One Nation Under Surveillance

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What do we envision when we envision the surveillance state?

The latest item in the Snowden surveillance files comes from  Barton Gellman of The Washington Post, who tells us that the messages of law-abiding Americans outnumber ‘legitimate’ targets of NSA surveillance nine to one. We’re talking about love stories now, trysts, hook-ups, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial nightmares. They have no ‘intelligence value’, but the NSA is saving them all the same.

Still, there doesn’t seen to be any real outrage. We the People under surveillance seem to be confused about how much our liberty and our privacy are worth in exchange for convenience  and connectedness. We beg to be followed on Twitter and stalked on Facebook, even as we’re wonder, in an abstract way, how bad it would be to pop up on a government watch list.

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It’s the artists — from Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four, to Philip Dick and Margaret Atwood, to Trevor Paglen and Banksy — who raise the big questions: about voyeurism, about safety and risk, and the essence of our public and private selves. Is there a book or a movie that tells us what kind of world are we living in, or where the surveillance state begins and ends? What impact does mass surveillance have on our selves, on our national psyche, on the way we interact with each other, on the art we make and the way we live?

Here’s a short excerpt with the surveillance artist Trevor Paglen:

For a lot of moviegoers the thought of the surveillance state conjures the entirely sinister images of East Germany under totalitarian Communist control after World War II – all of it made vivid in the film “The Lives of Others” from 2006 about an eavesdropper for the security police known as the Stasi. Fritz Pleitgen was a celebrated correspondent for German TV during the Cold War, and warns us about giving up our privacy.

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  • Our friends at the Boston Review convened a forum on privacy and surveillance, with the former FCC chairman Reed Hundt at the center, and comments from Rebecca MacKinnon, Evgeny Morozov, and Richard Stallman.
  • Glenn Greenwald has argued that we’re closer to Nineteen Eighty-Four than we’re willing to admit, while our other guest Benjamen Walker sees it differently on his Theory of Everything podcast;
  • Judith Donath traces the line between public and private space in this lecture;
  • The photographer Trevor Paglen told a conference this winter that secrecy doesn’t describe all the things we’re not allowed to know, but rather a behavior of powerful people — a whole world, with a look and a feel, if you care to seek it out.
  • Facebook has been manipulating your mood, and you can read about it at The Atlantic.
  • Michael P. Lynch on privacy and the threat to the self on the New York Times philosophy blog.

Photo credit: Trevor Paglen; Flickr. 

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