“Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away”
— Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”
At the same time the Snowden leaks deepened our knowledge of the National Security Agency’s “collect it all” mass surveillance programs, it also fueled our paranoia. We learned, much to our dismay, the truth in the old joke — just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean someone’s not watching you.
Paranoia is at the core of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Whether or not you are being observed at any particular time is less important than knowing you can be observed at all times. Why? Because uncertainty leads to self-discipline and self-censorship, the most effective and enduring means of social control.
The NSA said as much in its power point presentation of Squeaky Dolphin, a program it designed to “help us understand and shape the human terrain.”
But as Kate Crawford points out in a recent article entitled “The Anxieties of Big Data, paranoia cuts both ways.
And while there is an enormous structural power asymmetry between the surveillers and surveilled, neither are those with the greatest power free from being haunted by a very particular kind of data anxiety: that no matter how much data they have, it is always incomplete, and the sheer volume can overwhelm the critical signals in a fog of possible correlations.
Boston Marathon bombing anyone?
So enough is too much at the same time it is never enough. And if that’s not crazy enough for you, there’s always the favorite metaphor employed by former NSA Chief Keith Alexander: he needed the whole haystack to find a needle. Which possibly explains the global sigh of relief that greeted his exit from government.
But his madness has yet to be thoroughly mocked and rejected for the eternally expansionist delusion it is.
Check out Crawford’s New Inquiry essay here.
And another take on the problems arising from a big data mindset.