure that American ICBM missiles could retaliate, should the Cold War get hot in a hurry.  

It was a long time in coming, but Stuxnet, like Sputnik, is a firing-across-the-bow, an American warning to the world, but especially to the Russkies, that it’s game on in cyber-space. Stuxnet was the first virus designed to take out not code but hardware: Iranian nuclear centrifuges overheated with a resulting system catastrophe. Imagine a virus that targeted the fan of your laptop, resulting an overheating that destroyed the motherboard. Now imagine the world of industry — electric grids, oil wells, and yes, military hardware, etc. — targeted by tailored viruses. That’s the world we live in now.

Tim Berners-Lee is not happy with what’s become of his beloved World Wide Web since its introduction transformed the Internet twenty-and-some-change years ago.  His vision of a free, open and universal access point for everybody to quickly obtain and share information — from the sciences through the humanities, and everything in-between — has been lost, as the result of the over-commercialization and “centralization” of the world wide web.  “Oh, the humanity,” Berners-Lee seems to cry as his once-buoyant vision goes up in flames and falls.

And who hasn’t noticed how the Web has become like so many chambers in a Russian roulette game, as more and more of our attention is absorbed by the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon, and we pull the trigger on our consciousness?  Marketized and re-militarized, the Internet has become a place for the Masters of Algorithm War to move our data points around like poker chips in a game of Bullshit. Fake News (Voice of America or RT?), Black Friday mega-deals, the latest Trump tweets, what chum will we go for today? Oh, the humanity.

Ever since 9/11, when the War on Terror began in earnest, it was inevitable that the Internet would be re-militarized by the Pentagon and that they would re-assert the right to control the protocols and communications crossing these wires. In between downloading a book from Amazon, or buying a gift from eBay, or spraying our endless opinions on Facebook, checking out Google’s latest apps, a world war is going on between the precious interstices of our consciousness.  In 2012, before he fled (almost ironically) to Russia, Edward Snowden let the world know, with evidence so hard it was virtually whistleblower porn, that we live in a dystopic panopticon. Take Keyscore XL, the NSA’s secret browser which, according to Glenn Greenwald, can “listen to whatever emails they want, whatever telephone calls, browsing histories, Microsoft Word documents. And it’s all done with no need to go to a court, with no need to even get supervisor approval on the part of the analyst.”  

Interestingly enough, the Mainstream Media was aware of the NSA’s illegal eavesdropping on American citizens back in October 2004.  New York Times prize-winning journalist James Risen had a bombshell story quashed in order, said the Times 14 months later, when they finally published the piece, to avoid swaying the election with an “October surprise.”  George H. Bush won re-election without the public having any awareness of the Bush-ordered spy program. Somehow, it never occurred to the editors that such spying might have vital public interest information that maybe should have swayed the election. In essence, they opted to protect his administration’s illegal violation of the Constitution.

Abusive surveillance by intelligence agencies has been going on in America for quite some time, as the Church Committee uncovered in the ‘70s, when it reported on the CIA’s secret and illegal domestic spying.  That spying continued and, it’s safe to say, continues still. Why not, when there’s no repercussions and “Terror” is on the loose? It wasn’t long ago that the CIA was spying on members of Congress, without redress — no extended hearings,no long-lasting outrage.  Just as after a group of baseball-playing Senators got shot up by a gunman in 2017, even when they were themselves the targets of criminal outrage, Congress demonstrated their fecklessness in the face of CIA abuses and did nothing. On the other hand, Julian Assange may have demonstrated recklessness when he published the entire hacking arsenal of the Agency last year, essentially declaring war on them.  For his trouble, he’s been “linked” with Russia and declared a non-state hostile intelligence service,” with all that that implies.

It’s a panopticon out there and Americans are rightly rattled.  The security tentacles of Homeland Security seem to reach into every daily living activity — scans and pat-downs at the airport and train stations; facial scans at public events, especially at protest rallies; ICE at the borders; marijuana raids on legalized outlets; overzealous, militarized police.  But the real threat to privacy and what used to be called a ‘normal’ life has disappeared since 9/11, when a “Pearl Harbor-like” event brought America a national security ratcheting.  The fear is that, with a militarized Internet, we may be preparing for another Pearl Harbor-like event online that will result in a total lockdown of our activities. Whether you’re a conspiracy theorist or a conspiracy fearist, people in-the-know, such as Richard Clarke and Leon Panetta, have warned that we need to prepare.

But the panopticon is not just the national security apparatus that ostensibly has as its core value the protection of democracy and the American way of life, which one wants to believe only targets “terrorists” (an open-ended noun/verb, in our postmodern world), but includes the honeypot doings of the Good Panopticon — Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook.  With the promise of making our online experience more, well, bespoken, tailored to our desires, they absorb our data points into algorithmic dances choreographed around our spending habits. We voluntarily fill in field after field, from forms to emails and texts, and we tell them everything about us at a far deeper level than the government is allowed to do.

Google works with the NSA and others, and has, in the past, built a search engine for the Pentagon. They are the most pervasive and invasive of the lot: street and satellite views of our property (with coordinates); they save and scan every email we’ve ever written (even post-delete); they keep track of images, documents, and other files.  Currently, they are specializing in voice recognition software. They build a multi-faceted dossier on each and every user.  You would be surprised at the scope of their savings on you — who you called; what you texted and to whom; voice-print samples; where you went — yesterday, last year; what you searched for: https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity .  Sobering.  And while many people have expressed outrage at Google’s agreeing to build a search engine for the Chinese that blacks out references to human rights issues and sites, they are blind to the work Google does to undermine freedom and democracy at home, because all the activity above is made available to intelligence services.  

Amazon works with the CIA, building a database.  Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, often a first conduit of ‘highly-placed anonymous sources’ within the CIA and other national security agencies. And they specialize in facial recognition technology, which they enthusiastically share with law enforcement agencies. Apple and Microsoft have made system backdoors available to intelligence agencies.  As we know the hard way, Facebook sells personal data for huge sums of money to analytical companies for future exploitative processes; the data Facebook keeps is downloadable to you, but also to anyone who cracks your password. Add in The Internet of Everything that would connect all devices to the Internet and there will soon be virtually no place to find relief from the relentless data collection of our doings.  

Which brings up the battle for the last frontier — the space between our ears, the future of human consciousness.  The more we become dependent upon Internet feeds to our brain, and the more we build on our own data dossier, the closer we come to being our own panopticons. It’s an experience that has already translated into psychological damage (see my review of two relevant books): according to some psychologists, up to 25% of the people around us are ensconced in paranoia; and, strange new diagnoses are arising, such as the Truman Show delusion, a condition whereby individuals feel they are living in a reality TV show, everyone around them actors, cameras everywhere.  And that was a rising delusion even before the conspiracy-driven (“but not collusional”) Reality TV president was elected.

As after the Sputnik launch, no one knows where we are heading next, but as we hurdle toward the singularity of biology and the digital, it promises to be transformational, and even an evolutionary paradigm shift.  Darwin, Lamarck, choose your poison. And blame the Russians.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.

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