Did Hollywood Help Make NSA Surveillance Permissible?

Last week's NSA leaks scandal had one scary side-story: a poll determining that a slim but clear majority of Americans weren't worried in the least about the 360-degree, all-platform access that the eavesdropping agency apparently now has to their phone, internet and wireless communications. Orwell's telescreen is part of our accepted digital furniture now, it seems, and Big Brother is regarded as a gentle protector rather than an iron-fisted tormentor even as sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four skyrocket on Amazon. And "precrime", a sci-fi concept of considerable vintage, is now a real thing, apparently. Another good reason that the representative fictional American citizen of our broken times is the zombie.

For a country overly prone to citing its foundational documents and the rights enshrined therein – at least one of which, the fourth amendment forbidding unlawful search and seizure, has been roundly trashed by the NSA – this seems oddly quiescent and meek, not the kind of attitude that throws off the yoke of colonial power, subdues a virgin continent, builds an industrial behemoth, does for the Nazis and the Japanese, and puts a man on the Moon.

For anyone who ever believed that movies and TV would rot your mind, here's the one time you were absolutely right. Hollywood has been softening us all up for years now, acclimatising us all to the notion that our every movement and conversation, our locations, routines and spending habits, are visible to, or purchasable by, others whose motives we cannot know. But relax … it's all sublimely OK.

Think of the dozens of movies in which you see the pursued at one or two removes, on computer or surveillance screens, on tracking devices, blurred, the screen freezing here and there, rather than as a person unmediated by other screens, an analogue human being made of meat, not binary code. Already the pixellated quarry (whether it's Osama bin Laden or Jason Bourne) is less human, more disposable, a target in a video game, an abstraction – just as he would appear in the sights of a drone. It's a matter of perspective: as movie viewers we are accustomed to being situated on the side of the law, and thus are behind the lens or microphone or cloned phone or security cam tracking the killer, criminal or terrorist in the story. In reality, however, we are never in that place; we are always potentially in the place where that terrorist or criminal is: under the magnifying glass, on tape, in the crosshairs.

The NSA (unofficial motto: "Nobody Say Anything") and Hollywood (unofficial motto: "Nobody Knows Anything") have been feeling each other up at arms' length for decades, but in the post-9/11 era the bromance became official, and surveillance-based entertainment, from 24 to Alias, from Spooks to Big Brother to Person of Interest, went global.

Not that Hollywood goes all the way. In movies where the NSA appears as itself (or a production designer's imagining thereof), there is always one rogue NSA agent spiritedly abusing the vast informational and surveillance capabilities available to him, principally by directing it upon the proscribed domestic sphere, which is by law the fiefdom of the FBI (mind you, have you see their computer system lately? Epson-land). In Enemy of the State it's the dependably barmy Jon Voight who goes off the reservation and in Echelon Conspiracy it's Martin Sheen. But these lone villains are routinely depicted as abusing a huge and magnificent, fundamentally benign spy apparatus. The thing itself is morally neutral, they seem to argue – it's bad humans who make it behave badly. In a worst case scenario, the relentless logic of the computer's superbrain can come up with some fairly drastic solutions: in Eagle Eye, the department of defence surveillance programme Ariia (Autonomous Reconnaissance Intelligence Integration Analyst – sexily voiced by Julianne Moore) goes all Skynet on its users, becoming self-aware and determining by ruthless logic that the real bug in the system isn't digital at all: it's the human political class, and the only thing to do is to wipe out the lot of them at the state of the union address (a curse on Shia LaBeouf's head for foiling that plot). Echelon Conspiracy ends with another, more optimistic and entirely unlikely outcome: Echelon determines that the problem is Echelon, and promptly shuts itself down. Can you imagine the Drug Enforcement Administration doing that?

The NSA has been up to its tricks since the late 40s, and people have been uneasy about it for almost as long. Philip K Dick, the patron saint of American paranoia, wrote The Minority Report in 1956, in which the precrime police of Washington, DC, claim to foresee misdemeanours in order to prevent them. The usually less twitchy Isaac Asimov, in his 1958 story All the Troubles of the World, delineated a computer system not unlike the NSA's called Multivac, which aims to drain the worlds's entire fund of raw data for its insights about future crime. You can tell how that ends just by going back to the title. And in a nice foreshadowing of Prism and Blarney, Shamrock and Minaret and all the other sweetly named instruments of our subjugation, Theodore J Flicker's 1967 satire The President's Analyst imagined the US besieged by an enormous computerised info-conspiracy orchestrated by that satanic outfit, comparable in infamy only to Smersh, Specter, Kaos and Treadstone, called the Phone Company. Yes – that phone company.

We've been here before, folks. We were just never quite so insanely glad to be here. What is wrong with us?


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