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This essay is an opinion piece that looks at key interactions between surveillance, the Internet, mass media and neoliberalism through a mythological lens. The principles, structures and strategies of neoliberal capitalism work together deliberately and opportunistically for the goal of global political and economic supremacy of the few over the many, however in order for that to occur the masses must be duped into agreement. This paper looks at surveillance and the manipulation of consent as an evolving phenomenon that raises existential questions about freedom and authenticity, while reflecting on the allegorical narrative of Adam and Eve, the utopian Garden of Eden and the tree of the knowledge.
There are so many aspects to the topic of surveillance that I found it difficult to narrow down a theme for exploration. I settled on writing a dialectic opinion piece that draws inspiration for research from two versions of the Adam and Eve creation myth; from Genesis and from the Nag Hammadi. The Garden of Eden is used as an allegorical context for discussing surveillance, the manipulation of consent and neoliberalism, but also as a narrative device. I first defined my interpretation of both versions of the creation myth, which involved a comparative analysis of various sources and translations, as it is shared cross culturally. I then sourced and reviewed a broad range of literature from academic journals, technical journals, fiction and non-fiction books, news media, religious literature, social and philosophical works, government publications and websites and have included a selection of in-text hyperlinks.
Civil disobedience in the Garden of Eden
The mainstream Christian myth of Adam and Eve has the hapless two living in ignorance and tilling the garden grounds until a snake tempts Eve to eat from the forbidden ‘Tree of Knowledge for both good and evil’. They are then expelled from the Garden for disobeying ‘God’ and to stop them from eating from the ‘Tree of Life’, which would grant immortality, however according to the gnostic Nag Hammadi, this garden variety god is not the true ‘God” it is a false god, a god of lies. In the gnostic version the imposter is the god of slavery, surveillance and control (The Gnostic Society Library, 2003) that has imprisoned a spark of the divine consciousness in matter. Adam and his savior Eve; the divine feminine archetype, escape the prison of ignorance by eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of both good and evil. In the Nag Hammadi creation myth the fall of Adam and Eve represents human consciousness waking from the dream state and escaping from the false god’s illusory utopia (Davies, 2005). Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden by an imposter god is a symbol of the awakening human psyche that has within it the knowledge for both good and evil. Up until that moment, Adam is a sleepwalker in ignorance of any possibilities outside the garden of the jealous god, known to gnostic Christians as the Demiurge. Eve awakens first from the dream, and saves Adam from eternal ignorance. They have awakened from the appearance of freedom and autonomy. The Garden of Eden can be interpreted as the description of a totalitarian surveillance state. Adam and Eve are under the dominating gaze of ‘God’ and just like Bentham’s panoptic design; the garden exists to serve ‘God’s’ meticulous all-seeing power (Foucault, 1980).
Our ‘free’ capitalist societies are increasingly engaging in covert mass surveillance and data retention allegedly for public safety and security, but we know it’s for profit and power. - as Edward Snowden’s revelations about Prism in 2013, and the anonymous leak of the ‘Panama Papers’ in 2015 have shown. The significance of this covert activity is reflected in the time, effort, money and resources that have gone into government investigations on Julian Assange for allegedly having had sex with a broken condom (The Assange Agenda, 2017). Mainstream media has moved on and the masses in the Garden of Eden seem curiously passive, putting in little ‘real’ resistance beyond ‘Clickivism’ and reacting as if it were just a show.
“The end result is the degradation of activism into a series of petition drives that capitalise on current events” (White, 2010). Democracy is in grave danger and everybody knows, yet most of us are passively disengaged, living the spectacle through our devices and projected images, where we connect through the tree of knowledge that grows in the centre of the Garden of Eden. Debord wrote that the spectacle presents itself as an unquestionable and inaccessible reality that demands a passive acceptance, which is already, imposed by the spectacles, “monopoly of appearances.” It is everywhere.
“The tautological character of the spectacle stems from the fact that its means and ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the globe, endlessly basking in its own glory.” (Debord, 1967)
The battle for minds amidst the spectacle
Neoliberalism is a lot like the Demiurge in the Garden of Eden. It presents itself as the only viable system and traps its subjects by presenting itself as the ideal ‘free’ society. As the inhabitants of the garden, we find it increasingly harder to imagine an alternative reality because we have come to believe there is no other way; it’s the “ vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned” (Debord 1967). We become complacent and live in denial despite the knowledge of increasing levels of control that gradually undermine our democratic values and narrow all avenues for empowerment. Civil rights are systematically dismantled over time to protect the financial institutions that dominate society and to make citizen dissent more difficult. Elaborate propaganda has been disseminated through mass media over generations. This is a long-term strategy that uses both deliberation and opportunism. Governments, which have traditionally represented the will of the people, are undermined with the help of mass media and global political elites (Herman & Chomsky, 1988). Governments have come to represent the will of those who own the means of production, and control the resources, hold the majority of wealth and who can influence public opinion. Over time, the control of state assets are being transferred into private hands under the guise of cost effective management and better efficiency. Propelled by a radical squeeze on workers rights and conditions, that has slipped in under the guise of ‘flexible labour markets’ the commodification of the poor is easier because there are less who can speak for them. People are busy. The majority is self-occupied and fighting to retain composure in a system that is designed to sneak up and transfer power to a minority elite. More people are being born into servitude than at any other time, with 45.8 million people trapped in some form of slavery (Global Slavery Index, 2016). Few find their way out of their appointed stations in life in a fiercely competitive, profit-driven system (Loewenstein, 2015). The appearance of our society may have changed with new technologies, but the agenda remains the same. Debord wrote: “Contemporary society is both the meaning and the agenda of our particular socio-economic formation. It is the historical moment in which we are caught” (Debord, 1967)
The rise of the immortal gods
Multinational corporations reap massive profits from war, poverty, environmental pillaging and even illness as health systems are gradually privatised (Loewenstein, 2015). So what’s one way to invest all that “booty’? The search for the tree of life of course! If the forerunner to the ‘tree of life’ has indeed been discovered, it will be out of bounds to the poor. A life-extending compound has been developed at the University of NSW. This is not fiction but reality. At the cost of $1000 per gram the average weighing man would need between $35,000 to $43,000 a day to reverse aging and extend life by three times the normal span. The compound is currently being tested on subjects in Japan (Dunlevy, 2017). Research dates back to the 1950’s and one has to wonder about the resources used to keep up research in relative secrecy over the last 60 years (Preiss & Handler, 1957). While this is an amazing discovery, it also raises ethical questions. I have visions of a god-like elite, who lord over the masses and live in splendid opulence at a time when overpopulation is a problem. The imagination conjures all kinds of scenarios, which have manifested in movies like ‘Elysium’ where life-extending technologies are reserved for the elites. The afterthought for me however is that the actual systems we create will live far into the future outliving generations, like imposter gods.
Mass surveillance & God’s Panopticon: why people accept it
Forms of surveillance, political propaganda and totalitarian control have existed for thousands of years; it is a part of human history. Foucault’s panopticon became the leading metaphor for surveillance studies among scholars and then an odd thing occurred, scholars got bored with it, or ‘over-opticonned’ with surveillance studies becoming “haunted by its omnipresence”(Caluya, 2010). For me the panopticon is an overtly religious concept and represents humanity’s desire for protection by an omnipotent deity, which has existed ideologically in human consciousness from the beginnings of civilisation, then institutionalised as a means for regulating conduct through its moral discourses (Foucault, 2007). Debord wrote: “The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion” (Debord, 1967).
Rapidly evolving technologies mean those who own the means of production can replace the idea of God, who has failed to protect us from evil, with a god-like system that uses surveillance technology as the all seeing eye, which in many ways positions the Internet as the mind of God. Satellite ‘angels’ covering the four ‘corners’ of the globe and everywhere in-between complete the picture with their capacity for omniscience. This omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity is always under construction, it is in a state of constant flux, ready to shape shift into whatever appearance the masses will accept and endorse. Its survival and growth requires the participation of the masses, which are now dependent on it. The World Wide Web has been cast. The many have put their knowledge together and collectively given power to the new system, a cyber-space that functions like ‘the mind of God’. I am not saying this is a bad thing; it is as good or bad as the intentions of the people who are using the technology, and the direction it will take is yet to be determined.
The networked tree of knowledge
The Internet has always needed ‘produsers’ (Bruns, 2007) and open participation to build the Internet’s knowledge base and has simultaneously created a data-based crystal ball into the hearts and minds of humanity. Bruns described Web 2.0 or social software as part of an important paradigm shift that would profoundly impact upon social practices, legal and economic frameworks, the media and democratic society. Back in 2007 this shift was poorly theorized and understood (Bruns, 2007). The excitement and positivity with which some intellectuals and academics have approached the ‘new world order’ of things is admirable however the intellectual elitism that plagues some of the brightest minds of our time is democracy’s Achilles heel. While basking in their own brilliance, complex theories and terminologies, they seem to be ignoring the dark undercurrent of neoliberal opportunism and its quiet militaristic supremacy, which is whisking humanity toward a new dystopian destiny. State protections industries are not only protecting their citizens or their established geographical boarders, but also the states economic ‘interests’.
Surveillance has always been a key component of intelligence and espionage and the Internet finds its roots in a military communications technology called ARPANET, a prototype for the Internet which began as a memo nearly 50 years ago (DARPA, 2017).
It is said that no one ‘owns’ the Internet – but that depends on the definition of ‘owning’ i.e. if I had free access to all data generated through the Internet and if I could decrypt and store that data or capture it before it was encrypted for later reference, then in a sense I would ‘own’ the Internet. Its value lays in the information it contains but also in its capacity for communication and dissemination of information. The whistleblowers of our time are in great danger and for good reason. Governments do not want people focusing on that side of global system operations, however information settles in strange and fascinating ways in the human psyche and the effects of the panopticon works in both directions; the focus can also go from the many to the few. In countries like China where slavery is rife (Global slavery Index, 2016) and the memory of revolution is relatively fresh, media and online censorship is a priority (Muller, 2004). Naturally, western capitalist governments periodical push for Internet censorship citing citizen safety and national security. The demiurge does not want us eating from the tree of knowledge.
We have never lost the desire or the drive to create a utopian society, however what is heaven for some is hell to others and all attempts so far have been at the expense of truth, freedom and privacy. Despite resistance there is also a loss of authenticity as any individual or group that resists oppression by the dominant ideology is also in danger of being cast as the enemy other or is mesmerized. The Internet is a manifest appearance of the mythical tree of knowledge; it is placed at the centre of our ideal society with its networked branches reaching around the globe. As we awaken from the dream, what we do with the ‘knowledge of good and evil’ will determine our future and the future of our planet.
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