The Impulse Society

How Our Growing Desperation for Instant Connection Is Ruining Us

Consumer culture does everything in its power to persuade us that adversity has no place in our lives.

The following is an excerpt from Paul Roberts’ new book, The Impulse Society: America in the Age of Instant Gratification (Bloomsbury, 2014). Reprinted here with permission.

The metaphor of the expanding fragile modern self is quite apt. To personalize is, in effect, to reject the world “as is,” and instead to insist on bending it to our preferences, as if mastery and dominance were our only mode. But humans aren’t meant only for mastery. We’re also meant to adapt to something larger. Our large brains are specialized for cooperation and compromise and negotiation—with other individuals, but also with the broader world, which, for most of history, did not cater to our preferences or likes. For all our ancestors’ tremendous skills at modifying and improving their environment, daily survival depended as much on their capacity to conform themselves and their expectations to the world as they found it. Indeed, it was only by enduring adversity and disappointment that we humans gained the strength and knowledge and perspective that are essential to sustainable mastery.

Virtually every traditional culture understood this and regarded adversity as inseparable from, and essential to, the formation of strong, self-sufficient individuals. Yet the modern conception of “character” now leaves little space for discomfort or real adversity. To the contrary, under the Impulse Society, consumer culture does everything in its considerable power to persuade us that adversity and difficulty and even awkwardness have no place in our lives (or belong only in discrete, self-enhancing moments, such as ropes courses or really hard ab workouts). Discomfort, difficulty, anxiety, suffering, depression, rejection, uncertainty, or ambiguity—in the Impulse Society, these aren’t opportunities to mature and toughen or become. Rather, they represent errors and inefficiencies, and thus opportunities to correct—nearly always with more consumption and self-expression.

So rather than having to wait a few days for a package, we have it overnighted. Or we pay for same-day service. Or we pine for the moment when Amazon launches drone delivery and can get us our package in thirty minutes.* And as the system gets faster at gratifying our desires, the possibility that we might actually be more satisfied by waiting and enduring a delay never arises. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the efficient consumer market abhors delay and adversity, and by extension, it cannot abide the strength of character that delay and adversity and inefficiency generally might produce. To the efficient market, “character” and “virtue” are themselves inefficiencies—impediments to the volume-based, share-price-maximizing economy. Once some new increment of self-expressive, self-gratifying, self-promoting capability is made available, the unstated but overriding assumption of contemporary consumer culture is that this capability can and should be put to use. Which means we now allow the efficient market and the treadmills and the relentless cycles of capital and innovation to determine how, and how far, we will take our self-expression and, by extension, our selves— even when doing so leaves us in a weaker state.

Consider the way our social relationships, and the larger processes of community, are changing under the relentless pressure of our new efficiencies. We know how important community is for individual development. It’s in the context of community that we absorb the social rules and prerequisites for interaction and success. It’s here that we come to understand and, ideally, to internalize, the need for limits and self-control, for patience and persistence and long-term commitments; the pressure of community is one way society persuades us to control our myopia and selfishness. (Or as economists Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis have put it, community is the vehicle through which “society’s ‘oughts’ become its members’ ‘wants.’ ”) But community’s function isn’t simply to say “no.” It’s in the context of our social relationships where we discover our capacities and strengths. It’s here that we gain our sense of worth as individuals, as citizens and as social producers—active participants who don’t merely consume social goods, but contribute something the community needs.

But community doesn’t simply teach us to be productive citizens. People with strong social connections generally have a much better time. We enjoy better physical and mental health, recover faster from sickness or injury, and are less likely to suffer eating or sleeping disorders. We report being happier and rank our quality of life as higher—and do so even when the community that we’re connected to isn’t particularly well off or educated. Indeed, social connectedness is actually more important than affluence: regular social activities such as volunteering, church attendance, entertaining friends, or joining a club provide us with the same boost to happiness as does a doubling of personal income. As Harvard’s Robert Putnam notes, “The single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world, is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.”

Unfortunately, for all the importance of social connectedness, we haven’t done a terribly good job of preserving it under the Impulse Society. Under the steady pressure of commercial and technological efficiencies, many of the tight social structures of the past have been eliminated or replaced with entirely new social arrangements. True, many of these new arrangements are clearly superior—even in ostensibly free societies, traditional communities left little room for individual growth or experimentation or happiness. Yet our new arrangements, which invariably seek to give individuals substantially more control over how they connect, exact a price. More and more, social connection becomes just another form of consumption, one we expect to tailor to our personal preferences and schedules—almost as if community was no longer a necessity or an obligation, but a matter of personal style, something to engage as it suits our mood or preference. And while such freedom has its obvious attractions, it clearly has downsides. In gaining so much control over the process of social connection, we may be depriving ourselves of some of the robust give-and-take of traditional interaction that is essential to becoming a functional, fulfilled individual.

Consider our vaunted and increasing capacity to communicate and connect digitally. In theory, our smartphones and social media allow us the opportunity to be more social than at any time in history. And yet, because there are few natural limits to this format—we can, in effect, communicate incessantly, posting every conceivable life event, expressing every thought no matter how incompletely formed or inappropriate or mundane—we may be diluting the value of the connection.

Studies suggest, for example, that the efficiency with which we can respond to an online provocation routinely leads to escalations that can destroy offline relationships. “People seem aware that these kinds of crucial conversations should not take place on social media,” notes Joseph Grenny, whose firm, VitalSmarts, surveys online behavior. “Yet there seems to be a compulsion to resolve emotions right now and via the convenience of these channels.”

Even when our online communications are entirely friendly, the ease with which we can reach out often undermines the very connection we seek to create. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and clinical psychologist who has spent decades researching digital interactions, argues that because it is now possible to be in virtually constant contact with others, we tend to communicate so excessively that even a momentary lapse can leave us feeling isolated or abandoned. Where people in the pre-digital age did not think it alarming to go hours or days or even weeks without hearing from someone, the digital mind can become uncomfortable and anxious without instant feedback. In her book Alone Together, Turkle describes a social world of collapsing time horizons. College students text their parents daily, and even hourly, over the smallest matters—and feel anxious if they can’t get a quick response. Lovers break up over the failure to reply instantly to a text; friendships sour when posts aren’t “liked” fast enough. Parents call 911 if Junior doesn’t respond immediately to a text or a phone call—a degree of panic that was simply unknown before constant digital contact. Here, too, is a world made increasingly insecure by its own capabilities and its own accelerating efficiencies.

This same efficiency-driven insecurity now lurks just below the surface in nearly all digital interactions. Whatever the relationship (romantic, familial, professional), the very nature of our technology inclines us to a constant state of emotional suspense. Thanks to the casual, abbreviated nature of digital communication, we converse in fragments of thoughts and feelings that can be completed only through more interaction—we are always waiting to know how the story ends. The result, Turkle says, is a communication style, and a relationship style, that allow us to “express emotions while they are being formed” and in which “feelings are not fully experienced until they are communicated.” In other words, what was once primarily an interior process—thoughts were formed and feelings experienced before we expressed them—has now become a process that is external and iterative and public. Identity itself comes to depend on iterative interaction—giving rise to what Turkle calls the “collaborative self.” Meanwhile, our skills as a private, self-contained person vanish. “What is not being cultivated here,” Turkle writes, “is the ability to be alone and reflect on one’s emotions in private.” For all the emphasis on independence and individual freedom under the Impulse Society, we may be losing the capacity to truly be on our own.

In a culture obsessed with individual self-interest, such an incapacity is surely one of the greatest ironies of the Impulse Society. Yet it many ways it was inevitable. Herded along by a consumer culture that is both solicitous and manipulative, one that proposes absolute individual liberty while enforcing absolute material dependence—we rely completely on the machine of the marketplace—it is all too easy to emerge with a self-image, and a sense of self, that are both wildly inflated and fundamentally weak and insecure. Unable to fully experience the satisfactions of genuine independence and individuality, we compensate with more personalized self-expression and gratification, which only push us further from the real relationships that might have helped us to a stable, fulfilling existence.


How technology shrunk America forever

The end of the Old World:

The 19th century saw an explosion of changes in America. The way people saw the world would never be the same

The end of the Old World: How technology shrunk America forever
(Credit: AP/Library of Congress)

It has become customary to mark the beginning of the Industrial revolution in eighteenth-century England. Historians usually identify two or sometimes three phases of the Industrial revolution, which are associated with different sources of energy and related technologies. In preindustrial Europe, the primary energy sources were human, animal, and natural (wind, water, and fire).

By the middle of the eighteenth century, much of Europe had been deforested to supply wood for domestic and industrial consumption. J.R. McNeill points out that the combination of energy sources, machines, and ways of organizing production came together to form “clusters” that determined the course of industrialization and, by extension, shaped economic and social developments. a later cluster did not immediately replace its predecessor; rather, different regimes overlapped, though often they were not integrated. With each new cluster, however, the speed of production increased, leading to differential rates of production. The first phase of the Industrial revolution began around 1750 with the shift from human and animal labor to machine-based production. This change was brought about by the use of water power and later steam engines in the textile mills of Great Britain.

The second phase dates from the 1820s, when there was a shift to fossil fuels—primarily coal. By the middle of the nineteenth century, another cluster emerged from the integration of coal, iron, steel, and railroads. The fossil fuel regime was not, of course, limited to coal. Edwin L. Drake drilled the first commercially successful well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859 and the big gushers erupted first in the 1870s in Baku on the Caspian Sea and later in Spindeltop, Texas (1901). Oil, however, did not replace coal as the main source of fuel in transportation until the 1930s.3 Coal, of course, is still widely used in manufacturing today because it remains one of the cheapest sources of energy. Though global consumption of coal has leveled off since 2000, its use continues to increase in China. Indeed, China currently uses almost as much coal as the rest of the world and reliable sources predict that by 2017, India will be importing as much coal as China.

The third phase of the Industrial revolution began in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. The development of technologies for producing and distributing electricity cheaply and efficiently further transformed industrial processes and created the possibility for new systems of communication as well as the unprecedented capability for the production and dissemination of new forms of entertainment, media, and information. The impact of electrification can be seen in four primary areas.

First, the availability of electricity made the assembly line and mass production possible. When Henry Ford adapted technology used in Chicago’s meatpacking houses to produce cars (1913), he set in motion changes whose effects are still being felt. Second, the introduction of the incandescent light bulb (1881) transformed private and public space. As early as the late 1880s, electrical lighting was used in homes, factories, and on streets. Assembly lines and lights inevitably led to the acceleration of urbanization. Third, the invention of the telegraph (ca.1840) and telephone (1876) enabled the communication and transmission of information across greater distances at faster rates of speed than ever before. Finally, electronic tabulating machines, invented by Herman Hollerith in 1889, made it possible to collect and manage data in new ways. Though his contributions have not been widely acknowledged, Hollerith actually forms a bridge between the Industrial revolution and the so-called post-industrial information age. The son of German immigrants, Hollerith graduated from Columbia University’s School of Mines and went on to found Tabulating Machine Company (1896). He created the first automatic card-feed mechanism and key-punch system with which an operator using a keyboard could process as many as three hundred cards an hour. Under the direction of Thomas J. Watson, Hollerith’s company merged with three others in 1911 to form Computing Tabulating recording Company. In 1924, the company was renamed International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).

There is much to be learned from such periodizations, but they have serious limitations. The developments I have identified overlap and interact in ways that subvert any simple linear narrative. Instead of thinking merely in terms of resources, products, and periods, it is also important to think in terms of networks and flows. The foundation for today’s wired world was laid more than two centuries ago. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, local communities, then states and nations, and finally the entire globe became increasingly connected. Though varying from time to time and place to place, there were two primary forms of networks: those that directed material flows (fuels, commodities, products, people), and those that channeled immaterial flows (communications, information, data, images, and currencies). From the earliest stages of development, these networks were inextricably interconnected. There would have been no telegraph network without railroads and no railroad system without the telegraph network, and neither could have existed without coal and iron. Networks, in other words, are never separate but form networks of networks in which material and immaterial flows circulate. As these networks continued to expand, and became more and more complex, there was a steady increase in the importance of immaterial flows, even for material processes. The combination of expanding connectivity and the growing importance of information technologies led to the acceleration of both material and immaterial flows. This emerging network of networks created positive feedback loops in which the rate of acceleration increased.

While developments in transportation, communications, information, and management were all important, industrialization as we know it is inseparable from the transportation revolution that trains created. In his foreword to Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s informative study “The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century,” Alan Trachtenberg writes, “Nothing else in the nineteenth century seemed as vivid and dramatic a sign of modernity as the railroad. Scientists and statesmen joined capitalists in promoting the locomotive as the engine of ‘progress,’ a promise of imminent Utopia.”

In England, railway technology developed as an extension of coal mining. The shift from human and natural sources of energy to fossil fuels created a growing demand for coal. While steam engines had been used since the second half of the eighteenth century in British mines to run fans and pumps like those my great-grandfather had operated in the Pennsylvania coalfields, it was not until 1901, when Oliver Evans invented a high-pressure, mobile steam engine, that locomotives were produced. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the coal mined in the area around Newcastle was being transported throughout England on rail lines. It did not take long for this new rapid transit system to develop—by the 1820s, railroads had expanded to carry passengers, and half a century later rail networks spanned all of Europe.

What most impressed people about this new transportation network was its speed. The average speed of early railways in England was twenty to thirty miles per hour, which was approximately three times faster than stagecoaches. The increase in speed transformed the experience of time and space. Countless writers from this era use the same words to describe train travel as Karl Marx had used to describe emerging global financial markets. Trains, like capital, “annihilate space with time.”

Traveling on the recently opened Paris-rouen-orléans railway line in 1843, the German poet, journalist, and literary critic Heinrich Heine wrote: “What changes must now occur, in our way of looking at things, in our notions! Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time alone. . . . Now you can travel to orleans in four and a half hours, and it takes no longer to get to rouen. Just imagine what will happen when the lines to Belgium and Germany are completed and connected up with their railways! I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the German linden trees; the North Sea’s breakers are rolling against my door.” This new experience of space and time that speed brought about had profound psychological effects that I will consider later.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the United States lagged behind Great Britain in terms of industrial capacity: in 1869, England was the source of 20 percent of the world’s industrial production, while the United States contributed just 7 percent. By the start of World War I, however, america’s industrial capacity surpassed that of England: that is, by 1913, the scales had tipped—32 percent came from the United States and only 14 percent from England. While England had a long history before the Industrial revolution, the history of the United States effectively begins with the Industrial revolution. There are other important differences as well. Whereas in Great Britain the transportation revolution grew out of the industrialization of manufacturing primarily, but not exclusively, in textile factories, in the United States mechanization began in agriculture and spread to transportation before it transformed manufacturing. In other words, in Great Britain, the Industrial Revolution in manufacturing came first and the transportation revolution second, while in the United States, this order was reversed.

When the Industrial revolution began in the United States, most of the country beyond the Eastern Seaboard was largely undeveloped. Settling this uncharted territory required the development of an extensive transportation network. Throughout the early decades of the nineteenth century, the transportation system consisted of a network of rudimentary roads connecting towns and villages with the countryside. New England, Boston, New york, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington were joined by highways suitable for stagecoach travel. Inland travel was largely confined to rivers and waterways. The completion of the Erie Canal (1817–25) marked the first stage in the development of an extensive network linking rivers, lakes, canals, and waterways along which produce and people flowed. Like so much else in America, the railroad system began in Boston. By 1840, only 18,181 miles of track had been laid. During the following decade, however, there was an explosive expansion of the nation’s rail system financed by securities and bonds traded on stock markets in America and London. By the 1860s, the railroad network east of the Mississippi river was using routes roughly similar to those employed today.

Where some saw loss, others saw gain. In 1844, inveterate New Englander ralph Waldo Emerson associated the textile loom with the railroad when he reflected, “Not only is distance annihilated, but when, as now, the locomotive and the steamboat, like enormous shuttles, shoot every day across the thousand various threads of national descent and employment, and bind them fast in one web, an hourly assimilation goes forward, and there is no danger that local peculiarities and hostilities should be preserved.” Gazing at tracks vanishing in the distance, Emerson saw a new world opening that, he believed, would overcome the parochialisms of the past. For many people in the nineteenth century, this new world promising endless resources and endless opportunity was the american West. A transcontinental railroad had been proposed as early as 1820 but was not completed until 1869.

On May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford, who would become the governor of California and, in 1891, founder of Stanford University, drove the final spike in the railroad that joined east and west. Nothing would ever be the same again. This event was not merely local, but also, as Emerson had surmised, global. Like the California gold and Nevada silver spike that leland had driven to join the rails, the material transportation network and immaterial communication network intersected at that moment to create what Rebecca Solnit correctly identifies as “the first live national media event.” The spike “had been wired to connect to the telegraph lines that ran east and west along the railroad tracks. The instant Stanford struck the spike, a signal would go around the nation. . . . The signal set off cannons in San Francisco and New York. In the nation’s capital the telegraph signal caused a ball to drop, one of the balls that visibly signaled the exact time in observatories in many places then (of which the ball dropped in New york’s Times Square at the stroke of the New year is a last relic). The joining of the rails would be heard in every city equipped with fire-alarm telegrams, in Philadelphia, omaha, Buffalo, Chicago, and Sacramento. Celebrations would be held all over the nation.” This carefully orchestrated spectacle, which was made possible by the convergence of multiple national networks, was worthy of the future Hollywood and the technological wizards of Silicon Valley whose relentless innovation Stanford’s university would later nourish. What most impressed people at the time was the speed of global communication, which now is taken for granted.

Flickering Images—Changing Minds

Industrialization not only changes systems of production and distribution of commodities and products, but also imposes new disciplinary practices that transform bodies and change minds. During the early years of train travel, bodily acceleration had an enormous psychological effect that some people found disorienting and others found exhilarating. The mechanization of movement created what ann Friedberg describes as the “mobile gaze,” which transforms one’s surroundings and alters both the content and, more important, the structure, of perception. This mobile gaze takes two forms: the person can move and the surroundings remain immobile (train, bicycle, automobile, airplane, elevator), or the person can remain immobile and the surroundings move (panorama, kinetoscope, film).

When considering the impact of trains on the mobilization of the gaze, it is important to note that different designs for railway passenger cars had different perceptual and psychological effects. Early European passenger cars were modeled on stagecoaches in which individuals had seats in separate compartments; early american passenger cars, by contrast, were modeled on steamboats in which people shared a common space and were free to move around. The European design tended to reinforce social and economic hierarchies that the american design tried to break down. Eventually, american railroads adopted the European model of fixed individual seating but had separate rows facing in the same direction rather than different compartments. As we will see, the resulting compartmentalization of perception anticipates the cellularization of attention that accompanies today’s distributed high-speed digital networks.

During the early years, there were numerous accounts of the experience of railway travel by ordinary people, distinguished writers, and even physicians, in which certain themes recur. The most common complaint is the sense of disorientation brought about by the experience of unprecedented speed. There are frequent reports of the dispersion and fragmentation of attention that are remarkably similar to contemporary personal and clinical descriptions of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). With the landscape incessantly rushing by faster than it could be apprehended, people suffered overstimulation, which created a sense of psychological exhaustion and physical distress. Some physicians went so far as to maintain that the experience of speed caused “neurasthenia, neuralgia, nervous dyspepsia, early tooth decay, and even premature baldness.”

In 1892, Sir James Crichton-Browne attributed the significant increase in the mortality rate between 1859 and 1888 to “the tension, excitement, and incessant mobility of modern life.” Commenting on these statistics, Max Nordau might well be describing the harried pace of life today. “Every line we read or write, every human face we see, every conversation we carry on, every scene we perceive through the window of the flying express, sets in activity our sensory nerves and our brain centers. Even the little shocks of railway travelling, not perceived by consciousness, the perpetual noises and the various sights in the streets of a large town, our suspense pending the sequel of progressing events, the constant expectation of the newspaper, of the postman, of visitors, cost our brains wear and tear.” During the years around the turn of the last century, a sense of what Stephen kern aptly describes as “cultural hypochondria” pervaded society. Like today’s parents concerned about the psychological and physical effects of their kids playing video games, nineteenth-century physicians worried about the effect of people sitting in railway cars for hours watching the world rush by in a stream of images that seemed to be detached from real people and actual things.

In addition to the experience of disorientation, dispersion, fragmentation, and fatigue, rapid train travel created a sense of anxiety. People feared that with the increase in speed, machinery would spin out of control, resulting in serious accidents. An 1829 description of a train ride expresses the anxiety that speed created. “It is really flying, and it is impossible to divest yourself of the notion of instant death to all upon the least accident happening.” a decade and a half later, an anonymous German explained that the reason for such anxiety is the always “close possibility of an accident, and the inability to exercise any influence on the running of the cars.” When several serious accidents actually occurred, anxiety spread like a virus. Anxiety, however, is always a strange experience—it not only repels, it also attracts; danger and the anxiety it brings are always part of speed’s draw.

Perhaps this was a reason that not everyone found trains so distressing. For some people, the experience of speed was “dreamlike” and bordered on ecstasy. In 1843, Emerson wrote in his Journals, “Dreamlike travelling on the railroad. The towns which I pass between Philadelphia and New york make no distinct impression. They are like pictures on a wall.” The movement of the train creates a loss of focus that blurs the mobile gaze. A few years earlier, Victor Hugo’s description of train travel sounds like an acid trip as much as a train trip. In either case, the issue is speed. “The flowers by the side of the road are no longer flowers but flecks, or rather streaks, of red or white; there are no longer any points, everything becomes a streak; grain fields are great shocks of yellow hair; fields of alfalfa, long green tresses; the towns, the steeples, and the trees perform a crazy mingling dance on the horizon; from time to time, a shadow, a shape, a specter appears and disappears with lightning speed behind the window; it’s a railway guard.” The flickering images fleeting past train windows are like a film running too fast to comprehend.

Transportation was not the only thing accelerating in the nineteenth century—the pace of life itself was speeding up as never before. listening to the whistle of the train headed to Boston in his cabin beside Walden Pond, Thoreau mused, “The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day. They go and come with such regularity and precision, and their whistle can be heard so far, that the farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well conducted institution regulates a whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage office? There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place. I have been astonished by some of the miracles it has wrought.” And yet Thoreau, more than others, knew that these changes also had a dark side.

The transition from agricultural to industrial capitalism brought with it a massive migration from the country, where life was slow and governed by natural rhythms, to the city, where life was fast and governed by mechanical, standardized time. The convergence of industrialization, transportation, and electrification made urbanization inevitable. The faster that cities expanded, the more some writers and poets idealized rustic life in the country. Nowhere is such idealization more evident than in the writings of British romantics. The rapid swirl of people, machines, and commodities created a sense of vertigo as disorienting as train travel. Wordsworth writes in The Prelude,

oh, blank confusion! True epitome
of what the mighty City is herself
To thousands upon thousands of her sons, living among the same perpetual whirl
of trivial objects, melted and reduced
To one identity, by differences
That have no law, no meaning, no end—

By 1850, fifteen cities in the United States had a population exceeding 50,000. New york was the largest (1,080,330), followed by Philadelphia (565,529), Baltimore (212,418), and Boston (177,840). Increasing domestic trade that resulted from the railroad and growing foreign trade that accompanied improved ocean travel contributed significantly to this growth. While commerce was prevalent in early cities, manufacturing expanded rapidly during the latter half of the eighteenth century. The most important factor contributing to nineteenth-century urbanization was the rapid development of the money economy. Once again, it is a matter of circulating flows, not merely of human bodies but of mobile commodities. Money and cities formed a positive feedback loop—as the money supply grew, cities expanded, and as cities expanded, the money supply grew.

The fast pace of urban life was as disorienting for many people as the speed of the train. In his seminal essay “The Metropolis and Mental life,” Georg Simmel observes, “The psychological foundation upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli. Man is a creature whose existence is dependent on differences, i.e., his mind is stimulated by the difference between present impressions and those which have preceded. . . . To the extent that the metropolis creates these psychological conditions—with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life—it creates the sensory foundations of mental life, and in the degree of awareness necessitated by our organization as creatures dependent on differences, a deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smooth flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental phase of small town and rural existence.” The expansion of the money economy created a fundamental contradiction at the heart of metropolitan life. On the one hand, cities brought together different people from all backgrounds and walks of life, and on the other hand, emerging industrial capitalism leveled these differences by disciplining bodies and programming minds. “Money,” Simmel continues, “is concerned only with what is common to all, i.e., with the exchange value which reduces all quality and individuality to a purely quantitative level.” The migration from country to city that came with the transition from agricultural to industrial capitalism involved a shift from homogeneous communities to heterogeneous assemblages of different people, qualitative to quantitative methods of assessment and evaluation, as well as concrete to abstract networks of exchange of goods and services, and a slow to fast pace of life. I will consider further aspects of these disciplinary practices in Chapter 3; for now, it is important to understand the implications of the mechanization or industrialization of perception.

I have already noted similarities between the experience of looking through a window on a speeding train to the experience of watching a film that is running too fast. During the latter half of the nineteenth century a remarkable series of inventions transformed not only what people experienced in the world but how they experienced it: photography (Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, ca. 1837), the telegraph (Samuel F. B. Morse, ca. 1840), the stock ticker (Thomas alva Edison, 1869), the telephone (alexander Graham Bell, 1876), the chronophotographic gun (Étienne-Jules Maney, 1882), the kinetoscope (Edison, 1894), the zoopraxiscope (Eadweard Muybridge, 1893), the phantoscope (Charles Jenkins, 1894), and cinematography (Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1895). The way in which human beings perceive and conceive the world is not hardwired in the brain but changes with new technologies of production and reproduction.

Just as the screens of today’s TVs, computers, video games, and mobile devices are restructuring how we process experience, so too did new technologies at the end of the nineteenth century change the world by transforming how people apprehended it. While each innovation had a distinctive effect, there is a discernible overall trajectory to these developments. Industrial technologies of production and reproduction extended processes of dematerialization that eventually led first to consumer capitalism and then to today’s financial capitalism. The crucial variable in these developments is the way in which material and immaterial networks intersect to produce a progressive detachment of images, representations, information, and data from concrete objects and actual events. Marveling at what he regarded as the novelty of photographs, Oliver Wendell Holmes commented, “Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please. . . . Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear, form is cheap and transportable. We have got the fruit of creation now, and need not trouble ourselves about the core.”

Technologies for the reproduction and transmission of images and information expand the process of abstraction initiated by the money economy to create a play of freely floating signs without anything to ground, certify, or secure them. With new networks made possible by the combination of electrification and the invention of the telegraph, telephone, and stock ticker, communication was liberated from the strictures imposed by physical means of conveyance. In previous energy regimes, messages could be sent no faster than people, horses, carriages, trains, ships, or automobiles could move. Dematerialized words, sounds, information, and eventually images, by contrast, could be transmitted across great distances at high speed. With this dematerialization and acceleration, Marx’s prediction—that “everything solid melts into air”—was realized. But this was just the beginning. It would take more than a century for electrical currents to become virtual currencies whose transmission would approach the speed limit.

Excerpted from “Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left,” by Mark C. Taylor, published October 2014 by Yale University Press. Copyright ©2014 by Mark C. Taylor. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.

“We’ve Created a Generation of People Who Hate America”

Filmmaker Laura Poitras on Our Surveillance State

Back to that Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden.

Photo Credit: Mopic /

Here’s a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! stat from our new age of national security. How many Americans have security clearances? The answer: 5.1 million, a figure that reflects the explosive growth of the national security state in the post-9/11 era. Imagine the kind of system needed just to vet that many people for access to our secret world (to the tune of billions of dollars). We’re talking here about the total population of Norway and significantly more people than you can find in Costa Rica, Ireland, or New Zealand. And yet it’s only about 1.6% of the American population, while on ever more matters, the unvetted 98.4% of us are meant to be left in the dark.

For our own safety, of course. That goes without saying.

All of this offers a new definition of democracy in which we, the people, are to know only what the national security state cares to tell us.  Under this system, ignorance is the necessary, legally enforced prerequisite for feeling protected.  In this sense, it is telling that the only crime for which those inside the national security state can be held accountable in post-9/11 Washington is not potential perjury before Congress, or the destruction of evidence of a crime, or torture, or kidnapping, or assassination, or the deaths of prisoners in an extralegal prison system, but whistleblowing; that is, telling the American people something about what their government is actually doing.  And that crime, and only that crime, has been prosecuted to the full extent of the law (and beyond) with a vigor unmatched in American history.  To offer a single example, the only American to go to jail for the CIA’s Bush-era torture program was John Kiriakou, a CIA whistleblower who revealed the name of an agent involved in the program to a reporter.

In these years, as power drained from Congress, an increasingly imperial White House has launched various wars (redefined by its lawyers as anything but), as well as a global assassination campaign in which the White House has its own “kill list” and the president himself decides on global hits.  Then, without regard for national sovereignty or the fact that someone is an American citizen (and upon the secret invocation of legal mumbo-jumbo), the drones are sent off to do the necessary killing.

And yet that doesn’t mean that we, the people, know nothing.  Against increasing odds, there has been some fine reporting in the mainstream media by the likes of James Risen and Barton Gellman on the security state’s post-legal activities and above all, despite the Obama administration’s regular use of the World War I era Espionage Act, whistleblowers have stepped forward from within the government to offer us sometimes staggering amounts of information about the system that has been set up in our name but without our knowledge.

Among them, one young man, whose name is now known worldwide, stands out.  In June of last year, thanks to journalist Glenn Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras, Edward Snowden, a contractor for the NSA and previously the CIA, stepped into our lives from a hotel room in Hong Kong.  With a treasure trove of documents that are still being released, he changed the way just about all of us view our world.  He has been charged under the Espionage Act.  If indeed he was a “spy,” then the spying he did was for us, for the American people and for the world.  What he revealed to a stunned planet was a global surveillance state whose reach and ambitions were unique, a system based on a single premise: that privacy was no more and that no one was, in theory (and to a remarkable extent in practice), unsurveillable.

Its builders imagined only one exemption: themselves.  This was undoubtedly at least part of the reason why, when Snowden let us peek in on them, they reacted with such over-the-top venom.  Whatever they felt at a policy level, it’s clear that they also felt violated, something that, as far as we can tell, left them with no empathy whatsoever for the rest of us.  One thing that Snowden proved, however, was that the system they built was ready-made for blowback.

Sixteen months after his NSA documents began to be released by the Guardian and the Washington Post, I think it may be possible to speak of the Snowden Era.  And now, a remarkable new film, Citizenfour, which had its premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 10th and will open in select theaters nationwide on October 24th, offers us a window into just how it all happened.  It is already being mentioned as a possible Oscar winner.

Director Laura Poitras, like reporter Glenn Greenwald, is now known almost as widely as Snowden himself, for helping facilitate his entry into the world.  Her new film, the last in a trilogy she’s completed (the previous two being My Country, My Country on the Iraq War and The Oath on Guantanamo), takes you back to June 2013 and locks you in that Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden, Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian, and Poitras herself for eight days that changed the world.  It’s a riveting, surprisingly unclaustrophic, and unforgettable experience.

Before that moment, we were quite literally in the dark.  After it, we have a better sense, at least, of the nature of the darkness that envelops us. Having seen her film in a packed house at the New York Film Festival, I sat down with Poitras in a tiny conference room at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City to discuss just how our world has changed and her part in it.

Tom Engelhardt: Could you start by laying out briefly what you think we’ve learned from Edward Snowden about how our world really works?

Laura Poitras: The most striking thing Snowden has revealed is the depth of what the NSA and the Five Eyes countries [Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the U.S.] are doing, their hunger for all data, for total bulk dragnet surveillance where they try to collect all communications and do it all sorts of different ways. Their ethos is “collect it all.” I worked on a story with Jim Risen of the New York Times about a document — a four-year plan for signals intelligence — in which they describe the era as being “the golden age of signals intelligence.”  For them, that’s what the Internet is: the basis for a golden age to spy on everyone.

This focus on bulk, dragnet, suspicionless surveillance of the planet is certainly what’s most staggering.  There were many programs that did that.  In addition, you have both the NSA and the GCHQ [British intelligence] doing things like targeting engineers at telecoms.  There was an article published at The Intercept that cited an NSA document Snowden provided, part of which was titled “I Hunt Sysadmins” [systems administrators].  They try to find the custodians of information, the people who are the gateway to customer data, and target them.  So there’s this passive collection of everything, and then things that they can’t get that way, they go after in other ways.

 I think one of the most shocking things is how little our elected officials knew about what the NSA was doing.  Congress is learning from the reporting and that’s staggering.  Snowden and [former NSA employee] William Binney, who’s also in the film as a whistleblower from a different generation, are technical people who understand the dangers.  We laypeople may have some understanding of these technologies, but they really grasp the dangers of how they can be used.  One of the most frightening things, I think, is the capacity for retroactive searching, so you can go back in time and trace who someone is in contact with and where they’ve been.  Certainly, when it comes to my profession as a journalist, that allows the government to trace what you’re reporting, who you’re talking to, and where you’ve been.  So no matter whether or not I have a commitment to protect my sources, the government may still have information that might allow them to identify whom I’m talking to.

TE: To ask the same question another way, what would the world be like without Edward Snowden?  After all, it seems to me that, in some sense, we are now in the Snowden era.

LP: I agree that Snowden has presented us with choices on how we want to move forward into the future.  We’re at a crossroads and we still don’t quite know which path we’re going to take.  Without Snowden, just about everyone would still be in the dark about the amount of information the government is collecting. I think that Snowden has changed consciousness about the dangers of surveillance.  We see lawyers who take their phones out of meetings now.  People are starting to understand that the devices we carry with us reveal our location, who we’re talking to, and all kinds of other information.  So you have a genuine shift of consciousness post the Snowden revelations.

TE: There’s clearly been no evidence of a shift in governmental consciousness, though.

LP: Those who are experts in the fields of surveillance, privacy, and technology say that there need to be two tracks: a policy track and a technology track.  The technology track is encryption.  It works and if you want privacy, then you should use it.  We’ve already seen shifts happening in some of the big companies — Google, Apple — that now understand how vulnerable their customer data is, and that if it’s vulnerable, then their business is, too, and so you see a beefing up of encryption technologies.  At the same time, no programs have been dismantled at the governmental level, despite international pressure.

TE: In Citizenfour, we spend what must be an hour essentially locked in a room in a Hong Kong hotel with Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Ewan MacAskill, and you, and it’s riveting.  Snowden is almost preternaturally prepossessing and self-possessed.  I think of a novelist whose dream character just walks into his or her head.  It must have been like that with you and Snowden.  But what if he’d been a graying guy with the same documents and far less intelligent things to say about them?  In other words, how exactly did who he was make your movie and remake our world?

LP: Those are two questions.  One is: What was my initial experience?  The other: How do I think it impacted the movie?  We’ve been editing it and showing it to small groups, and I had no doubt that he’s articulate and genuine on screen.  But to see him in a full room [at the New York Film Festival premiere on the night of October 10th], I’m like, wow!  He really commands the screen! And I experienced the film in a new way with a packed house.

TE: But how did you experience him the first time yourself?  I mean you didn’t know who you were going to meet, right?

LP: So I was in correspondence with an anonymous source for about five months and in the process of developing a dialogue you build ideas, of course, about who that person might be.  My idea was that he was in his late forties, early fifties.  I figured he must be Internet generation because he was super tech-savvy, but I thought that, given the level of access and information he was able to discuss, he had to be older.  And so my first experience was that I had to do a reboot of my expectations.  Like fantastic, great, he’s young and charismatic and I was like wow, this is so disorienting, I have to reboot.  In retrospect, I can see that it’s really powerful that somebody so smart, so young, and with so much to lose risked so much.

He was so at peace with the choice he had made and knowing that the consequences could mean the end of his life and that this was still the right decision.  He believed in it, and whatever the consequences, he was willing to accept them.  To meet somebody who has made those kinds of decisions is extraordinary.  And to be able to document that and also how Glenn [Greenwald] stepped in and pushed for this reporting to happen in an aggressive way changed the narrative. Because Glenn and I come at it from an outsider’s perspective, the narrative unfolded in a way that nobody quite knew how to respond to.  That’s why I think the government was initially on its heels.  You know, it’s not everyday that a whistleblower is actually willing to be identified.

TE: My guess is that Snowden has given us the feeling that we now grasp the nature of the global surveillance state that is watching us, but I always think to myself, well, he was just one guy coming out of one of 17 interlocked intelligence outfits. Given the remarkable way your film ends — the punch line, you might say — with another source or sources coming forward from somewhere inside that world to reveal, among other things, information about the enormous watchlist that you yourself are on, I’m curious: What do you think is still to be known?  I suspect that if whistleblowers were to emerge from the top five or six agencies, the CIA, the DIA, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and so on, with similar documentation to Snowden’s, we would simply be staggered by the system that’s been created in our name.

LP: I can’t speculate on what we don’t know, but I think you’re right in terms of the scale and scope of things and the need for that information to be made public. I mean, just consider the CIA and its effort to suppress the Senate’s review of its torture program. Take in the fact that we live in a country that a) legalized torture and b) where no one was ever held to account for it, and now the government’s internal look at what happened is being suppressed by the CIA.  That’s a frightening landscape to be in.

In terms of sources coming forward, I really reject this idea of talking about one, two, three sources.  There are many sources that have informed the reporting we’ve done and I think that Americans owe them a debt of gratitude for taking the risk they do.  From a personal perspective, because I’m on a watchlist and went through years of trying to find out why, of having the government refuse to confirm or deny the very existence of such a list, it’s so meaningful to have its existence brought into the open so that the public knows there is a watchlist, and so that the courts can now address the legality of it.  I mean, the person who revealed this has done a huge public service and I’m personally thankful.

TE: You’re referring to the unknown leaker who’s mentioned visually and elliptically at the end of your movie and who revealed that the major watchlist your on has more than 1.2 million names on it.  In that context, what’s it like to travel as Laura Poitras today?  How do you embody the new national security state?

LP: In 2012, I was ready to edit and I chose to leave the U.S. because I didn’t feel I could protect my source footage when I crossed the U.S. border.  The decision was based on six years of being stopped and questioned every time I returned to the United States.  And I just did the math and realized that the risks were too high to edit in the U.S., so I started working in Berlin in 2012.  And then, in January 2013, I got the first email from Snowden.

TE: So you were protecting…

LP: …other footage.  I had been filming with NSA whistleblower William Binney, with Julian Assange, with Jacob Appelbaum of the Tor Project, people who have also been targeted by the U.S., and I felt that this material I had was not safe.  I was put on a watchlist in 2006.  I was detained and questioned at the border returning to the U.S. probably around 40 times.  If I counted domestic stops and every time I was stopped at European transit points, you’re probably getting closer to 80 to 100 times. It became a regular thing, being asked where I’d been and who I’d met with. I found myself caught up in a system you can’t ever seem to get out of, this Kafkaesque watchlist that the U.S. doesn’t even acknowledge.

TE: Were you stopped this time coming in?

LP: I was not. The detentions stopped in 2012 after a pretty extraordinary incident.

I was coming back in through Newark Airport and I was stopped.  I took out my notebook because I always take notes on what time I’m stopped and who the agents are and stuff like that.  This time, they threatened to handcuff me for taking notes.  They said, “Put the pen down!” They claimed my pen could be a weapon and hurt someone.

“Put the pen down! The pen is dangerous!” And I’m like, you’re not… you’ve got to be crazy. Several people yelled at me every time I moved my pen down to take notes as if it were a knife. After that, I decided this has gotten crazy, I’d better do something and I called Glenn. He wrote a piece about my experiences. In response to his article, they actually backed off.

TE:  Snowden has told us a lot about the global surveillance structure that’s been built.  We know a lot less about what they are doing with all this information.  I’m struck at how poorly they’ve been able to use such information in, for example, their war on terror.  I mean, they always seem to be a step behind in the Middle East — not just behind events but behind what I think someone using purely open source information could tell them.  This I find startling.  What sense do you have of what they’re doing with the reams, the yottabytes, of data they’re pulling in?

LP: Snowden and many other people, including Bill Binney, have said that this mentality — of trying to suck up everything they can — has left them drowning in information and so they miss what would be considered more obvious leads.  In the end, the system they’ve created doesn’t lead to what they describe as their goal, which is security, because they have too much information to process.

I don’t quite know how to fully understand it.  I think about this a lot because I made a film about the Iraq War and one about Guantanamo.  From my perspective, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. took a small, very radical group of terrorists and engaged in activities that have created two generations of anti-American sentiment motivated by things like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.  Instead of figuring out a way to respond to a small group of people, we’ve created generations of people who are really angry and hate us.  And then I think, if the goal is security, how do these two things align, because there are more people who hate the United States right now, more people intent on doing us harm?  So either the goal that they proclaim is not the goal or they’re just unable to come to terms with the fact that we’ve made huge mistakes in how we’ve responded.

TE: I’m struck by the fact that failure has, in its own way, been a launching pad for success.  I mean, the building of an unparallelled intelligence apparatus and the greatest explosion of intelligence gathering in history came out of the 9/11 failure.  Nobody was held accountable, nobody was punished, nobody was demoted or anything, and every similar failure, including the one on the White House lawn recently, simply leads to the bolstering of the system.

LP: So how do you understand that?

TE: I don’t think that these are people who are thinking: we need to fail to succeed. I’m not conspiratorial in that way, but I do think that, strangely, failure has built the system and I find that odd. More than that I don’t know.

LP: I don’t disagree. The fact that the CIA knew that two of the 9/11 hijackers were entering the United States and didn’t notify the FBI and that nobody lost their job is shocking.  Instead, we occupied Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11.  I mean, how did those choices get made?

Leaked documents expose secret contracts between NSA and tech companies

By Thomas Gaist
20 October 2014

Internal National Security Agency documents published by the Intercept earlier this month provide powerful evidence of active collaboration by the large technology corporations with the US government’s worldwide surveillance operations. The documents give a glimpse of efforts by the American state—the scale and complexity of which are astonishing—to penetrate, surveil and manipulate information systems around the world.

Reportedly leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the documents catalogue a dizzying array of clandestine intelligence and surveillance operations run by the NSA, CIA and other US and allied security bureaucracies, including infiltration of undercover agents into corporate entities, offensive cyber-warfare and computer network exploitation (CNE), theoretical and practical aspects of encryption cracking, and supply chain interdiction operations that “focus on modifying equipment in a target’s supply chain.”

The trove of documents, made available in their original forms by the Intercept , are largely comprised of classification rubrics that organize NSA secrets according to a color-coded scale ranging from green (lowest priority secrets), through blue and red, to black (highest priority secrets).

The secret facts organized in the leaked classification guides supply overwhelming evidence that the NSA and Central Security Service (a 25,000-strong agency founded in 1972 as a permanent liaison between the NSA and US military intelligence) rely on cooperative and in some cases contractual relations with US firms to facilitate their global wiretapping and data stockpiling activities.

Blue level facts listed in the documents include:

* “Fact that NSA/CSS works with US industry in the conduct of its cryptologic missions”

* “Fact that NSA/CSS works with US industry as technical advisors regarding cryptologic products”

Red level facts include:

* “Fact that NSA/CSS conducts SIGINT enabling programs and related operations with US industry”

* “Fact that NSA/CSS have FISA operations with US commercial industry elements”

Black level facts include:

* “Fact that NSA/CSS works with and has contractual relationships with specific named US commercial entities to conduct SIGINT [signals intelligence] enabling programs and operations”

* “Fact that NSA/CSS works with specific named US commercial entities to make them exploitable for SIGINT”

* “Facts related to NSA personnel (under cover), operational meetings, specific operations, specific technology, specific locations and covert communications related to SIGINT enabling with specific commercial entities”

* “Facts related to NSA/CSS working with US commercial entities on the acquisition of communications (content and metadata) provided by the US service provider to worldwide customers; communications transiting the US; or access to international communications mediums provided by the US entity”

* “Fact that NSA/CSS injects ‘implants’ into the hardware and software of US companies to enable data siphoning”

Particularly damning are facts reported by a leaked classification schema detailing operation “Exceptionally Controlled Information (ECI) WHIPGENIE,” described in the document’s introduction as covering NSA “Special Source Operations relationships with US Corporate Partners.”

According to the ECI WHIPGENIE document, unnamed “corporate partners” facilitate NSA mass surveillance as part of undisclosed “contractual relations,” through which “NSA and Corporate Partners are involved in SIGINT ‘cooperative efforts.”’

Among the classified TOP SECRET items listed in the ECI WHIPGENIE document is the fact that “NSA and an unnamed Corporate Partner are involved in a ‘cooperative effort’ against cable collection, including domestic wire access collection.”

As part of WHIPGENIE, the document further states, the FBI facilitates NSA partnerships with industry that are both “compelled and cooperative” in nature. In other words, the NSA carries out domestic wiretapping and “cable collection” operations with the cooperation of at least one US corporation.

These revelations are especially significant in light of persistent claims by the major tech and communications corporations that their involvement in the surveillance operations is strictly involuntary in nature.

Last year, a leaked NSA PowerPoint presentation titled “Corporate Partner Access” showed that the volume of data transferred to the agency by Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft during a single 5-week period was sufficient to generate more than 2,000 intelligence reports. The companies all defended their actions by claiming they were forced to furnish data by the government.

Other documents contained in the trove detail the NSA’s development of sophisticated offensive cyber-warfare capabilities targeting the information systems of foreign corporations and governments. These programs highlight the threat of outbreaks of electronic warfare between competing capitalist elites, which could provide the spark for full-fledged shooting wars.

One document, titled “Computer Network Exploitation Classification Guide,” states that NSA, CSS and the NSA’s in-house hacker unit, the so-called Tailored Access Operations (TAO), engage in “remote subversion” as well as “off-net field operations to develop, deploy, exploit or maintain intrusive access.”

Another classification guide, titled “NSA / CSS Target Exploitation Program,” covers target exploitation operations (TAREX), which are said to “provide unique collection of telecommunication and cryptologic-related information and material in direct support of NSA / CSS.”

TAREX also involves “physical subversion,” “close access-enabling exploitation,” and “supply chain enabling,” the document shows, through which the surveillance agencies intervene directly to modify and sabotage the information systems of rival states.

TAREX operations are supported by outposts located in Beijing, China, South Korea, Germany, Washington DC, Hawaii, Texas and Georgia, and TAREX personnel are “integrated into the HUMINT [human intelligence] operations at CIA, DIA/DoD, and/or FBI,” according to the document.

On top of the electronic surveillance, infiltration and cyber-warfare operations themselves, the intelligence establishment has launched a slate of secondary operations designed to protect the secrecy of its various initiatives, as shown in another leaked document, titled “Exceptionally Controlled Information Listing.”

These include:

* AMBULANT, APERIODIC, AUNTIE—“Protect information related to sensitive SIGINT Enabling relationships”

* BOXWOOD—“Protects a sensitive sole source of lucrative communications intelligence emanating from a target”

* CHILLY—“Protects details of NSA association with and active participation in planning and execution of sensitive Integrated Joint Special Technical Operations (IJSTO) offensive Information Warfare strategies”

* EVADEYIELD—“Protects NSA’s capability to exploit voice or telephonic conversations from an extremely sensitive source”

* FORBIDDEN—“Protects information pertaining to joint operations conducted by NSA, GCHQ, CSE, CIA, and FBI against foreign intelligence agents”

* FORBORNE—“Protects the fact that the National Security Agency, GCHQ, and CSE can exploit ciphers used by hostile intelligence services”

* OPALESCE —“Protects Close Access SIGINT collection operations, which require a specialized sensor, positioned in close physical proximity to the target or facility”

* PENDLETON—“Protects NSA’s investment in manpower and resources to acquire our current bottom line capabilities to exploit SIGINT targets by attacking public key cryptography as well as investment in technology”

* PIEDMONT—“Provides protection to NSA’s bottom line capabilities to exploit SIGINT targets by attacking the hard mathematical problems underlying public key cryptography as well as any future technologies as may be developed”

* And others…

The number and character of the NSA’s “protection” programs gives an indication of the scope of its activities.

The latest round of leaked NSA documents underscores the absurdity of proposals aimed at “reforming” and “reigning in” the mass surveillance programs, which, propelled by the explosive growth of social inequality and the rise of a criminal financial oligarchy, have enjoyed a tropical flourishing since the 1970s, acquiring an extravagant scale and diversity.

U.S. companies are cozier with the NSA than previously thought

Newly disclosed documents reveal the agency has “under cover” spies working at some corporations

and , ProPublica

U.S. companies are cozier with the NSA than previously thought
This originally appeared on ProPublica.

ProPublica Newly disclosed National Security Agency documents suggest a closer relationship between American companies and the spy agency than has been previously disclosed.

The documents, published last week by The Intercept, describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as the fact that the NSA has “under cover” spies working at or with some U.S. companies.

While not conclusive, the material includes some clear suggestions that at least some American companies are quite willing to help the agency conduct its massive surveillance programs.

The precise role of U.S. companies in the NSA’s global surveillance operations remains unclear. Documents obtained by Edward Snowden and published by various news organizations show that companies have turned over their customers’ email, phone calling records and other data under court orders. But the level of cooperation beyond those court orders has been an open question, with several leading companies, such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook, asserting that they only turn over customer information that is “targeted and specific” in response to legal demands.

The documents do not identify any specific companies as collaborating with the NSA. The references are part of an inventory of operations, of which the very “fact that” they exist is classified information. These include the:


“SIGINT” in NSA jargon is signals intelligence, the intercepting of data and voice communications. According to the document, “contractual relationships” can mean that U.S. companies deliberately insert “backdoors” or other vulnerabilities that the NSA then uses to access communications. The existence of deals to build these backdoors is secret:


The NSA’s efforts to break encryption and establish backdoors were disclosed last year, but left open the possibility that the companies didn’t know about the activities. This new disclosure makes clear that some of those relationships are cooperative.

The documents also describe a program codenamed Whipgenie. Its purpose is to safeguard one of the NSA’s most important secrets, the “relationships” between “U.S. Corporate partners” and the agency division that taps fiber optic cables. It refers to the dealings with U.S. companies as ECI — exceptionally controlled information: It says:


The Whipgenie document details one company’s involvement in “domestic wire access collection” – an apparent reference to eavesdropping inside the United States. Under current law, such surveillance is only allowed after the government obtains a court order. But the document said that at least one “Corporate Partner” was involved in a “cooperative effort” to break into U.S. communications. This information, it says, is itself classified and should be closely guarded:


The Whipgenie document makes clear that the program being shielded from public view involves data that moves through the United States. (Emails and other information from one foreign address to another frequently hopscotch across international borders as companies use the cheapest routing for traffic.) The document tells NSA officials that they should protect:


In 2008, Congress authorized the agency to collect information that traveled through the United States. But the agency is supposed to discard entirely domestic communications that it picks up “incidentally.”

A draft document indicates that the NSA targets U.S. manufacturers of commercial equipment used for communications. The document obliquely refers to covert operations by NSA agents aimed at what is termed “specific commercial entities.” Those companies are identified in the document only by the letters: A, B, and C.


Sentry Owl, the program that protects this particular bit of spying, is among the most closely guarded secrets in the intelligence community. Documents describe it as “Exceptionally Controlled Information” that can only be disclosed to “a very few select” people in government.


Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, who head the congressional intelligence oversight committees, did not respond to requests for comment on whether they had been briefed on the program. Sen. Ron Wyden, an outspoken critic of NSA activities that impact U.S. residents, also declined to comment.

In a statement, NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said NSA surveillance is authorized by law and subject to multiple layers of oversight. She added: “It should come as no surprise that NSA conducts targeted operations to counter increasingly agile adversaries.”

The U.S. Is Number One — But in What?

The country is tops when it comes to violence and weapons exports but ranks low in healthcare and education.

American politicians are fond of telling their audiences that the United States is the greatest country in the world. Is there any evidence for this claim?

Well, yes. When it comes to violence and preparations for violence, the United States is, indeed, No. 1. In 2013, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. government accounted for 37 percent of world military expenditures, putting it far ahead of all other nations. (The two closest competitors, China and Russia, accounted for 11 percent and 5 percent respectively.) From 2004 to 2013, the United States was also the No. 1 weapons exporter in the world. Moreover, given the U.S. government’s almost continuous series of wars and acts of military intervention since 1941, it seems likely that it surpasses all rivals when it comes to international violence.

This record is paralleled on the domestic front, where the United States has more guns and gun-related deaths than any other country. A study released in late 2013 reported that the United States had 88 guns for every 100 people, and 40 gun-related deaths for every 400,000 people―the most of any of the 27 economically developed countries surveyed. By contrast, in Britain there were 6 guns per 100 people and 1 gun-related death per 400,000 people.

Yet, in a great many other areas, the United States is not No. 1 at all.

Take education. In late 2013, the Program for International Student Assessment released a report on how 15-year old students from 65 nations performed on its tests. The report showed that U.S. students ranked 17th in reading and 21st in math. An international surveya bit earlier that year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the ranking was slightly worse for American adults. In 2014, Pearson, a multinational educational services company, placed the United States 20th in the world in “educational attainment”―well behind Poland and the Slovak Republic.

American healthcare and health fare even worse. In a 2014 study of healthcare (including infant mortality, healthy life expectancy, and mortality from preventable conditions) in 11 advanced industrial countries, the Commonwealth Fund concluded that the United States ranked last among them. According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. healthcare system ranks 30th in the world. Other studies reach somewhat different conclusions, but all are very unflattering to the United States, as are studies of American health. The United States, for example, has one of the world’s worst cancer rates (the seventh highest), and life expectancy is declining compared to other nations. An article in the Washington Post in late 2013 reported that the United States ranked 26th among nations in life expectancy, and that the average American lifespan had fallen a year behind the international average.

What about the environment? Specialists at Yale University have developed a highly sophisticated Environmental Performance Index to examine the behavior of nations. In the area of protection of human health from environmental harm, their 2014 index placed the United States 35th in health impacts, 36th in water and sanitation, and 38th in air quality. In the other area studied―protection of ecosystems―the United States ranked 32nd in water resources, 49th in climate and energy, 86th in biodiversity and habitat, 96th in fisheries, 107th in forests, and 109th in agriculture.

These and other areas of interest are dealt with by the Social Progress Index, which was developed by Michael Porter, an eminent professor of business (and a Republican) at Harvard. According to Porter and his team, in 2014 the United States ranked 23rd in access to information and communications, 24th in nutrition and basic medical care, 31st in personal safety, 34th in water and sanitation, 39th in access to basic knowledge, 69th in ecosystem sustainability, and 70th in health and wellness.

The widespread extent of poverty, especially among children, remains a disgrace in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. A 2013 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund noted that, of the 35 economically advanced countries that had been studied, only Romania had a higher percentage of children living in poverty than did the United States.

Of course, the United States is not locked into these dismal rankings and the sad situation they reveal about the health, education, and welfare of its citizens. It could do much better if its vast wealth, resources, and technology were employed differently than they are at present.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of priorities. When most U.S. government discretionary spendinggoes for war and preparations for war, it should come as no surprise that the United States emerges No. 1 among nations in its capacity for violence and falls far behind other nations in providing for the well-being of its people.

Americans might want to keep this in mind as their nation embarks upon yet another costly military crusade.

Politics and the Ebola crisis

13 October 2014

The report that a healthcare worker in Dallas, Texas, one of those who treated Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan before his death, has herself contracted the disease, is a significant and troubling event. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, admitted in a television interview Sunday, “It’s deeply concerning that this infection occurred.”

While Frieden claimed that current protocols for treating Ebola patients were effective in preventing the spread of the disease, arguing that there must have been “a breach of protocol,” no actual explanation has been given for how the healthcare worker became infected. She was not one of the 48 primary contacts with Duncan who were being monitored for possible exposure, but worked in a more peripheral role. Her infection was only detected when she contracted a fever and reported it herself.

There are a growing number of such cases, including doctors and nurses in the affected regions of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, who were well aware of the procedures, and an NBC News photographer, whose infection has caused the quarantining of the entire reporting team, led by Dr. Nancy Snyderman, the network’s chief medical correspondent. These cases suggest that despite the repeated assurances from health officials, there is much that is not known about how the disease is transmitted.

What is certain is that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is a catastrophe for the people of that region. More than 8,000 people have been infected and more than 4,000 have died, with no signs that the epidemic has been curtailed. The heroic efforts of doctors, nurses and aid workers have been sabotaged by the collapse of the healthcare systems of these countries, among the poorest in the world. Only 20 percent of the affected population in West Africa has access to a treatment center.

It is almost impossible to overstate the dimensions of the disaster. Until this year, Ebola was a disease of remote rural areas that had killed only 1,500 people in 20 previous outbreaks over 40 years. Now the disease has reached urban centers like Monrovia, capital of Liberia, a city of one million, and individuals infected with the virus have travelled from the region only to fall ill in the United States, Spain and Brazil. There are well-founded fears that Ebola could become a global plague, particularly if it reaches more densely populated countries like Nigeria, or the impoverished billions of South and East Asia.

The impotent global response to the immense tragedy in West Africa is a serious warning. The Ebola crisis has proven to be a test of the ability of capitalism, as a world system, to deal with an acute and deadly threat. The profit system has failed. A society organized on the basis of production for private gain and divided into antagonistic nation-states, with a handful of imperialist powers dominating the rest, is incapable of the systematic, energetic and humane response that this crisis requires. It is no accident that the Ebola outbreak takes place in countries that are former colonies of imperialist powers. Guinea was a French colony, Sierra Leone a British colony, and Liberia a de facto US colony since its founding by freed American slaves. Despite their nominal independence, each country remains dominated by giant corporations and banks based in the imperialist countries, which extract vast profits from the mineral wealth and other natural resources. Guinea is the world’s largest bauxite exporter, Sierra Leone depends on diamond exports, Liberia has long been the fiefdom of Firestone Rubber (now Bridgestone).

These countries are unable to provide even rudimentary healthcare services to their populations, not because they lack resources, but because they are exploited and oppressed by a global economic system controlled by Wall Street and other financial and commodity markets. This economic system is so unequal that the 85 richest individuals on the planet control more wealth than the poorest three billion people, nearly half of humanity.

Economic development, particularly over the past 40 years, has created an interconnected and globalized world. Thousands of people travel every day between West Africa and other parts of the world. The revolution in transportation and communications means that what happens in West Africa today can affect Dallas, Boston, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro tomorrow. This makes the Ebola epidemic not a regional event, but a world event.

But the response to the Ebola crisis is carried out by national governments driven by competing national interests, and concerned, not with the danger of the virus to the world’s people, but with how it affects the interests of the ruling class in each nation. Thus there are calls in the United States and Europe for imposing an embargo on travelers from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, although health experts warn that such an action would cause the economic collapse of these countries, vastly worsening the epidemic and making its global spread more rather than less likely.

Equally reactionary is the Obama administration’s decision to send 4,000 US troops to Liberia, ostensibly to build health treatment facilities. Why are heavily armed soldiers chosen for such a mission? They are not construction workers or healthcare providers. If healthcare workers and journalists have become infected, despite taking every precaution, then certainly soldiers could themselves fall victim to the disease, and bring the virus home with them. The real agenda of Washington is to secure a basis for its Africa Command (AFRICOM), up to now excluded from the continent by local opposition, thus advancing the interests of American imperialism against its rivals, particularly China.

The potential dangers of a disease like Ebola spreading from rural Africa to the world have long been understood by epidemiologists and other scientists. It has been the subject of specialized studies and best-selling books. The issue has even penetrated into popular culture through films from The Andromeda Strain to Outbreak and 28 Days. But the profit system has been incapable of generating a serious effort to forestall an entirely predictable crisis.

The detection of Ebola in the mid-1970s should have been the occasion for the launching of an intensive effort to study the virus, analyze how it is transmitted and develop antidotes and a vaccine. This did not take place, in large measure, as a report last month suggested, because the giant pharmaceutical companies that control medical research saw little profit in saving the lives of impoverished villagers in rural Africa (see “Profit motive big hurdle for Ebola drugs”).

What little research has been conducted on possible cures and vaccines was funded by the US Pentagon, for dubious reasons: at best, to protect US soldiers who might be deployed to the jungles of central Africa as an imperialist invasion force; at worst, to determine whether the virus could be weaponized for use against potential enemies.

What would a serious response to the Ebola crisis look like? It would entail a massive, internationally coordinated response which calls on vast resources on the scale necessary both to save as many as possible of those under immediate threat and to prevent the development of an outbreak on a global scale.

It would mean the mobilization of doctors, nurses, public health workers and scientists from America, Europe, Russia, China and the rest of the world to fight back against a deadly threat to the entire human race. And it would mean taking control of this response out of the hands of the national military establishments, particularly the Pentagon, and the giant pharmaceutical firms, one of the most corrupt and rapacious detachments of big business.

Patrick Martin