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The Internet, Technology, Social Atomization and Snowden

June 11, 2013 14 comments

Over the last few days, I started writing a post about the Edward Snowden saga on at least four different occasions, only to be interrupted by new information or good articles by other writers. I would especially recommend a series of articles on the broader implications of the NSA surveillance scandal and Snowden himself in the The Atlantic. I will write about my thoughts on those and other related issues in subsequent posts.

Many other writers and bloggers have written about the nature, implications, mindset of the NSA or the motivations of Snowden etc. But few realize that what happened in the last three weeks was made possible by a combination of fairly new circumstances and resultant possibilities. The old system and old men in power simply could not have factored it in their calculations.

This rest of this post is about an overlooked aspect of the story- specifically, why something like what happened in the last three weeks would have inconceivable even a decade ago.

The first major but often understated change is that the world we live in today is functionally multipolar. It was not so 10 years ago when it was functionally unipolar, or indeed any time since the end of WW2 when it was mostly bipolar. The USA simply does not have the ability to project unbridled power as it used to in the late 1990s and early 2000s after the collapse of the former USSR. Any remaining illusions about the actual capabilities of the USA has been irreversibly compromised by the events in Afghanistan, Iraq and the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis.

There is a pretty good reason why Snowden initially went to Hongkong rather than a city in Western or Eastern Europe. The guy has a pretty good understanding of the real boundaries and constraints of american power. His decision to go to a Chinese city that is not quite part of Mainland China is therefore far shrewder than most people realize. He is actively using his public notoriety and the ambiguous status of Hongkong to make him far harder to target than if he was went to a city in a pushover country like Sweden, UK or Poland.The Chinese establishment for all their greed and inscrutability do not want to be seen as the butt-boy for ‘extra-white’ WASPy yanks. It certainly helps that Hongkong is one plane flight from Hawaii. Zones that function like Hongkong does today simply did not exist 10 years ago.

Then there is the state of the internet today or rather its ubiquity. A decade ago, the internet was much smaller and far less ubiquitous. Moreover, many of the companies on the PRISM co-operation list did not even exist in 2003. But there is another side to this story, namely how Snowden used its reach and ubiquity to get his side and version of the story to hundreds of millions and potentially billions BEFORE the establishment could respond. Ten years ago, this sort of thing was just starting to become a possibility in a few countries. Today, a person like Snowden can use the reach and ubiquity of the internet to pull of a preemptive multi-national information strike of a magnitude previously associated with large nation states. It also helps that the establishment cannot filter news or discussion about these things by controlling the mainstream media, because the remaining reader- and viewer-ship of dying mainstream media is geriatric.

We also cannot forget the role of social atomization in making this possible. In previous generations, lots of decent men went along with very questionable orders from rich old white men without pulling a Snowden. Have you ever wondered why? The answer lies in the changing nature of society. The 1940s-1990s version of him was much likely to pull off what Snowden did for a number of reasons. There are the standard reasons such as higher levels of social cohesion, patriotic brainwashing, less access to diverse sources of information etc. But there is a deeper reason..

In previous eras- men of his intelligence, ability and income used to be married (or married and divorced) with multiple kids and many other FAKE obligations that tied them to the dysfunctional society they lived in. They stood to lose a few real and many FAKE things. The growing atomization of society and accompanying social changes (feminism, low fertility) have broken the old cycle for good.

A guy like Snowden, or for that matter any other reasonably intelligent guy of his age group, no longer believes in things that pretty much all his ancestors (even his parents) believed. Nor does he have the few real or mostly FAKE things that kept people like him in line. People who realize that have nothing real to lose behave very differently from people who maintain faith in the “old ways” even if doing so harms them. I think that, at some level, Snowden realized that he had nothing real left to lose.

What do you think? Comments?