1. A Moment of Vision
In Robert Sheckley’s 1978 short story “Is That What People Do?,” a man named Eddie Quintero buys himself a pair of binoculars from an army and navy surplus outlet, “because with them he hoped to see some things that he otherwise would never see. Specifically, he hoped to see girls undressing at the Chauvin Arms across the street from his furnished room”—but he was also “looking for that moment of vision, of total attention.” Since this is a science fiction story, Quintero accidentally ends up with a pair marked “Experimental. Not to Be Removed from the Testing Room.”
The binoculars turn out to have a fabulous capacity not only for seeing through walls but also for diminishing the distance between Quintero and those he would spy on. When he peers through the experimental device just so—an effort of contorting his body into increasingly bizarre positions—Quintero is suddenly granted visions of other human beings, behind closed doors, doing “what people do.” Which turns out to be, well, weird shit. The least disturbing of what Quintero surveils is what’s now called cosplay; the most extreme consists of giddy ritual murder, and of the deliberate calling-forth of a Satanic, sexually violent “smoke-demon.” On the last page, Sheckley’s parable attains an existentialist clarity: the binoculars grant a vision of a shabby, middle-aged man in a dreary room, standing on his head, with a pair of binoculars awkwardly wedged against his face. Quintero recognizes himself:
He realized that he was only another performer in humanity’s great circus, and he had just done one of his acts, just like the others. But who was watching? Who was the real observer?
He turned the binoculars around and looked through the object-lenses. He saw a pair of eyes, and he thought they were his own—until one of them slowly winked at him.
Edward Snowden, late in the pages of his memoir, Permanent Record, describes his sensation at being personally introduced to XKEYSCORE, the NSA’s ultimate tool of intimate, individual electronic surveillance. Among the NSA’s technological tools (some of which Snowden aided in perfecting), XKEYSCORE was, according to Snowden, “the most invasive…if only because [the NSA agents are] closest to the user—that is, the closest to the person being surveilled.” For nearly three hundred pages, the memoir has built to this scene, foreshadowed in the preface, in which the whistleblower-in-the-making sees behind the curtain:
I sat at a terminal from which I had practically unlimited access to the communications of nearly every man, woman, and child on earth who’d ever dialed a phone or touched a computer. Among those people were about 320 million of my fellow American citizens, who in the regular conduct of their everyday lives were being surveilled in gross contravention of not just the Constitution of the United States, but the basic values of any free society.
The steady approach to Snowden’s come-to-Jesus encounter with XKEYSCORE is as meticulous as the incremental unveiling of the terror of Cthulhu in an H.P. Lovecraft tale. Snowden himself alludes to this parallel:
It was, simply put, the closest thing to science fiction I’ve ever seen in science fact: an interface that allows you to type in pretty much anyone’s address, telephone number, or IP address, and then basically go through the recent history of their online activity. In some cases you could even play back recordings of their online sessions, so that the screen you’d be looking at was their screen, whatever was on their desktop.
And: “It was like watching an autocomplete, as letters and words flashed across the screen. But the intelligence behind that typing wasn’t artificial but human: this was a humancomplete.” And:
One thing you come to understand very quickly while using XKEYSCORE is that nearly everyone in the world who’s online has at least two things in common: they have all watched porn at one time or another, and they all store photos and videos of their family. This was true for virtually everyone of every gender, ethnicity, race, and age—from the meanest terrorist to the nicest senior citizen.
The humancomplete that chills Snowden’s blood is “this one child in particular, a little boy in Indonesia. Technically, I shouldn’t have been interested in this little boy, but I was, because my employers were interested in his father” (who was, according to Snowden, “just a regular academic who’d been caught up in a surveillance dragnet”):
He was sitting in front of his computer, as I was sitting in front of mine. Except that in his lap he had a toddler, a boy in a diaper.
The father was trying to read something, but the kid kept shifting around, smacking the keys and giggling. The computer’s internal mic picked up his giggling and there I was, listening to it on my headphones. The father held the boy tighter, and the boy straightened up, and, with his dark crescent eyes, looked directly into the computer’s camera—I couldn’t escape the feeling that he was looking directly at me. Suddenly I realized that I’d been holding my breath.
Permanent Record is an attempt to reverse the binoculars and offer a self-portrait of the man—whistleblower? leaker? dissident? spy?—who walks the earth, these days in Moscow, under the name Edward Snowden.
Snowden might seem forever defined by a single act—his decision to leak highly classified information copied from the NSA—and a single moment in time. Having gazed through the windows of the panopticon, he experienced that rarity, a moment of vision: The world must be told these things I know. Against absurd odds, he delivered his knowledge to us. Now he proposes to explain to you, by first explaining to himself, how he became (both how he was formed, and why he chose to become) the person playing this watershed walk-on part on the recent historical stage.
If the reader gauges this prospect with resistance (Didn’t I see a fine documentary on this subject, several years back? Didn’t I read somewhere that Snowden’s a nonentity?), it is mirrored by Snowden’s own doubts:
The fact is, no one with a biography like mine ever comes comfortably to autobiography. It’s hard to have spent so much of my life trying to avoid identification, only to turn around completely and share “personal disclosures” in a book. The Intelligence Community tries to inculcate in its workers a baseline anonymity, a sort of blank-page personality upon which to inscribe secrecy and the art of imposture.
Snowden goes further in describing the conundrum he faces, comparing the process of self-erosion typical in his chosen field of spycraft to the task of data encryption he was hired to do: “As in any process of encryption, the original material—your core identity—still exists, but only in a locked and scrambled form.”
Do we need a memoir by a person who proposes that “the more you know about others, the less you know about yourself”? Perhaps, if we grant that Snowden’s difficulty may not be the exclusive province of spies, but rather embodies a characteristic fissure in contemporary selfhood.
2. Free Country
Snowden’s book is straightforward, admirably so. He has taken the risk of assuming that his reader is interested not only in his “moment of vision” and the brazen act that earned his fame and notoriety, but also in the formation of his personality, and the slow growth of his understanding of technology, espionage, surveillance, and human rights. Despite his gifts at computer programming, he has no interest in persuading you that he’s unusual; quite the opposite. A clean-cut, apolitical child of a military family, his father a Coast Guard officer, his mother a federal employee—his parents divorced in 2001—Snowden is a gentle and conforming type, and he’s consistently amazed that more people don’t feel as he does about the intelligence community’s crimes. He walks us through his self-indoctrination in that community, his fascinatingly bland career in and around the CIA and NSA, his strangely easy location of a loyal life partner (he and his wife, Lindsay, met—you guessed it—online), and the steady growth of his disappointment with the ethical compasses of those around and above him, including President Obama.
His memoir is also a before-and-after account of September 11. Here again, his book succeeds in the act of earnest witnessing. His vantage is remarkable: the sixteen-year-old computing prodigy had taken a part-time job, assisting in a private Web design company run out of a private house that happened to be situated within the boundary of the NSA’s home military base:
It’s nearly inconceivable now, but at the time Fort Meade was almost entirely accessible to anyone. It wasn’t all bollards and barricades and checkpoints trapped in barbed wire. I could just drive onto the army base housing the world’s most secretive intelligence agency in my ’92 Civic, windows down, radio up, without having to stop at a gate and show ID. It seemed like every other weekend or so a quarter of my Japanese class would congregate in Mae’s little house behind NSA headquarters to watch anime and create comics. That’s just the way it was, in those bygone days when “It’s a free country, isn’t it?” was a phrase you heard in every schoolyard and sitcom.
Pandemonium, chaos: our most ancient forms of terror…. For as long as I live, I’ll remember retracing my way up Canine Road—the road past the NSA’s headquarters—after the Pentagon was attacked. Madness poured out of the agency’s black glass towers, a tide of yelling, ringing cell phones, and cars revving up in the parking lots and fighting their way onto the street. At the moment of the worst terrorist attack in American history, the staff of the NSA—the major signals agency of the American IC—was abandoning its work by the thousands, and I was swept up in the flood.
After the September 11 attacks, Snowden—“obediently following along, in what today I recall as one totalizing moment”—was set on his patriotic course: enlistment in the army (followed, after an injury, by a neutral form of discharge known as “administrative separation”), then the search for high-level government clearance, in order to offer his computing skills in the intelligence community marketplace. The CIA and NSA usually hire people with talents like Snowden’s as federally cleared private contractors, rather than directly conscripting them to one of the agencies. Snowden walks us through this baroque arrangement, which arises primarily as a budgeting work-around; implicit is a defense against any diminishment of his role on the grounds that he was merely a contractor.
If you choose to believe this memoir—I do—then that same unironic patriotic nerve drove each subsequent phase of Snowden’s disillusionment, and what followed: the iconoclastic deed that propelled him to fame. The flavor of Snowden’s account is nerd ingenuous. He strings together remarks that can seem awfully obvious, but that gain in cumulative effect:
To hack a system requires getting to know its rules better than the people who created it or are running it.
The computer guy knows everything, or rather can know everything.
I occupied one of the most unexpectedly omniscient positions in the Intelligence Community—toward the bottom rung of the managerial ladder, but high atop heaven in terms of access.
At the time, I didn’t realize that engineering a system that would keep a permanent record of everyone’s life was a tragic mistake.
Sometimes he generates an eerie koan:
Deletion has never existed.
Speaking of the commonalities between the intelligence community and the tech industry:
Both are entrenched and unelected powers that pride themselves on maintaining absolute secrecy about their developments. Both believe they have the solutions for everything, which they never hesitate to unilaterally impose. Above all, they both believe that these solutions are inherently apolitical, because they’re based on data.
And, after a long contemplation of the painful losses of US lives on September 11, this bare remark:
Over one million people have been killed in the course of America’s response.
How does one decide to become the dissident, the scapegoat, the whistleblower? Snowden seems as mystified as we are. It is as if one day the question simply appears, fully formed: Why am I the one who cares? Why am I haunted by the eyes of the boy in his father’s lap while other operatives with access to XKEYSCORE are busy collecting nudes and stalking ex-girlfriends? (Alas, yes. They even have a nickname for it: LOVEINT, a satirical variation on HUMINT and SIGINT—human and signals intelligence.) “To whom could I turn?” he writes. “Who could I talk to? Even to whisper the truth, even to a lawyer or a judge or to Congress, had been made so severe a felony that just a basic outlining of the broadest facts would invite a lifetime sentence in a federal cell.”
Snowden suffers as he privately traces the extent of the government’s crimes and realizes the deceptions required to carry them out. He twists through feelings of shame at his complicity; astonishment at the indifference around him; fear at the onset of loneliness, a loneliness he knows is only a preview of the isolation awaiting him if he acts. There’s also a sort of bargaining and denial phase, as he assesses whether he’s too lowly to play the part in which he’s cast himself: “Who’d elected me the president of secrets?”
Yet the answer is as plain as the publication date of his book: September 17, Constitution Day. (I’d never heard of it.) Snowden’s a Constitution dork. He’s the one guy in the office who actually takes a copy of the document off the “free table”; he’s the one guy who actually reads it. He likes reading it, “partially because its ideas are great, partially because its prose is good, but really because it freaked out my coworkers.”
My theory is that with that last line Snowden is actually trying to laugh away the pain. I believe the Constitution—particularly the Bill of Rights— became, for Snowden, a kind of lonely companion, or perhaps something like a rescue animal that only he cares for sufficiently. In the period in which he’s struggling to understand whether it is incumbent on him to destroy his life in order to protect the Constitution, Snowden is diagnosed with epilepsy. Though he himself never quite goes there, it’s hard not to interpret these chapters allegorically: cognitive dissonance as a slow-motion brain seizure. Secrecy as disease.
3. Chain of Command
In his New Yorker essay “The Outside Man,” Malcolm Gladwell made a disappointed comparison between Daniel Ellsberg—the eloquent, dashing leaker of the Pentagon Papers—and Edward Snowden:
Ellsberg was handsome and charismatic…. He did his undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard, where he wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on game theory and collaborated with Thomas Schelling, who went on to win a Nobel Prize. He took a senior post in McNamara’s Defense Department, represented the State Department in Vietnam, and had two stints as a senior intelligence analyst at the RAND Corporation.
When he encountered evidence of the Johnson administration’s deceptions about the Vietnam War, Ellsberg first “went to the Senate, where he tried to get someone to release the documents formally and hold public hearings,” and even tried to interest his friend and mentee Henry Kissinger. Having become disillusioned with his options within the halls of government, Ellsberg leaks, but only within what Gladwell dubs, in a pregnant phrase, “the norms of insider disclosure”:
And whom does [Ellsberg] entrust with those forty-three volumes? The Times, which rents a suite at the Hilton, posts security guards outside, and assigns a team to spend the next three months reading through the collected documents…. Would the Times have won a Pulitzer for publishing the Pentagon Papers if the study had been unclassified? Not a chance.
Harvard, Nobel, RAND, Pulitzer, the Times, and the Hilton—oh my! Gladwell’s nostalgia for the cold war–era social order squats over this account, as candid as it is unexamined.
By this standard, Ellsberg’s successor isn’t up to snuff:
Snowden did not study under a Nobel Prize winner, or give career advice to the likes of Henry Kissinger. He was a community-college dropout, a member of the murky hacking counterculture…. The élites, Snowden once said, “know everything about us and we know nothing about them—because they are secret, they are privileged, and they are a separate class.”
Gladwell quotes this without the slightest concern for self-incrimination. He goes on: “Information—particularly sensitive information—has a pedigree…the relationship between the government and the press—between the source of leaks and the beneficiary of leaks—is symbiotic.”
When I worked on the science desk at the Washington Post, my colleagues and I would read a front-page story by our counterparts at the Times and invariably know where the leak on which the story was based came from. The first order of business was typically to call the leaker and complain that he or she was playing favorites.
Symbiotic—that’s one word for it. Cozy, elite, secret—others. Gladwell ends by chiding Snowden for not having seen Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; on top of everything else, measured against worldly Ellsberg, Snowden’s just no fun.
In Permanent Record, Edward Snowden doesn’t say whether he cares what The New Yorker’s readers think of his knowledge of 1960s cinema, but he explains why he didn’t turn to The New York Times. It isn’t a social matter:
Whenever I thought about contacting the Times, I found myself hesitating. While the paper had shown some willingness to displease the US government with its WikiLeaks reporting, I couldn’t stop reminding myself of its earlier conduct involving an important article on the government’s warrantless wiretapping program by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen. Those two journalists…had managed to uncover one aspect of STELLARWIND—the NSA’s original-recipe post 9/11 surveillance initiative—and had produced a fully written, edited, and fact-checked article about it, ready to go to press by mid-2004. It was at this point that the paper’s editor in chief, Bill Keller, ran the article past the government, as part of a courtesy process…. If the Times, or any paper, did something similar to me…it would be tantamount to turning me in before any revelations were brought before the public.
Interestingly, Snowden declines to make a direct comparison between his assessment of the Fourth Estate and another concern in his book: the military’s imperative to stay within “the chain of command.” What if the whistleblower wishes to expose the person directly above them? What if it is precisely your immediate superior who is unreliable, corrupt? Is the chain of command corrupt as well? Essentially, the problem Snowden faced with his direct military superiors was the same he faced in considering mainstream journalism: the chain of command might function as a trap for heretics.
Meanwhile, Ellsberg—who, when I used to meet him at the counter of used bookstores where I worked in Berkeley in the 1980s, seemed very much the canny old hippie—has, since his ejection from the corridors of power, dedicated his life to activism against US military interventions; been arrested in multiple nonviolent protests; spoken in support of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Snowden; and camped on Sproul Plaza during the Occupy movement. That’s the same Sproul Plaza, of course, that gave a stage to Free Speech Movement activist Mario Savio in 1964: “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part.”
4. Something with Eyes
In her remarkable new collection of essays, Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino meditates on the Internet’s potential for the destruction of our sense of scale:
Like many of us, I have become acutely conscious of the way my brain degrades when I strap it in to receive the full barrage of the internet—those unlimited channels, all constantly reloading with new information: births, deaths, boasts, bombings, jokes, job announcements, ads, warnings, complaints, confessions, and political disasters blitzing our frayed neurons in huge waves of information that pummel us and then are instantly replaced.
As Tolentino paints it, this is an experience defined by its paralyzing incoherence. If the “feed” presents an ocean of injustices, of rival neglected crises, it is also salted through with rival dismissive claims, and with shaming scorn, and outright lies. All this, plus clickable icons relentlessly shaped to kindle irruptions from one’s lizard appetites for orgasm, revenge, and gossip.
As for the constants of surveillance and self-surveillance, these end in stalemate. Or perhaps it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, of learned helplessness. In my own half-assed survey, nearly anyone, reminded of the facts of either corporate or NSA command of their data and metadata, tends to exhibit a throb of outrage, swiftly followed by a shrug of resigned, ironized acceptance: Sure, that happened, but me, I’ve got nothing to hide. Or: I was on their watch-list anyway. Or: It often recommends bands I wouldn’t have known about! Snowden’s implicit question, throughout his book, is: Why can’t I make people care?
I was born in 1964. Some of my favorite books attempt to account for what life was like before, during, and after some large rupture in the collective human prospect, or the advent of a reality-reshaping rupture, ideology, or technology. Transformations still in living memory, but receding fast: Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Doris Lessing’s The Children of Violence, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End—each of which tries to encompass the atmospheric changes between and around convulsive European wars, as does Paul Fussell’s tremendous study The Great War and Modern Memory. Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons partly concerns itself with the effect of the coming of the automobile on small-town Midwestern life. George W.S. Trow’s glinting essay “Within the Context of No Context” captures television’s insidious displacement of older social orders.
Earlier, I had gobbled up postwar US science fiction, making it the permanent lens for my own fumbling understanding of the world (as I’ve made obvious in this essay). Much of that writing, especially the 1950s writers clustered around Galaxy magazine, Sheckley among them, now looks to me like thought-experiments for a society overwhelmed—intoxicated and traumatized, both—by the advent of radio, television, rocketry, Madison Avenue, and nuclear war. Overwhelmed too by the vertiginous growth of a thing that had not yet gained the name “globalized corporate capitalism.” It strikes me now that the intricate ruminations of those long historical fictions, and the short sharp shocks of science fiction—the literature of “cognitive estrangement”—are both making the same implicit claim: after the accelerating transformations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, you can’t really ponder being alive in the twenty-first merely by describing the present.
I currently teach writing to people much younger than myself—to the children of the Internet and the post–September 11 security state and triumphalist global corporatism and climate doom. It’s a truism already to say they read (and watch, and write) dystopian stories because they’re living in one. No surprise, they’ve got little time for Lessing or Ford; those transitions are too deep in the rear-view mirror. The majority of my students find little nourishment in the placid assumptions underlying contemporary realism. They crave acknowledgment, not that the world has changed, or is changing, but that the world is change.
I think direct testimony also plays well these days, for my young students, and for a lot of us. Self-scrupulousness in prose, when it is as exacting as Tolentino’s, both excites and calms because it places a pin in the one thing we can safely say about the “now”: that each of us is working hard to handle it. Snowden, for his part, offers a meticulous and expressive description of the advent, in his young life, of computing, and the seductions of the virtual:
This Compaq [computer] became my constant companion—my second sibling, and first love. It came into my life just at the age when I was first discovering an independent self and the multiple worlds that can simultaneously exist within this world…. This was a technologized puberty, and the tremendous changes it wrought in me were, in a way, being wrought everywhere, in everyone…. With just this cord, the Compaq’s expansion card and modem, and a working phone, I could dial up and connect to something new called the Internet…. Readers who were born postmillennium might not understand the fuss, but trust me, this was a goddamned miracle…. You could pick up any other phone in the house on an extension line and actually hear the computers talking…. Internet access, and the emergence of the Web, was my generation’s big bang or Precambrian explosion…. I sometimes had the feeling that I had to know everything and wasn’t going to sign off until I did. It was like I was in a race with the technology.
How can I explain it, to someone who wasn’t there? My younger readers, with their younger standards, might think of the nascent Internet as way too slow, the nascent Web as too ugly and un-entertaining. But that would be wrong. Back then, being online was another life, considered by most to be separate and distinct from Real Life. The virtual and the actual had not yet merged. And it was up to each individual user to determine for themselves where one ended and the other began.
While both Tolentino and Snowden wax nostalgic for an earlier version of the Internet, it’s hardly clear that they’re talking about exactly the same thing. Snowden (born 1983) specifically credits anonymity with the liberatory power of the early Web:
One of the greatest joys of these platforms was that on them I didn’t have to be who I was. I could be anybody. The anonymizing or pseudonymizing features brought equilibrium to all relationships, correcting their imbalances…. I could even be multiple selves…. In the 1990s, the Internet had yet to fall victim to the greatest iniquity in digital history: the move by government and businesses to link, as intimately as possible, users’ online personas to their offline legal identity…enforcing fidelity to memory, identarian consistency, and so ideological conformity.
Though Snowden isn’t prone to philosophical citation, his sentiment here is Nietzschean. “Rather than making oneself uniform,” as Nietzsche wrote in Human, All Too Human, “we may find greater value for the enrichment of knowledge by listening to the soft voice of different life situations; each brings its own views with it. Thus we acknowledge and share the life and nature of many by not treating ourselves like rigid, invariable, single individuals.”
Tolentino (born 1988) associates anonymity with nihilism and bullying. Her perspective is more inflected than Snowden’s; ambivalent about the value of a stabilized “real” identity online, she’s marvelously even-tempered about online trolls:
The rise of trolling, and its ethos of disrespect and anonymity, has been so forceful in part because of the internet’s insistence on consistent, approval-worthy identity is so strong…. My only experience of the world has been one in which personal appeal is paramount and self-exposure is encouraged; this legitimately unfortunate paradigm, inhabited first by women and now generalized to the entire internet, is what trolls loathe and actively repudiate. They destabilize an internet built on transparency and likability.
Part of this difference is gendered: Snowden, as a man, can afford a certain obliviousness to all the stalking and doxxing, since most of it is aimed at women. Anyway, by the time of the “curdling of the social internet” (Tolentino’s words; she dates it to 2012), Snowden had long since vanished into his own spook’s labyrinth of alterna-nets and crypto-webs. By his testimony, the CIA even maintains a completely separate version of Facebook for the socializing of agents. Snowden’s bitterness at the loss of his childhood playground is also his warning to us: the famous New Yorker cartoon—“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”—has been exposed as naive. Snowden wants us to understand that, unless you employ three-layer encryption, they even know your breed.
His descriptions are in no way redundant to Tolentino’s, even if they’re rather specialized. We’ll need more of these; out of an accumulation of intimate accounts, a picture of this age will emerge. If one is possible. The Internet, like climate change, exemplifies what Timothy Morton has dubbed “a hyperobject”: a thing impossible to hold in mind because of its context-smashing extensivity in time and space (or “space”). In Lurking: How a Person Became a User (forthcoming in 2020), Joanne McNeil, born 1980, writes from the point of view of an Internet “supertaster,” a veteran of more platforms and forums and flame-wars and start-ups than I—or, possibly, even Tolentino—could ever wish to endure. She immerses herself in the paradoxes of an experience that relentlessly exfoliates metaphor:
People used to talk about the internet as a place. The information superhighway. A frontier. The internet was something to get on…. Now people talk about the internet as something to talk to; it is a someone. Even casually, people discuss the internet—insentient, dumb—as living, real. A friend or foe. Something with eyes.
5. Giving Up the Gun
McNeil, talking of what she calls “the deliquescence of the early internet,” explains its upside:
Truly rotten racist trolls online were free to ruin communities…. However, the scope of their abuse was curtailed by the limits of the services and data available: communicating username to username, your real life remained private—a troll couldn’t send nasty emails to your boss or threaten your parents, let alone have a SWAT team dispatched to your front door…. A user could wake up one morning, delete a newsgroup subscription from their Usenet client, and go about the rest of their life never talking to that community again. You couldn’t look up old ghosts on Instagram or find them through search engines. These anonymous users walked back into the ether where they came from.
At the other end of this story, Snowden and Lindsay are shopping for kitchenware, when he spots a refrigerator:
It was a “Smart-fridge,” which was being advertised as “Internet-equipped.”… You could check your email, or check your calendar. You could watch YouTube clips, or listen to MP3s. You could even make phone calls. I had to restrain myself from keying in Lindsay’s number and saying, from across the floor, “I’m calling from a fridge.”… The fridge’s computer kept track of internal temperature, and, through scanning barcodes, the freshness of your food. It also provided nutritional information…. I remember driving home in a confused silence…the only reason that thing was Internet-equipped was so that it could report back to its manufacturer about its owner’s usage and about any other household data that was obtainable. The manufacturer, in turn, would monetize that data by selling it. And we were supposed to pay for the privilege.
I wondered what the point was of my getting so worked up over government surveillance if my friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens were more than happy to invite corporate surveillance into their homes…I imagined the future SmartFridge stationed in my kitchen, monitoring my conduct and habits, and using my tendency to drink straight from the carton or not wash my hands to evaluate the probability of my being a felon.*
Or, in another of Snowden’s koans, “Your possessions would possess you.” It isn’t only that the “user”—the human, that is—can no longer shut the lid of the networked computer, in favor of a return to “the real world.” Now, the user invites the computer, with its power to surveil and enthrall, to invest in every possible form of tool or furnishing, the simple and unsimple: socks, books, houses, watches, medical and fitness devices and, of course, telephones. This trajectory is seen as irreversible. Here’s Tolentino:
I’ll admit that I’m not sure that this inquiry is even productive. The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving. And, more important, the internet already is what it is. It has already become the central organ of contemporary life.
And back to Snowden:
Technology doesn’t have a Hippocratic oath…. The intention driving a technology’s invention rarely, if ever, limits its application and use…. I do not mean, of course, to compare nuclear weapons with cybersurveillance in terms of human cost. But there is a commonality when it comes to the concepts of proliferation and disarmament.
In his 1979 book Giving Up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword 1543–1879, Noel Perrin describes an epoch in which a technologically sophisticated Japanese culture at least temporarily suppressed the flintlock rifle, preferring to revert to what they viewed as a more honorable, less inhumane manner of conducting war. Perrin’s book doubles as a wishful allegory of the dream of nuclear disarmament. Perhaps Fredric Jameson’s famous quip that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” should be updated: Do we even have the power to dream of some kind of limitation to the colonization of our hours and days, our subjective and intersubjective spaces, by Snowden’s fridge? The other day I heard a conversation on NPR about what gender we ought to use in addressing household robots, like Amazon’s Alexa. That we’d need to address it—her? him? them?—was the conversation’s unstated assumption.
Fantasizing about disconnection is a privilege. That’s already proven by the existence of off-the-grid luxury resorts, on remote islands in the Caribbean and Seychelles, or tucked away in continental North America under names like Amangiri and Amuleto. There’ll be more like this, I wager. Short of such indulgence, many depend on connection for their livelihoods, or for their only affordable access to reading or research, as well as for a realm of social and cultural practice in a nation with a depraved indifference to the value of a “public commons.” Many thousands, if not millions, of marginalized, isolated people may owe their very lives to social media; certainly we all owe it much of the present visibility and solidarity of the LGBTQ movement, and others. The history of social media is the story of the Arab Spring, of Occupy, of Barack Obama’s election. I suppose it is also the story of some other things, too.
Permanent Record peaks a bit earlier than Snowden thinks, and than the reader might expect. The intimate drama of his discoveries and self-discoveries, of the inception of his appetite for virtuality and for systems, of the rise of his patriotism in both its early-naive and late-embittered phases, of his minor adventures as an ordinary operative with an extraordinary mind, and, above all, the helpless formation of his ethical crisis—these make terrific reading. What a strangely ordinary man: Snowden’s either the least enigmatic cipher or the most gnomic nonentity ever to live. You could watch him study himself forever.
Yet from the moment Snowden hits the public sphere, the book wilts. The last few chapters are a blur of lawyers and airports, until in desperation the fugitive hands the book off to the reactions of the dismayed Lindsay. One feels that from the instant Snowden opens the door in the Hong Kong hotel and decants himself to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras—whose documentary, Citizenfour, enshrines that very moment in real time—he’s a ghost in his own tale. From that point, Greenwald’s narrative—decisions about disclosures, partnerships with other journalistic institutions, and so forth—would be far more interesting.
The only remaining drama is that of the body’s survival, and its loneliness. The last sequence of Poitras’s movie is heartbreaking. Already, in the film, Snowden has been reduced to the status of listener, as others describe to him the cascading consequences of his act, the grim machinations he’s both revealed and caused. He was a man who had just one thing to tell us, really. He did tell it, and some listened, and some believed, and others didn’t. The fever is now broken.
The book takes us beyond this point, to his landing in Moscow. There’s no next move except to hunker down and hope for a reunion with Lindsay. Mercifully, she shows up. They visit an art museum. One feels, sadly, that if only he could be not just forgiven, but rehired by the NSA, he’d be exactly the guy to repair the technical mess the other, earlier guy named Edward Snowden left behind. He’d do a good job. He’s the computer guy.
October 24, 2019
In Defense of Fiction
The Real Texas
In the game of “Which Philip K. Dick Story Are We in Today?” (see the Frolix_8 blog), Snowden’s fridge fantasy is “Minority Report.” ↩