Saturday, September 19, 2015

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden took on some aspects of a folk hero in 2013 when he blew the whistle on NSA spying. He seems to have had completely pure motives about protecting the privacy of individuals and acted from his conscience with no thought of personal gain. In fact he was willing to make significant personal sacrifices to release information on the surveillance that goes on behind the backs of ordinary citizens. He comes across as far less sinister than Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who seems in comparison arrogant and self-promoting. I'm not sure that either of their quests will amount to anything important, and I'll just say something about what looks to me like naïveté in the case of Snowden.

Two years after the fact it doesn't look as if Snowden has had much of an impact. This may be because the U.S. and many other governments still favor the data collection methods used by the NSA, which they believe to be essential for identifying terrorist threats. Meanwhile the public either hasn't paid attention to what Snowden has exposed or agrees with the government about the importance of continuing the NSA's procedures. It currently looks as if anti-terrorism techniques will largely go unchanged, and Snowden will never be able to return to the U.S. without facing significant jail time.

I sympathize with Snowden's acts in the sense that the complete invasion of privacy of which the NSA is capable could create an ideal scenario for the abuse of power. That information could be used to manipulate elections or, in the worst case, to selectively eliminate individuals who pose a threat to an unscrupulous political regime. What started as an innocent effort to identify Islamic terrorists could possibly evolve into another Stalin-like regime, with millions of people disappearing without explanation.

One area in which I don't seem to agree with Snowden is in regard to the long-term viability of the American political system. He seems to accept the conventional model of the U.S. as a democracy in which the citizens live in freedom and collectively express their will through the political process. As I've said, I don't think the political process has ever worked particularly well with respect to equality, while the growth of corporations and the increasing concentration of wealth have already severely distorted the balance of power in politics. Moreover, even if the deck wasn't already stacked against individual citizens, as I've also said, the complexity of the world is so far beyond the cognitive abilities of nearly everyone that it is foolish to expect that citizens will make good decisions collectively even without the intervention of special interests.

Another area in which I disagree with him is the desirability of a high level of freedom for individual Americans. If it were possible to devise a system that automatically preempted the ascent of autocrats and special interest groups to a level where inequality would rise or national security would fail, there would be less need for many of the individual freedoms that exist now. For example, if everyone had a high standard of living and there was effectively no chance of any regime taking over that would materially reduce anyone's quality of life, there would be little to object to about government surveillance. As things stand, Americans churn out volumes of information about themselves that is available without much restriction to whoever chooses to access it, and most people seem to be fine with that. Returning to my "dangerous animal" thesis on humans, as long as we remain the same species, there will always have to be restrictions on our activities, which are not only compassionate and sacrificing, but also destructive and selfish.

Edward Snowden comes from family of government workers and seems to have a respect for somewhat conservative political values, along with a libertarian streak. This puts him in a camp that doesn't seem to understand economics or how many of the ills currently facing Americans are directly or indirectly the consequences of capitalism. The problem with libertarians is that they tend to operate in an idealized version of American history in which our forefathers omnisciently saw hundreds of years into the future and created a Constitution that would work forever. From my point of view the Constitution is a dated document designed to maintain a balance of power within the U.S., but it has been failing in various ways ever since it was first written and is constantly in need of revisions that have become increasingly difficult to enact. Snowden's model is obsolete as far as I'm concerned.

Nevertheless, I am impressed by Edward Snowden's youthful zeal, intellectual honesty and computer expertise. He is the kind of person who might one day help create the software that would eliminate our need to depend on ignorant, ineffectual and corrupt politicians to organize our lives as well as society as a whole.

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