This is the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, as summarised by Wikipedia. Be patient, dear reader – it does have a bearing on what comes afterwards:
A vain Emperor who cares for nothing but his appearance and attire hires two tailors who are really swindlers that promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “just hopelessly stupid”. The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor then marches in procession before his subjects, who play along with the pretense. Suddenly, a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but holds himself up proudly and continues the procession.
I am reminded of this story by four pieces I read this afternoon from widely differing sources. The first was Naomi Wolf’s savage and dispiriting synthesis of how the US state is using sexually charged strategies to make people who would otherwise protest the immorality and injustice of their circumstances cower before the ever-expanding police state. She provides many examples of the deliberate humiliations involved and I strongly urge you to read the whole of what she says, even if you feel you might not agree. But where I would find myself entirely in consonance with her thesis is in this short paragraph towards the end:
Why is this happening? I used to think the push was just led by those who profited from endless war and surveillance – but now I see the struggle as larger. As one internet advocate said to me: “There is a race against time: they realise the internet is a tool of empowerment that will work against their interests, and they need to race to turn it into a tool of control.”
And the evidence behind this assertion? Well, this actually, on page 3 of a post by Chris Hedges, and which I came across via Wolf’s piece:
There are now 1,271 government agencies and 1,931 private companies that work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States, The Washington Post reported in a 2010 series by Dana Priest and William M. Arken. There are 854,000 people with top-secret security clearances, the reporters wrote, and in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2011.
And this, written by James Bamford for Wired, and which in turn I came across via Hedges’ piece (the bold is mine):
[...] “this is more than just a data center,” says one senior intelligence official who until recently was involved with the program. The mammoth Bluffdale center will have another important and far more secret role that until now has gone unrevealed. It is also critical, he says, for breaking codes. And code-breaking is crucial, because much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted. According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.”
These last two articles, as with Wolf’s, also deserve to be read in full.
It is, as I said, dispiriting stuff that from the nation which proclaimed the glories of democracy and freedom in its very birth we should be exposed to these kind of behaviours and attitudes.
And that emperor and his new clothes? Well, I don’t know about you but I surely am beginning to get the feeling that we’ve been stripped naked by the revolution that is Web 2.0. It’s almost as if – though I’m sure it’s not really the case – the corporate agencies which work so hand-in-glove with Western governments have deliberately done all the spadework over the past five years and created a series of tools which encourage us to bare absolutely our all. Is this bad? Absolutely not. If we want one day to have a more open society, all of us need to be more open. It’s not just the politicians who should demonstrate their sincerity and frankness – the voters, their families, friends and colleagues should also sign up to this new social contract.
We do need such confidence-building measures if we truly wish to implement a more communicative society.
Unfortunately, all this generalised and now casual openness may now lead any latterday state to acquire repressive tendencies with the following consequences:
- anyone who values their privacy, who does not for example participate eagerly in Web 2.0-style processes or just likes to get the feeling their email content is relatively secure, can be immediately suspected of needing to hide something and therefore potentially guilty of a multitude of sins. This conclusion is of course manifestly unfair, as some people – even under Web 2.0’s legacy – continue to be simply more jealous of their selves than others; nevertheless, any state which cares to begin to arrest its population into submission will find plenty of reasons to do so in such an environment;
- anyone who participates openly in Web 2.0 – social media, social networks, blogging, tweeting, online communities and any number of other tools out there – but does not manage to say the right things, as per the complex and evermore law-ridden rules of engagement which will almost certainly grow up around this whole affair, will surely find themselves falling terribly between the two stools of a notional openness on the one hand and an effective lack of human rights and common sense on the other – an awfully Kafka-like set of circumstances to find oneself in;
The long-term result will almost certainly be far more people in jail for communicating with others than in any other century in human history. This will, in fact, be the century when the desire to communicate anything worthy of our attention runs the risk of automatically becoming a crime.
The final article which drew my attention today was a piece in Liberal Democrat Voice which included a letter from Tim Farron, the Party’s President, to members worried about the Coalition government’s plans to monitor the Internet. In it, he said (the bold is mine):
I think you probably know my views on this matter. As a Liberal I was extremely concerned by the press reports of new surveillance powers potentially to be included in the Queens Speech.
I also agreed very much with Julian Huppert’s article on Lib Dem Voice — there must be no question of the authorities having universal internet surveillance powers.
We are reasonable people and we should be prepared to look at what will now be draft legislation with an open mind, but we should be prepared to put our foot down and pull the plug if we consider the proposals to be illiberal. We must not as Liberal Democrats fall into a position of trying to amend, unpick or apologise for a piece of authoritarian Tory policy.
Over the last couple of years we have made some mistakes, which is OK so long as we learn from them. This is our opportunity to put those lessons into practice. Britain must be more liberal and free as a result of Liberal Democrats in power, not less. The proposals as they were first set out undoubtedly cross a red line, we’ve crossed enough of those already – no more.
I’m really not too sure, though, in the light of all I’ve laid before you today, whether Mr Farron and his Liberals have any chance of stopping the juggernaut which approaches our shores. The only solution I can see, and this in itself contains the seeds of our own destruction, is to disengage entirely with a series of systems of digital communication which are becoming so contaminated by big business, unelected representatives and security services everywhere. But of course, as I have already pointed out, to disengage is also to generate suspicion around one’s motives.
It seems, in fact, that we can neither safely engage, disengage nor even stand mutely in attendance. Speech, silence, agreement, disagreement – everything we might wish to do or say, or not say or do, may lead us to become tainted with the darkness of being an enemy of the state’s overarching perception of what is good and what is evil.
It seems, in fact, that in the age that communication technologies have reached their zenith, our right to communicate will become criminalised to such a degree that all communication will be a crime unless otherwise notified.
Just as any resistance to communicating in the full glare of the state’s apparatus will be equally and duly noted as a criminal offence.
And meanwhile, no citizens – not even the children amongst us – appear any longer to have the perspicacity of Hans Christian Andersen’s story to draw the fact to anyone’s attention.