Life in the PRISM: We Asked for It — or the Illusion that Technology is Neutral

The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s PRISM program, whereby the U.S. intelligence community can gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a wide range of digital data, is not that this was granted by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and congress went along; it’s not even that Big Brother has been here — and now it’s here to stay.

The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s surveillance program is what it says about us, the citizens of the U.S. that are wired, interconnected, splashing ourselves across social media, using all kinds of devices and moving ever so quickly — and quietly and blindly and accepting — into a more nuanced programmed world, a reality, as suggested by Bill Wasik in his Wired article, Welcome to the Programmable World, where “houses, cars, and factories, [are] surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do” — and they’re starting to talk to one another, and us.

The NSA has an infinite number of entry points into our private lives.

And the most disconcerting aspect to all this is that we’ve gotten here without much fanfare, not much noise. It arrived — along with the surveillance.

We live in 3 worlds:

  • The 1st World is highly visible and physical. It’s life and death, birthdays, weddings and funerals. We experience it getting food out of a refrigerator, opening doors, smiling at people, getting on planes, and so on. In this magical world, we’re assisted by the 2nd World.
  • The 2nd World is the device world: automated doors, automated tellers and accounts of all sorts at our finger tips, cell phones and bluetooth devices, computers, and computer chips, the magic of the Internet we don’t see but have grown to expect, even anticipate to such a degree that if at anytime it should go down, it would be accompanied by massive withdrawal and anxiety. Here we’ve grown to depend on our social networks – Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, WordPress, and so on. All of it, the identities we try to extend online. This leads us to the 3rd World, the most dangerous of all.
  • The 3rd World is inhabited by the programmer — engineers socializing us through their dreamy programming that comes to us via cool hardware. Cool has seduced us into a blind acceptance of programming. It is this world that ties everything together; it is this world that pre-figures our actions, even our motivations, and synthesizes all this with the needs, will and plans of some of the most powerful forces, nation-states and multinational corporations. We’re pawns here.

We’re under a spell, mediated into believing we have voice and a modicum of control.

Program: a plan or schedule of activities, procedures, etc., to be followed.

An insidious but vital part of the programmer’s responsibility is — and has been — to make everything we experience easy, fluid, dynamic; this is what keeps us from wondering where we’re going — and why. And this is the most disconcerting aspect of where we find ourselves today with this Big Brother-like surveillance program.

Most of us that enjoy technology, and many who pontificate about the wonders of technology, have zero knowledge of how and why our states of being changed so drastically — though there have been warnings. We could argue that this has been a problem about educating ourselves. But how can we educate ourselves when we’re so complascent with the way things are, going along as if nothing is happening, quite able and eager to surrender control? This is what technology is — a surrender to the programmer’s imagination.

This is not technophobia. I use technology. I teach with it. I find great pleasure in working with technology — but not at the expense of not knowing.

The first warning came from Martin Heidegger, in The Question Concerning Technology. This essay is contained in two of Heidegger’s works, Die Technik und die Kehre (1962) and Vortröge und Aufsätze (1954). I mention this because the dates matter — a lot. The atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaky, conducted by the U.S., occured in the late stages of World War II, in 1945. Heidegger speaks on the heels of this monumental human event that changed our relationship to technology forever. By 1962, the air was filled with a sense of revolution, change, a desire to unmask authority world-wide. In-between these global events, Hiedegger warns us about technology. From this vantage point it’s easy to see the arc to our current day:

Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to the technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

In the traditional sense, Heidegger regards essence — the German noun Wesen — as not simply meaning what something is, but that it means the way in which something pursues its course, the way in which it remains through time as what it is. Thus, he means here a “coming to presence.”

As technology has come to presence — to be present in our lives — Heidegger suggests that we’ve merely create what is technical — data, programs, hardware, etc. — and push on without much thinking. We “put up with” technology’s requirements — iPhone 1 – 5, hardware and software that can’t be updated because it’s obsolete, the new mantra for everything we must have, the glitches.

We also put up with what we don’t see, such as the NSA’s surveillance program. Drones for attack, drones for surveillance. This is why Heidegger suggests we remain “unfree and chained to technology”; it’s the point of no return. We’ve gone over the edge. Never have we been so reliant on technology – and never have we been so vulnerable. Even the Ludites are vulnerable.

We’ve gotten to this point because we regard technology as something that exists outside of our lives; that it’s not us. But a closer look demonstrates that the technological world we have is the technological society we’ve fostered, from cell phones to drones.

Another author that is seldom studied and discussed along these lines is Jacques Ellul who, in The Technological Society, prophetically first published in 1954, then again in the U.S. in 1964, also warns us:

Whenever we see the word technology or technique, we automatically think of machines. Indeed, we commonly think of our wrold as a world of machines…It arises from the fact that the machine is the most obvious, massive, and impressive example of technique, and historically the first. What is called the history of technique usually accounts to no more than a history of the machine; this very formulation is an example of the habit of intellectuals of regarding forms of the present as identical with those of the past.

Subsequently, “…technique is nothing more than means and the ensemble of means. This, of course, does not lessen the importance of the problem. Our civilization is first and foremost a civilization of means; in the reality of modern life, the means, it would seem, are more important then the ends. Any other assessment of the situation is mere idealism.”

There we have it. If we conflate Heidegger — technology is neutral — and Ellul — technology is a means, and this is more important then ends — we have our world.

What is our world?

As overt examples of authoritarian regimes crumble and fight to stay alive, the power of the microchip has risen. Simultaneously, as governments and corporations experience our crowd sourcing and learn, a different form of totalitarianism is rising under the auspices of capitalism, the threat of terrorism, and a government eager to demonstrate its benevolence by arguing for our protection. The invertion of power is now complete, the corporation — Google, Verizon, Apple, AT&T, etc — legitimize massive control by becoming open partners with their foil, government, and thus power is effectively removed from the hands of citizens and sits only in the hands of the few.

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4 thoughts on “Life in the PRISM: We Asked for It — or the Illusion that Technology is Neutral

  1. In the ’50s my father heard AT&T chairman Charlie Brown make comments about the future. Wireless phones would become so small and reliable they would be installed subcutaneously. If someone failed to answer, the callers first thought would be that they died. It was implied that chosing not to connect was unthinkable. When Dad told me this, the negatives of cell phone connectivity were just becoming apparent. People don’t defer to new technology anymore we concluded. We’re smarter now and not so easily impressed. The Wall had just come down and we were so full of it.

  2. Excellent points and a great view of “how things were,” particularly as this “new age” of wireless technologies “filters” in, Don. Thank you! It’s all the more reason why Heidegger is — and was — important since he was warning us. It seems that we, as Americans, always push away warnings and concerns and keep going down the rabbit hole.

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