Amidst the raging bourgeois debate around Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, the NSA and GCHQ's wiretapping, and the like, a recurring theme is one of scale. Scale both in terms of the sheer physical amount of data being examined, and in terms of the indiscriminate nature of the spying, the sense that everyone's communications are being treated as, at the very least, potentially suspicious. Much of what has been written misunderstands both the technologies involved, the actual scale of the communication being processed relative to other comparable endeavours, and the asymmetric influence of computing technology on individuals as opposed to the state. This is a brief attempt to clarify some of these points.
Although it is somewhat tangential to the main point of this article, when discussing mass surveillance, we need to be clear about what is and isn't technologically difficult to do, and specifically about the fact that automatically analysing the data generated by internet users is not difficult. Say that each of the 60 million people in the UK writes 100 emails per day, and that each email is about 100 kilobytes in size—probably something of an overestimate, but let's stick with it for now. This amounts to about 600 terabytes of data per day, or around 1/1000 of the data which would be produced running the large hadron collider for a day, data which we know are in fact being happily analysed by the scientists who are looking at them. So while it would of course be impossible to have actual people reading these emails, it is technologically not at all difficult to process these mails through automated analysis algorithms and look for keywords in them to trigger a more detailed inspection. What is much more difficult and expensive is storing this data, and in particular storing the data in such as way that it is readily accessible for further analysis—to store one terabyte on a quickly accessible hard disk costs a couple of hundred pounds, depending on how reliable the disk needs to be and how often it needs replacing. Luckily for the state, however, this particular job can be fairly trivially outsourced to the very companies who keep this data safe and readily accessible for the actual authors of these emails. Hence when we talk about a surveillance state it is really not good enough to talk about how politicians have surrendered to the military industrial complex, or how companies have betrayed their customers by giving governments this data: the state and the private sector complement each other perfectly in this task.
An obvious conclusion of the above is that the reassuring voices telling us that people produce far too much data for governments to monitor are talking nonsense—it is manifestly easier and cheaper to monitor emails than it would ever have been to monitor physical letters. More broadly, however, it is just another manifestation of the fact that the ruling class is generally better placed to exploit technological advances than the proletariat. It is often said that the internet has democratized information and this is of course true, in the sense that it is far easier for a teenager in Toronto to write a text which a grandparent in Jakarta might one day come across. However, this democratization is a very individualistic one, in which everyone is free to produce material and make it technically available for viewing to the world and, if they are one of the small number of information producers who are successful at attracting readers, transform themselves into a company. The only difference with respect to the traditional economy is that the entry cost is much smaller, insofar as most people in the UK can afford some kind of personal computer and occasional internet access, and in this sense the technologies behind the internet encourage the development of a kind of petty-bourgeoisie which is otherwise being destroyed by monopolization and casualisation in the rest of the economy. But it is hard to see anything communist about this kind of democracy.
Another difficulty for individuals faced with so much information is the feeling that anything which you might want to say has already been said by someone before, that any question has an answer if only you google it well enough. It is difficult to quantify the value of ignorance when trying to create something new, but it extends well beyond the cliche of the inventor who stumbled upon a discovery because he didn't read the paper proving that it was impossible. And this is a particularly critical point when it comes to ideology because the dominant message of the ruling class is that everything has already been tried, this is the least worst option available, there is no alternative. The internet is a gigantic factory for this type of argument, not only as permeated by the official media and so-called scientific journals that peddle "peer-reviewed" analyses of the status quo which amount to arguments about how many capitalists can fit onto the top of Canary Wharf, but also through the vast range of "individual" websites whose authors have thoroughly internalized this propaganda and regurgitate it under the veil of originality. Most facts can be used to support a wide range of opposing viewpoints; the power of the internet, from the point of view of the ruling class, is that it allows an entire industry which is dedicated to interpreting all of reality in service of the ruling class's ideology to convincingly present itself as the voice of the people.
It is in this sense that a little ignorance can go a long way when we talk about reviving the communist project. Now of course communists should study the failures of the 20th century, but what we need more than ever now is a feeling of optimism about the future and a sense that there is a tremendous human potential being wasted under capitalism which is just waiting to be unlocked in a communist society. The real obstacle to this kind of thinking is not the mass surveillance practised by a state apparatus which has internalized its own propaganda about an imminent terrorist threat, but precisely the supposed freedom and anarchy of the internet. They are as real as the t-shirt slogans of rock groups are rebellious, and they deserve the same contempt. Far from weakening the dominance of bourgeois ideology, the internet and related technologies have largely served to amplify it. As communists we may need to use the internet as a tool in our day-to-day lives, but we should not kid ourselves that it will make the task of formulating an ideology that can challenge the hegemony of 21st century capitalism easier, nor should we worry that state surveillance will make our work harder. After all, as Ernest Gellner said in a different context: that which one would insinuate, thereof one must speak. Our work will have to be done in the open, in the face of, and despite, the bourgeois echo chamber of the internet, by grounding our vision of the future not in myths of a democracy of individuals who use their computers as means of production but in the insistence on the necessity of a collective democracy which uses these computers for the common good.