in Kulturkampf

Archives: Passing Oceania

This appeared at Huffington Post on September 28, 2009.

In a 2003 New York Times essay, novelist William Gibson — who coined the term “cyberspace” — remarked on the omnipresent surveillance cameras in England. Seeing them as more than just Orwellian control, Gibson called them a symptom of lost privacy for corporations and governments as well as individuals:

It is becoming unprecedentedly difficult for anyone, anyone at all, to keep a secret.

In the age of the leak and the blog, of evidence extraction and link discovery, truths will either out or be outed, later if not sooner. This is something I would bring to the attention of every diplomat, politician and corporate leader: the future, eventually, will find you out. The future, wielding unimaginable tools of transparency, will have its way with you. In the end, you will be seen to have done that which you did. (Emphasis mine)

This axiom — “the future, eventually, will find you out” — has been proven so many times since he wrote it that I have taken to calling it Gibson’s Law. Indeed, his essay is all the more remarkable for having been published two years before either YouTube or Huffington Post existed. Since then, we have seen a Senator taken down by his “macaca” moment and witnessed a momentary meltdown, repeated millions of times, affect a presidential election:

Until recently, the citizen had no power to capture this kind of powerful demonstration. Viewing — and more importantly, re-viewing — depended on the media filter. Now, that media filter itself is under the citizen’s eye. Here is Glenn Beck, for example, talking about bailouts:

Yet here is Beck one year ago, as captured by the nongovernmental organization MediaMatters:

Mind you, Beck’s doom bunker is a constant drumbeat of paranoid insanity. On his chalkboard, a formless, mystic cabal of communists, capitalists, and activists plots the destruction of freedom and the creation of Oceania. Yet the very fact I can post these videos suggests we are passing by Oceania. Here is how Orwell imagined his Ministry of Truth:

Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

It is rapidly becoming less and less possible to destroy the past or ‘bring it up to date.’ Indeed, the technology outpaces anyone’s ability to “control” information. Gibson made this observation six years ago:

Orwell’s projections come from the era of information broadcasting, and are not applicable to our own. Had Orwell been able to equip Big Brother with all the tools of artificial intelligence, he would still have been writing from an older paradigm, and the result could never have described our situation today, nor suggested where we might be heading.

That our own biggish brothers, in the name of national security, draw from ever wider and increasingly transparent fields of data may disturb us, but this is something that corporations, nongovernmental organizations and individuals do as well, with greater and greater frequency. The collection and management of information, at every level, is exponentially empowered by the global nature of the system itself, a system unfettered by national boundaries or, increasingly, government control. (Emphasis mine)

This democratization of information applies everywhere, not just here. When riots broke out in China’s western Xinjiang province earlier this year, Arianna Huffington noted how China “slammed the door in the face of new media — and offered traditional reporters a front row seat.” China was depending on the Eyewitness Fallacy, in which observers confuse their limited field of view for a larger reality. The phenomenon is described thusly by Tony Waters at Ethnography.com:

(T)he individual participant observer’s view is always limited to the contacts they personally make. Meaning that our personal contacts limit the ideas that we can dream up. How can a single observer, then write about a society as vast as China (population 1.2 billion) based only on what they themselves see? Indeed, even tiny Liechtenstein (population 35,000) is too big. This is because even the best participant observer can come in contact with only an extremely limited number of people on their own. (Emphasis mine)

Moreover, there is a limit to how far a reporter will press his or her contacts. That is at least somewhat understandable, as no reporter wants to be responsible for a source getting in trouble. But it can also be the effect of what Bob Cesca calls “the barbecue media:”

That video so perfectly summarizes the root of everything that’s wrong and awful about the state of the Fourth Estate — the flagrant unapologetic glad-handing between the Republican Party, corporations and the media. The dangerous turning-of-the-cheek when it comes to Republican crimes and lies and propaganda.

The utter lack of integrity displayed in that video is staggering. Imagine for a moment (and set aside the fact that Senator Obama doesn’t own a ‘vacation cabin’) if a similar event had been videotaped and released on YouTube by the Obama campaign.

Traditional media has emphasized its limited field of view in an age of information overload, and savvy politicians have long since learned to game that system. Judith Miller’s breathless Iraq reporting for the New York Times helped sell the war, and we’ve since learned that nothing she reported was even remotely true.

This new, web-based method of journalism is inherently immune to the limitations of traditional journalism. After the disputed election in Iran, Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney opened a liveblog and leveraged Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to do open-source reporting — what has come to be known as “crowdsourcing.” Pitney connected to Iranians and relayed their news around the government’s filter, circumventing the traditional channels of information.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reaction was the opposite of China’s ruling party. Iran expelled foreign reporters because, unlike in Xinjiang, the regime has been unable to quell dissent in the streets. The demonstrators have proven impossible to shut up, as more emails, blogs, and videos come out of Iran all the time. We hear thousands of voices jamming the call to prayer, or chanting Allah’u’akbar in the night:

When governments pursue modernity, they are inevitably forced to allow ever-greater connectivity. It is a genie not easily returned to its bottle — indeed, it seems to find a thousand new ways to escape its bottle every day.

China has tried very hard to have this cake while eating it, erecting all sorts of software barriers in what Naomi Klein calls “police state 2.0,” but those efforts have been frustrated by the limitations of programming and the limitless adaptability of language. “Green Dam,” a program that was supposed to be required on all computers in China earlier this year, was a profound failure:

(T)he software, which analyzes skin tones, will block Garfield kittens, as they are yellow, but it won’t be able to recognise pornographic images of dark-skinned people.

[…]

The list includes common terms like “essence”. I can’t even imagine what “essence” counts as. Green Dam monitors word processing in addition to internet. So does this mean that from now on the word “essence” can no longer appear in school essays, textbooks and dictionaries?” he says.

Text-messaging has become the most popular form of communication in China. The government has spent five years trying to control its use. Yet Chinese continue to find new ways of organizing themselves through the medium.

This is not a battle governments can win. For all our worries about Big Brother intruding on our lives, Big Brother has no way to stop individuals from intruding on him. We are rapidly passing a point of no return at which everything Big Brother might hope to do in secret is instantly captured on video and projected through the monitors of ten thousand Americans before sunrise:

Some will see that video as evidence of encroaching dictatorship; yet the video itself is proof that no one can establish dictatorship of information anymore. Not Google, not the government, and not even the citizen.

The future, eventually, will find you out. The future, wielding unimaginable tools of transparency, will have its way with you. In the end, you will be seen to have done that which you did.

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