How Hollywood softened us up for NSA surveillance
Last week's NSA leaks scandal had a scary side-story: a poll found that many Americans were not that worried about the degree of access the agency apparently now has to their digital lives. Perhaps it is because "precrime", a sci-fi concept of some vintage, is now real.
Hollywood has been softening us up for this for years now, accustoming us to the notion that our spending habits, our location, our every movement and conversation, are visible to others whose motives we cannot know.
The NSA (unofficial motto: "Nobody Say Anything") and Hollywood (unofficial motto: "Nobody Knows Anything") have been feeling each other up at arm's length for decades, but after the 9/11 era the romance became official, and surveillance-based entertainment, from 24 to Alias, from Spooks to Big Brother to Person of Interest, went global.
In movies where the NSA appears as itself (or a production designer's imagining thereof), there is always one rogue NSA agent abusing the vast informational and surveillance capabilities available to him. In Enemy of the State, it is the dependably barmy Jon Voight who goes off the reservation, and in Echelon Conspiracy, it is Martin Sheen. But these lone villains are routinely depicted as abusing a magnificent and fundamentally benign spy apparatus. The thing itself is morally neutral, they seem to argue, it is bad humans who make it behave badly.
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 is the human political class, and resolving to wipe out the lot of them at the state of the union address.
The NSA has been up to its tricks since the late 1940s, and people have been fretting about it for almost as long. Philip K Dick, patron saint of American paranoia, wrote Minority Report in 1956, in which the precrime police of Washington DC claim to foresee crimes in order to prevent them. The usually less swivel-eyed 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 world's entire fund of raw data for its insights into future crime. You can tell how that ends by the title.
We have been here before, folks – we were just never quite so happy about it. – © Guardian News and Media 2013