In 2013, an employee for the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton named Edward Snowden revealed to the world that the National Security Agency, an intelligence agency of the United States, was using digital mass surveillance techniques on every digitally connected American citizen and indeed, adult human on planet earth. For me this was a shock. I had been raised to believe that America was the ‘home of the free’ and that our constitutional civil liberties meant that we were entitled not to be spied upon by ‘our own’ government. Surveilling your own citizens is what the ‘bad guys’ and dictators did. Yet, here was the American government doing, basically the same thing. And the reaction of the country was essentially a big fat shrug. 80% of the population didn’t give a shit. A neverending chorus of Senators and government officials made the rounds on television to condemn Snowden as a traitor. In the end, some tech companies upgraded some encryption standards, but overall nothing fundamentally changed.
In TV shows, books, movies, and other fictional stories, the struggle is often for the hero to reveal the truth, some terrible secret that the powers that be are keeping in order to maintain control. At the climax, the heroes reveal the truth to the public and the bad guys can’t handle it. (think: V for Vendetta). The senator goes to prison for corruption, the dictatorship falls, etc.
In real life, people shrug. The ‘truth teller’ is condemned as a traitor, and to the extent anyone cares, they are more angry at the person who revealed the truth than what the ugly truth itself revealed. Evil is less outrageous than daring to reveal it.
Why is this? These stories and ideas are based on a fundamentally outdated outlook in which power is contingent upon concealing the truth, like the church prosecuting Galileo, or the plantation slaveholder forbidding his slaves to learn how to read. The liberal idea is that with freedom of speech, you get enlightened and rational discourse in which people converge on a consensus or at least reasoned disagreement, in the manner of a polite, Jeffresonian “republic of letters”. Freedom of speech, we are told, is the only necessary condition of discovering the “Truth”. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
This is not how things work. Freedom of speech is a necessary precondition, but not the end all be all. In the information age, problem is not a lack of information, but an overload of informPost too long. Click here to view the full text.