The End of the Internet?
The government collects our texts and emails. Our columnist wonders why we’re so surprised.
(page 1 of 3)
Illustration by Jamie Jones
The trend of the season was color and the attitude was the future,” said Tonne Goodman, the fashion director of Vogue, explaining the 12-page September spread by photographer Steven Klein in which models with severe haircuts strode through a surreal landscape (Lubbock, Texas) in big, brightly hued coats, their blank android gazes ﬁxed on the weird silvery glasses they all wore. Being featured in this doorstop issue—902 pages—of the world’s most important fashion magazine was viewed by some as a water-shed for Google Glass, the moment when this much-maligned wearable computer stopped being the embodiment of geekiness and became an object of desire. The odd thing is, Glass was represented less as a chic fashion accessory—a bit out of reach, like a Stella McCartney overcoat—and more as a workof science ﬁction.
The fashion shoot recalls that moment in the 1990s when the Internet was still mostly fantasy, when its promoters could still get away with describing the electronic realm, as author Douglas Rushkoff once did, as the “next dimensional home for the consciousness.”
But it isn’t like that, is it? Yes, the doofus holding the iPhone ahead of him, impeding progress as he plods up the subway steps, checking Facebook, clearly has his consciousness in some other dimensional home. And I fear it’s only a matter of months before we see the effects of Google Glass or some similar device on our streets, highways, and subway stairs. The early adopters won’t look like Vogue’s ice goddesses, and they inevitably will get in the way. Public service announcements about the dangers of driving while wearing computer-embedded specs soon will follow.
None of this is science ﬁction any more.But somehow we failed to mature beyond the 1990s fantasy version of our technological moment; call it the age of innocence. That innocence dried up once and for all in June, when the ﬁrst story based on Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying was published by the Guardian. It’s difﬁcult to believe that otherwise intelligent people trusted in the overall beneﬁcence of the Internet for so long, but how else to explain the shock that accompanied the revelation that America’s shadowy intelligence operatives were stockpiling our data—meta and otherwise?
We all conveniently forgot that the Internet was largely invented by the Pentagon at its Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funded research into moving information as packets, transforming words and ideas into data. And what have we been doing all these years if not inventing ways to convert our every waking moment—and some of the sleeping ones—into data? We’ve succeeded in transplanting every imaginable activity—from ﬁnding a sexual partner to buying dog food—into the digital arena. Everything we do is data. And what is data for if not to be collected and analyzed? Couldn’t anyone have predicted that the wholesale collection of data by government was where this was all heading? Everything we do leaves a trail. Buy a pressure cooker from Amazon and Homeland Security shows up on your doorstep (or, at minimum, pressure-cooker ads turn up on every single website you visit). As Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said about smartphones in a July talk at the Center for American Progress, “The piece of technology we consider vital to the conduct of our everyday personal and professional life happens to be a combination phone bug, listening device, location tracker, and hidden camera.”