The Last Commencement Address

Surveilling the Class of 2014

Internet Class of 2014, I’m in awe of you! To this giant, darkened auditorium filled with sparkling screens of every sort, welcome!

It would, of course, be inaccurate to say, as speakers like me once did, that after four years of effort and experience you are now about to leave the hallowed halls of this campus and graduate into a new and adult world.  The odds are that you aren’t.  You were graduated into that world long ago.  I’m not sure that it qualifies as adult at all, but a new world it surely is, and one I grasp so little that I feel I should be in the audience and you up here doing what graduation speakers normally do: offering an upbeat, even inspirational, explanation of our world and your place in it.

Honestly, I’m like one of those old codgers I used to watch in the military parades of my 1950s childhood.  You know, white-haired guys in open vehicles, probably veterans of the Spanish-American War (a conflict you’ve undoubtedly never heard of amid the ongoing wars of your own lifetime).  To me, they always looked like they had been disinterred from some museum of ancient history, some unimaginable American Pompeii.

And yet those men and I probably had more in common than you and I do now.  After all, I don’t have a smartphone or an iPad.  I’m a book editor, but lack a Kindle or a Nook.  I don’t tweet or Skype.  I can’t photograph anyone or shoot video of anything.  I don’t know how to text or read my email while walking in the street or sitting in a restaurant.  And when something goes wrong on my computer or with the Internet, I collapse in a heap, believe myself a doomed man on an alien planet, mourn the passing of the typewriter, and call my daughter and throw myself on her mercy.[amazon asin=B00KN0K6EM&template=*lrc ad (right)]

You were “graduated” long ago into the world that, though I live in it after a fashion as the guy who runs, I still find as alien as a Martian landscape.  Your very fingers, agile as they are with little buttons of every sort, speak a new and different language, and a lot of the time it seems to me that I have no translator on hand.  Your world, the sea you swim in, has been hailed for its many wonders and miracles — and wonders and miracles they surely are. Dazzling they truly can be.  The tying together of the planet in instantaneous communion as if space and geography, distances of every sort, were a thing of the past still stuns me.

Sometimes, as in my first experience with Skype, I feel like a Trobriand Islander suddenly plunged into the wonders of modernity.  If you had told me back in the 1950s that someday I would actually see whomever I was talking to onscreen, I doubt I would have believed you.  (On the other hand, I was partial to the fantasy that we would all be experiencing traffic jams in the skies over our cities as we zipped around with our own personal jetpacks strapped to our backs — a promised future no one ever delivered.)

There’s a book to be written on just how disorienting it is to live into the world of the future, as at almost 70 years old I now find myself doing.  There is, however, one part of our futuristic world that I feel strangely at home with.  Its accomplishments are no less technologically awe-inspiring, no less staggeringly sci-fi-ish than the ones I’ve been talking about and yet, perhaps in part thanks to a youth heavily influenced by George Orwell’s 1984 and other dystopian writings, it seems oddly familiar to me, as if I had parachuted from a circling spacecraft onto an only slightly updated version of my own planet.

The Sea in Which You Swim and They Phish

That bright and shiny world of online wonders has — as no one could have failed to notice by now — also managed to drop the most oppressive powers of the state and the corporation directly into your lap, or rather your laptop, iPad, and smartphone. You — yes, I mean you with that smartphone in your pocket or purse — are a walking Stasi file.  “Your” screen, in fact, all the screens on the walls of this vast room and in your hands really belong to them. It’s no more complicated than that. The details hardly matter.

Yes, you or this college paid for them. You yak endlessly with your friends on them, do your business on them, and pay your bills with them. You organize, complain, and opine on them. You find your way around and connect with acquaintances, friends, lovers, even strangers, via them.  You could no longer imagine living without them. And yet the much-ballyhooed techno-liberation they offer you is actually your prison.

True or not, I remember being told long ago that certain tribal peoples on first contact with the camera refused to be photographed, fearing that those photos could take possession of and steal their souls, their spirits. In the twenty-first century, thanks to the techno-wizardry of both the state and the corporation, what once might have been dismissed as superstition has become a kind of reality. Thanks to those ubiquitous “private” screens that you’re under the impression you own but that are in most ways that matter owned by others, “they” can possess “you.”  Without your feeling the pain of it, you are constantly being observed, measured, and carved up into your many discernable traits.  Those traits are then reassembled, corporately bundled like so many financial derivatives, and sold off to the highest bidders.  Your soul, that is, is being corporately possessed and disassembled into a bevy of tastes, whims, typologies, and god knows what else for the marketplace.

Meanwhile, the national security state has your number, too, and it won’t hesitate to come calling.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re phoning, emailing, or playing video games — the national security state wants YOU.  Again, details aside, it isn’t all that complicated.  The ever-expanding post-9/11 apparatus of surveillance and power has come to treat Americans as if we were a foreign population.   It’s all being done in the name of your safety and of security “threats” that only grow, as that national security apparatus continues to engorge itself on your communications, while becoming ever more technologically skilled and inventive.

You are officially what it must protect, which also means that you are officially its target.  To protect you, it must know you.  I mean really know you, lest you turn out to be what it’s protecting Americans from.  It must know you every which way, whether you want to be known or not, and above all, for your own safety, its access to you must be untrammeled, while — it’s your safety at stake! — your access to it must be nonexistent.  Hence, the heavy-handed use of classification, the endless attempts to cut down on unsupervised contact between members of the U.S. intelligence community as well as retired brethren and the press, the muzzling of thousands of people a year by the FBI, and the fierce campaigns that have been launched against whistleblowers and to prevent whistleblowing.  Above all, you must not know what your government knows about you.

It doesn’t matter whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge in Washington, whether the politicians in question happen to be chanting “big government” or “small government.”  No matter what they say, almost all of them bow down before the oppressive powers of the state.  They worship (and fund) those powers and, in the process, grant that state-within-a-state ever more powers lest they someday be blamed for another 9/11.  Any attempts at “reforms” that might limit those powers turn out, in the end, to be just window dressing.  You, the once-upon-a-time citizen, now prospective subject and object of the national security state, are at least theoretically the ultimate grantor of these powers, even if you now seem to have no control over them whatsoever.

This, then, is the sea in which you swim and, in case you hadn’t noticed, the nets of corporate and government phishing are in the water, already being drawn up around you.

The Big Brotherness of It All

What I’ve been wondering recently is why, in a world that usually boggles my mind, this bleak side of it seems so relatively unsurprising to me.  Part of the answer may be that the means of tracking, listening in on, and getting to know everything about you, the technological process of creating your dossier (in the case of government) and your profile (in the case of the corporate world), couldn’t be newer, but the urge to do so couldn’t be older.  In my own life, decades before the Internet or email arrived on the scene, I encountered it up close and personal.

Here’s a little story about a time when I could still be shocked by such things.  Sometime in the late 1960s, at a large demonstration, I turned in my draft card to protest the Vietnam War.  Not long after, my draft board called me in.  I knew I had a right to look at my draft file, so when I got there, I asked to see it.  So many decades later, I have no idea what I thought I would find in it, but I remember just how naïve I was.  At 25, despite my antiwar activism, I still retained a deep and abiding faith in my government.  When I opened that file and found various documents from the FBI, I was deeply shocked.  The Bureau, it turned out, had its eyes on me.  Anxious about the confrontation to come — the members of my draft board would, in fact, soon be shouting at me — I remember touching one of those FBI documents (what exactly they were I no longer remember) and it was as if an electric current had run directly through body.  I couldn’t shake the Big Brotherness of it all, though undoubtedly my draft card had gone more or less directly from that demonstration to the Bureau.

By the time those years were over, I had worked as an editor (and writer) for a small antiwar news service in which there turned out to be an informer who was reporting on us to… yep, you guessed it, the FBI.  I had become intensely aware of clicks on my phone that might or might not have been government wiretaps, and it no longer seemed strange that “my” government was intimately interested in guys like me and was out to track and constrain, if not suppress, dissent.

The story of the anti-Vietnam War movement was in significant ways — and we knew it then — a tale of wiretaps, widespread government informers, and commonplace agents provocateurs.  Of course, the urge of the FBI, under its Director J. Edgar Hoover, to listen in on dissidents of every sort (as well as politicians of every sort) then is too well known to repeat.  And as it turned out, the CIA and god knows what other agencies were knee-deep in the Big Muddy of “domestic intelligence” as well.

The problem for the national security state at the time was that the means to listen in, observe everyone, collect dossiers on anyone’s communications, contacts, acts, and life were still limited by relatively crude technologies and relatively crude, not necessarily reliable human beings.  No longer.  Among the many ways the Internet has connected people across the planet, there may be no greater wonder than the intimate ways it has connected governments and corporations to the rest of us. Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations are stunning for the sense they give us that a global surveillance state capable of gathering just about any communication or interaction on the planet is not only plausible, but already a reality.

Similarly, the ability of giant Internet companies to learn about your tastes, buying habits, dreams, medical problems, faults, secrets, fears, and loves, and then sell all of the above and more to the highest corporate bidders continues to grow by leaps and bounds.  And yet compared to what’s coming — compared, for instance, to the smart machines that will inhabit your future house, watch you, and record endless information about you for marketeers (and someday perhaps, for the government as well) — the remarkable ways the powers that be can now possess you remain crude indeed.

Heading Out of a World of Shadows and Into a Shadowy World

This was hardly the revolution promised us when the Internet arrived, but it’s no less revolutionary for all that.  The issue at stake is generally still referred to as “privacy,” but I suspect that, in the new communications world, that term is already on life support in an emergency room somewhere.  So what does it mean to live like this?  What, if anything, is to be done?

I’m hardly an expert on the subject.  It’s your generation, not mine, that will be forced to make something of this particular mess, if anything is to be made of it and we are not to become the possessions of the national security state and our personalities and traits turned into the personal equivalents of financial derivatives.  Still, for what it’s worth, I have a feeling that answers won’t be found in the river of shadows that is the online world.  I doubt you’ll be able to encrypt your way out of our present dilemma or hack your way out of it either; nor will you be able to simply ignore it to death.  There is, I suspect, only one way to change our lives when it comes to the increasingly oppressive powers of the surveillance state and its corporate doppelgangers: you’ll have to step out of that world of shadows and into the increasingly surreal and shadowy world that surrounds and feeds on them.

Screens aren’t going to offer you the necessary answers.  You won’t be able to ask Siri for guidance.  No Google search will get you where you need to go.  If you want a different world, one in which you can’t be taken possession of via your screen, in which you don’t more or less automatically come with a dossier and a profile, I think you’re going to have to slip those screens back into your pockets or, given that you can be tracked via your smartphones wherever you go (even if they’re turned off), maybe into a desk drawer somewhere.

You can’t fight a national security state or a corporate selling state, both operating in the shadows via the shadowy world of the Internet — not when so much of their power, their essential structures, and their operations are located in the perfectly surreal world beyond the screen, the one that they would like to put beyond your reach.  That’s why, on this grey and overcast day outside this auditorium, my urge is to graduate you from the world of shadows where you’ve spent so much of your last years into the increasingly shadowy off-screen world where what matters most still exists.

Unfortunately, there is no obvious gate off this campus.  When you’ve snapped the last graduation selfie on that smartphone of yours, when your gowns and caps are returned and your schoolbooks sold off, you’ll have to find your own way into our confusing world amid all those shadows.  All I can do, graduates of the Internet class of 2014, is wish you luck and say that what you do (or don’t do) will matter.

Reprinted with permission from