Jackson Lears on the Surveillance State

Over on his blog Corey Robin posted a link to an editor’s note by Jackson Lears in the journal Raritan. Robin takes issue with Lears political analysis, but is in agreement with Lears on the “fundamental question of the surveillance state,” as I am. In his note, Lears argues that the apathetic public response to Edward Snowden’s revelations is too often justified through a narrative of technological determinism. Basically, the public has already accepted that “freedom” (read: keeping services free) on the Internet comes at the expense of privacy, and anyone who takes extreme measures to insist it should be otherwise is mentally imbalanced. Lears pushes back on that explanation, arguing that authoritarian politics are not an outgrowth of technology. The problem is not the technology, it is whether or not the government uses the technology at its disposal to create a police state. Ok, fine up until now. However, in elaborating his argument he makes the following comparison to what he anachronistically refers to as “Atomic Energy”:

New technology does not negate the fundamental necessity of protecting the citizenry from an intrusive government. If the genie is out of the bottle, then there has to be away to regulate and oversee its power. Atomic energy, for example, has always posed enormous difficulties of regulation and oversight. However inadequately those problems have been addressed, at least they have periodically been the subject of public debate. There has been general agreement that the destructive power of atomic energy must be contained by vigorous oversight. The framers of the constitution could not anticipate the Internet or the myriad technologies of surveillance developed by the national security state, any more than they could anticipate nuclear weapons. But they did anticipate the abuse of government power, and they institutionalized restrictions on it in the founding document of our nation.

This analogy is puzzling. While it is true that the mandate of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is to “ensure the safe use of nuclear energy while protecting people and the environment,” the better analogy is to the nuclear weapons complex. The need to protect information about the nuclear weapons technology was used to justify the secrecy of the Cold War security state. In fact, there was a complete lack of oversight of nuclear programs and how they were funded, and the techno-scientific discourse of nuclear deterrence theory replaced public debate about the size of the nuclear arsenal with expert judgements. In that sense, what is happening today with the creation of the surveillance state is an extension and deepening of the secrecy and security culture that was already built on a technologically deterministic narrative about nuclear technology during the Cold War.

The problem with flipping Lears’ example is that it places me uncomfortably on the side of the technological determinists against whom he is arguing, where I most decidedly do not want to be.

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