Connecting the Dots? Digital Media Conference: Activism in Age of Ubiquitous Surveillance

Recently the activist-lawyer Michelle Alexander encouraged us all “to connect the dots” of militarism, mass incarceration, and mass surveillance. In this spirit, the Freedom and Unfreedom in the Digital Age conference–10/25-27/13 at Lesley University–will be bring together activists and techies to make the connections.

From America’s soaring, world-leading rates of imprisonment (north of 700/100,000 residents), to its astonishing deportations (set to top 2 million in 2014), to the continuing Snowden revelations, we have a dystopian present. But the story gets worse.

If mass incarceration and deportations bulked up the government’s administrative and data processing mechanisms to process people and laid the foundations for the all-seeing, mass surveillance state, technological shifts allow government to reach much deeper. Indeed, Orwell’s fictional Big Brother knows what you are doing, but Obama’s real Big Brother also knows what you are thinking. Just last week, the UK’s National Crime Agency (which operates almost seamlessly with our government) declared, “the hidden internet isn’t hidden and your anonymous activity isn’t anonymous. We know where you are, what you are doing and we will catch you.”

This shift was made possible by Big Data, a formerly benign, composite technology developed for astronomers, now applied in innocuous ways by Netflix and Amazon to suggest purchasing and viewing choices based on your browsing, viewing and purchasing patterns. Big Data also empowers the NSA and raft of private corporations you’ve never heard of to track your phoning, Facebook, Google, emailing and chatting activities… and keep this data permanently. Put kindly, all of this is of questionable legality and certainly very little of this explicitly authorized by open, democratic legislative processes.

With the Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s App Store, and Google’s Play, not only do they know which books (or movies) you own or rented, which ones you’ve browsed, but unlike your librarian or teacher, they also know exactly how much of each you’ve read (together with any marginal notes you’ve added)! Unlike your teacher, with their access to your medical records, they also know that you have legitimate excuse for not finishing the Iliad.

They know everything.

They know and remember more about you than your Mom does, more than you do!

But technology also has a flipside making for freedom.

If the case for making wars was made by manipulating information, resistance was often powered by the grassroots making use of social media, webinars, and other new tools to educate and organize. A headlong thrust in Syria was recently averted just by such a series of activities in concert with fortuitous international circumstances.

More fundamentally, as Julian Assange and other “cypherpunks” have observed, encryption may reclaim some of the space promised by the 4th Amendment (prevent illegal search and seizure). While not absolute, the protection comes from the fact that it takes far less processing power (and energy) to encrypt information than it takes to break that encryption. This privacy is fundamental to political freedom… enabling debate and deliberation and therewith the exchange and evolution of ideas. This in turn is necessary for concerted action. Indeed, encryption in the digital age is to liberty as secret ballots are to democracy.

Technological shifts also allow for new employment and learning situations as we consider the rise of maker spaces and MOOCs (massive open online courseware). Each has upsides and downsides; often the positive potentials inherent in the technologies are subverted by our economic system which turns innovation and productivity gains into unemployment and insecurity.

Given this Janus-faced character of technology, it is only fitting then that organizers and techies should get together, start with a conversation about Unfreedom, but then move on to look at the tools making for Freedom, and then, crucially, consider what it will take to Build Movements for social change. And that is just what the Digital Media Conference does.