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Deconstructing Consent

Laura Ludtke

Directed by Laura Poitras
Praxis Films, Participant Media, and HBO Films
Now available on 4oD

Disconnect your phone (or leave it in the fridge). Use a typewriter (or handwrite) from now on. Never use a computer—it always has the potential to be compromised. Conduct sensitive (or all) conversations in person, in outdoor spaces. These may have, until recently, seemed like instructions from a how-to manual from a recent spy thriller; however, they are currently the only ways you can ensure your conversations remain private in the world of mass surveillance revealed by the American whistleblower Edward Snowden. In Citizenfour, Laura Poitras documents her initial contact with Snowden, their early communications, their meeting in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, the carefulness with which the first revelations from the cache of leaked files were reported, and the escalation of events which culminated in Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong and his subsequent taking of refuge in Russia. Snowden’s hope, which he confides to Poitras, is that his actions will spur others to similar action. The implications from the documents Snowden entrusted to Poitras, Glen Greenwald and other journalists, continue to make headlines in the UK and around the world. Only a month ago, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled that “the intelligence sharing rules between the NSA and GCHQ […] governing their mass surveillance program violated UK human rights laws because they were kept secret for so long.” This is a triumph, not only for the advocacy group Privacy International and its allies, but for the UK public at large.

There has long been a contention amongst admirers and scholars of dystopian fiction as to who envisaged a more terrifying authoritarian future: George Orwell, with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), or Aldous Huxley, with Brave New World (1932). In 2009, Stuart McMillen produced a webcomic illustrating Neil Postman’s poignant Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), updating it for a 21st century audience. Postman’s book-length essay proposes that Huxley’s dystopian novel, in which “what we love will ruin us”, had proved more correct. Pairing quotations from Postman’s essay with images of 21st century life, McMillen contends that our culture of continuous consumption (online shopping, reality television, mass production, Facebook, buzzfeed et al.) perpetuated by technological advances (computers, smart phones, wifi, 3G, et al.) has transformed us into a population more likely to vote for an X-Factor contestant than for a candidate in a political election. This political disengagement has been fuelled by our desire to feel pleasure rather than, as Orwell suggested, by the infliction of pain, by a culture of fear, and by a society that is self-surveilling and self-oppressing. For, though many of us may not be aware that the technologies which bring us the most delight (or, as the case may be, productivity) are used by surveillance agencies to collect information (data items) about us, it has become a necessity of participating in 21st century life that we must resign ourselves to the inevitability of such an exchange.

The question of whether such a knowing resignation makes us complicit relies on a false choice, as most of us feel powerless to protest this status quo. This is the dilemma not one faced by Winston Smith in Orwell’s novel: he wants privacy but cannot opt out of surveillance. His assumption that the telescreens do not continue to transmit information when they appear to be off is a fallacious one. (Be warned, cameras on your phones and computers can be similarly appropriated). His belief that darkness can protect him from Big Brother only facilitates his thoughtcrimes. We, on the other hand, are aware (or, at least, should be by now) that our privacy is being compromised. And yet, this awareness has become a sort of complacency, in which our resignation seems to have inured us against a galling and unprecedented contravention of our rights to privacy. Jonathan Crary, in his recent 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep (2013), explains how this has come to pass: for, “[a]mid the mass amnesia sustained by the culture of global capitalism, images have become one of the many depleted and disposable elements that, in their intrinsic achievability, end up never being discarded, contributing to an ever more congealed and futureless present.” Indeed, for Crary, our failure to see the world “stems from a damaged relationship to the past and to memory. We are swamped with images and information about the past and recent catastrophes—but there is also a growing incapacity to engage these traces in ways that could move beyond them, in the interests of a common future.”

That is a concept Orwell explored in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The dystopian world of the novel is marked by a sort of pastlessness that, when coupled with an absence of individual autonomy and the paucity of collective memory and shared histories, reinforces the systematic oppression and tyranny that encourage it. The instability of memory—not being able to keep track of the current enemy, not knowing what year it is or how old one is, not remembering whether or how the party’s policies have changed—is the ultimate product of the Ministry of Truth, for it encourages individuals to destabilise their own history, reality, and certainty in order to survive. When confronted by this complicity, Winston Smith repeats what is, perhaps, the party’s most sinister slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”. For this reason, Poitras’ documentary, which was recently awarded a BAFTA and an Oscar for its achievements, is important because it reminds us, very effectively, of what is at stake for us all and what very significant and personal risks were taken by those involved in making public the scale and nature of the mass surveillance being perpetrated on us. It is also is an act of resistance, for as more people view the film and internalise its message, it becomes more difficult for governments and officials to deny what it reveals.

Nevertheless, this resistance is not without its challenges, as it is impossible for the individual to keep the score of who has done what and why. As Noam Chomsky details in Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992), the documentary based on Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), he relies on a team of researchers reading newspapers from around the world to help him disentangle the web of disinformation that is the media. This has only become exasperated in the last two decades as the news cycle has a decreasing half-life, as certain media conglomerations become increasingly politicised under the guise of increasing profits by appealing to their customers, as the precarity of the underclasses grows with every cut in public spending, and as the outcome-focussed education system discourages the acquisition of critical thinking skills. In such a system, how can the individual ever hope to perform the necessary risk-benefit analysis, weighing privacy against a pretence of security?

As Poitras makes clear in her film, the individual is no longer asked to make such an analysis, nor are their elected representatives in government (with some exceptions for those who have a high-enough level security clearance). There has been erosion of oversight and, in many cases even the legal mechanisms for ensuring rights to privacy have not been infringed are applied broadly rather than precisely. This erosion is reflected in the subtle shift of focus in the documentary from domestic surveillance in post-9/11 America to Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance. While the film still features interviews with William Binney and Jacob Applebaum, there is a notable lack of emphasis on Julian Assange and Wikileaks. This is a decision which is both aesthetically and ideologically appealing, as the narrative of Snowden’s self-sacrifice directly contravenes that of the surveillance agencies he has so righteously exposed. Snowden’s narrative in Citizenfour should also reopen a much-needed a conversation about consent. If asked and where legally appropriate, would an individual willingly give up his or her privacy in order to secure the safety of his or her fellow citizens? We might feel much safer if we knew that the minimum requirement for the invasion of our privacy was enthusiastic consent rather than tacit compliance. If concerns of national security could be assuaged, would the government be able to explain the purpose (and benefit) of gathering such vast quantities of information about individual citizens without their consent? Perhaps this desire to collect everything is simply the malignant consequence of our global capitalist and consumerist culture. However, we must not forget that the consequences of mass surveillance are not benign. After all, the ultimate goal of surveillance is, at the best, superintendence, or, at the worst, supervision for the purpose of direction or control.

Laura Ludtke is the Executive Editor of the Oxonian Review. She is a final-year DPhil candidate at St Anne’s College, Oxford.