In Surveillance Valley, Yasha Levine, challenges conventional wisdom and says that the Internet was actually founded by the US government as part of their counterinsurgency program in Vietnam. The US government wanted to build a connected computer system that could collect and share real time intelligence, observe the world in real time, and watch and analyze people and political movements–especially communist or socialist ones.
“The Internet was hardwired to be a surveillance tool from the start. No matter what we use the network for today–dating, directions, en-crypted chat, e-mail, or just reading the news–it has always had a dual-use nature rooted in intelligence gathering and war…The Internet is the most effective weapon the government has ever built.”
Not only does the US government use the Internet to spy on us but, as Levine discovered, powerful Internet corporations, like Google and Facebook, do too. In fact, their business model is surveillance.
This concept is foreign to most Americans. Since the 90’s when the Internet became widely available to American households the dominant narrative has been that of a liberating technology that decentralizes power, overthrows corrupt states and brings about freedom and democracy.
Levine makes an interesting point about knowledge of this pervasive surveillance. In the 60’s and 70’s political activists understood the dystopian potential of the Internet and saw both government and corporations using it for surveillance and control. Thanks to Silicon Valley PR, the narrative changed to become the story that’s widely accepted today. You know, the one about the nerdy computer engineer bravely standing up to government oppression through the power of the Internet.
“Personal computers and information networks were supposed to be the new frontier of freedom–a techno-utopia where authoritarian and repressive structures lost their power, and where the creation of a better world was still possible. And all that we, global netizens, had to do was get out of the way and let Internet companies innovate and the market work its magic. This narrative has been planted deep into our cultures collective subconscious and holds a powerful sway over the way we view the Internet today.”
Reading Surveillance Valley, gave me a sense of deja-vu. Where had I heard this sort of rah-rah, techno-triumphalism before? Then it came to me, Levine’s take on the Internet was remarkably similar to One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, by Thomas Frank.
Frank was examining neoliberalism’s market populism but it reads very similar to the techno-triumphalism that Levine recounts. Frank wrote how Americans were seduced and coerced during the 1990s into accepting the free market as the perfect way of arranging human affairs, with the Internet providing the hip new cover story why this time it really was different. With the end of the cold war, the first public enthusiasm for the Internet and the discovery that great profits could be made from youth culture, the corporations saw an opportunity to make themselves seem more heroic, more popular, more hip.
This brave new economy of the 1990’s promised to transform labor and create a workers paradise, with pleasant, engaging tasks and lots of free time. Instead, by 2018, neoliberalism and the Internet have created a workers purgatory, with repetitive, timed labor, and a part-time precariat, largely because the leading intellects of Silicon Valley have ensured that workers are so thoroughly atomized by the gig economy that organizing and solidarity have become almost unimaginable.
The Internet was predicated on surveillance and the business model of the network giants remains surveillance. Not just surveillance, but with most communications occurring on the Internet, censorship too. In America, corporate consolidation and financialization has allowed economic power to be transformed into political power. Therefore, in our corporate/state system of government, corporate censorship is government censorship.
It’s how we roll.
Going further, through corporate and social media on the Internet, the American people are extensively propagandized. Critical thinking is disappearing, replaced by fear, mindlessness and the manipulated passions of the herd.
Those of us who reject this propaganda are being attacked by the Internet gatekeepers who depict alternatives as fake news. When pundits and politicians talk about changing social media algorithms to combat fake news, you have to wonder if their real target isn’t us.
The Internet is an amazing technology that offers the Library of Congress at our fingertips and connects friends and acquaintances half-way around the world. But, as Levine warns, it also allows for government and corporate surveillance and control. And, no, privacy apps like Tor and Signal don’t offer any meaningful protection from this persuasive surveillance. In fact, not only were they designed by the military but the US spy agencies view these cryptography tools as a useful means to concentrate targets in one convenient location. Levine offers up a warning about trusting these privacy apps. “Activists protesting at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016 told me that they were bewildered by the fact that police seemed to know and anticipate their every move despite their having used Signal to organize.”
After reading Surveillance Valley it appears obvious that to have any hope of wresting power from the unelected plutocrats we’re going to have to learn to organize off-line.
Paraphrasing Gil-Scott Herron’s classic protest song—The revolution will not be on social media.