Edward Snowden and the Price of Zero

by Misha Lepetic

“Not philosophers but fret-sawyers and stamp
collectors compose the backbone of society.”
~ Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Pink Floyd.Dark Side.front.1973As the Outlaw Edward Snowden continues to languish in the transit lounge of the Sheremetyovo International Airport, I am struck by the overall nonchalance with which the revelations of comprehensive NSA-sponsored surveillance have been received. Obviously, it is still early days, but for the moment the broad-brush recording of vast amounts of telecommunications and social media information has not spurred any marches on Washington, the Googleplex or anywhere else for that matter. Let's look back on a little history and see why this relaxed attitude might be even more justified than we suspect.

One way to begin is by situating Snowden in his chosen brotherhood of US intelligence whistleblowers. In saying that he has been waiting for someone like Snowden for 40 years, Daniel Ellsberg plays John the Baptist to Snowden's – well, you get it. But Ellsberg's outing of what became the Pentagon Papers and Snowden's NSA reveal are extraordinarily different, not just in terms of the contents, but also in terms of each man's professional status, and the larger social context in which the leaks occurred. As Garance Franke-Ruta wrote on The Atlantic's website, Ellsberg was about as inside as an insider could be, whereas Snowden is the consummate outsider. Ellsberg was himself the author of swathes of the report that was a distillation of everything that the Pentagon needed to know about its own war, whereas Snowden – well, aside from a handful of documents, we still don't really know what he's got on those four laptops, although Glenn Greenwald, Snowden's chosen conduit, just might. Ellsberg knew that the stakes involved a country that was at war and – most crucially – was subjecting its population to a draft, while Snowden's revelations are of a decidedly more ambiguous variety, involving things that we use every day, that seem to be friendly, convenient (if not essential), and free. Finally, Ellsberg remained in the US, as Franke-Ruta puts it, “a powerful insider joining his conscience to an existing upswell in public opinion,” while Snowden is stuck playing Victor Navorski, with little chance of Catherine Zeta-Jones showing up in a stewardess outfit any time soon.

There is, however, an interesting thread that makes its way across all of these disparities. I would like to call it a matter of effort, and the difference that effort makes. In fact, I will further argue that the progress of technology has led to a progressive dissipation of the value of effort, and that in turn leads to a proportionate dilution of the stakes that we think we are talking about.

As an example, consider that Ellsberg's decision to leak the Pentagon report on Vietnam first required making a copy of the report itself – there were only 15 copies made in the first place, and Ellsberg's secret labors would produce the 16th. As one might imagine, photocopying technology in 1969 required a bit of work, and Ellsberg had some 7,000 pages to get through. It took him about three months to do this. We don't know about Snowden, but his nearest counterpart, Bradley Manning of WikiLeaks fame, was “allegedly able to download volumes of material onto discs disguised as Lady Gaga albums and blithely walk past security.”

Xerox_914The difference between the two sets of documents can be neatly summed up by the fact that, whereas the entire Pentagon Papers were about 2.5 million words, WikiLeaks was over 300 million. And yet, the Pentagon Papers played a large part in turning the tide against the Vietnam War, while WikiLeaks' impact has been, up until now, fairly limited. Why? Obviously, the two are difficult to compare not just in terms of size, but this doesn't mean that we can't compare them in terms of intent. That is, the former was a careful distillation of 25 years of history of a specific region, and the latter a chunk of America's entire diplomatic output over three years, from the revelatory to the banal but often amusing (if anything, the Manning leak revealed that the State Department has more frustrated novelists than a Williamsburg coffeeshop). But the cables themselves are a disparate portrait of an organization at work – they themselves do not exist, or were collected, to make a specific point. They are raw material, and therefore prefigure the formulation of a particular hypothesis. This does not mean that there are no smoking guns (there are, and sometimes literally), but I must point out the unintended consequences of this kind of unfocused data dump: people are free to dragoon the cables into furthering all sorts of pet agendas, such as the obvious fact that global warming is a hoax.

Snowden's NSA surveillance leak implies an extension of that trend. People have been throwing around all sorts of numbers, but at this point it is impossible to estimate how much has been gathered and what has been stored, let alone the usefulness of it all. Are we talking about hundreds of billions of pieces of information? What's a “piece of information,” anyway? Is it bigger or smaller than a breadbox? As a result, the media turns to adjectives that either up the ante (“massive,” “unprecedented”), border on totality (“most,” “almost all”, “nearly every”) or approach totality from the other, even more rhetorically effective direction (the dreaded “unknown”).

Obviously, not knowing how much data there is in the first place makes it difficult to consider its relevance, at least in the way we can consider the relevance of every single word in the Pentagon Papers. Because with the NSA surveillance scheme, there is no relevance – in its purest form, it is an indifferent dragnet of the entirety of people's daily communications. And as such, it is completely and utterly dilute.

EllsbergWe see here the trajectory of effort: from Ellsberg and the report that he helped birth, once for the Pentagon and thence to the rest of the world, we had supreme effort exerted in both its creation and its subsequent extrusion. With WikiLeaks, we had the wholesale divulgence of the machinery of government; and while its constituent parts are overwhelmingly self-referencing and not constitutive of a point, they are still richly indicative of an organization's process of sense-making. Effort is still exerted here, but it is fractured and indeterminate. Finally, thanks to the holy trinity of information technology – disappearing costs of storage, bandwidth and processing power – the NSA surveillance is of such a scale that there need not be a point to what is being recorded, so long as it is being recorded, and the algorithms will take care of the rest.

It is no coincidence that Manning was a private and Snowden a contractor, while Ellsberg was a mandarin. The effort required to secrete away information artifacts created or captured with less and less effort has itself become rather effortless. And yet, as we slide down this arc, any protest or concern becomes more difficult to discern. Why is this? Does protest also require too much effort, since there is a difference between winding up in some database that one will never know about, versus getting drafted in order to get ambushed in some jungle halfway around the world? Or, ought we better ask, What exactly should we be protesting here, if anything?


No: there are deeper forces at work here. Strangely, within days of Snowden's outing, Amazon's sales of George Orwell's 1984 leapt nearly 7,000%. I have written earlier why it is misleading to look to Orwell as an appropriate description of our current society, since the success of Orwell's kind of totalitarianism is predicated upon the relentless crushing of resistance – which implies that there is such a thing as resistance. In fact, there is no resistance, and commentators like Michel Foucault are much more appropriate to help understand why this is the case. To put it even more pointedly, Foucault would argue that, as knowledge and power further enweave themselves into society, and define us as subjects known to and further constructed by these processes of knowledge and power, there is almost always bound to be less resistance.

Foucault's essay “Governmentality” lays out the historical background for much of this transformation. He contrasts the rise of government as distinct from what we usually consider to be the first modern work of governing, Machiavelli's The Prince. This work represented the prince who “acquires his principality by inheritance or conquest, but in any case he does not form part of it, he remains external to it” (p90). Since the prince was always outside of his territory, Machiavelli's task is to simply show his client the most expeditious ways by which he could retain that territory.

However, socio-economic evolution led to the need for a new sort of justification. By the 17th century, writers on “the art of government” sought a greater continuity with all the other forms of government that kept the wheels on a society – that “a person who wishes to govern the state well must first learn how to govern himself, his goods and his patrimony, after which he will be successful in governing the state” (p91). It is at this point that the idea of ruling ‘for the public good' and not simply for the sake of ruling is introduced. In turn, the common good is achieved once all citizens submit to the law. But where do laws come from? To Foucault, governing “is a question… of employing tactics rather than law, and even of using laws themselves as tactics – to arrange things in such a way that, through a certain number of means, such and such ends may be achieved” (p95). Laws are really a rubric, and little more.

MachiavelliSo instead of the prince being the sun, forever shining upon his principality but also forever apart from it, sovereignty drew its legitimacy from the law, or tactics masquerading as law, and vice versa. A binarism was replaced by a circularity. This proved much more effective, since if the continuity that Foucault describes was to obtain, it would have to encompass all the different forms of government (of self, of family, of workplace and church and city). At the same time, these different forms of government influenced what would become understood as the public good; that is to say, the public good was never an abstract concept to Foucault, rather it was an aggregate of all the ends desired by all the governmental forms mentioned above.

As this process matured, Foucault concludes that the final and ongoing goal of government is the management of the population itself. This came about as a result of the rise of statistics and the ability to view an entire population in statistical form, thereby identifying normality and, especially importantly, abnormality. He notes that “the managing of a population not only concerns the collective mass of phenomena, the level of its aggregate effects, it also implies the management of population in its depths and details” (p102). This is very much in keeping with his overarching themes of knowledge and power, and this is also where we rejoin the current narrative. That is, what government wants is the ability to render us as knowable subjects to the governmental gaze. In the final formulation, nothing is lost: “we need to see things not in terms of the replacement of a society of sovereignty by a disciplinary society and the subsequent replacement of a disciplinary society by a society of government; in reality on has a triangle, sovereignty-discipline-government, which has its primary target the population and as its essential mechanism the apparatuses of security” (p102).

In mentioning security, however, we ought consider the crucial ways in which this is different from Orwell. The NSA programs such as PRISM, etc, have been compared to the – indeed very Orwellian – Stasi machinery of East Germany. Topically there may be similarities, but on a deeper, conceptual level, they could not be more different. Foucault constantly emphasizes this in his writing: the willingness with which we all participate in the processes that, in this case, create us as subjects made visible to the state. Equally important is the willingness with which we forget that we are engaged in this process, and that we accept the results of that process as constituting some kind of truth about ourselves. We are, in the case of the current NSA scheme, all too gladly providing all the information about ourselves that the state could possibly want, and show few signs of unplugging (not that it's all that easy, either). Arguably, one would have to move to a shack in Montana in order to effect such an ambition – which would itself be a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.

This is the link between the idea of effort that I discussed above, and knowledge and power as manifested by government. We have, through a series of logical and seemingly inevitable transformations, arrived at a state of low stakes. The state needs to expend less effort to surveille us, because we do all the work ourselves, and we do this work in the course of seeming to do something else, that is, living our daily lives. Furthermore, as consumers, our decades of investment in the computing industry have driven down the price of our own surveillance. As a result, the intelligence-IT complex has emerged as the sister paradigm to the military-industrial complex (and this is what we really mean by a security apparatus). And in a supreme irony, the same, utter lack of coercion required to achieve this has made it almost invisible to us, even after it has been revealed to us. It almost makes one wish for a good, old-fashioned draft.