BOMB magazine has a fascinating and disturbing conversation between Trevor Paglen and cyber-security expert and activist Jacob Appelbaum. They discuss the near-future of cyber surveillance, the Tor network, and their sculptural project Autonomy Cube. An excerpt:
TP: The point is that Tor saves lives. If you are queer and young in Uganda and you want to connect with other people like you around the world and you do that on the normal Internet, you are putting your life at risk. If you're an activist in Iran or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, Tor will save your life quite literally if you want to communicate with the outside world. If you are in China, or in Turkey for that matter, and you want to circumvent the state censorship that happens there, Tor allows you to communicate with the rest of the world in a way that is more secure than using the hostile network. Or, if you are a mom in the United States and you want to understand more about your kid's health problems and don't want to give that data to Google or to Facebook, you can use Tor to protect your information.
Both Jake and I believe that we are not going to engineer our way out of a totalitarian future. Technology won't save us. Tor will not save us, but it can help. What this project is about is trying to show the ways in which technologies congeal social, political, economic, and cultural relationships. Let's think about what technologies and communication infrastructures may look like if we try to build them with different values at their core. We imagine an alternative to the hostile network that is preying upon us all the time, and try to enhance the parts of the network that do allow us the kinds of freedom and intellectual exploration and participation in democratic projects that were previously unavailable to us. In other words, can we reimagine the promise of the Internet toward a more productive future?
JA: I would add that there are different stages. We can imagine that we would protest certain things because we don't like them. The reason for resisting is not because you think that you're going to win, but because you know that it is the correct thing to do. And that is not an easy thing to say. I doubt that we will see the end of mass surveillance anytime soon. We won't win it in our lifetime. But we must resist because it is in fact something that we do not want. We even wish that we had not been born into this situation. So we should return with some efforts to change that the situation. And this project goes beyond resistance by building an alternative. It is real and it is the best thing that we have. Part of what we want to do is to inspire other people past the security nihilism that brings us into a passive place where we don't critique the system anymore because we feel disempowered, where we don't speak because mass surveillance silences us, where we say there's nothing to be done because technology alienates us. If we can imagine something different, we might participate in another way. In fact, we could build a different world.
Image: Trevor Paglen, National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, Maryland, 2013. Via BOMB.