Friday, December 13, 2013

Bugger the imagination!

Dogg's Hamlet by the Whistler in the Dark company, Charlestown, Massachusetts.
Here's what Tom Stoppard claims to be willing, even eager, to put up with:
As for our spooks, I know what I want from them. I want them to eavesdrop on the phones, the emails, on every tap of the keyboard of anybody who comes under suspicion. Somebody somewhere has the responsibility, indeed the necessary duty, of identifying those who bear us ill. I would like there to be secret cameras in their houses. I would applaud the technological means to survey and interpret every breath they take.
Holy cow! Anybody who comes under suspicion? I am so not signing up for that! Why is it that Stoppard's protesting against our Surveillance State and I'm not? I'll get to that shortly.

What worries him to the point of getting him to sign on, with the rest of the 500-odd World's Leading Authors, to the petition published in Monday's Guardian for an International Bill of Digital Rights is something much, much worse—only it seems difficult to explain exactly what it is:

metaphors for the expansion from this selflimiting scope beggar the imagination. If the world of secrets is its own universe, here we have an expansion of the universe which brings to mind something cosmological.
Now, I think the selflimiting scope is that of the spooks' work as Stoppard supposes it ought to be, being restricted to just "anybody who comes under suspicion". So he must mean that the expansion from there is the eavesdropping on the keyboard taps and photography in the homes and interpretation of the breaths of persons who have not come under suspicion, such as Pastor Niemöller and me, which would certainly be pretty bad.

In fact it might be said by a lazy writer to "beggar the imagination", that is, to make you feel that your powers of description are too poor for the task, meaning you don't intend to try; I think that's where the cliché comes from. But metaphors wouldn't beggar your imagination unless we were all born with a fixed stock of them, with different values, and by coming up with a metaphor for this situation you'd be using up all your best stuff at one go and be bereft of metaphors for the rest of your life. "Please, sir, could you spare a little simile? To help me get back to my family in Jersey?"
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, from Shakespeare. Lithograph after Delacroix, via Wikipedia.
In other words, we are in the presence here of some Bad Writing, which is pretty shocking, because Stoppard is not merely a World's Leading Author (a brand name the Guardian seems to be selling us like a collection of audiobooks in a late-night infomercial) but a certifiably great one (at least on my own personal list, along with a number of other signatories of the petition; I'd especially name Günter Grass and Margaret Atwood). Corroborated by the shlubby use of the word "expansion" twice in a very short paragraph and a metaphor, when it comes, much too cheap to impoverish even the most starved imagination: because yes, an expansion of the universe might indeed bring to mind something cosmological in that it would actually be something cosmological, but you already mentioned that.

And the reason it's bad writing, I think, is that it's meant to mask the problem that he doesn't have anything like a clear idea of what he's protesting against. So he keeps coming back to that picture of what it isn't, of the moderately surveilled state he could accept:
On the matter of surveillance in general we have, without much discussion, learned to live with almost blanket surveillance by CCTV in our towns and cities. As a result thousand of crimes, including murder, have been solved and perhaps many more prevented....

Between that and the surveillance we are now talking about there is a qualitative as well as a quantitative difference which hardly needs pointing out. The cameras are in public places, they are not in our houses or our cars or even in our gardens. By contrast, the world of surveillance operated by the people we pay to guard us exceeds the fevered dreams of the Stasi.
If the qualitative difference is that in the English situation as we understand it there are no surveillance cameras in private spaces, does that mean in the secret practice of the GCHQ and NSA there are such cameras? And who's monitoring them? When the Stasi was at its worst one of six East Germans was an informer; how many employees does GCHQ have?

Also, the Staatssicherheit ministry did not have fevered dreams. They had stolid, German dreams, of being on a Croatian beach where they could dig a German sandpit for themselves to sit in with their German beer and German newspapers; and of their bosses slacking off a bit, not imposing so many filthy quotas on them and riding them so hard.
Imagine that some law enforcement agency received reliable information that a drug lord or a suicide bomber or a murderer on the run was at this moment hiding out in … let's say Beaconsfield. Should we have a problem with the idea that for the next few days there was going to be blanket electronic surveillance on every message or metadatum flowing in and out of Beaconsfield? Would I get worked up about that? Not much. How about Swindon? Manchester? You can see where this is going. At some point in the expansion there is a phase transition our attitude will undergo. Something that seemed OK no longer seems OK. 
So it isn't qualitative after all?  A question of critical mass, when the cameras reach a certain density and we suddenly can't take it any more? Note a second graceless repetition,  this one of "blanket surveillance", a low-rent impoverished metaphor in its own right. The correct singular "metadatum" is an elegant touch, but I don't believe one can blanket just one unless one's blankets are extremely small.
The Jordan Gallant film, 2009. Via Wikipedia.

It may be my Americanness that's so offended by that idea of watching "anybody who comes under suspicion." To me it's the worst abuse of all when the authorities act on suspicion rather than the more exacting standard of probable cause: when they profile you over the color of your skin or the shape of your nose, or the language you speak or the prayers you pray, or if you danced to a certain song or borrowed a certain book from the library; and what I approved of in the NSA programs as I understood them was that whatever they were doing, it wasn't that. Rather than coming first for this group, which I didn't belong to, like Pastor Niemöller, and then for that, and so on, they seemed to be coming for everybody at once, without discrimination—meaning nobody at all, really; just collecting our phone numbers and IP addresses and their location in the great web of interactions.

Because it's finally nothing more than a map; in the way the Census Bureau identifies all the dwellings in the country and where they sit in terms of the addresses next door and across the street. If they were doing it right, the collection of digital message metadata (a single metadatum wouldn't actually be of any use; it has no meaning outside of its relations to other metadata) would be the same: a map of adjacency in the multidimensional space of digital communications, with no people, just house numbers and zip codes. And the spooks are supposed to be considering only the numbers for which there was real evidence from humint, or one of those totally open searches for things like Zawahiri's private email address in the text, and a warrant from FISC—and then the numbers with particularly dense social-network connections to the first ones, of the type that suggests joint membership in a club—before they take a harder look at any individual address.

And if they were doing it wrong? If they really might be reading your mail, and that of all 50 of your friends and all 8,170 of theirs and all
of theirs? I honestly don't think that's how it works. But if it does, it's really not going to work very well:
Without a prior standard of selection, collecting millions of random data is useless. Too much data accumulated in a haphazard fashion for general categories such as telephone contacts, e-mails and all the banking transactions of millions of people are like not having any information at all. In order to find a terrorist hideout or a mafia organization, our judicial police, which is perhaps the best in the world, certainly also uses computer investigations, but starting from specific suspicious elements, places and certain moments. Having to manage a ton of information without any filters is counterproductive: it is a waste of time and strength. Then a terrorist who has already been declared as such by his own father manages to get on an American airplane... (Italian public prosecutor Armando Spataro, in an interview for L'Espresso)
Oops! Sounds a little like the system set up by the Cheney administration. I thought that was what the Obama administration was specifically trying to avoid since December 2009. And call me a sucker, but I still think so. Let's just say my imagination is poorly paid but with decent benefits—it doesn't have to go panhandling.
Arcadia, London 2010. Photo by Tristram Kenton, Guardian.
David Sanger, the New York Times reporter who notoriously can't get anybody at the closed, control freak White House to talk to him, got somebody at the White House to talk to him. Again. On this very subject:
A presidential advisory committee charged with examining the operations of the National Security Agency has concluded that a program to collect data on every phone call made in the United States should continue, though under broad new restraints that would be intended to increase privacy protections, according to officials with knowledge of the report’s contents....
Administration officials say the White House has already taken over supervision of that program. “We’re not leaving it to Jim Clapper anymore,” said one official, referring to the director of national intelligence, who appears to have been the highest official to review the programs regularly.
Even Marcy is willing to see a modestly positive side to this one. The map (which she does not like, referring to it as a "dragnet") is to stay, but driving around it is to be more restricted, and the most blatant liar on the issues, General Clapper, is under a cloud. I'm feeling better already.

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