Listen to this article
A couple of weeks ago a good friend visited. I’ve known him a while and we’ve been through some adventures together. He’s funny, with a kind heart and a love of literature. After dinner we stood around the kitchen, talking, until we touched on the recent revelations concerning the NSA’s surveillance program. Out of nowhere, in the middle of this conversation, my friend picked up his phone and took a picture of my hallway, then immediately posted it to Instagram.
“What the hell?” I said.
“What? You have a weird hallway. It’s really long and narrow.”
He wasn’t wrong, it is a weird hallway, but I still couldn’t understand why, just as we were discussing the horrors of government spying on the public here and abroad, my friend took a photograph of my apartment and zapped it out to the world. It almost seemed like a tic he couldn’t control.
“Forget the NSA,” I said. “You’re the f***ing problem!”
“Lighten up. It’s not like it’s Facebook.”
Of course, we’ve long known how we offer up all of our details – through social media and online consumption – to everybody, constantly. When it comes to the obliteration of privacy, we do most of the heavy lifting, not the digital commandos contracted by the military or the corporate syndicates and their geek muscle. But still we’re posting, we’re tagging, we’re tweeting, we’re vining, we’re one-click shopping. We’re data-mining ourselves. I guess it makes sense. What else are we going to do? Read a book?
A newspaper story on June 24 reported that Edward Snowden’s decision to flee Hong Kong, made over a dinner of pizza, fried chicken and Pepsi (how can you doubt his patriotism?), came after learning that, whatever the final outcome of his predicament, he might be spending a lot of time in a jail cell without a computer. This, apparently, was the deal-breaker. He could take life in a box but couldn’t imagine his life not plugged into one.
We can all probably relate, though I’ve been corresponding with a prisoner in America who has no access to computers but receives journals and magazines and books through the mail. He is doing a long stretch and is a voracious reader of contemporary fiction. I guess he’s got the time, but his handwritten letters are full of subtle insights about recent novels and short stories. It’s quite refreshing.
People on the outside involved with literary publishing talk mostly about advances, or the dearth of decent ones, or what qualities to look for in an agent. This guy wants to discuss a George Saunders short story. I certainly would not wish his situation on anyone, or, at least, not on most people. But it’s important to remember there are other technologies (such as Gutenberg’s) that can pull you through in a pinch.
Decades ago there was a clever Saturday Night Live short film called “Prose and Cons” – “directed by Norman Mailer”, the credits read – about a prison where every convict typed away at a novel as the warden boasted of the “sterling literary tradition” of his institution. The film also featured an early appearance by Eddie Murphy’s street poet Tyrone Green (“C-I-L-L my landlord”).
Somebody asked me recently if I ever fantasised about being in prison so I could be left alone to write. My one experience behind bars lasted only three days, and maybe it’s different in long-term facilities, but I can assure you the Manhattan Detention Centre, also known as The Tombs, is no writing colony. The noise alone would drive you crazy.
I agree with those who argue that we’ve been gravely misdirected by the media focus on the character of Snowden, rather than the revelations he delivered, though so far he’s been brave and righteous, by my lights. Who knows what else will turn up but it’s funny how, when it comes to artists, for example, we say it’s the work that counts, even if they’re wife-battering, offspring-destroying racists. But a guy puts the American government in the tight spot of having to explain some secret decisions to the people it serves, and he’s a narcissist. I’m also shocked that people are shocked. What world do they think they live in?
Perhaps when I was a young man with a video rental card I spent too many hours steeping myself in 1970s paranoia films like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor and The Conversation, and even as the internet came into its first full flowering, long before social media, I always sensed a sinister undercurrent to all of this instant connection. All my friends did, except for the most rabid cyber-utopians.
Many of us had been raised with disdain for the Man, even as our parents worked for him to make ends meet. I don’t know exactly how we were inculcated with this idea but we took it for granted that anybody with power and money was evil, or, at least, just looking out for number one, and maybe two and three. If they had the means and the desire, logic dictated that they’d bug us, tail us.
I’ve never been one for conspiracy theories because they are boring. Obviously, the corporations and the government are in collusion. Of course there is a secret super-elite manipulating this or that. They just don’t think of it that way. Doesn’t anybody remember Ned Beatty’s speech in Network? (“There is no America, there is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and AT&T and DuPont …”) If every American schoolchild had been forced to memorise it, we wouldn’t be acting so traumatised now.
Sometimes I feel blessed to have been reared in the “paranoid style”, to have suckled on post-Watergate despair and, later, Don DeLillo novels. I feel inoculated now. When somebody tells me I’m being “cynical”, I know that person is probably en route to whack Snowden.
Some folks say if you have nothing to hide, you needn’t worry. But those people dream of wearing jackboots with their pressed jeans. I have plenty to hide. We all do, even if we think we don’t. We have no inside tip on which ideas and behaviours the future will persecute us for. Maybe it’s time to make a run for it.
You can never really get off the grid, but you might find a shallow ravine in the woods behind the supermarket. Bring poetry, prose and food. Open a book and start reading. They can’t monitor that exchange. Not yet. Or maybe they can. But wait, here’s your buddy, waving from the parking lot. He trots over and slides down beside you. He’s just dropping by, he says, and takes a photo of your ravine, posts it to Coolhideouts.gov.
Sam Lipsyte’s ‘The Fun Parts’ (Granta, £12.99) is out now
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published