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Notes on Web 3.0 (Part Three)

Editor's Note. In press coverage of the Snowden affair, there often seems to be little sense of what is really at stake. We asked Adam Sitze, from Amherst College's Department of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought, to shine a bit more light on the subject. What follows here is the third of a five-part series in which Sitze outlines a totalitarian dream, now become our common reality.

Snowden: The Terminal Crisis of Web 2.0

(Link to Part One)
(Link to Part Two)

Understood on these terms, Snowden's revelations have a very simple and clear meaning. The fact that military intelligence “collects it all”—aiming at the integrated storage of the totality of Internet communications and activities—marks the terminal crisis of Web 2.0. Understanding "Web 2.0" not from within the horizon of its own self-understanding, but instead as a disjunctive synthesis between civilianized military technology and commercialized 1960s counterculture, the significance of comprehensive N.S.A. spying is that it destabilizes the unstable equilibrium that allowed for the emergence of Web 2.0 as such.

This is so not, of course, because Snowden’s revelations provide a surprise in any absolute sense. The scope of N.S.A. spying had been generally known since at least 2008, and it shouldn’t be news to anyone who shops on that the Internet allows for extremely sophisticated techniques of spying on consumers. Nor should it be news that the Internet is an acid that dissolves much of what hitherto has been called “privacy.” Years before Snowden’s disclosures, the corporate masters of Web 2.0 already had decided that anonymity was passé.

No, what Snowden changed wasn't our absolute knowledge, but something different: the character of public opinion regarding the place and function of the Internet in everyday life. After Snowden’s disclosures, it's no longer credible to use the lexicon of Web 2.0 without now adding a decisive footnote to each piece of its jargon: as permanently archived, tracked, and interpreted by military intelligence. This footnote, however, is more than just one among many additions to Web 2.0; PRISM isn't just another focus-grouped, start-up nonsense word aspiring to become the next new hit crossover verb. It’s an addition to Web 2.0 that throws into question Web 2.0’s most fundamental premises and most cherished self-understandings. With perfect dialectical irony, the public fact of N.S.A. spying reveals a new and fatal dimension to each of the keywords of Web 2.0—a dimension that extends each keyword past its breaking point, systematically pushing the terminology of Web 2.0 beyond a critical threshold where it can no longer avoid collapsing into self-negation and incoherence. Like a cut flower wilting in the vase it continues to ornament, the utopian discourse of Web 2.0 is now effectively dead in the water, even if its definitive obsolescence will not be complete for some time to come.

Take, for example, what Snowden's revelations teach us about the ostensibly "decentralized" form of Web 2.0. Far from dispersing power and authority, the Web as surveilled by the NSA is arguably the most centralized secret police apparatus in the entire history of secret police apparatuses.

Writing in 1951, Hannah Arendt described the “filing system” invented by the Russian Okhrana (the Czarist secret police formed in the late 19th century to track revolutionaries). In the Okhrana system, Arendt wrote,

“every suspect was noted on a large card in the center of which his name was surrounded by a red circle; his political friends were designated by smaller red circles and his nonpolitical acquaintances by green ones; brown circles indicated persons in contact with friends of the suspect but not known to him personally; cross-relationships between the suspect’s friends, political and nonpolitical, and the friends of his friends were indicated by lines between the respective circles. Obviously the limitations of this method are set only by the size of the filing cards, and theoretically, a gigantic single sheet could show the relations and cross-relations of the entire population [in Arendts analysis of totalitarianism, remember, one of the signs of totalitarianism is when the category of the suspectexpands to include the entire population]. And this is the utopian goal of the totalitarian secret police. It has given up the traditional old police dream which the lie detector is still supposed to realize, and no longer tries to find out who is who, or who thinks what . . . This old dream was terrible enough and since time immemorial has invariably led to torture and the most abominable cruelties. There was only one thing in its favor: it asked for the impossible. The modern dream of the totalitarian police, with its modern techniques, is incomparably more terrible. Now the police dreams that one look at the gigantic map on the office wall should suffice at any given moment to establish who is related to whom and in what degree of intimacy; and, theoretically, this dream is not unrealizable although its technical execution is bound to be somewhat difficult.”

With PRISM, the dream that in 1951 was “not unrealizable” has become definitively realized. With its “two-hop”analysis and its mapping of networks comprised of “friends of friends,” not to mention its daily collection of massive amounts of phone metadata, the NSA has achieved precisely what Arendt called “the utopian goal of the totalitarian secret police”: after Snowden, it can't be plausibly denied that U.S. military intelligence currently possesses the technical ability “at any given moment to establish who is related to whom and in what degree of intimacy.” Even so, there's something consoling about the desire to look to Russia (or Germany, for that matter) to write the history of information science and the secret police. It shouldn't be forgotten that, beginning in at least 1952, the American corporation IBM provided South Africa’s security forces with computers and databases that allowed South Africa’s white supremacist government to streamline its hated pass laws and to suppress political opponents of apartheid. The phenomenon of a computerized secret police is hardly unknown to “the West,”especially the West that declares war against “terrorism.”

In the last sixty years, exponential advances in computing power have only increased the potential for corresponding concentrations of corporate and police power. Snowden’s revelations teach us that this correlation now has reached a point of new intensity. In PRISM we witness a formal alliance and concrete cooperation between two of the most deeply hierarchical forces in contemporary life: on the one hand, some of the world’s most profitable and powerful multinational corporations (such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft), and on the other hand, one of the the intelligence wings of the world’s most expensive military apparatus, which in turn defends the country with the world’s highest recorded incarceration rates. If Moore's law holds, we can expect the coefficient on this towering alliance of state and capital to be raised even more in the coming years. Already “Big Data,” which allows for a degree of centralized information storage, retrieval, and analysis that is literally unprecedented in world history, promises to provide police, military, and corporate forces alike with new powers of “prediction”—and hence too new techniques for the command and control of populations. Under these conditions, it would seem that certain early warnings were neither hyperbolic nor paranoid: it's now easy to see why the Internet is “the greatest spying machine the world has ever seen.”

Utterances such as this may grate like heresies on the ears of those accustomed to Web 2.0 clichés about the great progressive potential of “decentered”social networking. But after Snowden, they're difficult to deny. Today, believers in Web 2.0 find themselves compelled to concede the centralizing dimensions of the cybernetic technology whose military origins they'd like to disavow, but which returns to our consciousness with redoubled force—an old, recurring nightmare we forgot to be anxious about.

A similar fate awaits other assumptions that govern the discourse of Web 2.0. However much we may want to believe Web 2.0’s claims about openness, transparency, and participation, Snowden’s revelations require the opposite conclusion. If you'll never have an opportunity to learn from what sorts of information that corporation holds about you, you certainly will have no chance of learning what communications and relationships of yours will have been archived and mapped out by the NSA, conveyed to the NSA by your corporate wireless provider, or shared by the NSA with the so-called “domestic”secret police. The FISA Court that is charged with review of NSA spying operates essentially as a “parallel Supreme Court” that claims jurisdiction over a considerable number of Internet users, but allows those users no access whatsoever even to its proceedings. Nothing here is participatory: there is no chance for you to interact with the spies who surveil your interactions, and there is no opportunity for you to participate in a community with those who monitor your participation in online communities.

Web 2.0 is therefore the exact opposite of “the digital commons”: the non-exclusive online sharing that takes place on the “commons”is monitored by a military agency that does not itself share information and knowledge online, and to which only spies have full access. “Real power begins,”Arendt once wrote, “where secrecy begins.” After Snowden, few will deny that the Internet is an instrument of “real power.”

This underlines the sense in which Snowden’s revelations amount to a turning-point in the history of the internet. The fact of NSA spying marks the definitive failure of Silicon Valley counterculture to subsume military cybernetics within its horizon and its lexicon. Web 2.0 isn’t a way to “stick it to the man”; it’s “the Establishment”itself. To put it in terms that Apple can understand: the year 1984 may not have been like Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, but thanks to Apple’s cooperation with NSA spies, the years after 2014 promise to be very much like Orwell.

Replace the dystopian auditorium depicted in Apple’s 1984 commercial with the utopian auditorium of the annual Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, replace sexless totalitarian smocks with Apple’s lock-step hipster uniform (jeans and a black t-shirt), replace the face of David Graham (who played “Big Brother” in Apple’s famous ad) with the face of Tim Cook (or, for that matter, NSA chief Keith Alexander addressing the 2012 Defcon hacker conference—wearing, of course, jeans and a black t-shirt), and you end up, once again, with the same dialectical reversal. No one at the Apple Conference “thinks different”in the way the leftist icons of Apple’s campaign—Cesar Chavez, Pablo Picasso, Joan Baez, Charlie Chaplin, Gandhi—once thought differently. Any woman who tried to sprint down the aisle at the 2014 Apple Conference to challenge Tim Cook on (say) Apple’s labor practices would be chased down and tackled by the same sort of security guards who tried to chase down Anya Major (the runner in Apple’s commercial). In classic psychoanalytic fashion, the parricide Apple acted out in its 1984 ad did not liberate Apple from the repressive father; it allowed Apple to internalize the repressive father.

That so many users of Web 2.0 accept its countercultural self-understanding helps explain why news of NSA surveillance has been experienced not only as a legal and political issue, but also, even primarily, as a blow to our narcissism. Web 2.0 placed subjectivity at the very center of the Internet. It allowed us to dwell in a space populated primarily by images of our friends and political allies, by objects of our commercial and sexual desire, and by other reaffirmations of our existing whims and caprice. Even as its ideologues praised it for its openness, Web 2.0 operated by enclosing us in a structure that magnified the self and intensified the power of self-absorption—a sort of “greenhouse” for the cultivation of self-love.

Advertisements for Web 2.0 paraphernalia constantly played to the self-importance of consumers, showing ordinary wizards of cloud computing standing on lawns and street corners, using their fingertips to command swarms of personalized images and texts revolving around them like planets around the sun. But precisely like the sorcerer’s apprentice before them, the users of Web 2.0 magic now find that it commands them more than they command it.

Web 2.0’s field of visibility was governed by voyeurism: whether through porn sites or Facebook posts, anonymous posting or pseudonymous trolling, the experience of social media was shot through with the sadistic pleasure of watching without also being watched in return. After Snowden, the user of Web 2.0 lives with knowledge of the opposite reality: the fact of comprehensive NSA spying turns the user of Web 2.0 into the object of a gaze about whose force that user is certain, but whose source we cannot discern. As it turned out, the hall of mirrors was also a one-way mirror, the echo chamber also a listening post.

Web 2.0 provided its users with the ability to surveil others; it permitted a form of conduct that was once considered a pathology—anonymous gazing into the intimate lives of others—to become a norm of social life. In this it prepared us well for the very different situation we confront today, in which we aren’t the subject of surveillance but its object, and where we find ourselves trapped and suffocated by emissions of our own making, in a “greenhouse effect” of narcissism. Because the only law governing Web 2.0 was the “Golden Rule,” many users of Web 2.0 won’t resist this reversal; the creepy gazing we “did unto others”during our time as Web 2.0 users allows us to sympathize with the even creepier military surveillance that’s “done unto us” today. Web 2.0 trained us to treat the person as a thing, the subject as an object, all while pretending that this behavior was more social than sociopathic. After Snowden, this reversal is formal and complete, and our pretenses live on borrowed time.

Today, in fact, the digital public would seem to be compelled to recognize an entire series of reversals: centralization more than decentralization, secrecy more than transparency, exclusiveness more than openness, military-industrial apparatus more than countercultural happening, objects of state surveillance more than subjects of social media. A systematic undoing of Web 2.0.

It’s unlikely that this will cause a mass exodus of populations from cyberspace. What seems more likely is a general shift in the modality of the relationship between populations and the Internet: a use of this technology that increasingly requires us to watch ourselves being watched, a mode of contributing to Web 2.0 that undoes Web 2.0 by adding the rider that all users must control themselves with reference to the internalized gaze of military spies.

Under these conditions, the Internet will not cease to function as a technology of a certain sort of participatory self-fulfillment; it simply will impose new and different constraints upon the shape and direction of that self-fulfillment. It will set silent limits distinguishing between permissible and impermissible forms of participation and self-fulfillment, allowing for only those forms of participation and self-fulfillment that conform to a military gaze that’s publicly acknowledged to be everywhere present but that is itself nowhere visible. Once the scaffolding for a bumptious republic, the Internet now increasingly seems destined to function as an instrument for obedience and self-control.

To be continued . . .

Link to Part Four

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