I’ve mentioned on the blog in an earlier post that in one of his radio addresses for the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign, President Eisenhower told Americans that they needed to find God in their struggle against Communism. “There are no atheists in foxholes,” the president intoned, “in a time of test and trial, we instinctively turn to God for a new courage and peace of mind.” Of course it was unclear precisely what God would help Americans understand about the Cold War; though that was obviously not the point of Ike’s plea. In almost any time of war, governments engaged in the fighting have a need to flatten out the sides involved–the enemy is monolithic, but so are the people they ostensibly fight for.
In the Cold War, the process of flattening out those involved in the conflict entailed viewing all Americans in one large foxhole, all praying to one common (yet ambiguous) God. In our time of war, we are once again lumped into one large foxhole, but instead of flattening out distinctions through religion, this war seems to do it by digital design. Campaigns like the one Ike supported, used the existential threat of communism to rationalize the lumping and flattening. In our time, the existential threat of the “War on Terror” apparently rationalizes the lumping of us all as data and the flattening out of us into digital shadows. If fifty years ago, suspicious activity involved our religious practices (or lack there of), now no digital activity is beyond suspicion or monitoring.
Perhaps our present predicament is the collision between two trends, traditional government over-reach in a time of war and the transnational collection of data. We know that historically the United States government, from the time of John Adams to the present, has violated American civil liberties in the name of prosecuting wars. We are also aware that now more than ever before we leave little bits of ourselves all around cyberspace, in the form of purchases, emails, texts, tweets, blog posts. Yet unlike the sorely misguided characterization by David Brooks in the New York Times, this is not a world easily cast as one between “the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.” We don’t know precisely what motivated Edward Snowden to release classified documents, but it seems backwards to me to see Snowden as the lumper rather than the government he works for.
In our time of war, we have abstraction piled upon abstraction; we have become data to a government that fights an existential threat. Yes, such data has links to real people, real actions, and can produce real terror. Yet there is a strange symmetry in the government’s hunt for threats to our safety and Snowden’s decision to disclose the identities–the data points–of those the government hunts. By identifying the targets–broad as they are–of government surveillance, the whistleblower reveals the behavior that continues to make us human. It might be possible to mine our data and lump us together as digital shadows, but we still make impressions, take actions, express thoughts in the miasma of cyberspace. Those teenagers in Steubenville, Ohio acted like phantoms in social media until hacker-activists exposed their identities and their crime. We were all data and digital shadows until Snowden exposed what what kind of activities the government tracks and collects. Rather than betray our humanity, it seems to me it might have affirmed it.