A real-life Skynet?
Last week Wired magazine made waves by publishing an epic article about a vast spy center that’s currently being built by America’s National Security Agency in the Utah desert. The real bombshell was the revelation that the project is ground zero for a galactically powerful and all-encompassing surveillance program that targets literally all communications and is directed at literally everybody, including American citizens. The article includes dot-connecting information from William Binney, a former NSA official who “was a senior NSA crypto-mathematician largely responsible for automating the agency’s worldwide eavesdropping network.” His words are not comforting: “Sitting in a restaurant not far from NSA headquarters, the place where he spent nearly 40 years of his life, Binney held his thumb and forefinger close together. ‘We are, like, that far from a turnkey totalitarian state,’ he says.” The article’s author, James Bamford, points out that the project represents “in some measure, the realization of the ‘total information awareness’ program created during the first term of the Bush administration — an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.”
And now, as if the whole thing didn’t already sound sufficiently reminiscent of a science fiction nightmare, prominent business-and-technology writer and “digital thinker” Dominic Basulto has compared it to one of the more famous totalitarian technological entities in pop cultural history:
[T]his new one million-square foot spy complex in the Utah Desert will actually be capable of monitoring, intercepting and de-encrypting just about any message sent over any communication network in the country. It will be capable of keeping tabs on any civilian in the U.S. or any foreigner visiting the USA. And it will all be hooked up to federal computers in Washington, giving it access to the records and databases of the most powerful government agencies in the country. If all this is starting to sound a lot like Skynet in the Terminator movies, that’s because, well, it is — minus the Schwarzenegger robots, of course.
What’s more, Basulto explicitly issues a kind of citizens’ call-to-arms in light of the situation’s distinctly dystopian flavor:
“Cybersecurity” and “the war on terror” are handy little buzzwords for enabling governments to extend their cyber-surveillance over every aspect of our lives. At the end of the day, pure democracy and absolute authoritarianism are really just flip sides of the same coin. This is precisely why dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We are so terrifying. Authoritarian regimes always start out with a willingness to help — not enslave — its civilians. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. A government that claims to protect its citizens by spying on them is a government that needs to be watched, monitored and held under strict surveillance by its own citizens.
— Dominic Basulto, “We Just Built Skynet in the Desert, Now What?” Big Think, March 20, 2012
Please note that this is the same Basulto who, in another context, has praised tech companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook for supposedly seeding the American values of freedom and human dignity around the world, as seen in, e.g., Google’s and Apple’s recent experiences in China (the former being confronted with a censorship controversy as they expanded into Chinese markets, and the latter receiving a comeuppance in the form of major media coverage and a growing public outcry over inhumane working conditions at Chinese factories where iPads etc. are made): “Welcome to the new reality of global capitalism, where the companies comprising America’s technology elite are being held to stringent standards not only by the world’s investors, but also by the world’s tech consumers — whether in the Bay Area or Beijing…Like it or not, tech companies have become more than global arbiters of taste in consumer gadgets. They have become America’s most potent symbols of global capitalism. They stand for freedom of speech, for responsible work conditions and for the right to equal participation in society by all groups regardless of gender or income. As these tech giants continue to pile up cash and extend their global reach, this responsibility is transforming from a market imperative into a duty and an obligation” (Basulto, “Mike Daisey, Apple’s cash and the new face of American values,” @innovations, The Washington Post, March 20, 2012).
This all highlights, I think, the razor’s edge we’re now walking in an age when we’ve utterly abandoned the control of our cultural and civilizational trajectory to the inbuilt and implacable logic of technological “progress” for its own sake — a situation that Neil Postman dubbed “technopoly.” Personally, although I’ve found much to interest, engage, and liberate me in this new world — the most obvious illustration being the fact that I’m finding all of this information and sharing all of these thoughts with you via a blog — I stand in the end with Thoreau: I maintain that we’re not so much riding this railroad as being ridden by it. The global capitalism that Google and Apple (and Facebook and Twitter) represent is not separate at root from the totalitarian impulse that has given us the NSA’s real-life instantiation of Skynet. Both grow from the same taproot of technopoly. Both represent the transformation of human culture by and for the sake of technology’s embedded values. It’s rather like the now-rote (and entirely correct) observation among astute observers of America’s political scene that we essentially have only a single party now, because both Democrats and Republicans stand for corporate capitalism and consumerism. Apple, Google, and Facebook want to spy on you just as much as the NSA does. They just give different reasons for it. The NSA works for your supposed benefit just as much as Apple, Google, and Facebook do. They just market themselves differently.
If it’s true (and it is) that “A government that claims to protect its citizens by spying on them is a government that needs to be watched, monitored and held under strict surveillance by its own citizens,” then the same logic applies no less to the business world: corporations that claim to serve their customers by spying on them need to be watched, monitored, and held under strict surveillance by their own customers.
What if the equivalent of Skynet had already happened, and we now lived under its totalitarian rule (minus the Schwarzenegger robots, of course) — and we all embraced its authority voluntarily, and survived by telling ourselves that it’s a paradise?