Like most parents, mine gave me my first computer so that I would be helped in my school work. I remember the day; it was my thirteenth birthday, and I got my first phone, and my first laptop. I was so incredibly happy. I suppose I felt a little adult. I was one of the big boys, not a little kid any more. I later bought a desktop computer on my own off a mate who had a tower over. I replaced much of the innards of that metal box so that I could play computer games properly.
I also got a restricted access to the internet. Unlike in most households, as the cliché goes, my dad knew far more about computers than I did. So, after a few embarrassing things like discovering internet porn, and the following “conversation” with my dad about the network logs, I dismissed any idea that I might be more clever than him. Or, which might be truer, I never ever wanted a repeat of that “conversation”.
By age fifteen, dad had lifted most restrictions anyway. He still kept an eye on my activities, but by then I was a veteran of the internet. I knew what to do, and what not to do. I broke the rules for a point, kept others with a zeal, and discovered something important in the process.
Nationality, language, origin didn’t matter so much. I had no idea, often, who I talked to. Just as they had no idea that they were talking to some fifteen year old kid in the middle of the forests of Sweden. It was my ideas, my interests, and my views that were important. It was liberating to be taken seriously, and not be patronised as “hormonal” or “rebellious”. My mind and utterances mattered, what I was didn’t.
If it was relevant, I told my age and gender and location. If it was irrelevant, I didn’t. For two years I was a part of a writing group on-line who had no idea about ‘the kid in the forest’. They read, critiqued, and gave both encouragement and criticism of my writing. The writing group unravelled when I made the mistake of telling one of the members that I was only sixteen (at the time). The mood changed entirely, and it became more about “encouraging the kid” than “critiqueing the writer”.
Two years later, now in 2013, it feels like the internet that allowed me to break out from my small town living and discover language and art and writing and people and ideas have been betrayed. Older generations without the understanding of this internet, and what it means to the connected generations, have usurped it into something threatening and into something invasive. Because of their fear, they’ve nullified our human rights of privacy, freedom of association, presumption of innocence, and freedom of speech. To be human, in their post-9/11 world, means to be monitored and suspected and surveilled.
I am on-line every minute I’m awake. I am never off-line. I may not sit in front of the computer, but I carry my smart phone with me all the time, as well as my iPod. All devices allow me to dip into the internet at will, and notifications and updates throughout the day remind me that wherever I go, and whatever I do, I’m connected to this internet.
This alarms some people. They complain about the young putting things on-line which they shouldn’t. And it’s true, there are idiots out there. Most people, though, know perfectly well that the internet is a poster board where you display that which you want to be seen. That which should be hidden never goes near the internet.
This is the case for most of my generation. I can’t think of anyone, except maybe the poorest, that doesn’t have it like this. And the poor people tend to have dumb phones too, and so they are on-line as well at the touch of a button. They also have maybe not iPods, but cheaper alternatives that offer the same connectivity.
On the bus, I can get an idea and jot down a note that I save to my cloud storage, which I can use when I get home from a totally different device – like my laptop with the word processor. I was thinking about this article on such a bus, and I am now writing the article based on the notes I made at eight this morning. All this while listening to streaming music coming over the internet to my phone. I snapped a picture of something I want to remember for another post, and did the same as I did with the idea note.
I am never offline, except when I sleep, and even then the phone sits in its cradle turned on. And this is what gives the state the ability to map my friend network to see who I associate with, and to see who I call. They can see all the calls to Mark, and cross-reference the address and see that I live with him, and can see the marriage license. So, they know I’m gay.
They know who my friends are. They know what I write here, and elsewhere. Thy know which sites I visit, and they know what I write on those sites. They know my mind, my heart, and my location. The dossier about me tells them all they need to know about me, without having to actually listen to anything I say or write or do. And with the phone, which has a GPS tracker, they know my movements too.
A year ago, I would have dismissed this as conspiracy theorist crank-pottery, but after reading the Snowden revelations in the Guardian elsewhere, it is known that the state has erected a Panopticon and can see all our little lives play out like ants milling over an ant-hill. They consider that they have a right to this knowledge, even though none of us are suspected of a crime.
We may be associated with terrorists, or serious crime, or trafficking in drugs and people. They can’t prove it, and they can’t tell, and so they need to watch us all the time to find out. Even though one of a hundred thousand of us may be that which they seek, they must watch us all. Even though we’re more likely to be struck by lightning, or slip in the bathtub, we most be protected by being suspected. Even though we are free, we must have no privacy.
The state must know it all: our associations, our friends, our communications, our browsing habits, our declarations of grief and anger and anguish. Our protestations of love, intimacy, and hope and dreams.
They must have it all, and sift through it, and search for their target. Our freedoms is not something we are born with. They are not inalienable. In fact, they are given to us by the benevolent state. And any thought that it is, and must be, otherwise is childish and naïve. Our freedom depend on the benevolence of others, and we should accept to be monitored and evaluated and measured and observed around the clock. One in a hundred thousand of us may, after all, be thinking bad thoughts and putting them on the internet.
But here’s what is lost. Without privacy, we have no other rights. No freedom of speech, no freedom of association, no freedom of thought, and no freedom to search knowledge. It’s all gone. The terrorists won.