Belaboring the Obvious

Monday, May 15, 2006


... and the long view. Right now, it seems as if the cards are stacked against those of us looking for a future which ensures our survival and our well-being and that of our children and their children. The prospect of an aberrant president and his cohort getting in the way of that is depressing, but, it forces consideration of the way things are, as well as how they might be in the future.

Every year or two, I dig out the old videotapes I have of James Burke's series, Connections, and run through all ten episodes in two or three days, for no other reason than to be reminded that his subject was change, and his remarks on that concept are as applicable today as they were twenty-seven years ago. Maybe, more so today. In many ways, he was right about the seminal devices which invention and technology had wrought. Nuclear weapons are as "now" as they were then (maybe even more relevant, since we have an idiot in the White House that thinks using them would be an act of God). Ballistic rockets are still with us, and still a prominent part of our lives, though those weapons lie hidden away from view and are largely absent from the public consciousness today. Computers? Burke's series was completed two years before the introduction of the personal PC. He likely would have had no notion at the time of the eventual impact of small computers (and their processing technology) and data networks on life today (up to and including the vast intelligence practice of data mining, commercially and governmentally). Nor could he have estimated the effect on hardware that bloated and wretchedly-written software and its overhead would have.

And yet, his more important point is that we rarely know ahead of time what events a particular idea or invention may precipitate, far into the future. Even informed speculation doesn't get us very far.

That might be one of the reasons for not putting too many clamps on science, even on the sort of science that occasionally troubles the scientists and their ethics specialists.

However, recent news about domestic spying brings up the issue of science and technology as forces for harm once again. It's easy to ascribe the damage, potential or real, to technology. For example, ABC News has reported that the same data mining techniques available to the NSA make child's play of connecting reporters to sources in leak investigations, whereas thirty years ago, such interconnectedness of information simply couldn't be divined easily. The tendency is to, therefore, blame the technology.

In fact, the problem is with the law--in this instance, first, by enabling the seizure of phone records by a wholly administrative, not judicial, instrument known as the National Security Letter (which was created by the passage of the Patriot Act), and second, by law which enables the government to purchase database information collected by private firms (and to sell some government data to private firms), even though the people whose information is being collected by those private firms will never know that information on them is part of extensive government data mining effort for investigative purposes. Finally, law enables private firms to gather data for later resale to virtually any other entity, without much concern for the way that data is used.

Fear and intimidation have been with us for a long, long time, and much of what this administration has been doing--and implying that it can do--is a variation on an old theme--divide and conquer.

If one needs to find an historical model for this sort of government behavior, I suspect it begins in earnest post-WWII, with the oft-repeated McCarthyite claims that the enemy is in our midst, and, by extension, that the enemy is us.

This same thinking extended from administration to administration about protesters of the Vietnam war, and then, in 1974, to the beginning of the so-called war on drugs.

In the 1980s, the enemy was the poor, hiding on the fringes of society, who were draining the country of resources through welfare fraud. Then, in the `90s, the enemy became anyone who wasn’t a Republican. The Bush administration has simply taken this fear of “otherness” to an entirely new level and played the theme politically like it was a Mozart concerto, combining as many disparate fears as possible into a coherent whole.

Until we start asking ourselves why the people of the most economically and militarily powerful nation in the world are so afraid, of practically everything, we’ll never get to the point of asking ourselves, with candor and honesty, why it is that we allow the government to usurp our rights in the name of protecting us.

Maybe it's time for the American public to stop being afraid of every threat the government says to be scared about and begin to identify the real threat--the Bush administration, and any other that attempts to use fear to control and intimidate citizens for political purposes. Then, to say, "turnabout is fair play." Maybe, we should demand the phone records of all those in the White House and of every Bush-appointed official in government, and then demand some time-sharing on the NSA's data-mining and pattern-defining computers, because our taxes paid for those machines and software. Then, demand the same access to private databases that the government has. Wouldn't that be an interesting exercise in open government? One way or another, perhaps it's time for the people to use the same science and technology to their advantage, rather than have it used against them for specious purposes.

I'll bet that the results would be eye-opening, and hilarious, as well. Sort of like finding lab results showing that there's an epidemic of VD at the local nursing home--the evidence would likely challenge all manner of preconceived notions.


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