[A version of this article appeared on AlterNet.]
From its nationwide mass shootings to lethal detonations of its prepositioned industrial WMDs, America’s embattled National Security Agency — and its domestic and foreign digital dragnets like Stellar Wind, PRISM and other psy-fi boondoggles that have been hoovering public and private global data for decades — has nevertheless still evidently not been surveilling enough of neither Us nor Them to predict or prevent terrorist attacks.
And that’s before you even get to the more spectacular violence of presidential assassinations (JFK, turning 50 this November) and of course 9/11, which exploded our exponentially expensive surveillance state for the well-connected profiteers of the Cheney administration and its craven Bush Doctrine.
From large to small, all of these epochal destabilizations, cruelly rebooted as preventive wars empowered by precrime at home and abroad, have become nationalist pastimes.
But as any world history or conspiracy buff knows, the NSA, FBI, CIA and other secretive spy-fi networks are mostly in the business of planting flags. They’re busy seeking to increase their political and economic capital, which functionally demands both the destruction and creation of the so-called terrorists that legitimizes their existence. And yet Stellar Wind’s most notable achievement to date is its suspicious activity report on Eliot Spitzer, whose scandalous dalliances were others known as business as usual on the corrupt Wall Street he sought to cuff.
Indeed, NSA dragnets like Stellar Wind and PRISM exist “in part to sustain justification of existential threats both within and without” and “also for secret data access & social control,” NSA whistelblower Thomas Drake, who exposed a wasteful data cruncher called Trailblazer, explained to me on Twitter. In other words, the intelligence industry is way too busy creating problems for all of us to functionally filter its own data for more important problems that already exist. And in order to perpetuate that proprietary process and payday, it has decided it must manipulate us through our public and private data.
But human data, like juridical definitions, are much too fluid to map and control. Especially for a superpower falling behind in math and science, or naming its data mining scams, in the case of Stellar Wind, after astronomical shockwaves that could end life as we know it. “There is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism,” the FBI reminds us all. Perhaps it is that permissive fluidity that led the intelligence community to ignore its own intelligence on the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, whose survivng culprit Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is wobbling into our Kafkaesque legal system, another piece of suspicious data in a technocracy too sprawling to succeed.
Lost in this rabbit hole of industrial and intelligence failures, which have cost way too many lives and dollars, is a reason for being. However you view the necessary revelations of whistleblowers like Drake, Edward Snowden and most importantly, Bradley/Chelsea Manning — shamefully imprisoned for aiding an enemy like terrorism itself that “has no single, universally accepted definition” — it’s ridiculous to argue that secretly collusive government and corporate data vacuums are paying their way. They lack workable definitions, earned trust and, most vividly, a credible record of predictive success. And that’s mostly because they’re created and managed by technocrats who suck at parsing much more human data.
“The problem with using big data analysis to predict the future is that it bases its understanding of the future entirely on the past,” explained Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist and author of Present Shock and other digital frontier explorations, via email. “It uses the vast quantity of data about what has already happened to calculate the probabilities of those things happening again. It looks at what people have seen, thought, and done before to figure out how those trends might continue into the future. But it has no way of contending with novelty. People, as much as we’d like to forget this part, are actually alive. Being alive, being creatures with free will, means we engage in anomalous behaviors. We do weird things. We do not behave completely logically. While we approach many routine things — like buying tampons — in predictable ways, we are less and less predictable when it comes to bigger, stranger decisions.”
Yes, predicting the behavior of purposefully indefinite terrorists brazenly skimming the global datascape proves a ludicrous proposition. But that deliberate imprecision nevertheless clears the launch pad for astronomical body counts and bonanza payouts, as more and more technocrats are employed to parse more and more data leading nowhere.
“The choice to blow up a bridge, for example, is already really novel,” said Rushkoff. “It is more apt to be relegated to the decision centers in our brains that aren’t working in a routine manner. Which brings me to the other big problem with attempting to use Big Data to identify terrorists: The sample size is really small. A whole lot more people buy tampons in a day than crash planes into a building. So the sample size for consumers of products is much much bigger than the sample size for terrorists. There just aren’t enough terrorists for statisticians to apply factor analysis and other big data predictive modeling techniques.”
The lifeblood of the precrime industry is an amorphous enemy way too narrow to accurately predict, more valuable to consumers than citizens who should be paying attention, like the precrimers watching them, to more pressing apocalypses. Like the real-time terror of global warming, a planetary emergency way too existential for Generation Overshare to parse, quagmired as it is in technocratic stratagems and straw men.
The circulating arguments for and against viral opportunists like the NSA, FBI and CIA reflect the the broader panoptic drives of public interest and private industry, both of which are being locked in place and time. Outcry over revelations from transparency champs like Manning, Drake and many more are more and more tempered by shrugs from an oversharing public regarding privacy invasions as the price of business. Which is, as futurists and historians alike perennially argue, the same as it ever was.
“The reason we put these people in power over us is to restrict ourselves,” explained Alan Moore, author of prescient panoptic comics like Watchmen and V For Vendetta. whose Guy Fawkes mask has become a Mona Lisa for Occupy, Anonymous and other populist deprogrammers. “We are frightened by our possibilities. We don’t feel comfortable about being responsible for ourselves and for the societies in which we live. We would much rather delegate that to appointed figures who will inevitably abuse their positions, but we know that going in.”
“If as you say there is that realization dawning throughout culture at the moment, then that can only be a good thing,” Moore added. “The closer we get to reality, the better off we generally are.”
When a so-called civilization supercharges an industry arbitrarily designating what is terror or crime, its national interests take rhizomatic root in human complexity that cannot be divined with current computing power. And when blowback inevitably arrives, coherently arguing much less proving that your panopticon can discern terrorism and crime from whistleblowing and more minor transgressions becomes an impossibility. Turning in the widening gyre of the information age, to mangle Keats, technocratic tools like Stellar Wind and Prism that promise to order data are inevitably exposed as banal control strategies aimed squarely at preventing the activism and outcry necessary for civilization to evolve.
“There’s something quaint about these attempts to control us today, in a period where we are boiling with information and complexity, both of which have reached levels that could be called fractal, if that wasn’t a polite way of saying chaotic,” Moore told me by phone from Northampton. “I really don’t think that the old tyrannies work anymore. That’s a very liberating thing, although it is just a marker of how complex and alien our situation is rapidly becoming. We are reaching a boiling point, and what happens after that is unpredictable.”
No matter what comes, we won’t be able to politically and philosophically counter the surveillance state until we recognize ourselves within it. Disembodying dystopian desires to watch and be seen has short-circuited America into a cascading redundancy demanding that terrorism and crime are Other People, usually darker-skinned and economically disadvantaged. Assimilating and repairing our complicity in our overreaching technocracy is a first principle, if any meaningful change is to be had. And to do that, we need to more honestly, and thoroughly, process and remember our information and history, so that our shared future is filled with more than the reductive mind-wiped drones whose control, recalling Drake, has become an accelerating obsession.
“It’s true we’re devoting more brain to active RAM than hard drive, if I might use that metaphor,” said Rushkoff. “We relegate memory to the web, and thus we forget. When 9/11 happened, we seemed to be surprised to learn that someone tried to blow up the United Nations just a few years earlier. Or the Holland Tunnel. The real problem is that we’re so distracted by the onslaught of communications and data that we can’t think. People are too busy responding to consider the implications.”
“I have been writing about big data surveillance by both corporations and government for years” he concluded. “Everyone who works in the industry knows full well what’s been going on. It is remarkable that this particular episode of documentation has become such a big deal. We are at the mercy of a system that is desperately attempting to maintain itself. So the way to keep humans from getting the plot is to disorient us. It’s not Cheney doing it; it’s the machine itself. That’s what made Snowden a hero. He stood up as a human against the machine.”