Total Information Awareness: The Sequel

By Hendrik Hertzberg

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In the Comment for this week’s magazine, while acknowledging the seeming efficacy of the government’s anti-terrorist program over the past decade, I do some hand-wringing about the immense data-collecting, data-mining, data-interpreting snoopocracy that has grown up in the nearly twelve years since 9/11. I liken the purpose of this electronic behemoth to that of the “precogs” in Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Minority Report”: stopping crimes (murder in the movie, terrorism in the current real world) before they’re committed.

As I probably ought to have mentioned, “Minority Report,” like several of the best sci-fi films of the post-“Forbidden Planet” era, is based on a Philip K. Dick story. Dick was penny-a-word pulpmeister, but he was also a genius. He’s the only science-fiction writer whose works have been collected (in three volumes,yet) by the canonical Library of America. His paranoid visions have a way of turning out to bear a discombobulating resemblance to current events. Fifteen months after 9/11, in another, earlier Dick-inspired Comment, I wrote about a brand-new Defense Department agency called the Information Awareness Office. The goal of the Information Awareness Office was what it called Total Information Awareness, an ecstatic state of intelligence-gathering nirvana:

The Office’s main assignment is, basically, to turn everything in cyberspace about everybody—tax records, driver’s-license applications, travel records, bank records, raw F.B.I. files, telephone records, credit-card records, shopping-mall security-camera videotapes, medical records, every e-mail anybody ever sent—into a single, humongous, multi-googolplexibyte database that electronic robots will mine for patterns of information suggestive of terrorist activity. Dr. Strangelove’s vision—“a chikentic gomplex of gumbyuders”—is at last coming into its own.

It’s easy to ridicule this—fun, too, and fun is something the war on terrorism doesn’t offer a lot of—but it’s not so easy to dismiss the possibility that the project, nutty as it sounds, might actually be of significant help in uncovering terrorist networks. The problem is that it would also be of significant help in uncovering just about everything, including the last vestiges of individual and family privacy.

In 2003, responding to public indignation and journalistic ridicule, Congress defunded the Information Awareness Office. It ceased to exist. But its activities continued under different names. Ten years later, like a solar eclipse, Information Awareness is approaching Totality.

Breaking news for Philip K. Dick fans: The television miniseries adaptation of Dick’s great alternative-present novel, “The Man in the High Castle,” which I ballyhooed in 2010 but had lately begun to lose hope for, seems to be on again, according to the Timess ArtsBeat blog. There’s a new scriptwriter, the SyFy cable channel has picked it up, and Ridley Scott is still co-producing. I just pray this isn’t one of those Lucy and the football situations.

Source: NewYorker.com, May 17, 2013

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