Uncle Teddy And The NSA

Conspiracy theorists get a pretty bum rap in popular parlance. Those loons. They’re a favorite target of politicians and TV talking heads alike, who like to pooh pooh their piddling concerns. (I mean so what if the White House can legally assassinate US citizens without a trial? Who gets worked up over something like that?) Hell, conspiracy theorists get a pretty bum rap in private parlance. They’re social pariahs. No one wants to get cornered by them at a party and hear yet another rant about the Federal Reserve. No one wants them to spoil a pleasant dinner out with a lecture on chemtrails or fluoridation or the Big-Agri plot to monopolize the world’s food supply with droughtproof GMO superwheat. By and large people don’t want to ponder  bleak hypotheticals during their R&R. I understand that.

I tend to sympathize with conspiracy theorists, though, their social infelicities notwithstanding. For a couple reasons. The first reason is simply that, well, the nut jobs ain’t always wrong. Modern governments, industries, multinational financial interests… these entities are not babes in the woods, innocent of selfish designs or the means to realize them. All of them collude against the public from time to time. History provides examples of secret plots, PSYOPs, hostile takeovers of institutions, astro-turfed regime change, false flags, the whole nine yards. Sometimes the evidence supports the conspiracy hypothesis.

But the second and more fundamental reason is this: I think about the worst critique you can make of your garden-variety conspiracy theorist is that he accepts facile answers in his attempts to make sense of the world around him. He looks for shortcuts in the quest for coherence. But I don’t fault him much for that. Coherence, sanity, sense seem to be in short supply right now, which make them precious enough that almost anyone, yours truly included, will cut corners for them. We live in times of laser-guided missiles and Youtube videos of the fallout. We live in an age where the “press” makes a clickbait living by peddling doses of outrage and anxiety and emotional manipulation. Everyone’s yelling at each other over social media. No one in charge looks particularly trustworthy. People know in their gut that we’re going off the rails. Does anyone know what to do about it? I can’t despise someone who looks out on this pandemonium and wants there to be some simple, comprehensive explanation for it. The world’s crazy enough that you have every right to suspect that someone is slipping something into the water.

I won’t pile on conspiracy theorists with the rest of our social betters, then. I will suggest, however, that there’s a more realistic way of thinking about a lot of the phenomena they’re reacting to. And I’ll recruit Ted Kaczynski to do so.

(I don’t know if you’ve ever taken the time to read his manifesto, but let me go ahead and give it a glowing, Reading Rainbow recommendation. It’s head and shoulders above most entrants to the socio-politico-serial-killer-apologia genre. Far more intellectually comprehensive than Dorner. Far less prone to borrowed mythopoesis than Brevik. Not so much the rantings of a madman as the disinterested argument of a political theorist. It’s a good read. But don’t take my word for it!)

Uncle Teddy was ahead of the curve on all sorts of things—reducing his carbon footprint, paleo psychology, guerilla marketing, all sorts of things. But the thing he was most prescient about was the NSA, at least insofar as the NSA is a prime example of how technological advancement lends the state greater and greater control over the daily lives of its citizenry. That was the crisis for Kaczynski. Modern science and engineering produce technological marvels. These marvels, from the get go or soon thereafter, come under control of the government. Sooner or later that government impresses those marvels into service as tools by which to consolidate power over the governed. (None of those prophecies seem too deep into left field, to be honest, which is why they’re so disquieting.) In other words, Kaczynski sees the contemporary world in a vast conspiracy against the prospects of the average man on the street. He sees a complex series of events, already in motion, that will swat that everyman like a fly. But what he doesn’t seem to see are conspirators per se. His vision of an impending dystopian future doesn’t involve underground boardrooms or Agenda 21. It is something that simply emerges from the million moving parts of the modern machinery of state.

In a section called “The Motives of Scientists,” Kaczynski points out the disconnect between the reasons that scientists provide for doing research and the reality of research dynamics. Scientists frequently say they do what they do out of “curiosity” or a desire to “benefit humanity”  or some such platitude. But Kaczynski argues for a less grandiose assessment, one that seems a little more accurate to anyone familiar with the mundane nuts and bolts of laboratory research. He argues that scientists, like most anyone else, like to have a goal, like to put effort into reaching that goal, and enjoy the feeling they get when they do so. The same reason, in his view, that people take up gardening or weightlifting or gravitate toward whatever occupations might “challenge” them. Because it’s normal to enjoy the goal-attainment process in whatever arena they are able to go through its steps. In other words, technology improves because a huge network of individual agents in the field of technology are deriving some measure of satisfaction from their jobs.

Then there is the layer of the institutions that they work for, which introduces another level of complexity. Besides providing additional monetary incentives to their workers, they have various institutional drives of their own. Some cater to consumers. Some are academic. Others work in concert with government agencies, domestic or foreign. Still others perform their research and development in order to solicit continued funding from the government. All of these relationships have a logic particular to them. Thus, in Kaczynski’s words:

Science marches on blindly, without regard to the real welfare of the human race or to any other standard, obedient only to the psychological needs of the scientists and of the government officials and corporation executives who provide the funds for research.

The moral here is that a lot of times concerns over things like the NSA get dismissed as crackpottery. People don’t buy that there is “someone behind” the expansion of government surveillance, and so they feel better about shrugging off all NSA-related concerns. But, as Kaczynski points out, a tyranny machine like the NSA doesn’t necessarily need someone behind it. It doesn’t need a unitary mechanic. It’s built on the spread of social media, advances in data collection and management, increases in processing power and storage. It’s built on a thousand different computer scientists solving a thousand different problems for the people who employ them. It’s built on a thousand different bureaucrats fighting to expand their departments’  budgets one PowerPoint presentation at a time. Media hysterics over terrorism build it. American agencies jockeying for an intel advantage over foreign governments build it. It’s just one of those shiny new toys that rolls off the line as it trundles along, one that any number of well-networked and interested parties squabble over and employ for various purposes.

In other words, the conspiracy theorists may or may not be right that NSA surveillance is part of some deeper plot by FEMA or the CIA or whatever bogeyman is haunting our dreams at the moment. They may or may not be right that a shadowy cabal has created the conditions for a totalitarian police state. But shadowy cabal or no, those conditions are emerging. The complexities of our technology, our technology industries, and our state have created in the NSA a tool with a massive potential for population control. So the conspiracy theorists are right to feel a little unnerved by all of this. We all ought to. After all, being able to say “I told you the Illuminati wasn’t reading our e-mails!” might be cold comfort a few years from now, especially if we can’t even say it out loud because the all-hearing, all-remembering, NSA panopticon that we live under disapproves of such rowdy political talk.

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  1. Fantastic article. Good line about Uncle Teddy. I’m still a little stunned at the continued acclaim he gets from dissident right-wingers — certainly well-deserved — but funny to imagine one of our leading lights was a Harvard mathematician slash bearded ecoterrorist.

    Ever since the NSA leaks though, I’ve noticed people stop degrading “conspiracy theorists.” The common CT joke used to be “HEY DUDE! Don’t you know THE GOVERNMENT is listening to everything we say!? HAHA! Conspiracy theorists are such idiots!”

    And now we know they are.

    The government IS literally listening to everything you say, send or type.

    The conspiracy theorists were literally right all along.

    So it’s a little more awkward to mock them now. And everyone knows it, even if they don’t say it outright.

    1. I think that you’re right that things like the NSA revelations have, if not stopped the mockery of conspiracy theories outright, at least taken some of the bite out of it. And I think that such a disruption, even if it’s momentary, is a key opportunity.

      Like I said above, a lot of people will never buy that everything that’s going wrong on the national stage is going wrong because of deliberate machinations behind the scenes. I mean, I certainly don’t buy that conspiracies explain everything and I’m probably more open to these ideas than most. So what I think we need to be able to articulate is that, hey, these things may not be intentional plots, but they are still serious problems. They are still a threat to us, and a means by which someone down the line could commit some abuses of power that make the recent IRS scandals seem positively trivial.

      And we need to be able to articulate that things like the NSA happen because of the size, heterogeneity, complexity, and organizational structure of the contemporary United States. That the enormous, centrally managed bureaucracy that is our government needs to be dismantled, divided, or radically re-envisioned or else these horrors are just going to keep cropping up.

      My basic party line would be: we’ll figure out who all was responsible for what in due time, right now let’s focus on stopping this runaway train we’re on.

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