Spooky yarn-spinning: just how did the Guardian and New York Times get the surveillance story back-to-front?
… or why most editors and writers specialising in technology see no actual scoop in the Snowden leaks …
Sometimes the person dancing backwards and in high heels – famously, Ginger Rogers, compared with her dance partner Fred Astaire – is a man. In this instance, he is the writer and new media entrepreneur Michael Wolff. With a set of super-sensitive manoeuvres that Ginger would have envied, he wickedly added his voice last week to the revelation that the ‘surveillance business model’, not exactly news, has been mistaken by some newspapers for a creepy invention of government spooks bent on invading our private acts and communications.
His ostensible topic was a book published earlier this month about a 1971 break-in by activists that revealed the spine-crawling extent of FBI surveillance under that agency’s notorious founder, J. Edgar Hoover, who ran it from 1935 to 1972. The inside story of the break-in had already been told in another book, Wolff said, eleven years ago. He was briefly puzzled by the huge attention paid to its forty-year old subject in recent weeks in headlines of the two old print stars of the Snowden saga. ‘Earlier this month, The New York Times, Guardian and other media outlets “revealed” the identities of several people who burgled the FBI in 1971,’ was how Wolff’s s Guardian sub-editor encapsulated his gently sardonic amazement. Wolff himself described how the answer came to him, as follows:
[W]hy, 11 years later, was I reading about this as though, mirabile dictu, the lost secrets of the past were suddenly being revealed and now making headlines everywhere? … In the age of Snowden, revelations about government spying are not just hot stories, but suddenly part of a vast new narrative canvas and moral tale. … [I]t is apparently possible to ignore what is known – even in the age of Google – and, when convenient, reposition it to be new and useful again. … There is not just a new age of political activism, à la Edward Snowden, but also of story telling activism.
Quite, and successful storytelling activism makes irresistible clickbait that works even better when it becomes outrage that goes viral when the audience confuses the story with other – justified – targets for anger. At post-Gutenberg, we have had irritable email from dear readers, including two Americans, in which a complaint about our refusal to be impressed by the Snowden narrative has billowed into a polite rant about U.S. military actions and policy – the use of drones at all, or against poor countries, nuclear testing, Guantanamo, and so on – as if the correspondent had never met the idea of a non sequitur.
Let us be clear: post-Gutenberg is chilled to the viscera by the thought of all military weapons, used by anyone, for any reason – and has the identical reaction to any mention of torturing prisoners.
The real surveillance story’s only connection with all that is the use by the UK and US governments of the same tools invented and deployed by large US companies. As Andrew Leonard wrote in Salon last summer in ‘Netflix, Facebook — and the NSA: They’re all in it together,’ expanding on a genuine Wall Street Journal revelation about free surveillance software available to anyone to use:
By making it economically feasible to extract meaning from the massive streams of data that increasingly define our online existence, Hadoop effectively enabled the surveillance state.
And not just in the narrowest, Big Brother, government-is-watching-everyone-all-the-time sense of that term. Hadoop is equally critical to private sector corporate surveillance. Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Amazon, Netflix — just about every big player that gathers the trillions of data “events” generated by our everyday online actions employs Hadoop as a part of their arsenal of Big Data-crunching tools. Hadoop is everywhere — as one programmer told me, “it’s taken over the world.”
… In the past half-decade Hadoop has emerged as one of the triumphs of the non-proprietary, open-source software programming methodology that previously gave us the Apache Web server, the Linux operating system and the Firefox browser. Hadoop belongs to nobody. Anyone can copy it, modify, extend it as they please.
… They’re all in it together. The spooks and the social media titans and the online commerce goliaths are collaborating to improve data-crunching software tools that enable the tracking of our behavior in fantastically intimate ways that simply weren’t possible as recently as four or five years ago. It’s a new military industrial open source Big Data complex. The gift economy has delivered us the surveillance state.
… Hadoop quickly secured the critical mass of cross-industry support necessary for an open-source software program to become an essential part of Internet infrastructure. Even engineers at Google chipped in, although Hadoop, at its core, was basically an attempt to reverse-engineer proprietary Google technology.
People reading those extracts might wonder why Hadoop and not Snowden was the surveillance sensation of 2013. Two answers — aside from the plain truth, verifiable by five seconds spent typing the appropriate search terms into a Google box, that Hadoop has been snapped up enthusiastically by both The New York Times and The Guardian for spying on their readers:
• In the way traditional media work, writers who understand technology do not get much of a hearing from the editors at the top, who specialise in politics. The technology writers usually work for sections that cover business and, or, science. In other words, they are treated as incomprehensible boffins or wonks.
Why, demanded one irate friend, an American poet, didn’t they and post-Gutenberg – who has also served as one of those gnomes — tell everyone else about government surveillance if we knew all about it long before the Snowden hooha? Erm, well, we did … We distinctly remember confessing to him, years ago, our anxiety about email being read by eyes for which it was not intended, including those of spooks. And, quickly noting his sceptical reaction, we realised what he was only thinking but others, equally oblivious but less tactful, had stated bluntly: ‘You’re being paranoid.’
• Being able to pin information about technology to a face, a personality, an identity, and ideally – drama — humanises it. That can suddenly magnetise people who usually ignore it for good reasons: it is complex, and learning about it and the culture and ambitions of Silicon Valley consumes attention they would rather focus elsewhere. But because they do not really understand it – even though some political editors, like Alan Rusbridger at The Guardian, have a hobbyist’s deep fascination with the ‘mechanics’ of their devices and the net – they are easily misled. Think of the millions who really believe that Steve Jobs invented the computer revolution, or that Al Gore had something to do with the birth of the internet.
To reach Joe and Jane Everyone and work them into a tizzy, news of our subjugation to the ‘surveillance business model’ had to be delivered to them as visions of nightmares about a totalitarian state — fronted by the ghostly and bespectacled clever-boy-next-door visage of Edward Snowden, the high drama of his secret-stealing and travails as a fugitive.
Not so much activism as storytelling activism, just as Wolff says.
But the extent of yarn-spinning always gets out, eventually, and diminishes trust in the media. As we keep repeating on this blog – tiresomely – because that trust should not be sacrificed to clickbait, another way of financing and structuring media has to be found – and soon.