Building a Bridge to the Nineteenth Century
How did we get here? In 1996, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore pushed the dreadful slogan "building a bridge to the twenty-first century." It was a celebration of Silicon Valley-style technological innovation and corporate globalization, among other things. At the time, I put "building a bridge to the nineteenth century" on my letterhead. It turned out that we were doing both at once: erecting a massive electronic infrastructure that outpaces our ability to democratically manage it and shifting our economy backward to recreate the chasms of class divide that marked the nineteenth century. The two goals intertwined like serpents making love.
The new technologies made a surveillance state that much more powerful and far-reaching; the new technologies replaced many jobs with few; the new technologies created new billionaires without principles; the new technologies made us all into commodities to be sold to advertisers; the new technologies turned our every move into something that could be tracked; the new technologies kept us distracted and busy. Meanwhile, almost everyone got poorer.
What the neoliberals amassing mountains of wealth for the already super-wealthy forgot, what the tax-cutters and child-starvers never learned in school, is that desperate people do not necessary simply lie down and obey. Often enough, they rebel. There is no one as dangerous as he or she who has nothing to lose. The twentieth century's welfare states, their pumped-up, plumped-up middle classes, their relative egalitarianism and graduated tax plans pacified the once-insurrectionary classes by meeting, at least in part, their needs and demands. The comfortable don't revolt much. Out of sheer greed, however, the wealthiest and most powerful decided to make so many of the rest of us at least increasingly uncomfortable and often far worse.
Edward Snowden, you rebelled because you were outraged; so many others are rebelling because their lives are impossible now. These days when we revolt, the new technologies become our friends as well as our enemies. If you imagine those technologies as the fire Prometheus stole from the gods, then it works both ways, for us and for them, to create and to destroy.
Those new technologies are key to the latest rounds of global organizing, from the World Trade Organization actions of 1999, put together by email and epochal in their impact, to the Arab Spring, which used email, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, and other means, to Occupy Wall Street. The technologies are double-edged: populist networks for creating global resistance are vulnerable to surveillance; classified reams of data are breachable by information saved to thumb drives or burned onto CDs by whistleblowers and hackers. They can spy in private; we can organize in public, and maybe the two actions are true opposites.
Meanwhile there is massive upheaval in Egypt and in Brazil, and in recent years there have been popular rebellions in many parts of the Arab world, Turkey, Iceland, Greece, Spain, Britain, Chile, and the US itself with Occupy. The globe is on fire with popular outrage, with fury over economic injustice and, among other things, climate change spurred by the profits a few are piling up to the detriment of the rest of us, generations to come, other species, and the planet itself. It seems that, surveillance or not, people are not about to go quietly into the nineteenth century or accept the devil's bargains of the twenty-first either.
Prometheus and Being Burned
I think of a man even younger than you, Edward Snowden, who unlike you acted without knowing what he did: 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi, whose December 2010 self-immolation to protest his humiliation and hopelessness triggered what became the still-blooming, still-burning Arab Spring. Sometimes one person changes the world. This should make most of us hopeful and some of them fearful, because what I am also saying is that we now live in a world of us and them, a binary world. It's not the old world of capitalism versus communism, but of the big versus the little, of oligarchy versus democracy, of hierarchies versus swarms, of corporations versus public interest and civil society.
It seems nearly worldwide now, which is why revolts all over the planet have so much in common these days, why Occupy activists last month held up signs in New York's Liberty Plaza in solidarity with the uprising in Taksim Square in Turkey; why Arab Spring activists phoned in pizza orders to the uprising in Wisconsin in early 2011; why Occupy spread around the world, and Greek insurrectionaries learned from the successes of Argentina in the face of austerity and economic collapse. We know our fate is common and that we live it out together and change it together, only together.
There were rumblings that you had defected, or would defect, to China or Russia, but you had already defected when we became aware of your existence: you had defected from them to us, using the power you had gained deep within the bowels of their infernal machines to empower us. What will we do with what you've taught us? That's up to us, but for anyone who thinks what you did was not threatening to those in power, just look at how furious, how upset, how naked our emperors now are.
And you, Prometheus, you stole their fire, and you know it. You said, "Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, [Senator Dianne] Feinstein, and [Congressman Peter] King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school."
Someday you may be regarded as a Mandela of sorts for the information age, or perhaps a John Brown, someone who refused to fit in, to bow down, to make a system work that shouldn't work, that should explode. And perhaps we're watching it explode.
The match is sacrificed to start the fire. So maybe, Edward Snowden, you're a sacrifice. In the process, you've lit a bonfire out of their secrecy and spying, a call to action.
I fear for you, but your gift gives us hope and your courage, an example. Our loyalty should be to our ideals, because they are a threat to the secret system you've exposed, because we have to choose between the two. Right now you embody that threat, just as you embody those ideals. For which I am grateful, for which everyone who is not embedded in that system should be grateful.
Like Edward Snowden, Rebecca Solnit has a GED, not a high-school diploma. She lives in Silicon Valley's shadow, in a city where billionaires race $10 million yachts and austerity is closing the community college. Her newest book is The Faraway Nearby. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.