As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone.
-Henry David Thoreau, Resistance to Civil Government
All warfare is based in deception. There is no place where espionage is not used. Offer the enemy bait to lure him.
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Espionage is war in which the casualty is human nature. Whether the subjects of espionage are people foreign or domestic, those people must alter what they would ordinarily say and do in order to resist. It is a different kind of killing, a more metaphorical one, but it remains an attempt by the state to neutralize those it has deemed a threat. The reality that governments around the world, including in this country, often view their own populaces as threats is a chilling one indeed.
The narrative prevalent in the news nowadays is Apple standing up to the FBI and refusing to write software that would allow the FBI to unlock data from the phones of the San Bernardino terrorists, and any accomplices they may have had.
But does anyone believe hackers employed by the feds are not already writing code for this task? We know that surveillance of citizens who have not committed terrorist acts, and have no plans to do so, is becoming more and more widespread. Should Apple prevail in court and not be forced to write the software, does anyone really think the issue would be over? This is merely one battle in an ongoing war between telecommunications providers and law enforcement. Does anyone really think the private sector (which in the case of telecommunications, is more a corporatist sector) will triumph over the public sector? And does anyone really think this is a one-off, that a precedent won’t be set that will drag us closer (if we’re not already there) to 1984?
And one last question: why would anyone really think that Apple is such a champion of privacy? Apple had already assisted the FBI in cases similar to this. And after all, Apple BUILT the goddamn thing the government wants to use to track and surveil immigrants and citizens with. Apple is more a culprit than champion. I’m not asserting Apple designed, manufactured, and marketed the iPhone with the express purpose of colluding with the government to spy on us, but it is not difficult to find historical examples of government perverting a new technology, that could and should be used for peaceful purposes and social advancement, for the purposes of war and espionage, like nuclear fission, aviation, satellites, and now smartphones.
In Resistance to Civil Government Henry David Thoreau wrote:
“If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do without them. All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.”
“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.”
Here, some clarification is in order. Obviously, Thoreau is not referring to smartphones and government surveillance, but to slavery and the nascent Abolition movement.
“Some are petitioning the State to dissolve the Union, to disregard the requisitions of the President. Why do they not dissolve it themselves — the union between themselves and the State — and refuse to pay their quota into its treasury?”
Thoreau here is referring to refusing to pay taxes to support the Mexican War, but this dissolution of relationship between individual and the state can be performed in other ways. Obviously, we cannot in this day and age avoid paying taxes the way Thoreau and his contemporaries could, even if just temporarily and to prove a philosophical and/or ethical point. But there are several ways in which someone may opt out of interacting with the state, some more passive than others. One of those ways is by ending your reliance on smartphones.
I wear my technophobia on my sleeve. I was canoeing with a friend this past summer and during the course of our trip my dumb phone got soaked and became inoperable. I went to the AT&T store to get a new one and told the salesman, “Give me the cheapest one you have.”
He pointed to one, but the one next to it was even cheaper. “Oh, you don’t want that one,” he said. “It doesn’t have a camera.”
“I’m buying this one today,” I said, gesturing to the camera-less phone.
I don’t view Apple as a telecommunication company valiantly standing up for the privacy rights of individuals, but as an entity that has convinced consumers their most popular product is somehow essential. They are indirectly complicit in government spying on individuals, and some other companies and public figures such as Bill Gates are actively advocating for it.
I did not write this article to simply express paranoia and rail against the destructive intentions of government, or Apple. Rather, I want to disabuse those concerned about their privacy (and those cheerleading Apple) of the notion that this is a binary issue. There is a third way: disassociation, and simplification. Rather than view this issue as market forces vs. government’s monopoly of force, I advocate leaving the market. Don’t buy and rely on something that can be used against you. If you can live without it, do so.
Let’s switch to Walden: “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”
Mocking the prevalence and ubiquity of smartphones in our lives has become a cliché at this point. Everyone has seen pictures, or observed with their naked eyes, a group of people supposedly enjoying dinner or some other function together all staring at their phones, interacting without interaction, that I scarcely need add my voice to the chorus. “Social networks have led to people being anti-social,” blah, blah, blah. But we’re at a point now that’s beyond irony to something more pernicious, namely the possibility (read: certainty) of ordinary citizens being spied on by their government.
Like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife, I grow weary of too much Thoreau, and turn now to his contemporary across the pond, Romantic poet William Wordsworth:
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
Leave your devices at home, or throw them out. You don’t need digital screens to enjoy the world. Keep the images of Nature and society in your mind’s eye. Keep memories and eschew taking pictures. And don’t be a party to government’s surveillance of yourself.
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