The United Stasi of America – championing a new level of efficiency


‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks’. – The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12.

‘After the Wall fell the German media called East Germany “the most perfected surveillance state of all time”. At the end, the Stasi had 97,000 employees – more than enough to oversee a country of seventeen million people. But it also had over 173,000 informers among the population. In Hitler’s Third Reich it is estimated that there was one Gestapo agent for every 2,000 citizens, and in Stalin’s USSR there was one KGB agent for every 5,830 people. In the GDR, there was one Stasi officer or informant for every sixty-three people. If part-time informers [many of whom were ‘pastors’] are included, some estimates have the ratio as high as one informer for every 6.5 citizens’. – Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, p. 57.

Having recently finished reading Funder’s wonderful book, it has been near impossible to not observe some very disturbing parallels with what is unfolding about PRISM. Today, we face a situation where something towards 39% of the world’s population (or something in the order of 2.5 billion people) – which is the number of the world’s internet users – can be spied on by a single person/agency. Just as terrifying is the fact that he who has informed ‘the people’ about this situation is labeled a ‘traitor’, though to what exactly is not too clear.

The shareholders will, no doubt, rejoice at news of such unprecedented levels of efficiency and technological sophistication, and in the assurances that their ‘interests’ are being maintained at all costs. Most important, though, is that Edward Snowden’s girlfriend is doing ok. Ah, all’s well with the world Empire!

Tonight, I will go to bed with Václav Havel and Dietrich Bonhoeffer; they help me at such times. And in the morning, I will (God willing) awake into a world that belongs to One upon whose word I will meditate, and to whom I shall direct my gaze and the burdens of the world and of things closer to my own soul. Ah, He is risen. All is indeed well with the world! Optimism? No. An opiate? No one who has ever really prayed has ever thought so, and I trust them. Patience and hope? Yes. And so joy.

Rituals of rebirth: planning some 2010 reading

Here’s some books I’m looking forward to reading (and, in some cases, re-reading) in 2010:

All of which reminds me of Alberto Manguel’s invitation to engage in reading (‘a ritual of rebirth’), an invitation which also carries the warning that spending too much time on the internet is to play with something like hell:

‘In our time, bereft of epic dreams – which we’ve replaced with dreams of pillage – the illusion of immortality is created by technology. The Web, and its promise of a voice and a site for all, is our equivalent of the mare incognitum, the unknown sea that lured ancient travelers with the temptation of discovery. Immaterial as water, too vast for any mortal apprehension, the Web’s outstanding qualities allow us to confuse the ungraspable with the eternal. Like the sea, the Web is volatile: 70 percent of its communications last less than four months. Its virtue (its virtuality) entails a constant present – which for medieval scholars was one of the definitions of hell. Alexandria and its scholars, by contrast, never mistook the true nature of the past; they knew it to be the source of an ever-shifting present in which new readers engaged with old books which became new in the reading process. Every reader exists to ensure for a certain book a modest immortality. Reading is, in this sense, a ritual of rebirth’. – Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2006), 27–8.

Calvin on illegal downloads

piracy global warming

According to Calvin, ‘[S]tealing is not simply committed with our hands, when … someone is able to steal another person’s money or coins. But stealing occurs when a man possesses what isn’t his, and when we don’t attempt to protect what God has put in a person’s hands’. (John Calvin, Sermons on the Ten Commandments (ed. Benjamin Farley; trans. Benjamin Farley; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 190–1).

… but then he never knew about how P2P can save the planet.

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

There’s a recent article in The Atlantic by Nicholas Carr (author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google) which explores the effects of the internet on our reading – and thinking – habits. Drawing upon research by developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf and sociologist Daniel Bell (among others), and citing as examples Friedrich Nietzsche’s use of a typewriter, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s efficiency experiments, Gutenberg’s printing press, and Kubrick’s 2001, Carr makes us wonder what we might be risking when we hand over to the internet (and Google) what we once considered to be far too invaluable to even commit to print – our ability to think!

Carr recalls the spirit of Plato’s Phaedrus, wherein Socrates bemoans the development of writing: ‘He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong – the new technology did often have the effects he feared – but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom)’.

Carr also cites from a recent essay by playwright Richard Foreman wherein Foreman writes:

I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality – a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”

As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’ – spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

For the full article.

Podding around

Here’s a few more podcasts that I’ve checked out today that I thought were worth sharing here:

With the rise of the internet many parents are feelings that their kids know more about what goes on in the world wide web than they do. And with community like websites, danger for them is no longer just in the neighbourhood. In this podcast, Paul Wallbank of PC Rescue maps out some of the dangers of cyberspace.

In this podcast on living with drug and alcohol abuse in families, Shirley Smith, author of Set Yourself Free, talks about how we can help people with addictions or overcome our own. All of us know someone with a problem with addiction and it can create chaos in a lot of lives.

The first 9 minutes of this podcast includes a discussion on Boys, Men, and Fathers.

This podcast includes a discussion on reading to your children, this one and this one are discussions on co-parenting and reading to kids, while this one is on Single-sex schools.

This podcast includes an argument for co-ed schools, and this one’s on Political wives, Intensive parenting, and Maths for pre-schoolers.

There’s a discussion here on Kids and Money too, and one here on ‘From Babies to Blokes: The Making of Men’.

So that ought to keep us all busy for a wee while. I usually download podcasts to my MP3 player and listen to them at night while I fall asleep.