How Science Fiction Fans Can Save America

Read this. Here’s a taste:

“This Committee has examined a realm of governmental information collection which has not been governed by restraints comparable to those in criminal proceedings. […] We have seen segments of our Government, in their attitudes and action, adopt tactics unworthy of a democracy, and occasionally reminiscent of the tactics of totalitarian regimes. We have seen a consistent pattern in which programs initiated with limited goals, such as preventing criminal violence or identifying foreign spies, were expanded to what witnesses characterized as “vacuum cleaners”,” sweeping in information about lawful activities of American citizens.”

Nope, not a preliminary report on the recent antics of the NSA. It’s the Church Committee Report, published in 1976.

Loss of privacy leads to loss of identity. A slim majority of Americans disapprove of the fact that their emails now live forever in a government server, soon to be moved to that spanking new data center in Utah. Bletchley Park amidst the polygamists and cacti. It’s going to be the kind of place where public sector careers thrive and liberty gets kicked out of doors like a bad dog. What is liberty after all but the freedom to be oneself? And how can one be oneself without any reasonable expectation of private communications? How honest are you when you know someone else is listening?

All right, all right, enough with the cris de coeur. Ma Bell and the FBI joined forces to tap Americans’ phones in the 1950s. Now Google and the government are besties who share everything. Plus ça change. According to one top NSA official, “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.” Do we care? Shucks, no. How ’bout them Cowboys?!

Except … if you’re reading this, you probably do care. Because you’re a science fiction fan.

Short for ubiquitous.

Our genre has a long and paranoid relationship with the surveillance state, starting, of course, with 1984. Proving that every cloud has a silver lining, NSA scandal boosted Orwell’s classic 5,771% in Amazon’s bestseller rankings in just a few days. Philip K. Dick’s work may have been even more influential. The thing about uncannily prophetic science fiction is that it ends up that way because our wannabe technocrats steal its best ideas and run with them. Minority Report, anyone? The concept of jailing people for crimes they haven’t committed yet looks somewhat less science fictional now.

In a 1974 interview, Philip K. Dick said, “[O]ften my characters have this feeling [of being watched]. But what really I’ve done is, I have atavised their society. That although it’s set in the future, in many ways they’re living like our ancestors did.  I mean, the hardware is in the future, the scenery’s in the future, but the situations are really from the past.”

Let’s keep that in mind as we take a look at the most recent surveillance-themed sf to make a splash: Little Brother and Homeland, by my old mucker Cory Doctorow. Like the best Scandinavian thrillers, these novels are utterly compelling, not so much for the stories they tell as for their richly textured rendering of a place we know about but may never have visited–in this case, the world of young hacktivists. Protagonist Marcus Yallow uses the weapons of the internet–darknet servers and tactical coding and reverse pwning methodology(1)–to fight back against the coercive surveillance of a state security apparatus that might be coming to America tomorrow, or might already be here. In Panopticon America, it is implied, only the paranoid will be free. This message gets a sadly ironic boost from the afterword to Homeland by Aaron Swartz–the “internet’s boy” who recently killed himself. He, at any rate, is free now.

What was that Philip K. Dick said? “The scenery’s in the future, but the situations are really from the past.” This nails Little Brother and Homeland perfectly. Where God was, Big Brother now is. Go and read this article–it teases out the theology better than I could. But here’s the money quote:

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

Psalm 139, my geeks and geekettes. How’s that for prophetic? The big difference being, of course, that whereas we open our hearts willingly to God’s loving omniscience, we’d better fight back against the omniscience of the security state, and if we can, blind its eyes. With these two novels, but especially in Homeland, Doctorow hammers on our duty to resist the coercion of the false God that watches us through our computers. In place of that surveillance, the “carefree atheist” Marcus Yallow would put … nothing? The galactic solitude of the un-surveilled internet, where you can bounce forever from one link to the next, like a steel ball in the world’s biggest pachinko machine? Well, we’re all free to make our own choices. But I’m pretty sure all readers of Little Brother and Homeland, and in fact nearly all science fiction fans, would agree that that is precisely the freedom we must preserve. Even at the cost of a little security, yes.

Because if we don’t, as Philip K. Dick foresaw, we’re condemned to slide back into the past. And this isn’t the sweet, orderly past that post-modern nostalgie de la boue evokes. This is all the rest of the past, when the individual was answerable at any time, for any reason or none, to the rulers of his society, the ones who insisted they knew what was best for him. What do they call that sort of government? Oh, yeah. Tyranny.


1. I made those things up because I didn’t really understand the technological bits and cannot now recall them.


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  1. Interesting commentary on society, Felicity.

    Winston Churchill once said that those “…who are unwilling to fight for freedom, don’t deserve it.” In a survey after 911, asking if people wanted freedom … or security …, most responsed security. Thus was the Patriot Act born. Up until the 1976 Pike and Church committees, most congressional reprepresentatives and senators didn’t want the responsibility of knowing what was going on in black ops.

    You can’t rely on the collective responsibility of the US Congress or the American government’s bureaucrats, so you’ve raised crucial questions. We’ve given the government too much power.

    Taking the power to spy on American citizens away from our bureaucracies will be far harder. And like any true believer, individuals in the government will always think that they are “protecting” our freedoms, not taking them away.

    I think Dick’s influence on film and SF storytelling is a critical part of resisting governmental abuse. These stories keep people thinking about their freedom. They keep people worried about who’s providing our “security” and asking what’s their agenda.

    A truly good post.

  2. Interesting perspective.

    I hasten to point out that when one opens themselves to god, it is supposedly to a being that only ever has the best in mind for you (even if that love takes the form of teaching you a lesson in a nasty manner), while no such inherent trust exists for governments nor our fellow humans.

    AND, the communication between a person and god remains utterly secret unless one chooses to share it.

    In terms of our Orwellian world, I have reluctantly come to share David Brin’s oft-stated position: the only hope we have is of making sure that the individual has ready access to the same tools – and the same rights to use them – as the government does.

    I foresee a privacy crisis not centered around citizen vs government agencies but one that centers around the citizen vs big business. Big business will inevitably be the first place that acquires the uber tracking and mining capabilities that government currently has. Indeed, I just learned of this – – yesterday: a CIA funded data mining and forecasting operation that is now making its services available to business.

    I still advocate the wide adoption of masks in public: I also suggest that when using things like shopping discount cards, people ‘lend’ them to others as often as they are able in order to throw some monkeywrenches into the data mining (he’s never bought that before!) AND I’m getting ready to put it out there (somewhere) that when confronted with ad mining situations (such as on HULU where they ask “Is this ad appropriate for you?”) that EVERYONE should ALWAYS say “No” – whether the ad is or is not something they are interested in. Small acts of protest. Why make their jobs easier?

    I’m a pretty open person – I really don’t care what other people know about me (not that I want pictures of me picking my nose all over the internet); the distinction for me is – was I allowed the opportunity to decide if I want that information public? The current situation denies me that opportunity and that is what I’m really bothered by.

    1. That’s an interesting linke Steve, I hadn’t heard of that one I suppose it was only a matter of time.

      People’s views on personal rights and allowing these sorts of intrusions have shifted so far to the right they are barely recognizable, and that’s actually true of our views on warfare as well. They have done so at the very worst time, because technology that allows you to invade people’s space and spy on them has never been so effective. I was actually checking to see what kind of technology is available for surveillance so I could know what made sense in a story, and it’s impressive.

      For instance, any common citizen can get something which looks and feels exactly like a rock. It would fit in one hand, and you can just drive past someone’s house and toss it in their yard and nobody will ever notice it. It will record every EM frequency that passes in and out of the house, and allows you to track and listen to all cellphone calls made in the vicinity of the house, and also gives you lots of information on what equipment is being used inside.

      People love to think that because they are basically honest citizens themselves, they don’t need to be afraid of anything. What they don’t understand is that a lot of the people who get harmed by this sort of intrusion thought exactly the same thing themselves.

  3. They did a rather interesting study a few years ago, I forget exactly which journal I read it in…they handed cameras to random people and told them to take some video.

    The over-30s usually turned the cameras outward.

    The under-30s usually turned the cameras on themselves.

    I’ve noticed a similar dichotomy in the commentary on the recent NSA debacle(s). The generations have very different views on privacy.

    Also, as a final thought: “Privacy is a concept that existed for roughly two decades in the middle of the 20th century. Before that, your entire town knew your private life. After that, the government did.”

  4. Yep, things are getting creepy. I tell my daughters in college to tape over the webcams built into their laptops. Recent events also bring to mind John Varley’s ‘Press Enter []’. Makes me want to totally disconnect and live off the land in the mountains.

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