Trusting in our new security state
Big data? No. Vast data, enormous data, unimaginably colossal data ties our world together. Some have said it also ties us down, since departments like the National Security Agency are combing through a part of our huge reservoir for intelligence on foreigners who might threaten the U.S. Yet this behavior is now the status quo, one that will not go away, nor diminish. It’s a doleful one if you deem it an open invitation to 1984-style tyranny, or an exhilarating one if you see a world of ever-expanding knowledge and opportunity.
Regardless, data culture is growing at a stupefying rate. It’s estimated that 90 percent of all the data in the world has been generated in the last two years, and the rate itself is increasing. We humans, ordinary people going about our business, are creating most of that data, because we have come to need it to shop, to bank, to access benefits, to be part of a health service, to educate our children, to be secure, to play games, to form and maintain modern friendships, to find partners… in other words, to live in the world.
To live outside of this networked world we would need to live in isolation, growing and hunting your own food without utilities. Or we would have undergone a catastrophe, the kind of thing contemporary dystopian fiction likes to conjure up. Since few of us want to try the first and none of us wish to be victims of the second, we’re stuck in the Net.
We’re stuck, and we have to adapt to it — as we have adapted to the other technologies that we have invented and produced. We have adapted to the steam engine and the internal combustion engine. We’ve adapted to the telephone and the television. We must now adapt to a world where public and private centers of power and authority know or can discover wads of information on us. And we must become comfortable with the reality that it is information we have half-unconsciously handed over.
To adapt, we must trust. We have to trust the state, the government, the politicians, the businesses, the bureaucracies, the police, the security forces, the journalists and, yes, ourselves.
We’ve become used to believing that trust in public figures and institutions is a dwindling commodity, a precipitous falling away fromwhat we used to have so much of, at least in some things and some people. How do we acquire it again?
We need to realize that trust is a relationship. Trust needs work, from us. We need to hold the powers that be to realistic account, which means we must understand what is reasonable to ask of them, and how much we are prepared to engage, or give up, or pay, in order to get it.
But we can’t trust in ignorance, or we are simply being naïve. Most of us can’t handle too much complexity in fields we don’t understand — and when we hear that in a couple of years global data will amount to a zettabyte, which is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, and that in three years global Web traffic will reach 1.3 zettabytes a year, we tune out, and leave it to others.
Yet we need to somehow grasp the size of the data or we become immensity’s victims: we need to pioneer something like an Open Digital University, a resource available to all which will take us through at least the lower slopes of understanding of what our modern, connected universe is — building on courses that our kids get at school.
Further, since our democratic and political systems depend on representatives and officials who know how to navigate the Internet, they have to be trained in the ways of digital democracy — with the accent on the second word. They must know not just what the great banks of information, public and private, have on us. They must also assure us that this information is safeguarded, open to inspection and as transparent as possible. They have to be our guardians and pathfinders in this world.
So must the news media. As the late James Carey wrote, “In the Fourth Estate view of journalism, journalists would serve as agents of the public in checking an inherently abusive government.” But the media, too — as the phone hacking scandal in the UK amply demonstrates — can abuse the public in its search for information. The philosopher Onora O’Neill, in her Reith Lectures given over a year ago, argued that the media was constantly demanding transparency from every institution but itself. It’s time that was reversed.
Less obviously but much more worrying, the great engines of our informational and social world (Google, Facebook, etc.) could currently or soon have at least exabytes (10006) of information on us. This means that we have to know much more about them: secrecy in corporations as powerful as these can’t continue.
And we must create the office, as dignified and powerful as that of a Supreme Court judge, of a Digital Ombudsman, one who, with a large staff, is empowered on behalf of the public to investigate and report on the nature of the informational ecosystem that surrounds us; how it is increasing; what its increase brings; what we are giving to which institutions in the way of data on ourselves and those we know. Such an official must become integrated into our society and in our politics.
Trusting ourselves means we have to wise up to how much we are enmeshed in the Net; what gains this gives; what losses it demands. It means supporting those institutions that are prepared to hold to account not just others, but themselves. It means holding them to the promises and the mechanisms of oversight. There’s no way out of feeling trapped in the coils of a net than by actively ensuring that it isn’t choking you.
PHOTO: Passengers watch a television screen broadcasting news on Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), on a train in Hong Kong June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Bobby Yip