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.
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.