Friday, June 14, 2013

Reason #292: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Brother

(Editor's note: As an apology for skipping last week, today's entry is something of a special presentation--not only does it fill the role of Reason #292, but it will double this evening as my "performance" at SpokenWord Pittsburgh, an event being held at my night job, the Space Upstairs. If you live in Pittsburgh, come on by and see if it makes more sense the second time.)

In 1766, the Swedish Parliament adopted what is today considered to be the world's first Freedom of Information Law. The brain child of Enlightenment thinker Anders Chydenius, the ordinance declared that "an unrestricted mutual enlightenment...not only promotes the development and dissemination of sciences and useful crafts but also offers greater opportunities to each of [our citizens] to gain improved knowledge and appreciation of a wisely ordered system of government", and as such, "we have graciously decided that the previously established office of Censor shall be entirely abolished and that it shall not hereafter be the duty of the [government] to supervise, approve or disallow the texts submitted for printing, but the authors themselves."

That was the first official instance of a government--a monarchy, no less--establishing legal precedent for freedom of the press, which obviously went on to influence America's founding fathers significantly. While freedom of speech was right there in the First Amendment, though, it wasn't until 1966 that we enacted the Freedom of Information Act, which established that not only could citizens disseminate any information of their own they so chose, but that the government had a responsibility to provide free access to its own records whenever the citizenry asked for it--at least in cases where doing so didn't involve a clear and present danger. This is known as the presumption of openness--the same way that anyone arrested for a crime is presumed to be innocent unless proven otherwise, any government document I'd like to see is presumed to be available to me unless specifically classified.

All this is to say that, in my opinion, the concept of personal privacy is no longer relevant.

What freedom of speech really did, in the grand scheme of things, was democratize information. It established in principle that even the authority of a king was secondary to an individual's right to be informed, and to use that information to better himself. For a few centuries, that was all well and good; people could educate themselves and their children, and have at least a rough idea of whether their ruler was an asshole. In America, even children can readily demonstrate the monumental value of information in four simple words: "the British are coming".

Still, at the end of the day, information wasn't genuinely free--the circumstances of your birth and financial situation determined both how much you could get your hands on and how free you were to utilize it. No matter what the law said in principle, a dirt farmer was never going to end up as worldly as an Ivy League postgrad. Now, of course, we have the internet, and pretty much anyone can read pretty much anything whenever they feel like it. Great, right? Well, the problem here is that once you build a modern society around the idea that all information is free...all information is free. The more technology advances, the harder it becomes to pick and choose--so either it's all okay, or none of it is.

I could make the argument to you that all this was inevitable, evil or otherwise. I certainly don't think George Orwell believed Big Brother could be avoided--all Nineteen Eighty-Four did in the end was give us a name for it. I could also make the argument that privacy has no inherent value--or to put it another way, I'm sure there was a quiet dignity to washing our clothes in the river, but that didn't stop anyone from buying a Whirlpool when the time came.

Taoist philosophy, of which I am a devoted follower, frequently advises us to follow the example of water. When you drop a boulder in a river, the water doesn't try to push through it, it just goes around. It folds this new development into itself, and evolves accordingly--and in so doing, the boulder eventually erodes away to nothing.

I don't mean to suggest that privacy never mattered, or that it shouldn't be mourned now--but what I am absolutely suggesting is that it is, in fact, dead. The boulder is now thoroughly lodged in the river. Our job, then, is to assume the shape of our new container, and evolve accordingly.

We knew the boulder was coming, and now that it's here, we know its features: our phone calls are no longer private. Our e-mails probably never were. If the powers that be decide that we're a threat, they can send a drone to our doorstep anywhere in the world.

That all sucks. This is going to be a tough generation.

But I'll never understand how people always seem to forget--even Orwell--that governments are nothing but people, and what applies to us, applies to them. The details of the NSA phone database were first revealed in 2006, then promptly forgotten, and re-revealed this month, yet no one finds it interesting that the National Security Agency that we're all so afraid of--whose job it is to keep secrets--is now the victim of the only scandal ever to be whistleblown on two separate occasions?

Privacy may be extinct, but with it goes deniability. If the government wants to tap our phones, so be it--we'll find out about it. If they send a Predator drone after innocent Pakistanis, we'll find out about it. If they suppress the vote in minority districts, we'll find out about it. I say that with confidence, because they have--and we did. Just ask the hacker group Anonymous--this is not Nazi Germany, and it's not Soviet Russia, it's the Wild West.

This will be a tough generation. Facebook notwithstanding, no one knows what a post-privacy society looks like, and I'm sure there will be battles ahead. But I would rather fight tomorrow's battles than yesterday's, and Big Brother is undoubtedly yesterday's battle.

Further Reading

The World’s First Freedom of Information Act

Wikipedia - Freedom of Information Act

Sources: US intelligence agencies tap servers of top Internet companies

NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls

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