Dear Reader (including the cold, impersonal algorithm machine that is torturing this set of ones-and-zeros to help determine what kind of toothpaste you like),
First, let’s all take a moment to self-indulgently celebrate. Choose whatever method suits you. Dance a jig. Pour a drink. Drum your fingers together like Monty Burns while saying exxxxceelllllent over and over again. Laugh a laugh that lightens your soul but makes everyone else feel vaguely unsafe. Walk down the hall to the office break room where you’ll find most of your colleagues huddled around your Prius-driving co-worker who is weeping over her gluten-free bran muffin about how disappointed she is in Obama. Go find your fellow secret conservative buddy who on the outside looks like he’s empathetically and somberly just drinking a cup of Joe as he commiserates with the very woman who led the campaign to replace the good toilet paper with that pressed mulch we have now. But on the inside he’s as giddy as a little girl riding a unicorn through a field of candy-drop flowers under a sky of rainbows. Then, after a running start, give him a chest bump and a high five and do your best mash-up of a “Hammer time” and “Gangnam style” dance.
But, as I’ve written many times, partisan hypocrisy can be dangerously seductive. When your opponent suddenly embraces your position, it can lead you to suddenly embrace his. It’s quite possible that Obama has embraced these programs because he came into office naïve and unprepared for the job and after being briefed on the realities of the world sobered up. Maybe Andy McCarthy and John Yoo are right and these programs are legal, valuable, and necessary. I’m not necessarily saying I think they are. But they aren’t bad simply because Obama uses them.
My default position is always that there’s nothing new under the sun. But that is an insight into the eternally crooked timber of humanity. The qualities of the soul do not improve with each generation simply because we tear pages from a calendar. Human nature has no history. Technology is different. Technology has history. It does get better — a lot better over time — and humans have to constantly learn how to deal with that fact. As I write in my column today:
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but sometimes it can work the other way around. Invention — i.e., new technologies and techniques — creates obligations and opportunities that never existed before. Fifty years ago, nobody needed to charge their cell phones — because they didn’t have cell phones. Before the smallpox vaccine was invented, it would never have occurred to someone in government to require that all children be inoculated for smallpox. I’m not against mandatory inoculations; my point is to illustrate that invention often creates new necessities.
Or as Spider-Man says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Conversely, without the power, there is no responsibility. You shouldn’t expect Peter Parker to defeat Dr. Octopus if Parker was never bitten by a radioactive spider in the first place. Similarly, if the government doesn’t have the power (and I don’t mean authority; I mean ability) to do something you don’t have to worry about it doing it. More than the Constitution, morality, or dogma, physical impossibility is the single greatest impediment to tyranny. For instance, I am utterly unconcerned about the government summarily beaming tea partiers to the planet Glaxnor for permanent exile. Closer to home, this is why the gun-rights crowd doesn’t like lists of gun owners. If The Man doesn’t have the list, no one needs to take The Man’s word for it that he won’t try to use it. More important than my promise not to unleash a super-squad of death-dealing dinosaurs with lasers strapped to their heads is the fact that I haven’t figured out how to do that — yet!
Once the government has the power to do something, it is a deadlock cinch that someone will propose an argument for using that power for the “greater good.” Sometimes that will be a good idea. Other times it will just seem like a good idea. And still other times, it will be an obviously bad idea. Or maybe it will actually be a good idea that creates entirely unforeseeable negative consequences. And, sometimes, it will be a good idea for some and a tyrannical imposition for others (See, Bloomberg, Meddling Crapweasel)
Welcome to the New Order
I’m mostly withholding judgment on all of these NSA stories until the smoke clears and we know exactly what is going on.
But in the meantime, I’m going to get fitted for a new tinfoil helmet. Consider a few points:
1. We are already well down the road to producing driverless cars. And as I wrote last year, there’s good reason to be very nervous about that. Right now, the government can’t bar you from driving too much, or to the “wrong” place (at least not without a roadblock). It can’t (easily) monitor your movements. But once cars are run by computers plugged into the grid, the government will suddenly have the ability to do countless things that we never needed to worry about before.
2. Right now, there is no way the government or corporations can possibly monitor what you look at when you’re not on the Internet. They can’t watch you kiss someone. They can’t see what articles you read in the paper version of the newspaper. They can’t watch what you’re eating, hear what you’re saying, or catch the show when you’re at the urinal (which would be a pretty exotic show for you ladies).
But hey, guess what? They might be able to soon. Why? Because Google is coming out with Google Glass — a pair of eyeglasses that keeps you constantly looped into the web, and the web constantly looped into you! And even if Google Glass turns out to be a dud, the simple fact is we can be nearly certain that the empty spots in “the grid” are going to get more and more shaded-in by more gridness, until the patchwork goes solid. Forget that our smartphones are little embassies for the Republic of Skynet, kitchen appliances are getting smart and can hear. You can “call” your oven from the road (“What’s the big deal, I’ve been talking to you for years?” — The Couch). Already, my TV mysteriously plays Maximum Overdrive every time my wife talks about getting rid of cable.
3. Domino’s is beta testing drones that can deliver pizza. I have no problem with that. I’ve waited years for a technological breakthrough that cuts out the middle man stoner. But it does offer a glimpse into how even pizza companies will darken the skies with data-transmitting robots — which may or may not be terrible, but is just a super-awesome phrase.
4. Even if none of that turns out to be creepy, it’s worth keeping in mind what Big Data can already do. The bigger the dataset the less the datanauts need to know about you to figure you out. For instance, the NSA doesn’t need much phone data to know you’re you. Or as the National Journal put it “The NSA Doesn’t Need Much Phone Data to Know You’re You.”
That’s a fact researchers at MIT and the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium, recently highlighted in their own study of a giant set of phone data. After analyzing 1.5 million cellphone users over the course of 15 months, the researchers found they could uniquely identify 95 percent of cellphone users based on just four data points — that is, just four instances of where they were and what hour of the day it was just four times in one year. With just two data points, they could identify more than half of the users. And the researchers suggested that the study may underestimate how easy it is:
For the purpose of re-identification, more sophisticated approaches could collect points that are more likely to reduce the uncertainty, exploit irregularities in an individual’s behaviour, or implicitly take into account information such as home and work- place or travels abroad. Such approaches are likely to reduce the number of locations required to identify an individual, vis-a`-vis the average uniqueness of traces.
That’s just phone records. Now imagine what’s knowable about you once you throw in credit-card records, browsing history, e-mail, electronic medical records, etc. The guy who leaked the PRISM power-point slides to the Washinton Post explained why he did it:
Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said.
I don’t mean to sound like Johnny Fever freaking out over the phone cops. But when you consider that Google can predict who will win the Oscars or even how movies will do at the box office and you contemplate how much better all of these technologies and techniques will become over time, it’s difficult — for me at least — not to worry about what self-anointed social planners will do with it all.
In their book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein claim to “show that by knowing how people think, we [a.k.a. the Good Guys] can design choice environments that make it easier for people to choose what is best for themselves, their families, and their society.” You know what? How creepy you find that sentence reveals an enormous amount about you. Whether the NSA stuff blows over or not, the simple fact is that the array of tools available to the Nudgers is growing exponentially. And the really creepy part is that the whole point of nudging is that you don’t necessarily know you’re being nudged.
The Corporations Are In on It, Man
Obviously the Nudgers-in-Chief are actually in the private sector. Big corporations want you to want to buy crap without knowing that you were herded into the decision. This ain’t new, of course. We call this advertising. But differences of degree can become differences in kind. I’m not a cyber Marxist jackwad of the AdBusters variety. But as Tyler Cowen suggests, it’s at least worth keeping in mind that there are enormous incentives for the Big Data corporations to work with government, and there are even more enormous incentives for Big Government to work with Big Data. It has been the dream of Progressives since TR to yoke big business to big government. But even before that, it has been nigh upon the telos of the State for thousands of years, to make the population legible (also see the 4/27/12 G-File, which someday will be on the interwebs). Because once you can “read” the population, you can rewrite it. It used to be that the tools of Big Business were simply money and lots of workers. Now they have money, lots of workers, and tetrabytes of data on every citizen. What could go wrong?
Martin Bashir: IRS Lover?
I first came across Martin Bashir when he was on one of those British news shows. Until I looked him up on Wikipedia a minute ago, I would have said I remembered him from CNN International (which I always thought should have an “e” at the end to better telegraph its political biases). But apparently he never worked there. Regardless, he always struck me as the kind of creature a computer might generate as a composite, like Max Headroom or Sid 6.7, or S1m0ne. In Bashir’s case, he was sort of the news equivalent of world music, a mélange of ingredients that left-leaning viewers would instantly find exotic and would make them think better of themselves for doing so. There’s just something about ethnically South Asian dudes with shmancy British accents that adds value like shampoo with “Moroccan oil” or laxatives “now with green-tea extracts!”
During the Bush years, there was a similar tendency among liberals to glorify left-wing British newspapers and magazines. I remember listening to Tim Robbins explain how the American media was right-wing and/or censored the real news. Only British newspapers were willing to cover what was really going on. It didn’t seem to occur to Robbins that what he found so admirable in the British left-wing press was the fact that it was, you know, left-wing.
Anyway, I never for a moment thought Bashir was a straight-news guy, even when he was at ABC. You could tell his instincts were left-wing. There was always at least a wink, sometimes a nod, and occasionally the sort of epileptic seizure that would have made medieval doctors assume demonic possession.
What I never fully appreciated, however, was that he’s what neuroscientists call a complete blithering idiot. Even when he found Lawrence O’Donnell persuasive when O’Donnell insisted that Mitch McConnell’s golf joke at the Republican convention was actually thinly veiled racist code for “Barack Obama is a dark-skinned sex addict like Tiger Woods,” I hadn’t realized how incredibly stupid the man is.
But this smug little diatribe would be hilarious if it was in the Onion. He argues that the GOP is using the term “IRS” as code for “N****r.” I’m running long and, really, the stupidity speaks for itself. But still I thought Grant Bosse had the best response on Twitter:
I was really offended at the gratuitous use of “IRS” in Django Unchained.
Speaking of Stupid MSNBC Hacks
Lawrence O’Donnell announced last night:
Giuliani attacked POTUS last night for Benghazi so I am forced to remind Giuliani how many firefighters were killed on 9/11 because of him.
Beyond the surface partisan hackery and the incredible illogic (Giuliani to 9/11 = Obama to Benghazi is what logicians call a “brain fart”), what I love about this is the word “forced.” O’Donnell doesn’t want to do this, but because he was bitten by a radioactive sphincter he’s compelled to, because as we know, with great power comes great responsibility.
A Quick Word About Game of Thrones
I’ve been trying to think of a TV show that hit me as hard as last week’s “Red Wedding” episode of Game of Thrones (a.k.a., the Rains of Castamere). There was the installment of Roots when they cut off Kunta Kinté’s foot. There was the death of Colonel Blake. And, well, that’s about it. And I was a kid for those things. I’m like a reasonable facsimile of a grown man now, and I was laid low by Sunday’s episode. I think I am starting to have an unhealthy love for the show.
Various & Sundry
First, something all-too-serious. My friend John Podhoretz informed the world this morning that his beloved and talented sister Rachel passed away last night. Having lost a sibling, my heart aches for him and for their whole family.
Even before that news, I had planned on marking the upcoming anniversary of my father’s death. He passed away eight years ago this Sunday. I miss him constantly and am forevermore hampered in everything I do by the lack of his guidance. If you’ve never read it, here’s my eulogy to him (which I usually link to in the Corner on Father’s Day).
Also congratulations to my daughter who is finishing the fourth grade today (if she can manage to get through yard time without shivving someone). That means if there are typos in here it’s because I didn’t get a chance to properly proof this thing. As the insensitive guy said to the overly sensitive guy in an extremely humorous context, “Deal with it.”
In other happy news, later this summer — after the NR cruise — I’m taking the Fair Jessica to Scotland. We’ll be in Edinburgh for a few days before we head even further north. If you’ve got restaurant, scotch-drinking, tourist, scotch-drinking, cultural, or scotch-drinking guidance, I’d be grateful for it (special emphasis on places I need to make reservations for ASAP — and scotch drinking).
Oh, one more thing on Game of Thrones. If only they listened to Admiral Ackbar!
This is legitimately nifty. A map of the U.S. by pronunciation of various words.
Speaking of maps, how good are you at Geoguesser?
Look to your left, look to your right. Someone in your life is an ape-footed monster.
Dance, Hollywood, dance!
Speaking of Hollywood, six incredibly stupid ideas Hollywood has convinced you are badass.
If you really want to stay one step ahead of Big Data, you’ve got to get weird every now and then. Like maybe don’t wear a tie to work. Or, dress like a Storm Trooper and ride a unicycle. Whatever.
The Burn Book lives.