A Thought About Edward Snowden

… And about Keith Hart’s Concern for the Human Economy

Consider the relationships among:

  • nation states
  • global electronic communications infrastructure
  • international corporations who produce, maintain and service that infrastructure
  • and all the individuals–many of whom only have very local interests–who consume media and transmit information on that very instantaneously global electronic infrastructure

Edward Snowden’s now very instantaneously global story brings into focus just how thoroughly electronic communication and information storage is shaping the nation-state/multi-national corporation/individual connection.

And this drama involves a very general anthropological issue: how does the story–and how we tell it–interrelate with actions, and even the very formation of institutions that define and support the human actors involved, as the story continues to unfold? Again, the basic anthropological concern: the represented, told, and retold story–as it constitutes and is constituted by actors and institutions.

So, my main thought about Edward Snowden’s story–as we understand it to have occurred so far … and as we wonder how it will continue–is how influential actors interpret and tell their story within the larger story that we follow through professional news outlets and social media … with the literally influential effect that those actors have on why we tell ourselves the story itself is relevant. Because I’m not sure there could be one single person (at least among those paying attention) who has one single reason to feel that Snowden’s story is relevant. And among the multiple reasons for relevance, most of us face a bewildering challenge of prioritizing the most important one. What’s more relevant? How we use the story to construct a value of patriotism, identifying or contrasting our allegiance to country with Snowden’s? How we develop beliefs about the motives of government and private corporate institutions? How we define values about privacy? Civil courage? Of course, those influential actors–Snowden himself, his lawyers, government officials, politicians, journalists, Wikileaks leaders–tell stories within the bigger story, emphasizing the relevance of certain values and beliefs, at the expense of others. A major part of human social action is in using the representation of stories to convince yourself, to convince others, about what’s really relevant–among multiple conflicting rationales for concluding that a certain value or belief is really worth acting on … now, in the past, or in the future. What’s captivating for an anthropologist about the Snowden story is the extraordinary intersection of nation-state institutions, information technology corporations with global reach, and individuals who intensively use that digital information technology to be part of local and global networks. When we take a step back and consider the whole system, we can see how little nation states conform to philosophical definitions as legitimate institutions for justly maintaining social order while granting rights to citizens. We can see how thoroughly the transnational information-technology corporations influence us, as well as the nation states who define our citizenship (or lack of it). We can see how much our own seemingly clear notions of citizenship depend on stories–the symbolic logic of which focuses our attention on belonging and rights, versus exclusion and withdrawal of rights. This, even as digital information technology helps corporations and nation states to act as if those stories were simple convenient fictions. AND … this, even as digital information technology supports virtual networks of individuals to interact globally, across nation-state borders, sharing evidence and accounts that allow us to pull back the curtain on how nation states and private corporate institutions jockey for power, as they further interact with transnational institutions that are indistinctly legal or widely considered illegal–including off-shore banking networks, organized criminal organizations with hacking and cybercrime operations, and violent political organizations.

A big part of globalization today is that nation-state claims of sovereignty and power may use digital information technology, but they are built the old-fashioned way. That is, through a combination of control over technologies of violence and surveillance within their borders, use of violent technologies to control the definition of borders and what passes through them, and ideological stories that compel us to see the violence as absolutely necessary and just, constituting the very order we live in. This is hardly to say that all nation states are actually necessarily illegitimate organized crime organizations that convince us of their legitimacy, so that we ignore the excessive and unjust violence, arbitrary invasion of privacy and surveillance, and seemingly random assertion of control over the very material conditions of our existence. Rather, all nation states–no matter how well democratic participation and rule of law are protected and followed–face the temptation to exploit ideological stories, surveillance technologies, and arbitrary violence to shape claims of sovereignty within and beyond their borders, and all individuals face the temptation to believe in particularly dramatic and often highly convincing or comforting ideological stories. I would argue that the very fundamental temptation to prioritize as relevant and believe ideological stories about the nation-state, order, and the necessity of violence has to do with just how complicated and conflicting our interests and actions are, along with those of transnational corporations and nation-state institutions … And how complicated and expensive it would be to invest in those priorities that would be most relevant to our freedom, quality of life and opportunity in the future–whether it might involve reigning in off-shore banking networks that facilitate all sorts of money laundering; successfully fighting organized-crime networks who traffic people, drugs, and weapons for enormous profit; investing in renewable energy technology; developing more sustainable agricultural practices or public transportation infrastructure; or providing wider access to healthcare and education. Best to keep things simple, anchored in stories that shape our beliefs about where order, right, and belonging come from. Even when, as anthropologist Keith Hart has thoughtfully discussed, individual well-being, freedom, and creativity may be better served in working toward a humane–or in his terms, a human–economy, involving novel, flexible, transparent digital information systems that support local networks of social exchange and obligations, while also securely and reliably linking them to national and international ones.

It is important to remember that, like face-to-face linguistic communication, electronic communication itself involves: the sender’s message formation, encoding, and transmission, and on the other end, the audience’s reception, decoding, and re-encoding of the message … into a form that may be easily perceived, understood, and thought about. BUT … unlike face-to-face linguistic communication–which is the first kind of communication humans learn as part of our co-evolved niche and adaptations–electronic communication is technologically structured to separate as a discrete sequence the encoding-transmission-receiving-decoding-re-encoding process. SO … when we flesh-and-blood humans are involved in linguistic communication with other humans, we are conspicuously acting as dual senders and receivers in real time; we use recursive embodied cognitive operations to form non-verbal thoughts while simultaneously encoding them as linguistically sensible ideas, and just as importantly, we speed up the decoding process by making usually pretty good inferences about what message content we might be receiving in the coming seconds. There is a lot of parallel thinking, multi-sensory perceiving and inferring that accompanies the uttering and hearing in any human linguistic back-and-forth. But when we are involved in electronic communication, we use really complicated technology to send and receive messages. And it is with this technologically aided communication where we separate all that real-time, social-interaction-based, parallel multi-sensory embodied cognition and insert a discrete encoding-transmission-receiving-decoding-re-encoding process. Thanks to silicon chips, fiber optic cables, and mobile satellite/cellular tower networks–as well as traditional metal telephone cables–this discrete sequences occurs at the speed of light, so we experience the back-and-forth of a telephone, Skype or FaceTime conversation, without even worrying about the technology. The technology facilitates parallel embodied cognitive processing and communication between flesh-and-blood humans in real time, bringing us closer and making geographic scale seem irrelevant.

But the technology that now involves digital–rather than analog–encoding and decoding of messages makes it possible to intercept and store transmitted information at relay points … without hindering individual users’ experience of instantaneous communication. The infrastructure for this global electronic communication is–not surprisingly, but easy to not care about on a day-to-day basis–really complicated and expensive, having been built up over decades of private investment, government-funded research and public (but not infrequently classified/secret) investment, and economic growth around the world. As Hart has discussed, the lines of communication and information storage–including technologies for encryption and decryption–can allow truly creative local networks, not just for communication, but also for the construction of alternative currencies, facilitating negotiation of exchange and obligations. Critically, these networks can be defined according to currencies that are independent of national and international ones. Yet, as Hart has further explored, there is potential for linking local networks, where most of us create our sense of identity and belonging, to wider systems of interaction, exchange, and obligation, providing new opportunities for control.

The challenge, though, is enormous. And it’s an old one–fundamental to the very phenomenon of biocultural evolution. How is social judgment and punishment to be defined, mobilized and carried out, so that cheaters and free-riders don’t undermine local, more democratic currencies of exchange, credit, and obligation? It’s just that technology–rather than face-to-face negotiation and interaction–is much more integrated into the system, increasing the potential for creativity and freedom, but also for control, arbitrary violence, manipulation, and the temptation to cheat.

Back to Edward Snowden’s story itself. Even if Snowden acted in good faith–that is, in accord with his stated democratic value of limiting secret US government intrusion into private individuals’ communication–he is now in a situation where the Chinese government has been able use him as a pawn to score domestic political points, in supporting an “American dissident,” and where the Russian government faces (and may have already given into) the awful temptation to extract/extort from him detailed information about US National Security Administration cyberspying programs around the world. Although Snowden may have acted out of a personal value of patriotism as an American citizen, he is a highly vulnerable intelligence asset. And thus, he appears to be caught in a tragic narrative, where he is cruelly exploited by one nation-state institution, thus reinforcing the narrative that he is a traitor to the nation state that gave him citizenship from birth.

It would be wise for all of us around the world to consider that digital information technology connects us, allowing a wonderful potential for creativity, interaction, and exchange, but it can be exploited by nation-state institutions in ways that go substantially beyond, say, domestic spying for the purpose of discovering terrorist plots. Nation states themselves are constituted as key global actors when bureaucrats and politicians tell stories and make decisions that prioritize the relevance of digital information technology in a very different, encompassing way: as a hedge for maintaining surveillance within established borders now and in the future; as a tool for expanding surveillance and the effectiveness of violence beyond national borders, in the ongoing process of power-jockeying with other nation-states; and as an instrument for building and maintaining an efficient power advantage over transnational corporations and organizations considered legitimate and illegitimate, alike. Edward Snowden’s story should focus our attention on an even bigger story of which we are all part, where fundamental biocultural processes of institution formation, power production, and the emergence of inequality undermine the potential for achieving–as Keith Hart has described it–a truly more democratic human economy.