As the 24-hour news cycle foams at the mouth over the “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” (without the red hat or geographical and educational merit) game of tracking Edward Snowden’s whereabouts, the outrage over his relevlations of the NSA’s wanton collection of online materiel continues.
In my previous life, the one before books on comics and pontifications on the difference between coney and chili dogs, I was the executive director of a non-profit archive of historical documents, specifically relating to the political upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, from the Bay of Pigs to the Church Committee and every atrocity, success and tragedy in between. During those five years, I read historical communiques and reports that distressed and disgusted me to no end. To make it through, I had to form a battle shield. That battle shield is a hard thing to lose; very little surprises me. The entirety of my experience there can be summed up in an exchange with a former diplomat: “we always assumed we were being bugged anyhow.” I can offer neither outrage or acquiescence in the matter. To me, it simply is.
What does distress me about the leaks is that it proves a terrifying point: we are producing new information at speeds unthought of in history – according to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in 2010, “every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003″ – and we don’t know how to handle it, to parse the useful from the useless, the benign from the malignant.
Drive down any backroad in Ohio between the months of March and June, and you’ll see the core principle unveiled in the leaks in action: set fire to the ditch to rid it of weeds or a batch of poison ivy and hope the winds don’t blow the flames towards your house. In theory, it works; you are left with a charbroiled and poison ivy-less ditch. In practice, you can’t always predict the whims of mother nature. And so too is it with the gathering of information: we can only hope that the winds don’t blow towards our house, the innocent, because we don’t have the capacity or understanding to find a single, malignant weed in an infinitely expanding ecosystem of information.
With any criticism, I like to include ways to fix things. Criticism without so much as pondering a solution is nothing but bloviating. But in this matter, I’m at a loss. Clearly, so is everyone else.