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Snowden, PRISM, and the Realms of the Unreal

With Edward Snowden’s abrupt entry into Moscow two weeks ago, National Journal writer Matt Berman totally nailed the strange unreality that was beginning to unfold: “If the Edward Snowden saga is a Michael Bay movie that we are all just living in, on Sunday morning it would have passed over the believability abyss.”

That’s the weirdness that’s been hanging over the situation from the beginning, really—so much seems remarkably implausible. From our perspective as designers and developers, it’s often the structure of situations that captures our attention, and this inverting of the normal logic of events captivated us. More importantly, we’re a tech company, and our industry is often remarkably inert in responding to situations like this, despite our futures as businesses and individuals being tied to them.

All this led us to our comment: the PRISM scandal is an event that quite drastically inverts reality. We romanticize events that “change everything” in a situation, but rarely do we witness one which turns so much so completely upside-down. The Snowden/PRISM story does this in two central ways, which are both worth examining.

The first, apropos of Berman’s remarks, is the real becoming unreal in Snowden’s narrative. What started as a network analyst’s info-leak rapidly became spy-flick bonkers. It mutated into a fantastical intrigue-yarn, replete with covert travel, asylum-seeking, and even a massive US-governmental effort to mislead the international community.

Despite its dark undertones, the unreality of this aspect of the story isn’t entirely depressing. The weirdness and infusion of unreality here at least opens up the narrative with new potentials and elements. The rush of fictional tropes eases the tension.

Which is sort of how we’ve dealt with our anxiety over the rapid growth of intelligence and security agencies after 9/11. And yet now we know that the fictions we’d used to buffer our anxieties were more real than expected.

That’s the second prong of this inversion of reality, which is much more problematic and unsettling than the first. The idea of a massive, secret surveillance structure has appeared in popular media for decades, from Orwell to Phillip K. Dick to The X Files. It’s an ironic trope that masks an actual anxiety, but one we’ve convinced ourselves isn’t completely real, believing that governmental oversight and judicial transparency are effective safeguards.

Yet the thing that is concretely, 100% real is this supposedly fictional surveillance structure we’ve been imagining or joking about for so long. The boggart which we viewed as an absurdity has, somehow, turned out to be real, and is potentially even worse than imagined, with essentially no current oversight and total secrecy.

On one hand, we have the Snowden side of the event: a real narrative becoming weirdly unreal. On the other, we have the PRISM side: the imaginary Big Brother materializing, and showing, definitively, that our anxieties are more real than we’d wished. It’s a bizarre inversion of what we’d considered the bounds of political reality and believability: the real becomes unreal, and the unreal becomes real.

So what happens next?

[Server farm centerfold courtesy of Google]

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