Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The French philosopher and the American whistle-blower

Unless one acknowledges the complex nature and often unexpected connections among things, events and people, one might find it a smidgen astonishing that what the French poststructuralist philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard, wrote in his “report” on the state of knowledge in “advanced” societies, better known as The Postmodern Condition (1979; English translation: Manchester University Press, 1984), resonates unmistakeably with the technological and political context within which Edward Snowden made his far-reaching revelations. Take this passage from Lyotard’s book, for instance (1984: 5):

“Knowledge in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to be, a major – perhaps the major – stake in the worldwide competition for power. It is conceivable that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information, just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and afterwards for control of access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labour. A new field is opened for industrial and commercial strategies on the one hand, and political and military strategies on the other.”

Considering that this was written before 1979, it appears that Lyotard was prescient regarding the kind of knowledge – “information” – that would be prized so highly in the so-called postmodern age that, should control over it slip from the grasp of certain nation states, it would be the source of threats and potential diplomatic, if not military interventions. What I’m talking about is the kind of information (although not limited to it) that Julian Assange of Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning of the US military, and especially Edward Snowden, erstwhile contract worker at the US National Security Agency, had access to, and made public because they believed it was in the public interest.

The very hostile reaction of the US to all of these information leaks is a clear indication that Lyotard was on target when he linked information with “the worldwide competition for power”. Indeed, what characterises the postmodern era is, as everyone knows, the central place of information in it – the phrase, the “information society” (or the “knowledge society”) is so well-known that it has become a cliché. But not everyone realises precisely what this entails. Here is Lyotard again (1984: 6):

“Liberalism does not preclude an organisation of the flow of money in which some channels are used in decision-making, while others are only good for the payment of debts. One could similarly imagine flows of knowledge traveling along identical channels of identical nature, some of which would be reserved for the “decision makers,” while the others would be used to repay each person’s perpetual debt with respect to the social bond.”

In other words, by contrast with science, equal access to information does not exist in this world where information has become the basis of power (long before the likes of Assange and Snowden, Lyotard protested against the exclusions that accompany this practice, calling it a form of “terror”; 1984: 63-66). Those in positions of decision-making capacity have exclusive access to specific kinds of information, while those with knowledge and “skills” that are required for the smooth functioning of the information economy are usually in no position to withhold these if they wish to survive. Unless, of course, they are independently wealthy, or unless they see themselves, as the three whistle-blowers referred to earlier evidently do, as having an ethical duty to withdraw their information-science skills from the service of the ruling elites and place them in the service of the public at large.

The December 23, 2013 edition of TIME magazine, which features its “person of the year”, Pope Francis, also contains articles on the runners-up, including a very revealing article by Michael Scherer on Snowden in position number two. Although he does not reference Lyotard, parts of Scherer’s piece read as if it is an update on Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition. For example, Scherer (TIME, p. 46) quotes Snowden as saying that the mass surveillance of “entire populations” reflects a “trend in the relationship between the governing and the governed in America”. He continues (p47):

“That is the thing that led him to break the law, the notion that mass surveillance undermines the foundations of private citizenship. In a way, it is the defining critique of the information age, in which data is increasingly the currency of power. The idea did not originate with Snowden, but no one has done more to advance it.”

Power is not restricted to political or military power rooted in information, either, as Lyotard already observed in 1979. The more conspicuous power that flows from information is visible in the commercial sphere, where marketers are constantly fishing for information on consumer tastes and preferences. In Scherer’s article this attains a sinister character, where he reminds readers (p46) that there was a reason why the four Americans who recently visited Snowden in Moscow to hand him a “dissidence” award of sorts, were not carrying laptops or cellphones: “To avoid surveillance”. And “Surveillance is the business model of the internet”, according to security technologist Bruce Schneier (quoted by Scherer, p50).

What this means in practice is that, whether you know it or not, the information beamed to a host of snoopers interested in your movements as much as in your commodity preferences, is impossible without the cellphones and other electronic devices people carry around with them. This is a prodigious extension of the notion of information that interested Lyotard, but perfectly consistent with it. From credit card transactions that reveal your spending biography, through the Google searches on your laptop, which are stored by Google, as well as one’s telltale electronically activated subway and bus tickets and the text messages you send, to the smartphones people use, these gadgets record their/your movements and other information relevant to companies eager to sell you some merchandise (Scherer, p47-50).

And it will not end there either. Already there are “emerging technologies that will soon add more information to the grid: The wearable computing devices that monitor your pulse. The networked surveillance cameras rigged with facial-recognition software. The smart meters that record what time of night you turn out the lights …the possibilities are dizzying, and your information funds the whole enterprise” (Scherer, p50).

It is increasingly becoming clear that there are advantages to not carrying a state-of-the-art smartphone, and to limiting your online presence. One should remind oneself that Battleship Galactica, in the series by that name, was able to escape the cylons’ cyber- or information-based attacks because its computers were not hooked into the grid – they comprised a “closed circuit” system and were hence impervious to viruses aimed at them via the network that connected the more advanced ships, and led to their early demise. Even if you don’t leave the internet altogether – it has its valuable uses, too – perhaps one should learn from Battlestar Galactica to value one’s relative independence from the information society; you could go into the mountains without a cellphone, sometimes, for instance, and rediscover yourself.

This is one course of action open to you in the information age, and Snowden seems to have opted for it – Scherer reports that he has no Twitter account, for obvious reasons. Some individuals may wish to follow Snowden’s ethically admirable example, which Scherer hints at when he says (p57): “It is an odd corollary to this new era of mass surveillance: the same technologies that give states vast new powers increase the ability of individuals on the inside to resist.”

In an essay titled “Looking backward, looking forward” (in Globalisation, Technology and Philosophy; SUNY, 2004), Andrew Feenberg already anticipated this possibility, but in a more radical form, when he observed that a “politics of technology” has finally become possible, since the time that humans “entered the machine” in the shape of the internet. Lyotard would agree that the time for such a politics is now, and unless I’m very much mistaken, it has already started.

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