The problem with the sick, obsessive superpower revealed to us by Edward Snowden is that it cannot bring itself to utter the one line it absolutely must utter before it can move on: “My name is America and I’m a dataholic.” For American spies, Big Data is like crack cocaine: just a few doses – and you can forget about mending your way and kicking the habit. Yes, there’s an initial illusion of grandeur and narcissistic omnipotence – just look at us, we could prevent another 9/11! – but a clearer, unmediated brain would surely notice that one’s judgment has been severely impaired. Prevent another 9/11? When two kids with extensive presence on social media can blow up a marathon in Boston? Really? All this data, all this sacrifice– and for what?
So let us not pass over America’s surveillance addiction in silence. It is real; it has consequences; and the world would do itself a service by sending America to a Big Data rehab. But there’s more to learn from the Snowden affair. It has also busted a number of myths that are only peripherally related to surveillance: myths about the supposed benefits of decentralized and commercially-operated digital infrastructure, about the current state of technologically-mediated geopolitics, about the existence of a separate realm known as “cyberspace.” We must take stock of where we are and reflect on where we soon will be, especially if we fail to confront – legally but, even more importantly, intellectually – the many temptations of information consumerism.
Why surrender control over electronic communications?
First of all, many Europeans are finally grasping, to their great dismay, that the word “cloud” in “cloud computing” is just a euphemism for “some dark bunker in Idaho or Utah.” Borges, had he lived long enough, would certainly choose a server rack – not a library – as the primary site for his surreal stories. A database larger than the world it is meant to represent: a Borges short story or a slide from an NSA PowerPoint? One can’t say for sure.
Second, ideas that once looked silly suddenly look wise. Just a few months ago, it was customary to make fun of Iranians, Russians and Chinese who, with their automatic distrust of all things American, spoke the bizarre language of “information sovereignty.” What, the Iranians want to build their own national email system to lessen their dependence on Silicon Valley? That prospect seemed both futile and wrong-headed to many Europeans: what a silly waste of resources! How could it possibly compete with Gmail, with its trendy video chats and slick design? Haven’t Europeans tried – and failed – to launch their own search engine? Building airplanes that can compete with Boeing is one thing – but an email system? Now, that’s something Europe – let alone Iran! – would never be able to pull off.
Look who’s laughing now: Iran’s national email system launched a few weeks ago. Granted the Iranians want their own national email system, in part, so that they can shut it down during protests and spy on their own people AT other times. Still, they got the geopolitics exactly right: over-reliance on foreign communications infrastructure is no way to boost one’s sovereignty. If you wouldn’t want another nation to run your postal system, why surrender control over electronic communications?