PRISM and Future Power

…the current global crisis is one between centralized, hierarchical powers and distributed, horizontal networks… The dilemma, then, is that while hierarchy and centralization are almost certainly politically tainted due to their historical association with fascism and other abuses, networks are both bad and good. Drug cartels, terror groups, black hat hacker crews, and other denizens of the underworld all take advantage of networked organizational designs because they offer effective mobility and disguise. But more and more one witnesses the advent of net- worked organizational design in corporate management techniques, manufacturing supply chains, advertisement campaigns, and other novelties of the ruling class, as well as all the familiar grassroots activist groups who have long used network structures to their advantage. – Alexander Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. 2004. 204-206

The last couple of weeks have been a typical neurotic paradise for me – taking some time off to be lazy and enjoying none of it because I was too anxious about not being productive. But the other thing that has bothered me has been the news surrounding Edward Snowden and PRISM, which is more about the public acknowledgement of something rather than its realization. Many of us know (or at least suspect, justified by knowledge or paranoia) that the US government has been engaged in domestic surveillance for a long time now. I came up with a quicklist a few weeks ago when the news broke:

  •  ECHELON was developed decades ago and could intercept satellite transmission. It was later used for industrial espionage after its cold war usefulness was exhausted.
  • Six years ago the Washington Post reported on how the NSA was setting up systems to “vacuum up” internet and cellular data from average americans in 2002.
  • Three years ago the Washington Post reported on the extensiveness of the post-9/11 US intelligence network.
  • One year ago Wired reported on the Utah Data Center which could only exist for logging massive amounts of communications data.
  • One month ago (now two) remarks from a former FBI agent revealed most/all calls by Americans can be accessed by the government.

Molly Sauter has written (and spoke) about the popular portrayals of hackers that we’ve become used to, and how it’s affected policy-making towards hacktivists and citizens engaged in unconvential use of digital media. But the animus to a omniscient pseudo-cyber-terrorist anima are their righteous counterparts, cyber-warriors. Tom Clancy has been writing about this bullshit since 1999. And we’ve become cozy with depictions of “white hat” hackers working with the government for the good of the people. A lot of cop shows these days (NCIS, Numb3rs, Criminal Minds and CSI) all have characters who break into people’s personal information to find the bad guy just in time. Like this blog post points out, “there’s no time for warrants or other legal measures” and we are left to rely on the “magic hacker’s” benevolence that justice really has been served. But there’s another point to be made – these hackers have never created the databases they are constantly cross-referencing, they’re just using them.

In the past year or two, we’ve really gotten the message about protecting our privacy and data – we’ve connected it to our identity and know that cookies and all sorts of other things are out there, tracking us, delivering a customized web that boxes us in… and we are learning to love it. But while corporatist control over our data may be acceptable to some (and grotesque embraced, in some discussions I’ve witnessed), government tracking is still such an omninus prospect it has citizens horrified, then stupefied. How do we even resist? What do we do to dissent?

This has been a really interesting time for activism – digital media creates all sorts of tactics and strategies (which go far beyond “clicktivism” for the inexperienced) that people have been exploring in the past few years. But we’re slow to the game. Ten years ago Critical Art Ensemble declared people had “nomadic power” in the face of the “fortress ideology” of the establishment. Tactical media was the banderillas we could stick in the bull. But Galloway (who I’m really digging lately) has tracked the resurrection of hegemony:

Distributed networks have become hegemonic only recently, and because of this it is relatively easy to lapse back into a time when the network was disruptive of the power center, when the guerilla threatened the army, when the nomadic horde threatened the citadel. But this is no longer the case today. The distributed network is the new citadel, the new army, the new power.

Galloway, Alexander R. “Protocol.” Theory, Culture and Society 23 (2006): 317–320.

PRISM is a revelation to tactical media practitioners, that the Leviathan we thought was sleeping, perhaps slowly considering network power, was already remaking itself into a many headed beast, a distributed system of power that not only could hold the present, but was able to map out and conquer the future as well. By this I mean, in the way the original psychography of the Champs-Elysées funneled armies through Paris to crush protest, “cloud-computing” and digital media have now become the almanac by which individuals are numbered and tabulated for reference and tracking.

Consider the impermanence of physical media – it’s ephemeral qualities, the way it can be easily lost, destroyed, amended, altered and annotated. This is the downfall of the government in Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopian masterpiece. The inefficiency of bureaucracy’s iron heel is actual lethal, and can only be escaped through poetic terrorism (the renegade plumbing of Archibald Tuttle), accidental death, and madness.  Were such a system to operate correctly, even these would be impossible.

There are two ways to look at things now.The pessimistic view is that we have already lost – PRISM has captured the future, it is the future of the state. But the optimistic perspective is that PRISM is the Leviathan unmasked – it shows us just how far the state has come in adopting network power. It shows us how far we have to go.

The last few weeks, I have been wrestling with the first view. But writing this has shown me the second, and I hope it is the correct one.

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