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Monday, June 21, 2004

Heartland of Darkness


From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink - greetings !
- George Orwell's 1984
"Our extended senses, tools, technologies, through the ages, have been closed systems incapable of interplay or collective awareness. Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of co-existence among our technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history. Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience which demands that they become collectively conscious. Our technologies, like our private senses, now demand an interplay and ratio that makes rational co-existence possible.
- Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (p.5).
My, how society has changed since those words were written. Then again, maybe it hasn't changed that much.

We have surveillance cameras on our street corners, in malls, at bank machines, and in the lobbies of our apartment buildings; mostly in the name of security.

We have increasing consolidation of print and electronic news media.

We have the advent of the personal computing age and the internet.

With advances in camera technology we now have web-cams (including beer cams), digital cameras capable of taking (and making available on the 'net) still shots, motion pictures (with sound, too), night vision shots, and even infra-red shots (although you might be a little shocked at the price on that last one), and now we have cell phones with digital cameras capable of taking the first two kinds of pictures (so far). With the increasing convergence of technology and the resources of the internet we can, quite literally, bring the world to us in (reasonably) real time, and also show the world those things some of the world doesn't want us to see (the June 4th edition of the Toronto Star has a bit of a further take on that idea).

So...what am I babbling towards here? Well....

We are caught in the chaotic boundary layer between the two views of the future alluded to in the opening quotes: the Orwellian view of the conformist all-seeing, all-controlling totalitarian state; and the McLuhan-esque view of the diverse all-experiencing liberationist "global village." It is, in truth, the battle for "hearts and minds".

The USA Patriot Act is the vanguard legislation passed in the post-9/11 hysteria of America. It's provisions give the state unprecedented power to watch over the citizens, to gather information without publicity or the necessity to show "just cause" in a court of law, bypassing the normal checks and balances through the use of "special warrants".
Since 2001, the FBI has issued thousands of special warrants to carry out surveillance and get personal records from hospitals, libraries and other institutions. *
It also uses force of law to prevent the targets of those warrants from even acknowledging that they have been served. This is, in effect, the kind of shadowy legal system that is usually found in paranoid, totalitarian governments. It is a product of fear; the kind of fear generated by those in power who see some nebulous "outside threat" to the "way of life" in the nation. It is the fear that preys upon emotion, calling up the awesome, tribal power of blind, unknowledgeable patriotism to defeat the threat: "If you're not with us, you're with the (insert threat here)".

The "threat" is usually defined as some sort of non-patriotic other "-ism". In the 1950's, the feared "-ism" was Communism. In current-day America there are, apparently, two feared "-isms": terrorism, and liberalism (secular or religious). The fear of these "-isms" is readily apparent in the pronouncements of the current US government and their (so far) allies in the mainstream media. That fear is also reflected in what is often called America's "heartland"; the element of the populace that generally resides outside of California and the New England states. Richard Nixon called them "the silent majority"; Orwell called them "proles"; futurist Harlan Ellison called them "scuttlefish". Once the fear of the outside "ism" has been raised, measures such as the Patriot Act are "justified" by soothing, plausible statements:
"The Patriot Act isn't a sea change, it's an incremental change. A lot of the powers existed before. They're just easier to use. A lot of the powers existed before. They're just easier to use. The old security laws were written before there was an internet and cell phones. So we've been playing catch-up.

"It's not the law that's the problem, it's that not enough is known about it."
- Mary de La Rosa (who worked for the NSC under the Clinton administration) * (emphasis is mine - EG)
And so the American heartland follows its leaders into the darkness, much as the Russians did in 1917, and the Germans in 1933:
"We all support the Patriot Act here, and we watch out for any strangers coming into town too." - Wally Baird, city manager of Alliance, Nebraska. *
If the Patriot Act remains in force unchanged (or even remains at all), the descent to the Orwellian society will continue; and if Patriot II comes into play, the consequences are truly appalling.

But don't expect miracles. There are voices of sanity out there. Their venue is primarily the Internet, but there are other places they are heard (and seen); modern technology makes dissent possible, despite the efforts of the paranoid powers to control and/or silence it.
For the moment, however, Ben Franklin's warning goes unheard; and the fear-driven scuttlefish are in control:
"I think it's right. Terrorism has gone too far overboard and I will give up some of my freedoms to know that I am safe." - unnamed citizen of Alliance, Nebraska *
We can but hope that they will come to their senses...
"If there is hope, it lies in the Proles." - 1984 [LINK]

Image credit: The Surveillance Camera Players

Quotes marked * are from a recent article on the BBC News website.