Creativity and Spying

Digital information is just people in disguise.  So says Jaron Lanier, in his book “Who Owns the Future?”   He’s right.  Behind the spying are spies.  These are real human beings, doing work daily, for who knows what purpose?  They make daily choices about how they spend their lives and they have chosen to spend their lives gathering dossiers of dubious inferences on all of us, on a colossal scale.  They’re keeping these stockpiles of data in perpetuity.  At any time, in the future, somebody can go and mine that data and discover….well discover what?  That we’re all human and imperfect?  What kind of discovery will that be, in reality?  What they make of that discovery and how they use it against people is what is at issue here.  Will it be for some creative, edifying, uplifting purpose?  That remains doubtful, owing to the clandestine methods used to gather the data in the first instance.  Had it really been for all our benefit, we would have known about it and been given the chance to consent to it.

This post is unashamedly addressed to those people that participate in the spying and enable it.  You might be a fibre optic cable splicer, or an author of accumulo.  I know you thought you were just doing your job and that you had no choice, but you had choices and still have choices.  I know the spies will read this post.  I’m sure they have the means of accessing it.  I hope they will heed it.  It may be each individual’s one of their last chances of finding themselves on the right side of history.

If you’ve been on the Internet for any period of time, you may have been exposed to nastiness, but I guarantee that it’s more likely you were exposed to kindness, affinity, empathy, interesting people, diverse opinions, challenges to your assumptions and beliefs and seen things, read things and heard things you might never have been exposed to before.  In short, most people will have been enriched by the experience, intellectually and emotionally.  The Internet has been a wellspring of creativity, inspiration, creative expression and user generated value creation.  Novel, innovative, inspiring ideas have been spread and disseminated.  People have collaborated to get amazing things done, through petitions, crowd sourcing and kick-starting.  More people than ever before are aware and awake.  Humanity reveals itself, through these interactions, to be supremely altruistic, at its best, encouraging, sweet and kind, for all the darkness that hits the headlines.  People are better informed, better able to argue their case and exposed to more valuable pieces of information than they know how to assimilate.  People are, on balance, good.

Psychological inertia and the ability to unlearn decades of assumptions indoctrinated into us by those that would seek to control us remain the hardest problems to overcome.  We struggle to wrap our minds around all the available information and good ideas.  We still struggle with discriminating lies from truth, misinformation from information and so on.  But we’re beginning to join the dots.  We’re developing a sense of when what we’re told just doesn’t add up.  It’s still early days.  Some people haven’t even begun the journey, preferring to cling to their programming, but others are taking their first tentative steps at figuring out what they can believe and what is there merely to manipulate them.  Their ventures into that unknown are heroic.

Etsy, Soundcloud, YouTube, Reverb Nation, Fandalism, Bandcamp, Createspace, CD Baby, Quirky, Minted, 99 Designs – the list of sites encouraging the creation and exchange of creative products and ideas is legion.  None of this existed before the Internet.   We’ve witnessed explosions of creativity and in the availability of those creations.  It has never been easier to reach an audience and sell directly to them.  User generated content fuels the Internet, even though the aggregators are currently the only ones making the money.  User generated creative products are on sale everywhere.  You can sponsor a band to make an album.  You can fund the creation of new products that didn’t exist before.  You can do this by communicating with the creators directly.  There has never been a more exciting time in creating things.  The Internet has been the enabling technology for all of that creativity.

Imagine, then, the loneliness, isolation, pointlessness and waste of life spending your days spying on all those brilliant, generous, productive, creative people represents, when you could be creating, playing and joining in.  Nothing stops a spy from becoming an artist, writer, musician, craftsman, or saver of lives.  Nothing prevents them from realising their own amazing abilities and putting them out there.  There is, in short, no reason to remain shackled to a desk, processing tsunamis of data about ordinary people.  You’re wasting your life, if you do.

To wake every morning and go into work as a big data spy, inhibiting and suppressing your own creative projects and abilities in the process, requires that you believe in a higher purpose, for what you are doing.  Let’s examine what that so called higher purpose might be.  I assume it involves some belief in keeping us safe and sound from harm, some ideological adherence to the notion of keeping capitalism running, on its predestined course and of not letting other ideas or ways of living overwhelm the current status quo.  You might think, as a spy, that those are good things.  Well are they really?

Now that people know you are stockpiling all of their communications and shared documents, what will happen to all those business plans that were in progress, which require some stealth in order to become established?  Are you handing all of those nascent ideas over to the incumbents who will use their economic power to squash or steal them?  What will that do for innovation and the health of capitalism?  Even if you don’t hand that data over to anyone or even look at it, you’ve stored it, on record, forever, for who knows what future purpose.

Why would budding entrepreneurs ever trust the Internet, ever again, as a place to make plans and exchange ideas with their partners in business, who might live all over the planet?  You’re killing the wellspring of a vital and healthy capitalist economy at birth, simply because your daily spying now means that nobody with any sense can make plans for innovative new products and services online.  Budding entrepreneurs used to like to use Dropbox, Googledocs and Evernote, not to mention the countless collaborative tools, like Basecamp, Zoho or Huddle, available online.  What hope of using those now, with some assurance of privacy?  What will happen to all those great potential businesses now?  That’s what we call an “own goal”, spy guys.

And now that you have all the data on everybody, how can you not investigate corruption on Wall Street, or find the tax evaders and avoiders and where their money has gone?  Was all of that transacted on paper?  If you have the data about the people that opt out of being part of the community and paying their fair share, yet still want to benefit from the infrastructure the rest of us fund, then they must be people that have some kind of magical protection.  If they’re corrupt and you don’t investigate them, given the mountain of data you have accumulated about them, that makes you complicit in the corruption.  Is that a higher purpose that motivates you to get up in the morning, come into the office and write data mining scripts?

How about the value of companies that exist mainly on the Internet?  Can we believe in the trustworthiness of the certificate issuance authorities that assert that HTTPS transactions are encrypted in unbreakable ways?  How do we know that the NSA doesn’t have all of the SSL certificates and keys?  What possible, credible assurance can the trust authority give us, when we know that company after company, some very large, simply acquiesced?  If you can’t trust the certificate signing authority, then it means that every secure transaction on the Internet actually isn’t.  Can you imagine what that will do to e-commerce online, when ordinary customers are unsure about the privacy of their passwords and credit card details?  They can no longer trust the wire that carries the information or the end point that stores it.  Is that what you came to work in the morning to do, spy guys?  Was your higher purpose to demolish e-commerce?  How does that help capitalism?

You might argue that people will simply use salted hashes and stronger encryption, but we can’t trust the recipient or temporary holder of that information to keep the keys safe.  Anyway, the US government has defined strong encryption, under law, as “munitions” and using it with anybody they arbitrarily define as “the enemy” will land you in the jail cell next door to Bradley Manning.  Already, the US government’s response to the revelations about PRISM have been all about finding the leak and punishing the person that did it.  Is that really building more trust in national security, or destroying it?  Not very creative, is it?

Of course, none of that affects artists directly.  We still make art, irrespective of what goes on at the NSA.  We still bring forth our creations.  Only problem is, places like Facebook, Google, Apple, Skype, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL, where we have always shown our works, or tried to communicate with customers, are not safe anymore.  The privacy policies posted on those sites are meaningless.

Twitter can attempt to take the high moral ground, having not joined up to PRISM, but the Twitter API is so open, that anybody with the right access to the APIs can get everything you ever tweeted anyway.  Klout wouldn’t have a business model without that access.  Every social media site and site we use to communicate with paying customers, or as a platform for our artistic work, has been compromised.  You’ve even stifled artistic expression and dissent, spy guys.  Good job.  Just what the world needs:  a closing down of alternatives brought forth through art that might actually lead the way toward saving us from destruction.

It’s funny that no corporation claims to have helped the NSA gather any of this data about us, but yet there it is: our data in the hands of the NSA.  I wonder how that can be explained.  Perhaps you spy guys can explain that paradox.  Don’t you think you should be engaging with us and telling us how it was done?  Why do you think you’re separate to us or that your own data isn’t being recorded?  Do you think you’re immune or some sort of elite species?  If so, what is the basis for your superiority?  Is it your closeness to the data mountain?  How will you defend that position, should somebody decide to move you out of that proximity?  Who will be your friend when the NSA has done with your services?

And what of the myth of a fair and level playing field, when it comes to international trade and competition?  You’ve colluded with everybody else’s own governments to stockpile information about us, too.  Why would we trade with you, when you’re holding all the cards?  How would we strike an acceptable bargain with you?  It’s a one sided deal and all contracts would therefore seem to be so one-sided, now, as to be virtually unenforceable.  Was that an unforeseen consequence of your daily work?

You see, the trust has been broken.  Why would any normal person trust in their government, the institutions of government or the colluding corporations?  How do we know what will be done with the data you stockpiled about us, if an even less trustworthy and malevolent bunch of people come to power?  What will they use all that juicy data that you’ve accumulated about us for?  What incriminating inferences will they concoct to persecute blameless lives?

An entire industry has just been rendered pointless.  Those people that perform security and penetration tests on web sites have been telling site owners about the wrong vulnerabilities.  Who cares if the site cannot be compromised by external hackers, when all of the data is being siphoned off, in bulk, the whole time, anyway?  What happens now to software-as-a-service providers?  How will they convince their customers that data is safe in the cloud?  Dropbox is on Amazon web services.  Dropbox is playing ball with PRISM.  That means you’re inside one of the most popular cloud platforms there is.  Microsoft’s Azure is no safe harbour for cloud computing either.  Microsoft was one of the first to join PRISM.  Safe harbour, that scheme where US companies self-certify that they comply with EU data privacy protections, doesn’t mean much now either, does it?  It’s no wonder Germany didn’t accept “safe harbour” at face value.  Those self certifications could be fraudulent.

It doesn’t seem like this entire data gathering exercise pleases the people who elected their government either.  If the government spies on its own people, regarding everybody as a potential enemy, then from whence does the consent and mandate to govern come?  Does the government descend into representing only the corporations that are complicit?  Maybe that’s why those same companies can get away with tax evasion and avoidance on a grand scale.  They’re in on the scam.

But those companies are denying complicity.  Most people think they are lying or are constrained from admissions by the same laws that keep this entire activity secret, but let’s take their claims at face value.  Let’s assume that government no longer represents the people (they are the enemy, to be spied upon) and it doesn’t represent corporations (who deny all knowledge of it) then exactly who does the government represent?  For what purposes do they act?  In whose interest is this operation?  Alternatively, has the government become an out of control doomsday machine, running on its own momentum, under nobody’s control?    Has government become a pathocracy? (  If it acts for shady characters in the shadows, or if it is just an out of control machine with no direction, either way, it needs to be turned off.

I wonder who will apologise to the so-called “conspiracy theorists”, derided and ridiculed for believing the worst, for years, by the media and people that believed whole heartedly in government, as an article of faith, now that the conspiracy turns out to be proven fact.  Who will save the whistle blowers from violent State revenge?  On whose behalf does this State even act, if it no longer represents the people and the corporations, as is the going story?

Those wars justified because they are spreading and defending democracy ring a little hollow now, when the gold standard of democracy is undermined by the government spying on its own citizens and everybody else, globally.  What democracy can there be, under such surveillance?  If that’s the case, how can the wars to spread democracy possibly be justified any longer?  Why would the people that are spied upon pay for such wars, through their taxes?  Why would any human being spill their blood for such an ignoble organisation?  Where is the glory?

All of this spying that you spy guys have been doing was predicated on the idea that we needed to defeat some terrorists that are said to operate out of a network of caves in Afghanistan, now without their evil, terrorist mastermind, Osama Bin Laden, who we are told was secretly buried at sea in an unrecorded ceremony.  Why would terrorists of any stripe be active on the Internet, knowing that the US is hoovering up every byte communicated via US servers?  The whole edifice can’t possibly catch a terrorist now that we know what’s going on, because not a single one would be stupid enough to continue to use such an obviously spied upon and compromised Internet.  No terrorist will ever be caught this way.  The whole thing has no possibility of catching terrorists ever again.  So what’s the spying really for, spy guys?  Is that the reason you signed up?

Working in a cubicle, writing data mining scripts, administering vast data stores, or splicing optical cables and installing server nodes for a living – is that what you always wanted to do, when you were a child?  Does it make your eyes sparkle?  Do you feel a passion for this kind of work?  Would your mother be proud?  Even if you love the technology, did you want it to be used to wreak so much destruction of trust and online interaction?  Look what you guys have done.  Instead of enhancing national security, you’ve worked hard, under pressure, to recklessly destroy it.  Think of the hours you spent doing that instead of living a full and complete life.  Your life’s work, the monument to your existence, has been in the service of destruction.

As a cubicle dweller or member of the rank and file, you’re a commodity.  You can be replaced in a heartbeat.  You’ll never find fulfilment, creative freedom or abundance in your work.  Your lack of confidence in yourself condemns you to a life of uncertainty and furtive secrecy, cut off from the rest of humanity.  The enforcers and upholders of this industrial scale spying are no better.  You’re all missing out on a rich, sweet, fulfilling, abundant, inclusive life, to do this spying work and to defend it.  You could have been creating, learning, discovering, interacting, participating, playing, exploring, improving and creating beauty.  You could have been loved for your uniqueness, instead of despised.  You could have made better art.  You still can.  Why don’t you?

Behind every digital information exchange are just people – in disguise.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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