The Slow Poison of the Covert Imagination

Terms like “rape culture” and “gun culture” are useful when they remind us that the harm of a thing is bigger, subtler and more pervasive than the thing itself. When we talk about guns, we’re missing an important point if we get hung up on per capita measures of the people who die or are wounded by guns. The social fears that make guns seem like a solution, and the fear that guns as a solution cause, are blights on everyone’s life. A reasonable fear of sexual assault in everyday settings is a form of suffering whether or not it actually happens.

Add another to the list: surveillance culture. Because the issue with a pervasive surveillance state is not what it actually knows or learns through surveillance but with what such a state proposes as a philosophy of political power.

President Obama assures Americans: the NSA is not listening to phone calls. Only bad people need fear surveillance. Technocratic pundits read the fine print and say, “Oh, that’s not so bad, the NSA actually cares about the Fourth Amendment, they don’t really look at content, they’re sticking to foreigners, Congress approved it, there’s a sort of judicial oversight.”

For one, no one should ever be assured when political authorities assure you they’re not doing something that they presently cannot actually do. “We’re not looking at content” is a statement founded on technological incapacity, not philosophical commitment. Sure, the NSA can look inside the content of digital communications if it chooses to. Reporters for tabloid newspapers and 4chan members can, too. But it can’t look inside the content of all digital communication searching for something that it doesn’t already know about from much more old-fashioned kinds of humint analysis. Digital search is mostly still the art of sifting and reorganizing what human beings already know about each other, not the work of a post-Singularity augmented intelligence finding every needle in the biggest haystack ever. But someday it might be the latter, not the former, and who then thinks that the people who now have decided they need to spy on all online communication for patterns of contacts would decide that they shouldn’t sift the content of all communications and culture?

The thing to fear in that is not that an all-powerful government will decide to enforce its universal dictates within the intimate lives of all its people. Surveillance culture has very rarely been about actual information needed by prudent, wise leaders to make the weighty decisions that they must wrestle with each day in a suitably dramatic fashion. Mostly surveillance culture is about the need of states to believe that superior and asymmetrical information will allow them to avoid some form of hard, expensive structural and institutional work, that it will gift the state with extraordinary agency that befits its grandiloquent, self-flattering imagination of its own power.

The United States and the Soviet Union built elaborate espionage apparatus in the Cold War because they both had to believe in the fantasy of superpower agency: that they could create outcomes where and how they wanted them and escape the slow, complex workings of history. To some extent, the Western left invested equally extravagantly in the same fantasy, that murderous spies had killed revolutionary heroes just as they were about to liberate their people, for the same reason, in the belief that the extraordinary agency of movements and intellectuals could also escape history’s gravity. So from two sides, seductive propositions like, “The CIA put regimes into place in Iran and Chile and Congo” or “The USSR had extensive control over clients in Africa” became commonplace narratives.

Don’t get me wrong: most of the substance of those narratives was true enough. The assassinations, the piles of illicit money, the training of secret police and torturers, the weapon shipments, the shadow economies of drugs, the sleazy cafes where paymasters and clients traded lies: all true. And yet all false when it came to the justifying claims made about what that infrastructure provided to the leadership of the states that built it, both patrons and clients. The information it provided about the intentions of individuals who themselves had no idea what they would do next, nor much in the way of self-knowledge about their motivations, was as useful or worthless as the perspicaciousness of the observer or analyst charged with producing that information. You could generally have done as well just by reading and talking with the right travel writers, journalists, local intellectuals, or as well by asking a local diviner and rolling the bones. To ask about intentions, to divine the future, was just as likely to make an intention or create a future.

Then and now. You could have all the human information in the world about all the human things in it, and a post-Singularity AI able to semantically interpret it all. And yet still not understand why events happen, what a leader should want to happen, or what is actually going to happen next. But the great powers of the modern world–states and civic institutions alike–must always pretend to be on the road to mastering all of that, and they must pretend that mastery will derive from information, analysis and science, not from choices and beliefs and values.

The harm of surveillance is not what the surveillance state comes to know about the people it spies upon. It comes first from the collateral chaos that mid-level bureaucratic Keystone-Cop fantasists unleash upon the world in an attempt to prove that their information is good and their jobs are justified. The first bad thing about assassinating Patrice Lumumba is not that it kept an emancipated, just and democratic Congo from coming into being but that a basically good man, Patrice Lumumba, ended up tortured and dead. Surveillance states don’t have to be chillingly panoptic or remorsely authoritarian to be capriciously murderous or stupidly destructive. The snake-oil promises of people who sell information as if it were understanding are a natural prologue to clumsy attempts to leverage that supposed understanding into some kind of magic advantage. Once you know the “key players” in a client state, shouldn’t that lead to a more compliant client? Once you know who the supposed leaders of an international group that’s really more of a tendency or temperament, shouldn’t you be able to exterminate all the brutes and sleep easier at night? (In an amazingly appropriate exchange in last night’s Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister observed that “for every time we deal with an enemy, we create two more,” to which Cersei Lannister replied that this meant that they will be dealing with enemies for a long time.)

The careless, drunken wreckage that sprawls in the wake of the covert imagination gains even more force and distribution when political leaders learn to weave it into their appeals to the populace. You, the people, will be saved from history’s unfolding, they promise, because we and we alone will have the special, surgically precise information that tells us what to do and whom to do it to. But regimes elsewhere, no matter who their paymasters and weapons suppliers might be, don’t live on simply because spies have found the right puppet or had the wrong man quietly done away with. Oh, perhaps you stop a plot here, sabotage a facility there, play a gambit, steal a plan. But the episodes that change the lives of nations and individuals for the long haul, the seismic shifts in social power and economic life? Against those, a spy or a wiretap or a signals intercept is Canute against the waves. Our leaders promise us so much from surveillance–and then tell us they can’t tell us anything about the how or the why or the what of the promise–not out of confidence but out of confusion, fear and weakness. Theirs and ours.

And here’s where the other harm, just like the harm of gun culture or rape culture, settles in. Not to those who are spied upon or hit by drones or poisoned by an umbrella tip. We become like people who can’t play a game without a hint sheet and a speed hack. The belief that there should be a special advantage, a backdoor, corrodes the ability of both nations and individuals to face the unfolding history of their future with a realistic understanding of their own limits and frailities. There is a fatalism that comes with a belief that we are in everything we might do already known by powers greater than ourselves, known better by invisible and abstract institutions than we know ourselves. But that is the flip side of a grandiose, delusional trust in what that surveillance state will do, a belief that someday we will sit down to the greatest banquet ever of peaceful, democratic omelettes made from a legion of broken eggs. So we neither do the hard work of self-fashioning (what would be the point?) or expect political and social institutions to do their own kind of hard work in fashioning real progress step by painful step, and especially we stop expecting the latter to flow from the former.

This is why seeing this happen to, in, because of the United States is especially painful. Not because we have been in our international behavior a genuine beacon of restraint and openness at some point in the past, but because one of the distinctive elements the United States could boast of in its political culture is so severely threatened. The U.S. Constitution proposes two ideas in particular: that the actions of governmental institutions draw not just from the consent but the participation of the people, and that government should never, ever be able to claim power and simply say, “Trust us”. The people who are parsing the petty legalisms of the latest revelations, or assuring us that no real authoritarianism has yet happened, are blind to the fundamental spirit of this moment. That spirit, whether or not it violates the language of a specific statute or provision, violates the fundamental idea of American government. And it violates the fundamental ethos of political personhood that has been built step by agonizing step over three hundred years of struggle by this people and by allied peoples all around this Earth. And for what? For practices that can never deliver what they promise and spew more chaos and misrule the more extravagantly they promise. For a pervasive rewriting of our political DNA that tells us we might as well do nothing and tells us we should just trust that the people who know will do the right thing–not that “the right thing” is any longer our business to be concerned with. Having somebody read your mail is a trivial harm compared to all that.

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7 Responses to The Slow Poison of the Covert Imagination

  1. Erich Schwarz says:

    Well said.

    I believe that in practice we *do* need to assume that the existing powers will be badly abused. But even if they weren’t being, what you describe here is radically worse than whatever domestic abuses of the federal government may have already occurred.

  2. jerry hamrick says:

    The U.S. Constitution does not work in the way you describe it. As the government is designed, it is free to say, “Trust us.” In fact, it is expected to say exactly that. And the actions of government have never been constrained by either the consent or the participation of the People. If you will review our history with these thoughts in mind you will see that government has always operated free from the need to gain the consent of the People, and it has always been able to require the participation of the People should it be needed.
    The form of government you described is a democracy. We live in a Madisonian Republic. The two forms of government are very, very different.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    The Constitution proposes that government is limited–and that it does not possess any powers that are not expressly granted to it in the document. “Trust us” with regard to surveillance is an explicit violation of that proposition–an assertion that the US government has powers not granted to it that it cannot even disclose to its people nor ask for permission to hold. Remember that none of the revelations of post-9/11 assertion of extensive, novel executive and security powers have been made voluntarily by the executive: the executive (both Bush and Obama) have treated even the fact of those assertions as state secrets to be concealed even from other branches of government save in the most limited and classified ways. So when the President says he’s eager for a national conversation about these issues, this is far more than ordinary political bullshittery: it is 100% counter to everything that the surveillance state has been doing for at least a decade, arguably two. And it is counter to the fundamental ethos of American governance: the Constitution absolutely forbids the state to assert novel powers not granted to it and absolutely forbids the state to keep the assertion of such powers secret.

  4. Ae Viescas says:

    Ah, that’s it. Something was bothering me about how the surveillance debate was framed, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until now. Well said.

    The worst part of all of this is that all the hysterics about the surveillance being “beyond Orwellian” (whatever that means) plays right into the hands of the technocrats, who can smugly sit back in their chairs and say “well of course we could have this amount of power. That’s the goal! But we’ll use it for *good* of course”

  5. jerry hamrick says:

    “And it is counter to the fundamental ethos of American governance: the Constitution absolutely forbids the state to assert novel powers not granted to it and absolutely forbids the state to keep the assertion of such powers secret.”

    This forbiddance in the Constitution was added after the original ratification, and, as you have pointed out, it has been ignored ever since. When the People, as the myth goes, after careful consideration, delegate all of their power to a small group of elected officials, they are powerless and their delegates are free to do pretty much as they please for years. This was deliberate. It was done to protect the economic interests of the elites who wrote and ratified the Constitution.

    Charles A. Beard got it right about a century ago when he published, “An Economic Interpretation of the American Constitution.” At the time, other historians agreed, and he views were ascendant. But about fifty years later, when I was a student in a class on the Constitution, the lecturer let us know that Beard’s views were controversial and even radical.

    But my point is already made. You are complaining about the fact that the Constitution is not working the way you believe it is designed to work. I say it is working the way it was designed. It does work the way I say, or you would not be complaining. So, who is right?

    But I agree with you that the way it is working is wrong. But what should it be changed to? How should the changes be made? Who should do it? When should they start? How long will it take? Who will resist the effort to make changes? How will their resistance be overcome?

  6. CarlD says:

    I think you’re dead right to call attention to the mirror trap of hubris and fatalism. I riffed on this awhile back in relation to choking hazard labels on hot dogs, rusty wire, and the upbringing of Inuit children. How much risk should we tolerate, or even embrace?

    In the Enlightenment tradition of contextless rationalism the answer is basically ‘none’, because life is in principle perfectible and therefore any imperfection is morally intolerable. Isn’t this where the rape culture / gun culture / surveillance culture move comes from? Isn’t it self-defeating? If every moment of every life needs to be free of risk, then of course we need a massive panoptical apparatus of control. Of course we need security cameras on the doors of the Intercultural Center. Of course you need some kind of neo-colonial protection from the ordinary microaggression of your foreignness in Zimbabwe. Of course rolling into an inherently imperfect new orientation toward privacy, as you suggest for the justice system at Swarthmore, is an expedient violation of moral rigor.

    Well that’s obviously silly. So given that there’s going to be risk, there also has to be trust. Without trust, life is nothing but an endless anxiety of powerlessness with respect to forces we can’t possibly control; or, as you say, the awful fantasy of total control. On this view the ‘culture’ move is inherently panopticizing. It turns a statistical possibility into an existential mandate. I’m no more interested in a regime of rigorous oversight of my elected representatives than I’m interested in rigorous oversight of my garbage collector or cameras in the campus hallways or mandatory sidearms for faculty and staff; or poking into every closet looking for contraband Glocks, for that matter. And that means things are going to go wrong sometimes, and we’ll inherently have to fix them after the fact, and/or accept some ‘spoilage’ as a consequence of an unregimented life.

    What I’m arguing is that a degree of trust and risk-tolerance is the escape hatch from the mirror trap of hubris and fatalism. Of course we could also get religion; that’s been known to work.

  7. Barry says:

    Tim: “Digital search is mostly still the art of sifting and reorganizing what human beings already know about each other, not the work of a post-Singularity augmented intelligence finding every needle in the biggest haystack ever. ”

    Actually, it’s closer to that than to what you’re thinking of. Go to Crooked Timber, and read ‘Using Metadata to find Paul Revere’ (

    And that’s literally Linear Algebra 101. That’s what could be taught in the first week of social networking analysis. Imagine what the current status of data mining is, and then imagine what an agency such as the NSA could have, which has been long known to have some pretty major tech/science advantages.

    Then add to it the fact that they don’t need to make a profit or have positive ROI. They can have a very high false positive rate, and that’s not a problem.

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