“Not philosophers but fret-sawyers and stamp
collectors compose the backbone of society.”
~ Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
As the Outlaw Edward Snowden continues to languish in the transit lounge of the Sheremetyovo International Airport, I am struck by the overall nonchalance with which the revelations of comprehensive NSA-sponsored surveillance have been received. Obviously, it is still early days, but for the moment the broad-brush recording of vast amounts of telecommunications and social media information has not spurred any marches on Washington, the Googleplex or anywhere else for that matter. Let's look back on a little history and see why this relaxed attitude might be even more justified than we suspect.
One way to begin is by situating Snowden in his chosen brotherhood of US intelligence whistleblowers. In saying that he has been waiting for someone like Snowden for 40 years, Daniel Ellsberg plays John the Baptist to Snowden's – well, you get it. But Ellsberg's outing of what became the Pentagon Papers and Snowden's NSA reveal are extraordinarily different, not just in terms of the contents, but also in terms of each man's professional status, and the larger social context in which the leaks occurred. As Garance Franke-Ruta wrote on The Atlantic's website, Ellsberg was about as inside as an insider could be, whereas Snowden is the consummate outsider. Ellsberg was himself the author of swathes of the report that was a distillation of everything that the Pentagon needed to know about its own war, whereas Snowden – well, aside from a handful of documents, we still don't really know what he's got on those four laptops, although Glenn Greenwald, Snowden's chosen conduit, just might. Ellsberg knew that the stakes involved a country that was at war and – most crucially – was subjecting its population to a draft, while Snowden's revelations are of a decidedly more ambiguous variety, involving things that we use every day, that seem to be friendly, convenient (if not essential), and free. Finally, Ellsberg remained in the US, as Franke-Ruta puts it, “a powerful insider joining his conscience to an existing upswell in public opinion,” while Snowden is stuck playing Victor Navorski, with little chance of Catherine Zeta-Jones showing up in a stewardess outfit any time soon.
There is, however, an interesting thread that makes its way across all of these disparities. I would like to call it a matter of effort, and the difference that effort makes. In fact, I will further argue that the progress of technology has led to a progressive dissipation of the value of effort, and that in turn leads to a proportionate dilution of the stakes that we think we are talking about.