It appears that both the source of the global surveillance problem and solution to it lie, by definition, outside the scope and competence of local and national politicians.
As we move deep into the uncertain shallows, we naturally seek a guide. Some look to contemporaries for help, while others delve into the past for their prophet.
After all, how else does one account for the explosion in sales of Ayn Rand’s crude magnum opus (Atlas Shrugged) in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis or the number of people flocking to Orwell’s 1984 after the recent NSA surveillance scandal expose?
Even now we see the likes of Bruce Schneier, Daniel Ellsberg and, in extreme cases, Richard Stallman surfacing on the OP-ED pages of popular newspapers and appearing on the ‘most popular’ lists of various online forums and websites. It appears that in the context of today’s surveillance-privacy outrage, Schneier and Stallman are finally being taken seriously.
Nevertheless, despite the current abundance of anti-surveillance critique, it is a little amusing to see that when you ask today’s critics of the all-pervasive ‘Big Brother PRISM’ what should be done next or what the way forward is, you get the same old answers.
Throw out the old
Going by current debate, all that is necessary is increased transparency and having a greater number of checks and balances in the system and so on. Calls have already gone out for enacting new Privacy Bills, for bringing in due process and how ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’...
The resounding response to PRISM, all these answers, essentially imply that the fight against the ‘excesses’ of constant surveillance can be, as usual, fought within a democratic framework.
However if there is one lesson to be learned from the NSA episode, and this cannot be stressed enough, it is that it has become much harder to depend on standard, institutionalized forms of democracy to deal with issues of privacy. The liberal-democratic framework that has been adopted as a sort of ‘universal model of governance’ is, at best, struggling to keep up with the excesses of the surveillance state.
Look at one of the more recent revelations, which, perversely, display our present predicament with shocking clarity. It appears that the Americans were/are outsourcing data collection (i.e 24/7 online spying) to Britain by giving them the technology to do so. In return, the Brits hand over the details of online activities of American citizens back to the American Government.
In this manner, the U.S. was able to track all ‘British’ communications and Britain was able to track all U.S communications—each would then simply swap data. Using this method they were both able to claim that they had no domestic spying going on and consequently their data collection should not bother their citizens. [It is almost fascinating to see the delicate dance that intelligence agencies across the world have choreographed—all with the sole aim of avoiding domestic law.]
This is precisely what we must draw attention to: that this new form of global surveillance undermines democracy. There is no way to ‘fight against the excess’ through the “system”, the way most activists try to do with other societal issues.
Solving issues of garbage and sanitation, for instance, can start with one person— by going out and picking up trash and encouraging your community to do so. Trying to clean up your local political system can start with running for becoming an area councillor and so on. It is these small acts that help one repose faith in the democratic system.
A worn-out cycle
Where in our situation, however, can we apply Gandhi’s famous formula: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world? Even if India were to pass a Privacy Bill, it would not end the problems of privacy – not when you have one country snooping on the other.
Suppose we were to fight to encourage greater transparency and institute a system of checks and balances in India. What would that achieve? A country like Russia could easily spy on us and swap information with the Indian Government in exchange for other favours. How does one fight democratically against a world where the Boundless Informant exists?
It would appear, therefore, that both the source of the global surveillance problem and solution to it lie, by definition, outside the scope and competence of local and national politicians.
The logical conclusion at this point is that we should start thinking about ways to take democracy forward, to expand it beyond its current manifestation which is slowly being proven incapable of managing this curious military-digital-industrial –complex that confronts us. [Why do we not, for instance, vote on whether the Government should have the right to govern the Internet? Or whether it is okay to spy on the citizens of Pakistan or Sri Lanka?]
The answer to a global interconnected problem, which has been systematically covered up by the highest levels of our democratic system, therefore, is an expanded form of ‘new democracy’ that involves netizens/citizens from across boundaries working simultaneously on the same problem.
Who should be our designated seer then? A possible answer can be found in the rise of the Pirate Party—which in itself is a transient expression of underlying anti-party sentiment and a protest against the policies of established parties.
The Party itself is nothing but a loose alliance of writers, hackers, technologists and artists—who consider principles of transparency, ‘liquid democracy’ and Internet freedom near and dear to their hearts—and who have seen fascinating electoral wins across Sweden and Germany.
The growth in popularity of the Pirate Party, which at the moment is mainly euro-centric, derives its popularity from the very ambiguity of its precepts. Critics have dismissed its existence, pointing out that the Pirates have no competence in key policy issues—indeed the very thing that gave it life was the fact that it is populated by people who are no longer interested in political ideology.
With young people disillusioned (or perhaps simply bored), the situation creates an ideological vaccum, and it is out of this that the Pirate Party was born. The critics are right… if modern technology did not exist, then the Pirates would not—but this should not be a slur or a deterrent. Au contraire, it can only be seen as an opportunity, an opportunity to take this mandate and explore the next frontier.
It is perhaps, the only organisation at the moment that has the potential to be a global force – bringing about the same change simultaneously across various countries.
The question, therefore, then becomes not whether should India have a Pirate Party and contribute towards finding a solution – but whether every nation must have one and press towards a logical end as global citizens. No country can succeed in this fight alone—if the surveillance state is a global organism, we too must go global.
In conclusion, the PRISM fiasco has shown us the dark underbelly of the Silicon Valley–Californian Ideology—an ideology that was once described by Richard Barbrook and the late Andy Cameron as a fusion of the ‘free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies.”
It is an ideology that is defined by an irrational cocktail of libertarian values and entrepreneurship… a mish-mash of the New Left and the New Right that is seemingly rendered possible by the technology they themselves created.
Even back then, in the raging 1990s, the triumph of the Californian Ideology, as subscribed to by companies like Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple, was said to be complete.
It is the fluid digital nature of Californian Ideology that allows Silicon Valley companies such as Google to be our greatest friends (advancing the human race) and simultaneously our greatest enemies (issues of taxation, bedding Uncle Sam in the form of PRISM).
It is important to understand that while technology can be used to promote a sort of open-access, transparent democracy— PRISM is it’s inverted image. PRISM is the black mirror of the digital ecosystems that these companies have so safely wrapped us up in. PRISM is the dark side of design thinking.
Is the NSA episode a moment where Californian Ideology has been turned inside out – its soul bared for the world to see, a point where seemingly pro-libertarian companies such as Apple have melded to become one with the U.S Government?
If so, it becomes doubly vital that the current Californian Ideology is subverted—and replaced one by forged by a generation of global netizens. A ‘New Democracy’ for a ‘New Age’? Perhaps.