The funny thing about propaganda is that kids grok all the hysteria but none of the context. I was the kind of 80’s kid who read Harriet the Spy and watched Get Smart reruns. I often thought about spies and whether or not they were watching me. The stakes were high. As American kids, we were all pretty sure that the Commies were going to bomb us. Or do something even worse that was totally incomprehensible to me as a tween.
As kids, we had loads of time to spend on pointless activities. I decided I would learn to be paranoid. I regularly tiptoed around the house, trying to be as silent as possible. I taped hairs over certain drawers, although the only person who was ever in there was probably my little sister. I practiced darting from tree to tree for cover. I was determined to be ready when I finally discovered that I was being followed. I pictured myself dissolving into the landscape and confounding Soviet spies. In my even more grandiose moments, I imagined becoming a counter-spy and saving the United States of America. Movies like E.T. and The Goonies had basically proven to us that kids are easily underestimated by villains.
A reasonable person would look at my childhood behavior and say that I was much too paranoid. My anti-surveillance measures were all out of proportion to any threat I was likely to encounter. A quiet middle class girl, in a boring Maryland suburb? I was never on any kind of Russian super-spy watchlist, even if my father did work for the government.
As an adult, I don’t worry about Soviet spies anymore. I don’t always grab the Malcolm X seat at a restaurant (facing the main door, in case assassins are coming.) I don’t tape hairs over doorways to see if people have been in my house and I try not to startle my neighbors by sneaking up on them. But lately, I have come to feel that I am “not paranoid enough.” I’m not exactly sure when that happened. Maybe passage of the Patriot Act is the point when my personal paranoia level became too low for today’s world?
Unlike my childhood self, modern internet users actually are subject to constant surveillance. The only thing that saves most of us from the immediate consequences of this is luck. You’re “lucky” to have no friends outside the US, “lucky” to have no unusual interests and “lucky” to have completely ignored politics for all of your adult life. In a world where everyone is “lucky,” our participatory democracy becomes a sham, the global economy grinds to halt and dinner parties are exceedingly boring. Start prosecuting dissent and whistle-blowing with a vengeance and it gets downright Orwellian. So what do we do? Should I go back to storing get-away money on the underside of my dresser and only using fake names with strangers?
What we need right now is the right kind of paranoia. The kind of paranoia that protects you against the people who are actually out to get you and looks at the ways that they are actually likely to do you harm. Our most obvious enemy is the NSA and the most likely way they are coming for us is via their extreme facility in controlling a highly centralized web. Joshua told us that the only winning move is not to play — which is fine if you’re a machine. Your college reunion isn’t being organized on Facebook. Your friends aren’t posting adorable pictures of their children on Flickr. And you aren’t trying to build a social movement when everyone else would like to use Google Docs for everything.
The right way to be paranoid is to adopt a long-term strategy. Build robust decentralized alternatives that people will want to use and we become a million grains of sand. Obtaining all of the information becomes nearly impossible. So I say, without irony (and trust me, we sort of perfected irony in the 80’s) I want you to join the revolution. Pitch in however you can. We’d certainly welcome your contributions at MediaGoblin, but maybe you’d rather work on pump.io or Diaspora? Or another one of the many fine alternatives listed here …we’re into that too. The important thing is that you get paranoid, so you don’t have to be “lucky.”