The End of the Internet?

The government collects our texts and emails. Our columnist wonders why we’re so surprised.

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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.”


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Oct 1, 2013 01:55 pm
 Posted by  13axxess

Isn't it ironic that the end of an article dealing with the effects of the internet on what we imagine privacy to be, there is an imperative to either use or create an "account" in order to participate in the discussion. We exhibit shameful ignorance about how the internet works - was designed to work. The underlying principle was and still is that Everything Is Connected To Everything. So, complaints about some of our information being available to entities we may now define as undesirable intruders are, I suggest, a bit late.

A parting thought about the subhead of the article: To imply that the government collects our texts and emails is alarmingly misleading. There are agencies that harvest metadata that affords them the ability to reconstruct the contents of a message, and to connect it to a sender and a recipient. That action is only triggered by a set of pre-determined criteria which are deemed to include potentially harmful, suspicious or outright threatening.

In short, put the cover back on the PANIC button; keep using the most transformative and ultimately positive invention since moveable type; and learn to do it within limits of common sense - like driving a car within limits of constraint that will minimize the chances for catastrophic outomes.

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