Here in DC, it’s almost impossible to go to a restaurant or take the metro without seeing a near majority of people glued to their phones. Electronic media – and the increased communication it provides – has become such a pervasive part of our lives, that it is estimated that the average American spends 11 hours per day consuming it.
But how does this increased communication flow affect our nation’s government and its relevance as an international actor?
While I’d argue that the nation-state’s amount of power is unchanged, at least here in US, I do believe that the manner in which the state is wielding that power is certainly changing. The powers that be are indeed controlling the information we access; however, they’re just doing so in ways we may not perceive.
It’s true that even on a bipartisan level there seems to be an emerging lack of trust in the US government and its abilities to defend the constitution, the American people, and ultimately, the World. And yet, as of now, there seems to be no evidence of a mass revolution and government overthrow (although the growing number of armed militia groups sure are scary). There is, indeed, a lack of transparency in our government and the information we’re given about its dealings (House of Cards does a pretty great job at showing all of the meetings “behind closed doors” that may or may not actually happen in real life). Yet, we as a public seem to subsist on the little information they throw at us – wanting more and at the same time taking what we can get.
While freedom of the press and freedom of information are American mantras, the government truly molds the information available to us. First, most information is filtered through Press Secretaries – we only hear what they want us to hear, or rather, their “spin.” When, on occasion, there is an information “leak,” I believe that they are consciously leaked with political motives. Whistleblowers, while they should represent the epitome of American ideals, are shunned as threats to national security (Edward Snowden anyone?). Finally, by focusing on political scandals and gaffes (leave HRC alone!) instead of actual policy issues, the media assists with the control of information by turning news media into entertainment for the entertainment-loving American public — distracting us by masking the important with the unimportant.
This filtered information acts as a means of shaping public discourse. And yet, it’s not just in the news media where the government is benefitting from increased information flows. While it’s common knowledge that we are a country obsessed with entertainment (or maybe that’s all human beings?) our increased internet usage actually helps our government keep tabs on us, thereby asserting its legitimacy.
Although used primarily for social media, videos, and pictures of cute cats, we pour our life stories onto the internet, and those stories get recorded. (For example, the ONE time I looked into buying a My Little Ponies lunchbox has resulted in adds for My Little Ponies paraphernalia on all my social media feeds.) While this is an increasing business practice, big businesses such as Google and Yahoo actually sell access to emails written on their servers to the NSA. AT&T and Verizon are no strangers to this game either, contributing to the $300 million the NSA pays annually for access to this type of information (1). We may be able to ‘openly’ and ‘freely’ access information, but we do so at a cost. That means, the more we surf, the more they know.
Of course, the “open” flow of information is pretty one-sided. While the government can access our information, we can’t access theirs. As such, cyber-security is an emerging industry dedicated to making sure information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Complete intranet systems are used in government and the military that prevent open access to all. Of course, if we really had a completely open system, would those kinds of protections be necessary?
And so, while the US doesn’t seem to overtly censor or filter the flows of electronic information (unlike, say, China), it is certainly using various methods to frame national discourse and block access to “sensitive” information, and thus, maintain its legitimacy as a nation-state.
So let’s just concede authority and get back to our cute cat videos. (Believe me, if you’ve clicked on no other link, you’ll want to click on this one.)