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Total Information Awareness and commercial culture

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Americans reading this probably understand by now that their government is spying on them and logging their calls, and likely also monitoring their financial transactions, e-mails, medical records and so on. As billmon explainsthis is all reminiscent of a Defense department program called Total Information Awareness, a project led by Iran-Contra notable John Poindexter, designed to, in his words, make the government “more efficient and more clever in the ways we find new sources of data, mine information from the new and old, generate information, make it available for analysis, convert it to knowledge, and create actionable options.” (Read his description of the project here and be amazed at some of the most leaden, cliche-ridden speechifying imaginable. It’s the totalizing, abstract and institutional language of the Whitney Biennial wall card applied to national security and privacy issues, rendering them opaque, nebulous, limitless. It’s probable that thinking to yourself in this kind of language makes any bureaucratic nightmare possible; this is Orwellian Newspeak made horrifyingly real.) The public was led to believe that program was spiked, but apparently it was broken into smaller programs scattered throughout the government, presumably ready to be reassembled whenever the Decider needs to smear some enemies of the state, wage preemptive war on whistleblowers or bully some reporters who haven’t yet become Pravda-style stenographers. Some Americans (somewhere between 40 and 60 percent according to polls) apparently take comfort in the surveillance security blanket, perhaps they regard being spied upon as a kind of reality-TV cameo, with the government as a rapt, interested audience. It’s pleasant to be paid attention to, after all. So even if your neighbors ignore you, considering how adverse to strangers we generally are, we can rest assured the NSA is interested in our special lives. Billmon suggests white-collar corporate environments accustom many Americans to petty spying and invasive bureaucracies.

We know our phone calls and emails may be and often are monitored, that company net nannies will stop us from visiting certain web sites (and not just porn pages: I’ve been blocked out of labor union sites, progressive political sites—even that notoriously subversive left-wing web magazine, Slate.) We know that if we say the wrong thing to a company snitch it could be reported to our supervisors, that those reports could end up in our personnel files, and that really serious thought crimes could cost us our jobs. We know the security cameras may record when we walk in the door and when we leave. We know we can’t make certain jokes or raise certain topics because they might be construed as sexual harassment. We know how to smile and feign enthusiasm when the pointy-haired boss has a really dumb idea. We know what a cult of personality looks like, because it looks like our CEO.

I would add that it’s also familiar to many of us through the increasingly invasive style of commerce, wherein our habits and preferences are stored so that we may be surprised by unwanted recommendations and targeted ads. The surveillance society will in the end likely remain a commercial one, because the nexus of advertising, shopping, identity construction and consumer preferences is where surveillance can be sweetened and made benevolent.

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