I’m a cheapskate, so I rarely see movies in the theaters, but I’m thinkin’ I might get out the crowbar to see Elysium: divided society, Matt Damon, subversion, breaching the gates—sets me lil’ lefty heart aflutter!
So what does this have to do with HackBB and the so-called Dark Web? Well, it seems that so many techno-dystopias are predicated not just on an extreme divide, but also on a criminal space through which the untermenschen traverse to get to the high society or the denizens of the overlord society may slum for pleasures or sins or openings not found in their clean space.
I don’t know if that’s what happens in Elysium, but I’m bettin’ there’s some kind of passing going on.
As for other portrayals, Neo traded sims (is that right?) on the down side, Tom Cruise’s character got new eyeballs in the alleyways of Minority Report, Winston met Julia in the slums, Ethan Hawke’s character traded up to a new life in Gattaca, and on and on. These netherspaces are dangerous, but also allow for freedoms not allowed in safer places; they might be dangerous precisely because they are free.
Dangerous and free: down- and up-side side, all in one.
We Americans like to celebrate the wholesome goodness of freedom—libertarians and anarchists, most of all—leaving a consideration of the ambiguities of liberty to scolds and scholars. Any problems with such freedom are laid on the character of those who “abuse” or “take advantage” of it, those who don’t know properly how to live freely. Freedom is good for good people (of which we inarguably are) and bad for bad people.
So, how to preserve freedom for the deserving? Take it away from the undeserving. And how do you know who’s undeserving?
Welllll, that’s where things get tricky. You can define certain behaviors as crimes, and define those who commit those crimes as undeserving of freedom, but if you seek to stamp out every possible crime, you end up classifying everyone as a possible criminal—from whom it is acceptable to take away their freedom because: criminal!
If, however, you don’t want to treat everyone as a possible criminal, you have to tolerate a certain amount of crime. The obvious parallel is Madison’s observation that liberty is to faction what air is to fire: the only way to eliminate the problems of liberty is to eliminate liberty—an intolerable prospect, to Madison.
Even societies which are themselves intolerant of liberty allow spaces in which residents may act against the law, if only to vent harmlessly (and privately) a dissatisfaction which might otherwise be directed against the governing powers. Unless a regime is capable of stamping out every last discontent—and thus far in modern societies, only North Korea seems to have approached this goal—it has to figure out instead how to channel those discontents away from the center.
In free societies, there has been a similar kind of “blind-eye” sensibility for a whole variety of crimes (gambling most obviously), coupled with the creation or allowance of red-light districts to where other types of crime might be confined—and surveilled. It’s not that a security service is able to track every shady act in the shady zones, but that they know where to go if things get out of hand.
Which brings me back around to the Dark Web: A key feature of crime areas is that they are at least somewhat open to the police, but as encryption and anonymizing software like Tor have spread, it makes it difficult for the police to follow the criminals.
This is a problem.
Yes, it’s a problem in an obvious way: it allows child pornographers and identity thieves and the whole rotten lot to flourish. But it’s also a problem in a more insidious way, insofar as it allows private and public authorities to cast suspicions on any who don’t care to have their data dissected by corporations or cops. Because criminals hide their activities, then it must be the case that anyone who hides her activities is a criminal.
I’ve banged on about the privacy-shredding implications of this before, but here I’m making a slightly different point: As some kinds of crime and criminals become harder to follow, those who are tasked with following them are granted greater and greater leeway in their efforts to track them down. The deserving free must be protected from the undeserving, but as it becomes harder to identify the undeserving, the deserving themselves are scrutinized.
Thus some of the deserving-free readily hand over their freedom in order to signal their status as deserving, while others protest they ought to be able to retain both their status as deserving and their freedom, and still others say, screw it, if you’re going to treat me as a criminal, then I’ll throw my lot in with the criminal. That latter group might try to pass as deserving, making no overt protest and perhaps making a show of their adherence to the rules, but otherwise tolerating and perhaps taking advantage of the opportunities in the underworld.
The police might go after the protesters—they are visible, after all—but in doing so they are really attempting to get at criminal and their fellow-travellers.
An attorney who’s working with local climate-change activists who’ve been approached by the FBI said activists were approached again yesterday. “They told him [the activist] that they wanted to talk to him because they were afraid that someone was going to get hurt in the course of the coal-train campaign,” she said. “They said something to the effect of, ‘we are afraid that someone is using the climate-change movement for nefarious purposes to hurt people.’”
As The Stranger’s Brendan Kiley points out,
It appears in this case that the FBI is not trying to solve a crime related to coal-train protests. Instead, agents are dropping by the homes of climate-change activists to express concern that they, by virtue of their activism, are involved in something that might become criminal. Or maybe they’re just trying to frighten people away.
Either way, it sounds like stop-and-frisk for environmentalists.
The mere (f)act of dissent is disreputable, and dissenters to be judged not on their arguments but by the (f)act of dissent itself, which, in this case, is seen merely as a cover for criminality.
Grrr, this post is getting away from (now you appreciate those quick hits, don’t you?), but I’m trying to make sense of trends toward both greater division and increased social-securitization.
No, I don’t believe that the US is a dystopian totalitarian state, nor do I think we’ll become one in my lifetime. But it seems that as more and more people find it difficult to support themselves above the line, they’ll dip below it in order to survive. And as more and more people dip below, the security state will grow in order to capture and segregate them from those above, which will lead to greater efforts to pass or to avoid capture, which further justifies the extension of the security state.
At some point, everyone becomes a suspect, guilty until proven innocent.
I’m amused by the HackBB story because it seems to me a clear case of, well, just desserts. But as much as I’m discomfitted both by the folks who make a living on the Dark Web and the hysteria it sets off in the security apparatus, it might, like other dodgy neighborhoods, be one of the few places where the innocently-guilty may live freely. The danger provides the freedom.
If so, it might be the case that the only thing worse than its existence would be its extinction.
h/t Andrew Sullivan, Daily Dish