Whistle-blowers! Patriots or traitors? What with Pvt. Manning being sentenced to 35 years , Edward Snowden granted temporary asylum in Russia and the Pentagon Papers a distant memory, what are we to make of these incidents? Privacy? Anonymity? Peace of mind? Fuugedabouuutiit! These have all recently slipped away when we weren’t looking. There is a lot of meaning to be mined in this essay, a lot of wisdom revealed, a lot of questions to be asked.
We are not going to pick on just Americans since this an opportunity for a deeper understanding of the human condition in general. Why do we have so many secrets to conceal? Why are we fabricating so many lies? Why do we have so many behaviors to deny? The wisdom we seek will be revealed by the answer to these and other similar questions. At this time in human history our mantra needs to be: Go deeper!
In this essay, as always we are going to sound an alarm and attempt to penetrate beneath the surface controversies and simplistic conclusions to what is really happening. All of us, with few exceptions, have had the experience of frantically scurrying around trying to avoid the consequences of our actions. As we shall see, that will be more difficult in the future—and in a way little known to us—impossible.
For example, take the latest technology, or at least, the latest technology that those of us not working in the Pentagon know about. Google Now can be added to the list of technological breakthroughs that excite our paranoia, in addition to drones circling overhead. A technology reporter for The New York Times, Claire Cain Miller, relates a chilling experience. “The first day I used Google Now, my phone buzzed to tell me I needed to leave in 15 minutes for my restaurant reservation, because there was traffic on the way.
“The thing is, I had never told my phone I had a reservation. Or where I was, or the route I planned to take. Google Now had spotted the OpenTable reservation in my Gmail in box, knew my phone’s location and checked Google Maps for traffic conditions.
“I was creeped out.
“But a few days later, as I was beginning to pack for a trip to Portland, Ore., Google Now sent me an alert with the weather there. It had noticed the flight reservation in my e-mail and figured I would be packing a couple of days before. That somehow felt considerate.” Google Now is only one of the apps that perform what engineers call predictive searches. This is information they think you might need even before you ask for it.
Whether we are “creeped out” or “grateful” for apps like Google Now, we are reacting irrationally by attributing human qualities to a device that neither threatens us nor has our best interests at heart; it’s not human for Pete’s sake! Nor malevolent! It is not our mother!
Here is an example of how we can understand these behaviors more deeply. Projecting anthropomorphic qualities on any object in our environment is at the heart of human suffering causing existential anxiety among other self-delusional and self-destructive behaviors. We have to stop doing this sort of thing or we’re toast. Seriously!
In the beginning of the human story, we looked around and decided that we had found ourselves in a dangerous place surrounded by a hostile nature and unfriendly human beings we imagined to be, somehow, fundamentally different from ourselves. We started down a road where we felt we needed to be hyper-vigilant, always ready to defend ourselves and if called for, to engage in preemptive aggression (remember Iraq?). This was our choice. It was a poor choice and we continue to make that choice day in and day out—thousands of years of shooting ourselves in the foot. Today we are trying to make the best of the consequences of that choice and we are pretending that most of those consequences are beyond our control. They aren’t, as we are about to see.
Ever since we chose to follow the road of fear rather than the path of compassion, we have been looking for ways to distract ourselves from that scary companion who walks beside us, our personal shadow. As we continue to try to escape our delusions, we are becoming ever more frantic to explain why we feel so anxious, so threatened. Perhaps it’s the technology of the modern age, the effect of progress itself. Maybe so! What do you think?
Another way we project onto our devices is that we attribute to them power they don’t have. Ellen Ullman is a software engineer and a writer of essays (not like this one) about the human element of computing. She makes the same mistake that most us do in depending solely on her intellect—she doesn’t go deep enough. “The devices, apps and tools seduce us, she said, and any doubts or fears we had melt away.” Our fears don’t melt away, they are repressed into our shadow and we will always, without fail, hear from them later. (More about the seductive qualities of the latest technology in a moment.)
Remember J. Robert Oppenheimer? He had some misgivings about his role in the development of the Atomic Bomb. Today’s engineers don’t seem to have second thoughts about how the latest technology might affect society. “Inside tech companies, engineers would rather set aside pesky impediments like government regulations, social mores and people’s fear of change.”
Those of us who buy the latest technology also play our role. Our false-self identity plays into our easy acceptance of apps that are cool, useful, fun, convenient and most importantly, keep our mind off what’s going on in the world around us. “Both the engineer and the person are not thinking about all the institutions these devices connect us to. And the creepiness comes in when you start thinking about those institutions.”
After getting used to her new app we can see how Miller was gradually taken in by what she calls the “arc of seduction.” “Now I trust it to tell me whether there is a delay on my route to work (even though I never told it where I live or work), how many steps I walk each month, which recipes I should try, when my e-commerce packages have shipped and whether I need to remember to buy diapers next time I am at the store.”
No, we are not seduced by our electronic devices, our paranoid false self uses them to avoid a conscious and authentic experience of life. The very technology that we think is necessary to succeed in life is used to create failure. Of course the technology is not to blame. We will continue to use our high tech devices and find other distractions to avoid taking responsibility for our choices and the existential suffering that those behaviors result in.
As we recently learned (2013), because our smartphones track us everywhere we go, so can the National Security Agency. It always knows where we are, what we are saying, when we are saying it and to whom. This downside of our smartphones has added to our anxiety obviously. “They give too much information to advertisers or the government, people fear, and eliminate the unpredictability of human existence.” Is it too late? Are we stuck with Big Brother, who like all big brothers has both good and bad qualities?
“The Hemisphere Project, a partnership between federal and local drug officials and AT&T adds 4 billion call records to its database every day. The government pays AT&T to place its employees in drug-fighting units around the country. Those employees sit alongside Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local detectives and supply them with the phone data from as far back as 1987 [emphasis added].” So we can’t blame all this surveillance on 9-11.
Big Brother can track you via your smartphone, but what if you could be picked out of a crowd in a much more personal way? What if a camera above a traffic signal or nestled in a drone overhead could recognize your face, pick you out of a crowd by your “biometrics”?
Ginger McCall: “Last week, thanks in part to documents that I and the Electronic Privacy Information Center obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the American public learned that the Department of Homeland Security is making considerable progress on a computerized tool called the Biometric Optical Surveillance System.”
Such a system could use video cameras to scan people in public and match their faces to a database obtained from driver’s license photos, mug shots or passports. The F.B.I. has spent more than $1 billion on its Next Generation Identification program which includes facial-recognition technology. Expected to be deployed next year the bureau has partnered with seven states that gave the agency access to its driver’s license photo databases.
On the local level, the reality of losing places to hide might be even more startling. “On Monday, Ohio’s attorney general, Mike DeWine, confirmed reports that law enforcement officers in his state, without public notice [emphasis added], had deployed facial-recognition software on its driver’s license photo database, ostensibly to identify criminal suspects.”
For those of us who are coming to realize that the human heart has an intelligence all its own, it is not surprising that it can also be a source of a unique identity. “Among the most novel—and also unsettling—of biometric authentication tools is a new wristband developed by cryptographers at the University of Toronto. It contains a voltmeter to read heartbeat.” Passwords are no longer as secure as they used to be. Recently, passwords as long as 55 characters have been “broken.” Whereas everyone has a unique heartbeat.
“Additionally, under an extensive effort, code-named GENIE, U.S. computer specialists break into foreign networks so that they can be put under surreptitious U.S. control … The documents provided by Snowden and interviews with former U.S. officials describe a campaign of computer intrusions that is far broader and more aggressive [emphasis added] than previously understood.” And now, it’s time for the “going deeper” analysis we mentioned earlier.
In truth, are we running from the wrong threat? No campaign, no intrusion into human consciousness and behavior is “far broader or more aggressive” than the human false self. It is, in fact the only challenge facing humanity. No matter what might seem to be the source of our existential anxiety, it is not Big Brother.
We are not running from our Google Now app, our smartphones, the NSA, the DEA or the CIA; we are running from our belief in the old story and the delusional old identity. Nor can we hide from our fear-driven neighbors, colluding corporations and paranoid governments. There is no need to since all we have to do is transform our identities and transcend our anxiety. We can give them all the slip and they have no means of finding us.
Inventors invent, consumers consume; it is human nature. But which humans! Gotcha there my friends! We didn’t know perhaps that we have two natures, two identities? We had better wake up because our future, that is to say, whether we even have a future depends on our meeting our True self. Take responsibility—we create our experience in life—projecting on (blaming) technology is just another cop out.
It is more than a little ironic that machines can recognize us by our fingerprints, our voice, our faces, our passwords, even by our heartbeat but we cannot distinguish our True self from our false self. All kinds of pseudo-threats loom large in our fertile imaginations but we remain clueless about the actual cause of our constant uneasiness. It is not being recognized by a machine but not being recognized by our fellow human beings (that is to say, not having our true self recognized) that poses the true threat to our well-being.
There will always be emerging technologies, changes in the relative world of form. This has nothing to do with us. We have only to observe how our mind experiences these events. We then encounter the same moment of choice experienced so long ago when humanity had to choose between an unfriendly vs. a friendly universe. We can surrender to the seductive false self, scurry frantically around trying to hide our lying, denying and secrets, invest more energy into pursuing plenty, pleasure and power or calmly breathe, relax and surrender to the carefree peace of the present moment. No! There’s no app for that.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in the Simple Reality Trilogy
by Roy Charles Henry:
Where Am I? Story – The First Great Question
Who Am I? Identity – The Second Great Question
Why Am I Here? Behavior – The Third Great Question