Chomsky, the NSA and Our ‘Exhibitionist Culture’

Noam Chomsky

In his denouncement of the NSA’s recent surveillance activities, Noam Chomsky states that the younger generation’s relative lack of shock and reaction to the NSA scandal “may have to do with the exhibitionist character of the internet culture, with Facebook and so on.”

In short, Chomsky is correct. But there are many layers to this observation. One is the way this exhibitionistic culture is less surprised by and/or less likely to act against government surveillance. Older generations tend to have less of an understanding of how far-reaching the internet is and how easy it is to access information that is part of a networked system, cell phones included. Younger generations grew up understanding and interacting with a wide-spread and powerful global network. They learn with it, communicate and socialize through it and they play games and experience media through it. Through this usage and play comes an innate understanding of just how public the information you put out there is. People expect that whatever information they put on the web or access through the web will be easily accessible and semi-permanent. People assume that when they make their information public, then anyone can access it and in turn, they can access others’ information. We see this effect in the usage of the internet as a storage space for information. Not just in the use of cloud-based storage systems such as Google Drive or the oft-attacked Megaupload, but also in the sense that if there is information that we find useful on the internet, rather than jot down notes or memorize the information, we simply remember how we navigated to that information, confident that it will be there again should we need it, whether that information is personal, private or otherwise. Much cultural activity is also based on these assumptions. Facebook is a part of that cultural activity. Many people of younger generations assume that they can contact people and get up-to-date information on them that is true and reliable. So it stands to reason that they are not surprised that the United States government is not only able to but does track their information.

This type of understanding is at the very heart of the way the internet is structured. For the simplest example, look at the links to outside content that I have used in this post; they will take you to other websites with separate content. My content is enhanced by theirs and I am assuming that that content will be accessible to you. The internet and all the great benefits we have enjoyed from it are dependent on convergence and convergence is not possible without the free sharing of information and ideas.

This is not to say that it is okay to brush off what the NSA has done. That is another layer of Chomsky’s observation (I call it his observation, but really it’s nothing new): younger, more connected generations can sometimes fail to see the impact or socio-political implications of the fact that this information is so easily obtained, collected, stored and analyzed. Since people are putting so much more of their information online of their own free will, the fact that the government has been tracking when and where our phone calls are made is no big deal. The perception is that there is far more information on a single Facebook page than could be gathered from months of this type of surveillance and anyone can access Facebook.

Another layer to this is the problem in the amount of information we share. Sharing is good. Very good. Sharing is the way our society has been advancing at such a rapid technological rate, and I believe that our culture is advancing as well, though that may be overshadowed by the even faster development of technology (culture is always playing catch-up) and the fact that there are large parts of the population that either elect not to participate in this aspect of our culture (the elderly, e.g.) or who cannot participate (the uneducated, the poor). But in general, the more we share, the faster we grow. This is, admittedly a more utopian view of networked culture – see, for example, the work of Henry Jenkins – certainly more utopian than Chomsky’s views on networked technology. We must be careful, however, not to become exhibitionist, as Chomsky says. It is easy to take networked information for granted and overlook the dangers of having our information easily accessible to anyone with a connection in favor of the benefits it has to us.

But the larger problem of the PRISM program is not in the information itself but in the NSA’s attainment of that information. This is the kind of thing that our exhibitionist/voyeuristic culture needs to be more aware of, as there are very real and very scary dangers. Our society and our policymakers need to do a better job to define privacy versus secrecy and put in place a proper system of checks and balances to ensure that we keep the government out where we don’t want it to go. Otherwise, instead of an entity that is serving the people, our government turns into an entity that is surveying the people, creating an even larger rift between the people and the state than there already is.

We should be able to share our information, our work, our thoughts with others. This is the type of connectivity that is pushing our society, our technology and our culture along with it. But if the government is surveying us and treating every person as a potential enemy, progress is stifled. Either people will be less keen on utilizing networked technology (not likely in the grand scheme of things) or the government will continue to survey and track us, going as far as it possibly can, as far as we let it (more likely). So, am I upset or worried that the NSA has records of who I called, from where and for how long? Not really. Am I upset that the government did this without a warrant, on a massive scale and in secret under the guise of transparency? Absolutely.