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Anthropologist Joe Masco Traces The Surveillance State From Cold War To Present Day

Surveillance in New York City's financial district.
Jonathan McIntosh

It’s been just over two years since former national security contractor Edward Snowden leaked hundreds of thousands of intelligence files and radically transformed the debate about digital surveillance.

Joe Masco is an anthropologist at the University of Chicago who has spent the past two decades studying the intersection of politics, national security, and the mass media. His latest book The Theater of Operations examines national security affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror.

Read an excerpt of The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror

He says Snowden’s 2013 leak revealed the extent that the state is involved in watching and monitoring everyday activities, but the idea of what he calls a “post-privacy era” started a decade earlier.

“The embrace of social media has created an expectation for putting one’s once-private information out into a public domain for known and unknown viewers,” Masco said. “And that has really fundamentally shifted the terms for what could be a large-scale citizenship debate about the terms of state surveillance and the role of corporate surveillance as well.”

The idea of a “national security state” really didn’t take off until large-scale government reorganization in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The National Security Act of 1947 established the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and consolidated several military agencies into the Department of Defense.

But the world was different then, and the declaration of the War on Terror after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks drew on and enhanced ideas and values that were the foundation of the Cold War.

“Because the object of terror was different from a standoff with the Soviet Union, it also transformed many of these long-standing American structures,” Masco said. “These are not things that citizens have access to without a public education around them.”

Masco describes the ways terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and other objects of public concern are publicly presented as a kind of emotional management that will support the activities of expanding a surveillance state.

“The politics of fear is a huge aspect of American society right now,” Masco said. “It’s key to maintaining and expanding the national security apparatus.”

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Joe Masco, welcome to World Views.

JOE MASCO: It's nice to be with you.

GRILLOT: Well, Joe, you're here to give a talk about digital surveillance in today's world. And you refer to this era as a post-privacy era. Now, we're going to go down the path talking lots about surveillance and digital issues like that, but can we just start by talking about privacy first? And what do you mean by a post-privacy era?

MASCO: Well, privacy is an assumption that there are aspects of your life that are not common, that are not shared. So it's a domain that's outside of the political, and that is personal. And through technological revolutions, particularly social media and digital revolutions in information technologies, the idea of a private vs. a public life are being radically redefined. And they have been now for more than a decade in a really serious way, with the advent of social media, and in recent years we've also come to understand the extent that the state is involved in watching and monitoring everyday activities. So I think in those two domains, privacy is being radically reconfigured. And I call it a post-privacy issue because there's not much of a fight right now about maintaining privacy. The embrace of social media, I think, has created an expectation for putting one's once-private information out into a public domain for known and unknown viewers, and that has really fundamentally shifted the terms for what could be a debate, a large-scale citizenship debate, about the terms of state surveillance and the role of corporate surveillance as well in everyday life.

GRILLOT: Well, I want to get to the national security side of this in a minute, but when you talk about there's really little opposition to any impingement on privacy, I think it's really remarkable today, particularly the younger generation that have known only social media and internet communications and the fact that information is everywhere. It has just changed their expectations about privacy as much as perhaps those of us who do remember a pre-internet life are less comfortable with. So do you foresee, then, that we're not only in this post-era, but that we'll never return to an era where there's more of a concept of privacy? Or what is it that you think will have to happen for there to be this emerging discussion and concern about privacy?

MASCO: Well, that's a really excellent question. And I think, first thing is to say, that technology and technological revolution now is really generationally specific. So when people enter into a particular kind of social media, it changes their expectations for what privacy and publicity should be. We've come through in the last two years a major series of revelations via Edward Snowden about state-based activities that has also implicated all the main telecommunications and IT companies in various forms of surveillance. So we have actually in the public media space right now, information about how corporations of various kinds, national security entities of various kinds, are all involved in monitoring and watching individual activities and communications in a quite novel and quite powerful way. So one of the things I've been interested in is why that hasn't produced a broader social conversation. And my supposition is that the information revolution has been so powerful in changing the ways in which people interact with both information and conceptualized their own lives as something that is being broadcast to friends, families, and larger communities members, that there has been a fundamental shift in the expectation for what a life should be, and what a self should be. So to answer your question about when it might turn back, I think the resources are in the public sphere right now to enter into a very wide-ranging conversation about precisely what kinds of interventions, corporations, national security agencies should have in terms of your use of technology, and your own kind of information footprint. It hasn't quite happened yet. But I do think there are interesting generational shifts happening. So the use of Facebook, the reliance on certain kinds of social media, is really changing generationally. And that's a kind of learning curve. I guess the one other thing I would say is with any new technology, particularly a revolution of this size, power, and intimacy in everyday life, there is a period of time where it's not quite clear what its implications are, and I think we're just entering into, pretty much in the second decade of social media writ large, an opportunity to ask those questions in a really serious way. One other thing I would say about this in terms of the politics of post-privacy is all the capacities around technological surveillance are expanding. So there is a very real set of questions now about the storage of data for very long periods of time, and how activities that you have today might impact the way you are perceived by corporations, by employers, by the state, by insurance companies decades down the road. So it's more than just a kind of right-to-privacy that is at stake here, I think it's the very terms of a social contract. And the fact that it is emerging slowly through emerging technologies makes it so difficult to engage on those terms, because we're dealing with lots of different platforms, lots of different players. And much of that infrastructure, the alliance between major information technology companies and the state, say, is just now starting to be visible in news media. So the ground is shifting, but the stakes are very high, and I think the generational politics are really important here, too. What people's expectations are for being able to control, say, their own image and the way in which it travels in everyday life.

GRILLOT: Well, you mentioned Edward Snowden. Of course I was going to ask a question about his revelations, and the specific content of what he revealed to us. And I think to those of us who really don't have a lot of capability to understand just the pervasiveness of this type of surveillance. It's hard to even comprehend what's possible, what's happening. You just said something about the image that we project that we may not even intend, or that isn't true, or that's false. There assumptions that can be made about a person because of their digital activity, or their digital signatures, but that may not at all be accurate about who are you, and what you're doing, and what your intentions are. But I think, to me, when I look at what happened with the Snowden case, and when you start looking a little deeper at the purpose of this type of surveillance, that I just have to ask you, do you think people are more tolerant of it if they really felt like, and really understood, that it was a security effort, and a security measure? Which is certainly how the state, anyway, is couching it. But that there are so many other reasons and purposes and uses of this information that it's way beyond our comprehension and understanding, and that isn't as acceptable. When you do a search for a particular appliance, and the next thing you know it's showing up in your Twitter feed, and it's showing up in your Facebook feed. It's so subtle that you don't even get, well, wait a minute, how did they get that from my Google search over to my Facebook page? And that's an easy example. So do we just really not comprehend it? Is that part of the issue?

MASCO: Well, comprehension is part of it. Also the fact that it is emergent, meaning that it's changing all the time. So how you learn a technology that you're using last year, it might have shifted. And we don't have a good practice of things like user agreements being helpful in terms of explaining exactly how the information will be used. And also, because these are innovative spaces, there are new ideas and new uses emerging all the time. So it is a pretty vibrant area. The question of what's Snowden revealed gets to some very fundamental issues, I think, about national security. The relationship between corporate identity, national security, consumer and citizenship rights, and if one reads across the documents from the national intelligence agency Snowden revealed to a series of reporters, who have then been presenting them slowly in the media with more degrees of research behind them, you get a portrait of a kind of comprehensive effort to interact with every major piece of technology and software in which information can be accrued about individual activities. Those bits of data are being stored for increasingly long periods of time. And through evolutions and really revolutionary practices in supercomputing, those bits of information can be turned into predictive portraits of how a person will behave. On the national security front, there are patterns that are being tracked that are connected to known dangerous people. So one is being compared to a kind of digital footprint that might come from somebody who is actually up to some kind of dangerous activity. But it is such a vast field that there are many other kinds of purposes that those same practices can be put to. And it's not just the national security agencies in the U.S. and around the world that are doing it, it's also major corporations. So we're not talking here about a singular use of a technology, but rather many, many different iterations across corporate interests, national security interests. Some of which align, some of which don't. So it is, I think, a fundamentally new ground for asking very basic political questions about what individual rights are in a world of deeply connected, highly technologized fields that also are crafting a relationship to the future in a very different way. So one of the things I've been very interested in in my own research is just the way in which digital management and deep futures are aligning to create the possibility of very different kinds of political arrangements emerging over in the next five, ten, 15, 20, 30 years. And I think one thing that we don't talk enough about in public is just that idea that if metadata storage becomes a kind of permanent resource for both corporations and the state, then the opportunity for today's activity to be influencing your life in 20 or 30 years is really a new terrain. And it's not something that we have law that deals with. It's not something that we have social language even to talk about. And yet I think it will be a kind of slow-moving-but-revolutionizing force in contemporary society.

GRILLOT: Well, I think you're right, the dynamic nature of it is clearly an important that you've made. So let's just, very briefly, touch on your most recent book about national security affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror. And you refer to emotional issues and the impact of emotional management in terms of our understanding of danger and threat. So how do all of these issues of surveillance affect our ability to manage our emotional responses, in some ways, to the dangers and threats that we face today. I mean sometimes we're going a little overboard, maybe, with some of these programs because we're getting caught up in the affective side of our psychology.

MASCO: Yeah, it's a wonderful question. And I guess I would say my work is focused primarily on the U.S. And I've been interested in the ways in which national security cultures and institutions have influenced everyday American life. I've spent a lot of time thinking about how the development of nuclear weapons technologies, and with it a whole host of institutions, were really transformative to American society from 1945 on. And so the most recent book is an examination of how the declaration of the War on Terror in 2001 drew on a series of ideas about danger, and about emotion, that were really foundational to the start of the Cold War. But that because the object of terror was different from a standoff with the Soviet Union, it also transformed many of those long-standing American structures into something quite different than the Cold War. And so the book is an effort to show those transformations. And I would say, on terms of national security dangers, these are not things that citizens have access to without a public education campaign around them. We have to be taught how to feel about things like weapons of mass destruction, terrorists, and so on. And the ways in which those objects are crafted as objects of public concern has a theory and a practice behind it that I refer to as emotional management. It's a way of turning people into citizens that will enact a particular script in relationship to danger, that will also support the activities of an expanding national security state. And it's easy to see as one moves across different historical moments a series of repetitions and consistent forms and appeals to be a certain kind of citizen in relationship to existential dangers that are crafted in very precise ways, precisely to mobilize citizen-subjects in that way. So I would say the politics of fear is a huge aspect of American society right now. It's key to maintaining and expanding the national security apparatus. But it also has everything to do with how citizens respond to things like technological innovation. So what might be crafted as a set of concerns about, say, digital surveillance now, are contained and contested by the narrative and the emotional management campaign around fighting terrorism. So these things come into conflict in a very direct and strategic way. And my invitation to readers and to listeners, I hope as well, is to think of these things as the grounds for a political conversation, and to not think of a war on terror, or a nuclear danger, or a WMD, as a passive thing that one has to respond to as given, but that that's actually an invitation to think quite differently about the world.

GRILLOT: Well, Joe Masco, you've given us a lot to think about. Thank you so much. I appreciate you being here today.

MASCO: Thanks so much for having me.

Copyright © 2015 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.  

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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