Friday, January 11, 2008

surveillance culture

The TravelerI'm reading The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks. It's a dark thriller with lots of martial arts and ordinary blood & guts violence. But it's also an exploration of mysticism in general and, in particular, extra-corporal travel outside the physical world as we know it. Reviewers compare it to The Matrix and Da Vinci Code, but the author says Orwell was his main inspiration, not just the Orwell of 1984, but he of the Collected Essays. He also mentions Miyamoto Musahi’s Book of Five Rings.

I think it's normally expected that you review books after you're done reading them, but that doesn't always work for me; particularly with works of speculative fiction. Early in my reading, I get deeply involved in the author's speculations and all that they evince from me; later on, I'm more concerned with the resolution of all the dramatic tensions & the winding up of the plot. Along the way, I get to know the book's characters and appreciate the changes they go through and how they change in response.  Quite often I get disenchanted as my reading progresses and, though I was deeply committed to the book's first three quarters, I quit before getting to the end.  The Traveler looks to be one of these books.  I'm about three-fourths done with it.  Knowing that it's part one of an intended trilogy, I expect there will be minimal resolution at the end.  I expect that the baddies will be able to carry over their full badness into the second book and that the goodies will be minimally successful in mounting any kind of resistance or finding for themselves any kind of peace and contentment.  It goes without saying, I suppose, that lots of characters will be killed off; ones we don't like, but also ones we do. 

Here's one aspect of the book that particularly interests me:  It's got a compelling theme that's both highly contemporary and also historically potent.  In broadest context, this theme is the conflict between progress -- the civilizing impulse and all that helps to effect civilizations -- and authority -- the concentration of power within social elites. Civilization doesn't seem to be possible without authority and the resulting concentration of power almost always results in exploitation of the many by the few.  Democracy is designed to circumvent that abuse.  The author shows how democratic processes are being subverted by TV and other methods of mass communication, by commercialism and sophisticated advertising techniques, and by what might be called the celebretization of aspirations: a distortion of values by which superficial attributes are celebrated in a culture of amoral movie stars, sports heroes, and the like.

The Traveler thus gives a highly dystopian world view.  It indicts us for a laundry list of what's going wrong around us:

- Tribal conflicts of genocidal scope
- Terrorist attacks by fanatics who do not fear death
- Guns in the hands of paranoiac people, also lethal chemicals such as anthrax
- Gang violence, drug violence, clan-against-clan violence, and intra-family violence
- Huge and unstabilizing disparities between rich and poor (within countries and between countries)
- Rogue diseases with potential to wipe out whole populations
- Pollution and global warming, both producing extreme weather conditions
And it explains in detail how our surveillance society prefigures a 1984 of the future in which Big Brother can secretly observe every move, every action, every communication that we make and can use this information to probe our thoughts, our intentions, our impulses to resist being controlled.  It outlines the means of surveillance in some detail:  all the many thousands (and thousands) of video cams in public and commercial spaces, all the covert interception of millions of web transactions (not just email but every keystroke in every online session), all the interactions between citizens and government, purchasers and sellers, families and their banks, . . . the list goes on and on.  The author then shows how massively parallel computer systems like the ones Google operates and potential new super computers that use quantum mechanics can collate and make sense of surveillance data to impose totalitarian control over whole populations.

At this point I'm not sure what Hawks wants to convey to us in exposing all this apocalyptic excess and I may never find out. For now, I mean to wrap this up with something a bit more mundane. This morning I just chanced to read a news account which appears to give an ironic glimmer of hope.  The account is an AP news item on the failure of the FBI to pay its phone bills.  Here's a link: FBI wiretaps cut off due to agency's failure to pay phone bills, by Lara Jakes Jordan, Associated Press January 10, 2008.  The writer says an audit revealed that antiquated accounting systems keep the agency from paying its bills on time.  Failure to pay phone bills has resulted in service cutoffs including the abrupt termination of wiretap operations:

In at least one case, a wiretap used in a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act investigation "was halted due to untimely payment," the audit found. FISA wiretaps are used in the government's most sensitive and secretive criminal investigations, and allow eavesdropping on suspected terrorists or spies. "We also found that late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence," according to the audit by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine.

The FBI says it can fix some of the problems that prevent its paying bills on time, but others would be "unfeasible or too expensive" to fix. 

Of course this glimmer of hope is a mirage.  Better to put our efforts into fixing problems than in rejoicing at the inefficiencies of those we've permitted to become our masters.

Addendum: There's lots for me to like in The Traveler. Here's a shortlist: (a) motorcycles, particularly a Moto Guzzi, one of which I once owned, (b) swordplay and the magic of Japanese blade weapons, (c) evocative locations: Westchester County (where I grew up), London and New York (favorite cities), the American Southwest, Los Angeles -- its under- and over-worlds, (d) provocative dichotomies such as Enlightenment Rationalism vs. Transcendent Intuition, Scientific Method vs. Inspiration, Social Control vs. Individual Development, Anomie vs. Social Cohesiveness, Determination vs. Chaos, Predictability vs. Randomness. (e) a focus on big issues, such as the history's rhythmic swaying between excesses of irrational and rational forces.


GobberGo said...

Nice pseudo-review (pseudo b/c you haven't finished the book, a situation I am very familiar with).

I too took some lessons from the revelation that the FBI can't get its act together enough to pay its wiretap phone bills. It connected to my long-standing defense against conspiracy theories (which, as a young adult who likes the Internets, are always around me): The government could never pull it off.

From working withing the government (briefly) and watching it in the news, I've come to tentatively conclude that conspiracy theories are bunk simply because the government could never manage to carry them all the way through. Someone would make a mistake (or, in all likelihood, a great number of people would make mistakes).

This is simultaneously comforting and infuriating, as you point out, because on the one hand our liberties are probably safer for it, but on the other hand, the incompetency that is at the core of the issue often makes life harder for everyone. Government has great potential for good and evil though, and I suppose I should be happy that however little good it seems often to accomplish is offset by how little evil it manages, simultaneously.

Anonymous said...

I just finished The Traveller last weekend and was looking for comments from other readers. I am impressed with your review! You definitely caught all the themes. More than me :)

I'm assuming you live in the States??? I live outside of London. In the UK, the Traveller included an essay by John Twelve Hawks that I thought was more focused than parts of the book. It's an attack on the Vast Machine and "the culture of fear" (his phrases).

There are a great many surveillance cameras in Britain so maybe we see the book differently.


Jeff said...

Gobbergo: Well said. Vivi: Thanks for commenting. I do live in the US. Americans like to think their liberties are better protected than in the UK and other countries because we have guarantees in our Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the whole legal tradition. However, I think John Twelve Hawks is right to say this precious legacy is at risk. Today I read about efforts to require a new ID card, much like the ID Hawks puts in The Traveler. I'll do another post on this over the weekend I think.

I grew up trusting my government. The government's behavior during the Vietnam war cured me of that illusion. Still, I hate living so fully in an atmosphere of distrust. I'm a naturally optimistic person, but I'm worried.