Everyone is chiming in on the Ed Snowden/NSA story. It’s great that Snowden has released all this information, just like it was great that Wikileaks released all those diplomatic cables, and great that Bradley Manning (evidently) leaked it to Wikileaks in the first place. We need to honor and defend these people, who are acting on behalf of a much greater cause than personal gain or fame. They are one important wing of the general delegitimizing of the United States and the neoliberal imperial project that the U.S. has pushed so hard for the past four decades.
But I’ve been surprised that the response to the NSA gathering everyone’s phone calls and emails has been so narrowly focused on the ostensible violation of personal privacy. The real issue is not the privacy of your personal communication. The NSA program is the government’s attempt to get a handle on networked uprisings, not so they can pre-empt them (though of course they’d like to), but to respond them as quickly as possible as they unfold. The goal of gathering all this meta-data is to be able to identify where the “hubs” are, who the people are who sit at key points in networks, helping pass news and messages along, but especially, who the people are who spread ideas and information from one network of people to the next, who help connect small networks into larger ones, and thus facilitate the unpredictable and rapid spread of dissent when it appears.
Sociologist Manuel Castells’ latest book Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (Polity Press: 2012) reaches for a much less academic and more popular tone than he usually does. He examines the new social movements that erupted since 2011, giving a helpful summary of the course of events in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, and the U.S., going behind the simplistic claims of a “twitter” or “social media revolution.” He shows how the presence of those technologies was important and indispensable for the development of these movements, but that it was the synergy between social media and actually existing networks, combining in public squares and camps, that took things to a new level. Elsewhere, Rodrigo Nunes wrote last summer on Mute Magazine’s web site a smart analysis of the organizational forms that emerged during 2011 and subsequently, arguing that the generally weak connections that prevail on social media could amalgamate into something greater:
under certain special conditions, the quantity of connections enabled by social media can indeed produce the quality of stronger ones – a marginal effect that weak ties always possess that is intensified by favourable circumstances, and which we could describe as a general lowering of each individual’s participation threshold.
We can see how the NSA spying program is geared to penetrating these new, not-really-spontaneous organizational forms that emerge on an adhoc basis and don’t seem to produce lasting institutional forms (at least not yet). Without the familiar unions or political parties as targets for infiltration and manipulation, the spooks in charge of imperial “peace” have been scrambling to head off the mysterious new ways people are figuring out to radically challenge the way life is shaped. Here’s Nunes again:
If there can be mass movements without mass organisations, it is because social media amplify exponentially the effects of relatively isolated initiatives. But that they do so is not a miraculous phenomenon that can magically bypass quality by producing quantity out of nothing; it requires the relay through hubs and strong tie groups and clusters that can begin to operationally translate ‘chatter’ into action. As that happens, under propitious conditions, the spread of information also aids the development of strong ties down the long tail: once a friend or family member goes to a demo, or you see stirring images of one, you are more likely to go, and so on. So we can only speak of ‘spontaneity’ if we understand the new flows of information and decision making as also being necessarily routed by previously existing networks and organisations and more tightly knit affinities, and thus along the lines of previously given structures that no doubt were transformed in the process; certainly not in the sense of an ideal ‘association of individuals’ who previously existed as individuals only.