We all remember President Obama’s smiling face, full of hope and trust, when he repeatedly delivered the motto of his first campaign, “Yes, we can!” — we can get rid of the cynicism of the Bush era and bring justice and welfare to the American people. Now that the United States continues with covert operations and expands its intelligence network, spying even on their allies, we can imagine protesters shouting at Obama: “How can you use drones for killing? How can you spy even our allies?” Obama looks back at them and murmurs with a mockingly evil smile: “Yes we can…”
However, such simple personalization misses the point: The threat to our freedom disclosed by whistle-blowers has much deeper systemic roots. Edward Snowden should be defended not only because his acts annoyed and embarrassed the U.S. secret services. Their lesson is global; it reaches far beyond the standard U.S. bashing. What he revealed is something that not only the United States but also all the other great (and not so great) powers—from China to Russia, from Germany to Israel—are doing, to the extent they are technologically able to do it. His acts thus provide a factual foundation to our premonitions of how much we are all monitored and controlled. We didn’t really learn from Snowden (or from Manning) anything we didn’t already presume to be true—but it is one thing to know it in general, and another to get concrete data. It is a little bit like knowing that one’s sexual partner is playing around—one can accept the abstract knowledge of it, but pain arises when one learns the steamy details, when one gets pictures of what they were doing.
Back in 1843, the young Karl Marx claimed that the German ancien regime “only imagines that it believes in itself and demands that the world should imagine the same thing.” In such a situation, to put shame on those in power becomes a weapon—or, as Marx goes on: “The actual pressure must be made more pressing by adding to it consciousness of pressure, the shame must be made more shameful by publicizing it.” And this, exactly, is our situation today: we are facing the shameless cynicism of the representatives of the existing global order who only imagine that they believe in their ideas of democracy, human rights, etc. What happens in Wikileaks disclosures is that the shame, theirs and ours for tolerating such power over us, is made more shameful by publicizing it.
What we should be ashamed of is the worldwide process of the gradual narrowing of the space for what Immanuel Kant called the “public use of reason.” In his classic text What is Enlightenment?, Kant opposes “public” and “private” use of reason: “private” is for Kant the communal-institutional order in which we dwell (our state, our nation…), while “public” is the trans-national universality of the exercise of one’s Reason:
The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men. The private use of one’s reason, on the other hand, may often be very narrowly restricted without particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment. By public use of one’s reason I understand the use which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him.
We see where Kant parts with our liberal common sense: The domain of State is “private,” constrained by particular interests, while individuals reflecting on general issues use reason in a “public” way. This Kantian distinction is especially pertinent with the Internet and other new media torn between their free “public use” and their growing “private” control. In our era of cloud computing, we no longer need strong individual computers: Software and information are available on demand, and users can access web-based tools or applications through browsers as if they were programs installed on their own computer.
This wonderful new world is, however, only one side of the story, which reads like the well-known joke about the doctor who gives “first the good news, then the bad news.” Users are accessing programs and software files that are kept far away in climate-controlled rooms with thousands of computers—or, to quote a propaganda-text on cloud computing: “Details are abstracted from consumers, who no longer have need for expertise in, or control over, the technology infrastructure ‘in the cloud’ that supports them.” Two words are tell-tale here: abstraction and control—in order to manage a cloud, there needs to be a monitoring system which controls its functioning, and this system is by definition hidden from users. The more the small item (smartphone or tiny portable) I hold in my hand is personalized, easy to use, “transparent” in its functioning, the more the entire set-up has to rely on the work being done elsewhere, in a vast circuit of machines which coordinate the user’s experience. The more our experience is non-alienated, spontaneous and transparent, the more it is regulated by the invisible network controlled by state agencies and the large private companies that follow the state's secret agendas.
Once we chose to follow the path of state secrets, we sooner or later reach the fateful point at which the very legal regulations prescribing what is secret become secret. Kant formulated the basic axiom of the public law: “All actions relating to the right of other men are unjust if their maxim is not consistent with publicity.” A secret law, a law unknown to its subjects, legitimizes the arbitrary despotism of those who exercise it, as indicated in the title of a recent report on China: “Even what’s secret is a secret in China.” Troublesome intellectuals who reported on China's political oppression, ecological catastrophes, rural poverty, etc., got years of prison for betraying state secrets, and the catch is that many of the laws and regulations that made up the state-secret regime are themselves classified, making it difficult for individuals to know how and when they’re in violation.
What makes the all-encompassing control of our lives so dangerous is not that we lose our privacy and all our intimate secrets are exposed to the view of the Big Brother. There is no state agency that is able to exert such control—not because they don’t know enough, but because they know too much. The sheer size of data is too large, and in spite of all intricate programs for detecting suspicious messages, computers which register billions of data are too stupid to interpret and evaluate them properly, yielding ridiculous and unnecessary mistakes whereby innocent bystanders are listed as potential terrorists—and this makes state control of our communications even more dangerous. Without knowing why, without doing anything illegal, we can all of a sudden find ourselves on a list of potential terrorists. Recall the legendary answer of a Hearst newspaper editor to Hearst’s inquiry as to why he doesn't want to take a long-deserved holiday: “I am afraid that if I go, there will be chaos, everything will fall apart—but I am even more afraid to discover that, if I go, things will just go on as normal without me, a proof that I am not really needed!” Something similar can be said about the state control of our communications: We should fear that we have no secrets, that secret state agencies know everything, but we should fear even more that they fail in this endeavor.
This is why whistle-blowers play a crucial role in keeping the “public reason” alive. Assange, Manning, Snowden… these are our new heroes, exemplary cases of the new ethics that befits our era of digitalized control. They are no longer just whistle-blowers who denounce illegal practices of private companies (banks, tobacco and oil firms) to the public authorities; they denounce these public authorities themselves when they engage in “private use of reason.”
We need more Mannings and Snowdens—in China, in Russia, everywhere. There are states much more oppressive than the United States—just imagine what would have happened to someone like Manning in a Russian or Chinese court (in all probability there would be no public trial!) However, one should not exaggerate the softness of the United States. True, the United States doesn’t treat prisoners as brutally as China or Russia—because of their technological priority, they simply do not need the openly brutal approach (which they are more than ready to apply when it is needed)—the invisible digital control can do well enough. In this sense, the United States is even more dangerous than China insofar as their measures of control are not perceived as such, while Chinese brutality is openly displayed.
It is therefore not enough to play one state against the other (as Snowden did, when he used Russia against the United States). We need a new International—an international network to organize the protection of whistle-blowers and the dissemination of their message. Whistle-blowers are our heroes because they prove that if those in power can do their job of controlling us, we can also fight back and throw them into a panic.
A version of this story ran in the October 2013 print issue of In These Times under the headline “Superheroes of the Digital Age.”