I am starting to change my tune about Snowden. In June, he seemed naïve and more than a little reckless. That assessment was not wrong, but I now am adding “educational” to his portfolio. His decision to defect and disclose is doing more to educate the world about how technology and communications work through governments and corporations than any other single person or event in my living memory.
For U.S. persons and our democratic republic, he is putting meat on the bones of legislation our polity has agreed to since the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978 through the U.S.A.-Patriot Act of 2001, its many amendments and most recently the FISA Amendment Act of 2008 that is specifically responsible for the legality of the activities that are in Snowden’s disclosures that make the news today.
Because these disclosures come on a magic carpet of citizen v. empire, they force us to ask some meaningful questions. In short, “given the information and technological potentialities, socially normative behaviors, market drivers and existing or potential future laws, what kind of society do we want to live in?”
Remember the phrase “guns are not the problem, people who use them wrongly are?” Guns are a technology too, one that made a tremendous difference in the outcome of European expansion and on the fate of first peoples of the Americas especially. The connection between these technologies and results for the people that they touch may not be as immediate or apparent as what comes out of a barrel of a gun, but increasingly people around the world are beginning to recognize not only the connections among technology/information, markets, behavior and rules, but that in total this dynamic matters. This dynamic critically affects individual and group identity, social and political relationships, in a word: power.
I still feel the awe of my first computer and early years of searching the Internet, speaking at EDUCAUSE two days after the passage of the Patriot Act on its relationship to higher education, writing the first user guide to Facebook, driving this summer around One Infinity Loop with my son who worked there. For those who play the market, making (or losing) money on Microsoft, Google and Facebook, now considering at what price Twitter will launch, must be thrilling.
But for the sake of everything sacred in our own autonomy, the ethics of our (global) society, and the future for our children, we have to shake off the awe and thrills at least long enough to take this dynamic and these issues seriously. And for that incentive, I am grateful to Mr. Snowden. Whether or not it was his intention when he made his disclosures to have this broad affect, that is what is now happening. And for that contribution, he gets my vote for educator of the year.
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