Weekend Reading

Have a seat and grab something to read:

When we talk about privacy and surveillance, it is impossible to avoid mentioning 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian account of a world without walls, where television watches you and microphones record every sound above a low whisper. But Orwell said nothing about dataveillance. And while the Fourth Amendment guarantees protection from the kinds of governmental invasions that tend to concern Americans the most (reading our mail, searching our homes), when we think about the problem this way we tend to overlook the kinds of knowledge discovery that don’t require anyone to break into anything.

Data mining as criminal investigation is a good example. Investigating a suspect’s known associates is an ancient tactic in policing, but it costs money, time, and effort, and it’s legally complicated; investigations tend to be constrained by a high threshold of initial suspicion. But as the amount of widely available data rises, another kind of search becomes possible. Instead of starting from a subject of suspicion and placing that person within a map tracing patterns of behavior and networks of associates, it becomes feasible to begin with the whole map and derive the subjects of suspicion from the patterns one finds. Pattern-­based data mining, in other words, works in reverse from a subject-based search: instead of starting from known or strongly suspected criminal associations, the data miner attempts to divine individuals who match a data profile, drawing them out of a sea of dots like the pattern in a color-blindness test. Dataveillance draws powerful inferences about people and their associates from deep and rich—and often publicly available—records of otherwise routine behavior. Automated systems monitor the environment to match the profiles of particular users to pattern signatures associated with criminal behavior, using algorithms to track and analyze anomalies or deviations from what someone, somewhere, has deemed normal.

Existing privacy protections are largely irrelevant to this kind of surveillance. The Fourth Amendment protects only what is said in a conversation. But much the way pen registers and tap-and-trace devices (which record which numbers you dial, who calls you, and how long you talk) do not trigger the same Fourth Amendment privacy protections that a wiretap would, telecommunications companies are not banned from amassing and selling vast databases of call data. The Supreme Court has ruled that once information about call “attributes” passes into the possession of a third-party carrier like a telecommunications company, it effectively becomes the property of that third party, which may collect, store, and circulate it as it pleases.

Why shouldn’t kids be asked to put away their crayons and go to lunch at the same time? Why do we assume that clear boundaries, a schedule, and a sense of hierarchy are so threatening to students? Why must the individual’s vision be so carefully and serenely sheltered from other people, who are experienced in this framework as interruptions? There is value in being pulled out of a daydream. There is value in learning to cope with a little coercion, in knowing what it means to cooperate on a daily basis with someone who doesn’t love you, someone who’s not your family member.

Taylor summarizes the debate over compulsory schooling as, “Do we trust people’s capacity to be curious or not?” To me, it seems to be about sparing children the discomfort of conflict. Curiosity leads us to follow our own interests, but what about the interests of others? Conflict is what happens when we’re asked to reckon with them. Just as not every child learns to read “when they’re ready,” some students understandably “resist the critical thinking process; they are more comfortable with learning that allows them to remain passive” (as bell hooks writes).

The gerontocracy begins at the top. The 111th Congress was the oldest since the end of the Second World War, and the average age of its members has been rising steadily since 1981. The graying of Congress has obvious political ramifications, although generalizations can be deceiving. The Republican representatives tend to be younger than the Democrats, but that doesn’t mean they represent the interests of the young. The youngest senators are Tea Party members, Mike Lee from Utah and Marco Rubio from Florida (both forty). Here’s Rubio: “Americans chose a free-enterprise system designed to provide a quality of opportunity, not compel a quality of results. And that is why this is the only place in the world where you can open up a business in the spare bedroom of your home.” He is speaking to people who own homes that have empty spare bedrooms. He will not or cannot understand that the spare bedrooms of America are filling up with returning adult children, like the estimated 85 percent of college graduates who returned to their childhood beds in 2010, toting along $25,250 of debt.

David Frum, former George W. Bush speechwriter, had the guts to acknowledge that the Tea Party’s combination of expensive entitlement programs and tax cuts is something entirely different from a traditional political program: “This isn’t conservatism: It’s a going-out-of-business sale for the Baby Boom generation.” The economic motive is growing ever more naked, and has nothing to do with any principle that could be articulated by Goldwater or Reagan, or indeed with any principle at all. The political imperative is to preserve the economic cloak of unreality that the Boomers have wrapped themselves in.

Democrats may not be actively hostile to the interests of young voters, but they are too scared and weak to speak up for them. So when the Boomers and swing voters scream for fiscal discipline and the hard decisions have to be made, youth is collateral damage. Medicare and Social Security were mostly untouched in Obama’s 2012 budget. But to show he was really serious about belt tightening, relatively cheap programs that help young people like the Adolescent Family Life Program and the Career Pathways Innovation Fund were killed.

When performed by married women in their own homes, domestic labor is work—difficult, sacred, noble work. Ann says Mitt called it more important work than his own, which does make you wonder why he didn’t stay home with the boys himself. When performed for pay, however, this supremely important, difficult job becomes low-wage labor that almost anyone can do—teenagers, elderly women, even despised illegal immigrants. But here’s the real magic: when performed by low-income single mothers in their own homes, those same exact tasks—changing diapers, going to the playground and the store, making dinner, washing the dishes, giving a bath—are not only not work; they are idleness itself. Just ask Mitt Romney. In a neat catch that in a sane world would have put the Rosen gaffe to rest forever, Nation editor at large Chris Hayes aired a video clip on his weekend-morning MSNBC show displaying Romney this past January calling for parents on welfare to get jobs: “While I was governor, 85 percent of the people on a form of welfare assistance in my state had no work requirement. And I wanted to increase the work requirement. I said, for instance, that even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, ‘Well that’s heartless,’ and I said, ‘No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving daycare to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.’” (Don’t be fooled by the gender-neutral language—he’s talking about mothers.)


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s