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Amazon, Atwood and the NSA

I don’t know why Amazon put Oryx and Crake into the little section marked “You might also like” after I added a copy of Woman on the Edge of Time to my digital basket. The last book I had bought by Margaret Atwood was A Handmaid’s Tale, but I bought that in person, at Foyles in Charing Cross, in part because I had liked the thought of re-reading it and the particular paperback edition had red-edged pages. I doubt Foyles and Amazon share my data, but maybe they do. Either way, I don’t know and I doubt that they would tell me. I doubt Amazon could know about the copy of Oryx and Crake that I grew up with, since the edition my mum owned probably predates the systematic storage of data in easily accessible computer form. Nor, for that matter, do Amazon probably know about my copy of The Blind Assassin, since that was bought for me by an ex-girlfriend, and Amazon would probably have had to consult data held on me by either Facebook or Google to figure that connection out, or maybe they could have talked to my mobile phone provider to figure out whom I was calling quite often three years ago. The point about all of that is that for some reason Amazon deduced that I might like to buy Oryx and Crake, at which point I clicked yes. A few days later, to the horror of independent book shops everywhere, the book was delivered by the postman. I managed to put off reading it again for a while, but eventually succumbed and enjoyed it more than I had previously done. No person actually looked at me while this happened, but I imagine that a human had a hand in designing the algorithm that checked against my previous purchase history, all sorts of other data that Amazon probably holds on me, and then served me the recommendation. As recommendations go, it was a good one. I really enjoy Margaret Atwood’s work, even though I have read only a fraction of her published novels.

I use Margaret Atwood as an example because she is one of eight cultural heavyweights highlighted by The Guardian, out of 500, who have written an open letter about mass surveillance. I don’t have the inclination to read through the list to find a apter candidate, and I haven’t bought anything by Don DeLillo or Arundhati Roy from Amazon, so they would make pretty bad examples. I might have bought something by Ian McEwan from Amazon, but I really couldn’t remember, though I’m certain that Amazon knows the answer to that question. There’s plenty that I know about Amazon (I buy books from them when I am too busy to go to a bookshop, which is more fun), there are things that I can assume (they’ve got a marvellous way of recommending books that occasionally offers me books I already own, and the odd WTF?! recommendation) and bits that I know that I can’t know (“Hey, Mr Bezos, can I take a look at your proprietary book-recommending algorithm? No? Okay then.”). Despite my gaps in knowledge, they’re quite good at selling me books when I am procrastinating, or not pulling works off Project Gutenberg to stuff my Kindle with. The big question, however, is whether I should be worried about Amazon surveilling me. It remembers me. It collects data on me, but is anyone actually looking at me? I think there’s an important distinction between the three, since the letter that inspired me to write this considers that the act of storing data is a violation on par with being actively observed and investigated. One way to think of surveillance as a category is that there is surveillance as observation (the recording of information), surveillance as memory (the storing of information) and surveillance as investigation (the active search for information). All three are intertwined, but our common picture of surveillance is closely aligned to fear arising from the third strand of surveillance: people in dark rooms sifting through our private lives. The NSA files highlight a specific problem: the collision of routine observation via metadata collection, and quasi-perpetual storage and memory of such information. The sword of Damocles thus hangs over the head of anyone unlucky enough to come up on the security services’ radar. In positing a solution for the many, many issues raised by the activities of spy agencies, the letter treats humans as if we can exist as a society with a ‘do not track’ notice stapled to our foreheads, when we can’t.

The letter posits an atomic theory of democracy in a way that I think Ayn Rand would be quite happy with. In particular, the line “all humans have the right to remain unobserved and unmolested” is somewhat preposterous. Would there be enough space in the theoretical forest of unobserved falling trees for all such humans to sit? The idea of such a fundamental right conflicts with what human beings do. For better or worse, we observe each other pretty much constantly when we’re in company. I surveil you, you surveil me: society is founded on social surveillance. Maybe somewhere out there, a libertarian survivalist is existing in perfect non-surveilled freedom, but I doubt it. Such an heroic figure is seductive, but probably deserves a seat alongside other fictional constructs of political thought like More’s Utopia and Hobbes’ state of nature. The purpose of this private hero is that they live in our collective imagination, helping us to persuade ourselves that being observed is an aberration, rather than a normal aspect of human existence. Humans observe and remember each other. It’s only when we willingly forget our friends, families and everyone else that we’re tied to that we can state that ‘surveillance is theft’ without considering what that makes every stranger who looks at us in the street. Actively discarding the normal and everyday surveillance of others makes it possible to speck in such forceful terms about surveillance by governments and corporations, but it also raises serious questions about the solutions offered to such surveillance. A society in which each individual dictates to everyone else the exact terms on which they wish to be observed and remembered isn’t a society: it’s a collection of self-important arseholes shouting at each other. The digital storage of everything forever highlights the need for mechanisms that enable us to delete bits and pieces of our past that would otherwise have fallen by the wayside (for example, the marks in my GCSE english homework which I might not want a future employer searching). Yet it also introduces the idea that it’s possible or plausible, for a person to control the exact record of their interaction with the world, and that society can function without memory.

The reason that I think the focus on data collection and memory is important is because when we think in terms of surveillance as investigation, we tend to forget that our entire society is functions on the tacit understanding that it’s okay for the government (and other people, and corporations) to remember us, and that we don’t get to control this all the time as individuals. Would you like government-provided healthcare? Yes? Well I’m afraid that requires the government, or government funded agencies, knowing quite a lot of private information about you (and everyone else), storing it in perpetuity, and looking it up as and when it is needed. Of course, one or two of us could kick up a fuss about this arrangement and throw rattles out of prams via the European Court of Human Rights, but if we do so in a collective fashion, then I’m afraid the government won’t know what healthcare options to provide, because it won’t bloody know who needs to use them. The same applies, too, to privately-provided healthcare. Even where healthcare is provided by a community over a ‘leviathan’, this requires observation and memory in a manner that isn’t dictated by the individual. In all three cases, our heroic unobserved survivalist bleeds to death alone with a ‘do not observe’ sign taped to their front door. Our society of the heroically unobserved falls apart because the basic support functions of society fail when we stop pooling data as we have done, in some form or other, since humans evolved. I have no problem with restricting investigation, but society, and common social activities such as buying things, working and providing government services like healthcare cannot function without memory. Rather than positing that the ‘involiable integrity of the individual’ requires that they be able to dictate the terms on which their actions are noticed and recorded by the world at large, we should be thinking about ways in which to limit government access to private databases, and provide for clearer notification mechanisms when the private sector transfers information about us to a government agency.

I don’t think anyone has the answer at the moment, but I’m pretty sure that the correct one doesn’t involve a retreat into political fantasy that would render society unworkable. A good answer would be the erection of somewhat solid walls between public and private databases, and the prevention of mass acquisition of data by government. The corporate backlash against the NSA is going pretty well, I think. Try thinking about government and corporate surveillance in terms of “Where did I buy the food that I ate this morning?” or “How did the government know to employ enough A&E nurses so that I didn’t have to wait 24 hours in casualty?” instead of “When are the Orwellian hit men coming to boot stomp my face, forever?” and the society of the heroically unobserved appears untenable.