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We all remember President Obama's smiling face, full of hope and trust, when he repeatedly delivered the motto of his first campaign, “Yes, we can!”—we can get rid of the cynicism of the Bush era and bring justice and welfare to the American people. Now that the United States continues with covert operations and expands its intelligence network, spying even on their allies, we can imagine protesters shouting at Obama: “How can you use drones for killing? How can you spy even our allies?” Obama looks back at them and murmurs with a mockingly evil smile: “Yes we can…” However, such simple personalization misses the point: The threat to our freedom disclosed by whistleblowers has much deeper systemic roots. Edward Snowden should be defended not only because his acts annoyed and embarrassed the U.S. secret services. Their lesson is global; it reaches far beyond the standard U.S. bashing. What he revealed is something that not only the United States but also all the other great (and not so great) powers—from China to Russia, from Germany to Israel—are doing, to the extent they are technologically able to do it. His acts thus provide a factual foundation to our premonitions of how much we are all monitored and controlled. We didn’t really learn from Snowden (or from Manning) anything we didn’t already presume to be true—but it is one thing to know it in general, and another to get concrete data. It is a little bit like knowing that one’s sexual partner is playing around—one can accept the abstract knowledge of it, but pain arises when one learns the steamy details, when one gets pictures of what they were doing.
This Kantian distinction is especially pertinent with the Internet and other new media torn between their free “public use” and their growing “private” control.Back in 1843. This wonderful new world is. the shame must be made more shameful by publicizing it. our nation…). etc.” In his classic text What is Enlightenment?. to quote a propaganda-text on cloud computing: “Details are abstracted from consumers. human rights. while “public” is the trans-national universality of the exercise of one’s Reason: The public use of one’s reason must always be free. while individuals reflecting on general issues use reason in a “public” way. the more the entire set-up has to rely on the work being done elsewhere. We see where Kant parts with our liberal common sense: The domain of State is “private. In our era of cloud computing. theirs and ours for tolerating such power over us.” constrained by particular interests. the technology infrastructure ‘in the cloud’ that supports them. there needs to be a monitoring system which controls its functioning. By public use of one’s reason I understand the use which a person makes of it as a scholar before the reading public. which reads like the well-known joke about the doctor who gives “first the good news. to put shame on those in power becomes a weapon—or. on the other hand. only one side of the story. exactly.” In such a situation. What happens in Wikileaks disclosures is that the shame. as Marx goes on: “The actual pressure must be made more pressing by adding to it consciousness of pressure. then the bad news. we no longer need strong individual computers: Software and information are available on demand. Private use I call that which one may make of it in a particular civil post or office which is entrusted to him. and this system is by definition hidden from users. who no longer have need for expertise in. easy to use. . is our situation today: we are facing the shameless cynicism of the representatives of the existing global order who only imagine that they believe in their ideas of democracy. is made more shameful by publicizing it.” Two words are tell-tale here: abstraction and control—in order to manage a cloud. The private use of one’s reason. the young Karl Marx claimed that the German ancien regime “only imagines that it believes in itself and demands that the world should imagine the same thing. Kant opposes “public” and “private” use of reason: “private” is for Kant the communal-institutional order in which we dwell (our state. may often be very narrowly restricted without particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment. and users can access web-based tools or applications through browsers as if they were programs installed on their own computer.” And this. or control over. and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men. “transparent” in its functioning. The more the small item (smartphone or tiny portable) I hold in my hand is personalized. however.” Users are accessing programs and software files that are kept far away in climate-controlled rooms with thousands of computers—or. What we should be ashamed of is the worldwide process of the gradual narrowing of the space for what Immanuel Kant called the “public use of reason.
” We need more Mannings and Snowdens—in China. got years of prison for betraying state secrets. that secret state agencies know everything. ecological catastrophes. Once we chose to follow the path of state secrets. without doing anything illegal. Manning. There are states much more oppressive than the United States—just imagine what would have happened to someone like Manning in a Russian or Chinese court (in all probability there would be no public trial!) However. rural poverty.” A secret law. a law unknown to its subjects. there will be chaos. There is no state agency that is able to exert such control—not because they don’t know enough. The more our experience is nonalienated. if I go. we can all of a sudden find ourselves on a list of potential terrorists. and the catch is that many of the laws and regulations that made up the state-secret regime are themselves classified. one should not . a proof that I am not really needed!” Something similar can be said about the state control of our communications: We should fear that we have no secrets. They are no longer just whistle-blowers who denounce illegal practices of private companies (banks. and in spite of all intricate programs for detecting suspicious messages. exemplary cases of the new ethics that befits our era of digitalized control. but because they know too much. in Russia. they denounce these public authorities themselves when they engage in “private use of reason. making it difficult for individuals to know how and when they’re in violation.” Troublesome intellectuals who reported on China's political oppression. Assange. legitimizes the arbitrary despotism of those who exercise it. computers which register billions of data are too stupid to interpret and evaluate them properly. but we should fear even more that they fail in this endeavor. everywhere. as indicated in the title of a recent report on China: “Even what’s secret is a secret in China. spontaneous and transparent. Kant formulated the basic axiom of the public law: “All actions relating to the right of other men are unjust if their maxim is not consistent with publicity. The sheer size of data is too large. Snowden… these are our new heroes. Without knowing why. This is why whistle-blowers play a crucial role in keeping the “public reason” alive. Recall the legendary answer of a Hearst newspaper editor to Hearst’s inquiry as to why he doesn't want to take a long-deserved holiday: “I am afraid that if I go. we sooner or later reach the fateful point at which the very legal regulations prescribing what is secret become secret.. yielding ridiculous and unnecessary mistakes whereby innocent bystanders are listed as potential terrorists—and this makes state control of our communications even more dangerous. tobacco and oil firms) to the public authorities. things will just go on as normal without me. What makes the all-encompassing control of our lives so dangerous is not that we lose our privacy and all our intimate secrets are exposed to the view of the Big Brother. the more it is regulated by the invisible network controlled by state agencies and the large private companies that follow the state's secret agendas.in a vast circuit of machines which coordinate the user’s experience. everything will fall apart—but I am even more afraid to discover that. etc.
In this sense.” . It is therefore not enough to play one state against the other (as Snowden did. while Chinese brutality is openly displayed. True. We need a new International—an international network to organize the protection of whistle-blowers and the dissemination of their message.exaggerate the softness of the United States. A version of this story ran in the October 2013 print issue of In These Times under the headline “Superheroes of the Digital Age. when he used Russia against the United States). the United States is even more dangerous than China insofar as their measures of control are not perceived as such. they simply do not need the openly brutal approach (which they are more than ready to apply when it is needed)—the invisible digital control can do well enough. the United States doesn’t treat prisoners as brutally as China or Russia—because of their technological priority. Whistle-blowers are our heroes because they prove that if those in power can do their job of controlling us. we can also fight back and throw them into a panic.