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It has emerged since Friday, through leaked documents, that the US government has been systematically mining our private online data with Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, Hotmail, Skype all being implicated. One of the most interesting parts of our story however, is the reaction from the public: one of complete un-surprise.

Indeed, in our hyperreal world that blurs reality and fiction, PRISM appears to us as only an extension of the TV series that we watch on a daily basis. A one-off special episode of Homeland or 24. It seems that we already knew it was likely the government were hacking into our data, but we had fetishistically disavowed this knowledge. We knew, but we chose not to know.

As the identity of the whistleblower was revealed last night to be Edward Snowden, questions were inevitably raised as to his motives for revealing his identity, as well as what effect this might have on the story. In the same way as Bradley Manning, would new found celebrity status of being the whistleblower overshadow the debate itself? This remains to be seen, but Snowden’s drive of not wanting to live in a society where governments have this power remains an important thing we need to consider.

If governments start justifying their actions by arguing that ‘law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear‘ then we no longer can claim to live in a democracy and will be giving our leaders all power. The whole point is that it isn’t William Hague’s place to decide who is or who isn’t a law-abiding citizen: the people should decide on this fact. What comes next is the use of such justifications to crack down on protestors and conscientious objectors (like the whistleblowers) who break formal law, yes, but in a way which is beneficial for society.

Snowden argues that his motives were to spark a debate about the kind of society we want to live in, but if we already knew that this was the society we live in, will these revelations actually move us in a new direction?

At a time when the debate over online snooping laws has taken international importance, I cautiously say yes. We may have known before, but our collective conscience – the big Other – was in ignorance until now. In the same way as the story about the Emperor’s new clothes, until this point we all knew the emperor was naked (i.e. our data was being mined) but had chosen to ignore it, chosen not reveal this fact to the big Other. Snowden’s actions are akin to the child in the story who points out that the Emperor is in fact naked, breaking the collective ignorance, revealing this fact to the big Other, and allowing us to know consider it openly and in a meaningful way.

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One thought on “The Emperor’s New Codes

  1. Thank you for this post! Although already 2 months old, it perfectly resembles the feeling i had, when this whole PRISM-story got public here in Germany (albeit your post is much more eloquent than i could have ever written). Much to my surprise i found the german media covering this story just like any other political scandal we’ve been through in the last decade. Using the concept of the big Other here makes pretty much sense to me.
    Therefore, i don’t really think that something will fundamentally change within our society with the help of Snowden’s whistleblowing. You’re right: We knew it before. Maybe we even had to knew it before (through cinema, tv-shows) to really understand all of that in the first place. But the discourse at the moment doesn’t reassure me, that people really want to comprehend the whole dimension and significance of this leak. Things are going on in the public discussion, Germany is currently debating about railroads again.

    All the best,

    Nils

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