June 9, 2013

The point and sputter state

Ross Douthat writes in the NYT:
This ideal of anonymity still persists in some Internet communities. But in many ways, the online world has turned out to be less private than the realm of flesh and blood. In part, that’s because most Internet users don’t want to cloak themselves in pseudonyms. Instead, they communicate in online spaces roughly the way they would in a room full of their closest friends, and use texts and e-mails the way they would once have used a letter or a phone call. Which means, inevitably, that they are much more exposed — to strangers and enemies, ex-lovers and ex-friends — than they would have been before their social lives migrated online. 
It is at least possible to participate in online culture while limiting this horizontal, peer-to-peer exposure. But it is practically impossible to protect your privacy vertically — from the service providers and social media networks and now security agencies that have access to your every click and text and e-mail. Even the powerful can’t cover their tracks, as David Petraeus discovered. In the surveillance state, everybody knows you’re a dog. 
And every looming technological breakthrough, from Google Glass to driverless cars, promises to make our every move and download a little easier to track. Already, Silicon Valley big shots tend to talk about privacy in roughly the same paternalist language favored by government spokesmen. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” Google’s Eric Schmidt told an interviewer in 2009, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” 
The problem is that we have only one major point of reference when we debate what these trends might mean: the 20th-century totalitarian police state, whose every intrusion on privacy was in the service of tyrannical one-party rule. That model is useful for teasing out how authoritarian regimes will try to harness the Internet’s surveillance capabilities, but America isn’t about to turn into East Germany with Facebook pages. 
For us, the age of surveillance is more likely to drift toward what Alexis de Tocqueville described as “soft despotism” or what the Forbes columnist James Poulos has dubbed “the pink police state.” Our government will enjoy extraordinary, potentially tyrannical powers, but most citizens will be monitored without feeling persecuted or coerced. 
So instead of a climate of pervasive fear, there will be a chilling effect at the margins of political discourse, mostly affecting groups and opinions considered disreputable already. Instead of a top-down program of political repression, there will be a more haphazard pattern of politically motivated, Big Data-enabled abuses. (Think of the recent I.R.S. scandals, but with damaging personal information being leaked instead of donor lists.) 
In this atmosphere, radicalism and protest will seem riskier, paranoia will be more reasonable, and conspiracy theories will proliferate. But because genuinely dangerous people will often be pre-empted or more swiftly caught, the privacy-for-security swap will seem like a reasonable trade-off to many Americans — especially when there is no obvious alternative short of disconnecting from the Internet entirely. 
Welcome to the future. Just make sure you don’t have anything to hide.

One obvious example is the 2010 imbroglio involving a Harvard Law Student who had put her (reasonably well-informed and carefully nuanced) thoughts on the race and IQ question into a private email to two friends. A long time later, one of those ex-friends became a rival for a young man's affections, so the young woman's email was dredged up and leaked to a black organization, which set off a national frenzy. The dean of Harvard Law School, Martha Minow, condemned not the leaking of the private email but the author of the email.

The trend is that the more careful and accurate your statement (e.g., your Harvard Ph.D. dissertation), the more likely you are to get in trouble.

28 comments:

submarine warfare said...

I think David Souter should do a PSA about not writing controversial stuff on one's Twitter feed. It can have that music from NBC's "The More You Know" ads too, if they can get the rights.

Anonymous said...

Well, it'd be nice if Jen Rubin had to fear that something provocative she said in the past might one day be strategically highlighted for the global village, but sadly, I doubt she's led a very interesting life

sunbeam said...

I'm not a sociologist and I'm not making surveys and putting data in graphs.

But to my eye, we are having evolution of a sort. People, particularly young ones, just do not care. At all.

They are beyond the power of these sorts of things to affect. In a way this young lady at Harvard is vulnerable to things that "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia" would never even consider busting a gut over.

Nothing to lose. The NSA has pictures of your penis? Heck, send 'em 50 more, with the glossy filter on. They weren't going to clerk for some judge in California anyway.

You seem to shy away from posting certain kinds of things, but I'm going to throw something out anyway.

I have no idea if the American people would be good at any sort of violent resistance to the government.

But if the booze, weed, and TV ever stop, there is going to be hell to pay. I'm not sure that the average American even knows enough to be worried about some of the things we worry about here, and if they did they still wouldn't care.

A few years ago, when Iraq was going on, there were a couple of reports about how many troops it took to occupy a country, at least going by the conventional wisdom of a few centuries. We were way short just for Iraq, a country of a little over 20 million if memory serves.

Couldn't be done for the US, without drastic changes, not with every last guardsman and reserve mobilized.

Just saying I doubt the powers that be think it, but they are riding a tiger in some ways. And while this young lady at Harvard cared, a whole lot of other people don't. It'd be like trying to blackmail Clevon from Idiocracy.

Can't be done. His attention span just isn't long enough to worry about it. Kind of zen like in a way.

I also think these intelligence guys are going to go "soft" in a way. The tools that are making these sorts of information gathering possible are going to affect the information gatherers as well. If it doesn't come in digital form, they aren't going to know what to do.

Anonymous said...

"Our government will enjoy extraordinary, potentially tyrannical powers"

There is no such thing as power that is unexercised. It is exercised or it dissipates.

Our government will "enjoy" tyrannical powers when it uses tyrannical powers. Similarly, institutions exercise every bit of power that they can muster; do you think they are similar to a big brother who lets you win at Monopoly to make you happy?

Anonymous said...

"So instead of a climate of pervasive fear, there will be a chilling effect at the margins of political discourse, mostly affecting groups and opinions considered disreputable already."

The contrast that Douthat makes is spurious. I grew up in the Soviet Union, and I can tell you that anti-Soviet sentiments were considered disreputable in it by the majority of the population. And I'm guessing that anti-Islamic sentiments are considered disreputable in modern Saudi Arabia, that anti-Chinese sentiments are considered disreputable in modern China, etc. By the bulk of the people. This is actually pretty obvious. Douthat thinks that there is a real difference between America and these places: namely, he thinks that Soviets, Chinese, Muslims, etc. were brainwashed and he's not. But the fact that he doesn't seem to know that anti-Soviet opinions were widely considered disreputable in the Soviet Union is an example of propaganda that he's swallowed. He believes in a bit of false info here. And it's not a random bit of false info, it has a political direction.

The sort of thoughts for which people go to jail in "authoritarian" countries are felt to be just as inconceivably evil by the majorities there as racism, Holocaust denial and the rest of it are by majorities in the West.

A truly unpopular regime doesn't last. Either it succeeds at making itself popular through propaganda or other means or it falls. Every successful regime, regardless of whether Mr. Douthat chooses to call it authoritarian or not, has succeeded at marginalizing truly oppositional views. The fact that Douthat thinks that some successful regimes are more authoritarian than others is mostly evidence of him being a victim of his own regime's propaganda.

I know I'm repeating myself here, but it's an important point:

I doubt that the average Saudi thinks of anti-blasphemy bans as oppressive. He fears God, everyone else he knows fears God. The would-be blasphemers would seem to him 1) extremely rare 2) evil losers, and probably insane as well. In other words, it's like being a neo-Nazi or a pedophile in Europe or a pedophile in the US. Does the average Westerner feel he lives in an authoritarian state? No. So why would you think the average Saudi or Chinese or North Korean person would think so of their own countries?

Cail Corishev said...

I've said this before, but it amazes me how fast this has changed. Ten years ago, people were afraid to post anything personal or even give out their email address beyond some close friends, for fear of spam or stalkers. Most people's beliefs on the subject came from that Sandra Bullock movie about how "they" can use the Internet to find out what you had for breakfast.

Now people gladly post everything about themselves. They'll even post pictures of their kids, through services that report their location! Granted, services like Facebook don't generally make that stuff available to everyone, unless they open up their settings, but still -- it's astonishing how quickly the general public gone from paranoid to trusting.

Anonymous said...

I imagine it has something to do with the fact that religious policeman don't force girls back into burning buildings in America.

Your relativism is touching though Herrs Horkheimer and Adorno would be proud.

idea man said...

Do this for a TakiMag piece: contrast "The Purge" where violent crime is condoned a day per year, with Canmerica which has fewer orgies of rioting but condones one spectacular mega-crime, like the FDA & Ranbaxy playing footsie for half a decade over glass-flavored Lipitor, once every 3 months or so. Analyze in juxtaposition with the apotheosis of "good hackers" and the public goodwill accorded to plutocrats who design fancy smartphones.

David said...

>religious policeman don't force girls back into burning buildings in America<

We bomb wedding parties in other countries as acceptable collateral damage in the fight to impose the Holy Religion of democracy. But that's different, of course.

Our government spends $9 trillion of taxpayer wealth to enable dysfunctional businesses and proposes to pay for most of that by inflating the money supply, in the name of the Holy Religion of free enterprise. But that's different, of course.

Other peoples are brainwashed by Holy Religion. We watch Fox News.

>your relativism is touching [...] Herrs Horkheimer and Adorno would be proud<

Do you mean that anyone who claims that we have any point of similarity with religious Ay-rabs is a Jew?

Eric said...

And I'm guessing that anti-Islamic sentiments are considered disreputable in modern Saudi Arabia, that anti-Chinese sentiments are considered disreputable in modern China, etc. By the bulk of the people.

I think this is true. Most Americans really won't notice because they aren't doing anything the government cares about and they figure everyone should live like they do.

A long time ago I had a landlady who grew up in Nazi Germany, and we talked about it on occasion. Up until the very end of the war the average German was quite happy with the government, and it was only a small minority of people (Jews, Gypsies, clergy, and leftists) that feared the 4:00 AM knock on the door.

Whiskey said...

Relativism means comparing a hell-hole of the Third World like Pakistan or Saudi with the US. We are nothing like them, we are not Muslim, don't put our women in burquas, don't abstain from pork, and in fact have very little religion at all -- and they have entirely too much and the wrong kind.

So yes, your relativism points are useless.

The real heart of the matter is a surveillance state based on technology GOES BOTH WAYS. Information "wants to be free" and tends to leak out -- disgruntled NSA/Contractors, Army Privates, Chinese or Russian hackers, really anyone who can get insider information, or already works inside.

The "Lives of Others" softer police state of Stasi Informers worked because no one could show up the Culture Minister as a lech, fat old and corrupt. Now we have the ability, courtesy of insiders wanting money, payback, grudge settling or whatever, of Clinton's latest amours, Obama's colonoscopy, private conversations with Reggie Love, or emails.

The idea of a panopticon police/surveillance state rests on the idiot notion that no one will use a thumb drive, CD drive, or any other device to offload data, nor will the data ever be hacked, and redirected.

China can use "Boundless Informant" and other NSA programs to mass blackmail people, or more likely either embarrass or harass selected people. Including really important people like oh, say Barack Obama. North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, and hacking groups like Anonymous, Lulzsec, and others can do this too -- probably more effectively in the Ukraine, Russia, and Hong Kong.

Anonymous said...

Adorno wasnt Jewish so try to find something else those two had in common. Hint it wasnt that they were both German. Ill give you a hint its initials are FS.

I am glad you were able to escape the Fox News brainwashing your tv must come with a remote control something all other TVs have lacked since the Brainwashing Bill of 2011.

Auntie Analogue said...


Douthat tosses off, "[A] chilling effect at the margins of political discourse, mostly affecting groups and opinions considered disreputable already."

Those "considered disreputable" groups being selected with, no doubt, consummate regard for our Constitution by the Southern Poverty Law Center. As a public service, of course.

I don't know about the rest of you, Sailermates, but I have direct experience of how Mr. Douthat's chill "at the margins" feels.

Art Deco said...

Our government spends $9 trillion of taxpayer wealth to enable dysfunctional businesses and proposes to pay for most of that by inflating the money supply, in the name of the Holy Religion of free enterprise. But that's different, of course.

Nine trillion dollars would be 60% of one year's domestic product. The Department of Energy's outstanding loan porfolio is about $50 bn, so, nowhere near. You may not have noticed but the rate of price increases in the last five years differs little from the previous 25 years.

David said...

Art Deco, I was referring to the Wall St. bailouts. Let me re-link: here.

Art Deco said...

Art Deco, I was referring to the Wall St. bailouts

Disbursements as follows:

1. Maiden Lane I, II, III (Bear Stearns & two of the three components of the AIG rescue)

$72 bn. (paid back)


2. Fannie Mae / Freddie Mac conservatorships:

$187 bn. (still outstanding)


3. TARP (10 components)

$419 bn. (all but $62 bn paid back; 60% of the outstanding balance is owed by the auto industry beneficiaries, not Wall Street).

You can cavil about the accounting in regard to opportunity costs and so forth. You are still well short of $9,000 bn. And, again, the big deadbeats are the mortgage maws, which are not of Wall Street but rather the Washington insider nexus. Following that are General Motors and Ally Bank - i.e. Detroit, not Wall Street. A distant third is AIG, which still owes $13.5 bn. AIG is an insurance company that does most of its business abroad, though it is headquarted in lower Manhattan. AIG is the only one of these who is not a notable Democratic Party client.

Anonymous said...

So instead of a climate of pervasive fear, there will be a chilling effect at the margins of political discourse, mostly affecting groups and opinions considered disreputable already.


But over time the state will be able to move those margins in the directions it wants. You can see this already with "gay marriage" - fifteen years ago even the mainstream of the Democratic Party was against it, now you're made to feel like a criminal if you're against it. Or illegal immigration - it used to be that everyone had to at least pretend that illegal immigration was bad (if not the illegal immigrants themselves) but these days a lot of powerful and influential people unabashedly support illegal immigration.

"Soft despotism" goes about its business in a slightly different way than hard despotism, but frankly I'd prefer the old-fashioned police state to the new kind. At least it's honest.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about the rest of you, Sailermates, but I have direct experience of how Mr. Douthat's chill "at the margins" feels.

What do you mean by this?

Anonymous said...

Adorno wasnt Jewish so try to find something else those two had in common. Hint it wasnt that they were both German. Ill give you a hint its initials are FS.

In point of fact, you are wrong. Adorno was Jewish.

David said...

Art Deco, take it up with Nomi Prins. Third time linked. "Total bailout: $9.2 trillion"

We say that a few exploitative gamblers, none of whom are much more than govt. partners in our system of decadent state capitalism, repaid (to the govt., not to taxpayers) some of the loot that was lavished on them in reward for their almost destroying much of world's economy. It's like a Welfare Queen's negligently burning down her Section 8 housing and then repaying some of the cost of repairing it, except it's much worse than that.

And just as the WQ will sooner or later have to call the fire truck again, so the phony free enterprisers, unpunished and unrepentant, will blow and explode the same bubbles (wait a year) and blame their full partner Obammy if they hear the sound of pitchforks being rosined up.

bluto said...

Art Deco,
That's merely the tip of the iceburg. The Fed was a better place to hid purchases of dud assets ($3.0 T and counting!) along with guarantees through the FDIC that supercharged returns at those and many other banks (giving someone a bail out and then effectively handing them money via two other arms) allowing them to pay you back doesn't mean you've fixed their problems (which is why those banks aren't lending).

countenance said...

This hearkens back to the debate between Huxleyites and Orwellians on the nature of the coming tyranny. Douthat seems to be advancing a Huxleyite line of reasoning, that the coming tyranny will be soft, pink, nanny, regulatory and touchy feely goody rather than ominously repressive.

Sam Francis predicted that all this technology would accrue far more to authoritarian rather than libertarian ends, and he seems to have been right.

Anonymous said...

Nope Jewish dad (who converted) and catholic mom does not equal Jewish. More Coon less Je suis partout and you might know that.

Big Bill said...

Man! What kind of pussy organizations are Harvard and HLS turning into?

I liked them better when they were headed by the goy men who founded them. They have a toughness of mind that Jewish women lack.

Can't the girl get a job running a nice Jewish school like Yeshiva and Brandeis? Maybe move to her eternal national homeland, Israel, and run Technion or Tel Aviv?

Oh. I forgot. If you don't fight for your people, your race, your tribe, as a soldier in the IDF you don't get those jobs.

It's so sad to see American institutions pussified and run by MacCarthyite PC apparatchiks like Minow. Dean Clark would never have knuckled under, kow-towed, and groveled to the black law students association.

Anonymous said...

Nope Jewish dad (who converted) and catholic mom does not equal Jewish. More Coon less Je suis partout and you might know that.

Adorno was of Jewish descent. His father was Jewish and so was he. There's nothing wrong with being Jewish, but you seem to think there is.

Mr. Anon said...

“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” Google’s Eric Schmidt told an interviewer in 2009, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

I wonder if he thinks that applies to Google opening up their servers to the NSA. If he is embarrassed about conspiring with the secret police, then perhaps he shouldn't be doing it.

F**k Eric Schmidt. He's a piece of s**t.

Art Deco said...

Art Deco, take it up with Nomi Prins. Third time linked. "Total bailout: $9.2 trillion"

Nomi Prins is conning the both of you. Her 'calculations' include the contingent liability for loan guarantees that were never cashed in and have since expired and the gross value of the Federal Reserve's open market operations. The Federal Reserve's job is to regulate the money supply to maintain price stability, which it has successfully done over the last four years and change. One of the tools it uses is open market operations.

Anonymous said...

Apart from domestic intelligence gatherinig, I can't think of any issue for which the incentives of politicians are less alligned with the incentives of citizens. In fact, I can'tthink of any demographic (apart from tiny nitches, like NSA workers) that in whose interest it is for the government to spy on the public.

For the executive andlegislative branches, it is horribly embarrasing when an act of terrorism is not discovered ahead of time, even if it happens once every 10 yearsand results in little lossof life. But for me, isolated acts of terrorism in no way justify the impositions of a surveilance state.

Also, the president and members of congress have given up their right to privacy when they ran for office for the first time. A self-selected group that doesn't prize privacy decides for the rest of us how much privacy is worth. Big surprise -- they think it is worth very little.