Why should I be worried about the government monitoring my emails or how I surf the web? As someone who is a registered Libertarian (and never voted for a Libertarian candidate) I get it partly. The scale of government is mind-numbing and sometimes frightening, especially in its intelligence and military aspects. Can any regular American aspire to the presidency who has no experience with foreign policy and sensitive intelligence operations? Who can stand in that great day, indeed.
But when I read people who think the world is changing — not to mention ideas about human nature — because of the access now available to government officials through computing and phones, I wonder:
Will you really pay higher insurance rates to escape tracking, or will you swallow the pill of microscopic sensors that watch everything you eat and do—and secure your insurance discount?
The point is not that some simple tweak—making data on us available to us, making it easier to opt out (as if our absence would not be noticed)—would solve the matter. Rather, the point is that a certain view of freedom and a certain view of power are creating a world in which human faculties are superfluous because they are limited and inaccurate compared to scientific measurement.
The tracking revolution is the replacement of, not the extension of a human faculty. Because every advance it offers is a marginal improvement, it proceeds in rational steps toward a goal whose reasons are opaque. Like the division of labor which it imitates, the tracking revolution simplifies knowledge of human beings by breaking us down into our component parts.
For instance, one of the delights (all about me) I take from spy movies or television series like Homeland is a sense that someone is out there monitoring all this stuff, keeping the world safe from bad guys. The same goes for crime shows and murder mysteries (having finished Broadchurch‘s first season last night, I yet again marvel at the Brits capacity to entertain through narratives of justice). It is truly marvelous that any agency can possibly monitor all that stuff, intervene when necessary, and keep the world from careening out of control.
The powers of intelligence agencies and police monitors are of course akin to an all seeing God. If some Christians walk around thinking that certain saints are watching them, most Christians likely live with the scary and comforting thought that God is monitoring everything they do. What is the problem with a few more sets of eyes?
Meanwhile, what possibly could the government find out of interest about me? What Muether and I are planning for the next issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal? Granted, if I were doing something costly to me, something that could get me in trouble in those relationships that most matter — wife, session, department chair — I wouldn’t like the idea that some folks out there know the dirt. But it’s not as if staff at NSA or agents in the CIA are going to give a large rodent’s rear end about activities that might compromise my marriage, church membership, or job. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone wading through all the cookies I use in a day or phone calls I make or email messages I write — along with the rest of America — and finding anything of interest. Average life is so ordinary.
It also helps knowing that my favorite libertarian, J. Gresham Machen, is not looking down reading this.