The truth is that whether it is in the service of emancipation or repression, most people who have access to the new Internet and other communications technologies can no longer really imagine living without them. They feel -- and in many important ways they are -- not just pleasurable but empowering. At the same time, except for some hackers and programmers, this pleasure and empowerment comes only at the discretion of governments and those corporations that control the biggest computers in a network. The pioneer of virtual-reality technology turned critic of digital utopianism, Jaron Lanier, put it well when he said that "every time you post a tweet attacking the 1 percent, you enrich some member of the 1 percent." For most people, privacy, too, has become the "shining artifact of the past" that Leonard Cohen once sang about. Indeed, anyone with a mobile phone understands that everything from their bank records to the products they buy online to the telephone numbers they dial and the addresses to which they send emails are recorded somewhere -- whether by a private business, their own employers, or, of course, the government.
Viewed from this perspective, is it the general public's comparative lack of indignation over the NSA surveillance scandal that is surprising, or is the real shocker that journalists, activists, and politicians feel so outraged? Yes, the U.S. government is indeed the Biggest Brother of them all, but most people go about their daily business being spied on and having their data mined by any number of small- and medium-sized brothers. Of course, someone who is outraged by the attempts to jail the leakers and prosecute and intimidate their journalist and activist colleagues would insist, and rightly so, that these sorts of things should not be permitted in a democracy. But the gap between the outrage of the chattering classes and the public's apathy -- or, more likely, resignation -- illuminates the essential difference between the elite's understanding of the world and everyone else's. To put it starkly, members of an elite tend to believe they can change things; most everyone else knows that, except in a few rare instances, they cannot. In an essential sense, the real question for members of the elite is not, why isn't the public outraged, but why are we?
It is important to be clear. Does the public take the revelations of the data-mining scandal as an affront to their liberty? Presumably many, perhaps even most, do. But life is so full of affronts about which one would be an utter fool to imagine that one can do anything. The automated recordings through which one so often has to pay one's bills, arrange an appointment, or try to get information (even whom to speak with to get that information) are an affront. The endless passwords, PINs, and the like are an affront (and are also, by definition, recorded on corporate databases). The ubiquitous CCTV cameras in city centers, a great many of which were installed well before the Sept. 11 attacks as crime-prevention and traffic-control measures, are an affront. And of course, all the petty and not so petty inconveniences and impositions of the post-9/11 world -- from the preposterous demand that one show ID when entering not just a government building but almost any office building in America, to the shameless slovenliness and rudeness of Transportation Security Administration employees at every U.S. airport -- are flagrant affronts. Even if the long war against the jihadis were to end tomorrow with total victory for the United States, can anyone seriously suggest that any of these measures would be lessened, let alone canceled?
The great myth of the past 25 years may be empowerment through technology. But the great truth of the past 25 years has been the rise of the surveillance state, which grows stronger every day -- both because of technology itself and because of the control that states and huge corporations have over the technology that people depend upon and love. On one level, everyone knows this, but whether it's because they believe themselves to be immune or because they simply never imagined that the surveillance state had become so all-encompassing, the elites seem to have been particularly surprised and therefore indignant over the scope of the NSA's spying, the ardor with which governments have defended these practices, and their foaming rage at having to defend them in public at all. "This is the way the world ends," T. S. Eliot famously wrote in his great poem The Hollow Men, "not with a bang but a whimper." Welcome to the post-democratic world. Oh, and by the way, you've been living in it for quite some time now.