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A PRISM of Uncertainty: My Story And I’m Sticking To It

10 Jun 2013 by Seeker in Underworld

From Modern Mythology

As anyone that hasn’t been under a rock for the past week knows, this “PRISM thing” has blown up all over the internet. Which is a good thing — privacy is something that people should be concerned about, and discuss.

Take a look at some of the other information that came to light in the past few days:

The fictional journalistic “this may or may not be true”:

The following article should be treated as strictly hypothetical. It has been editorialized to simplify the content in certain areas, while maintaining as much technical detail as we can offer. Companies named in this article have been publicly disclosed, or used in example only. This piece should not be taken necessarily as fact but as a working theory that portrays only one possible implementation of the U.S. National Security Agency’s PRISM program as it may exist today. Several ZDNet writers contributed to this report. –Zdnet article.

The deniers: 

Slides obtained by the two newspapers say that the program was established in 2007 and that seven of the largest Internet communication companies “participate knowingly” in providing NSA direct access to their central servers. If true, this would mean that NSA had full access to many messages sent using applications run by Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, and Apple. (The documents also separately list YouTube and Skype, subsidiaries of Google and Microsoft, respectively.) The unprecedented access would give the government audio, video, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs for potentially billions of users. But could the revelations be a carefully constructed hoax? There are several indicators that the PRISM reports may not be entirely accurate… Business Insiders.

More deniers: 

Two different versions of the PRISM scandal were emerging on Thursday with Silicon Valley executives denying all knowledge of the top secret program that gives the National Security Agency direct access to the internet giants’ servers. The eavesdropping program is detailed in the form of PowerPoint slides in a leaked NSA document, seen and authenticated by the Guardian, which states that it is based on “legally-compelled collection” but operates with the “assistance of communications providers in the US.” Each of the 41 slides in the document displays prominently the corporate logos of the tech companies claimed to be taking part in PRISM. However, senior executives from the internet companies expressed surprise and shock and insisted that no direct access to servers had been offered to any government agencyGuardian Article.

The middle ground:

PRISM’S SCOPE MAY BE SMALLER THAN FEARED Over the last day, tech executives including Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg outlined that they did not give bulk or blanket access to user data. However, they may not have been able to discuss the exact volume of the legal demands for data they’ve received. That left the exact scope of how many people had data pulled by NSA open for wide interpretation, and many including myself, in some cases assumed the worst — that while not at the volume of the massive request for data on all Verizon users that’s been reported, huge numbers of people may have been spied on. However, in the last year, there were only 1,865 FISA requests for data. Some believe those requests could include data pulls as broad as anyone who searched a specific term. Legal experts I’ve consulted, though, believe the requests must be more narrow than that for the tech companies to have not pushed back. That means the the number of people monitored by PRISM may have been in the thousands or tens of thousands, rather than in the tens or even hundreds of millions.Techcrunch Article.

And, of course, the conspiracy theorists:

PRISM the new Nazi party. Just confirmed!!! BE CAREFUL! They know what you’re doing!Godlike Productions thread.

Of course, hundreds of other examples could be found. The point isn’t the particular articles but rather the incredible spread of contradictory information, misinformation, and disinformation. Pretty hard to make an entirely coherent story out of all these divergent pieces, right?

Yet, far before anyone could possibly have an absolutely iron-tight, certain conviction of what the hell is going on here, most people have already made up their minds. They’ve made up their minds with such certainty that anyone that sees it otherwise must be insane! There is a reason for this, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Narrative is everywhere. Or rather, we see it everywhere. Of course, we hope to have those expectations confounded. It is in the melody to a catchy blues riff — playing an assortment of notes enough times for you to expect it a fourth time, and then going down rather than up. Confound them, yes, but only within a certain framework. When artists such as Schoenberg or Cage tried to show our mythic impulse back to us, or even do away with that impulse altogether, many listeners rebelled. The same is what we look for in our fiction — different, but not too different — and it is also what we look for when we try to attempt to interpret the real world.

You see, when we test reality, we simultaneously build stories around that testing. We collect little pieces of information and piece them together. In a sense the metaphor of a puzzle and puzzle pieces would be altogether too apt, if somehow a puzzle could be freeform and shift around on the fly.

This is not idle speculation. As we discussed in the introductory article for Modern Mythology, this mythic impulse — or narrative impulse, if you prefer — is built into our brains. It is a big part of how we come to understand the world. This is also the reason why the best way to teach children is often through stories. Our minds are designed to work with them, and to fill in the missing pieces.

As we’ve discussed before, this is how optical “illusions” work. More accurately, the visual world we build in our heads is itself entirely illusory — flipped around, taken apart and pieced back together. Yet again we see this same tendency, now in the visual rather than auditory modality. This is not idle philosophical speculation. It is as close to fact as we can come, and therein lies the problem.

There is simply too much contradictory information out there, and too much chaos that needs to be filtered out as unimportant to our aim. For these systems to work on the fly, we have to graft in a schema ahead of time.

In other words, to go back to the puzzle metaphor, we need to imagine what the completed puzzle is going to look like so that we can understand how the pieces might fit together.  If your reality tunnel is based around distrust of authority, then you have one puzzle to cram the pieces into. If your reality tunnel is based around the opposite, or something in between — you get the point.

This is well and good for many purposes, but it is wreaking a lot of ideological havoc in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. Everyone else seems insane because they aren’t trying to build the same puzzle that you are.

This isn’t to say that everything is an opinion, or that if I think a baseball is a cloud that you can’t wing it into my skull. The issue being discussed is how we make sense of the puzzle pieces (mythic fragments) that we’re given. It is not a question of the “ultimate reality” of the myth, nor what it represents.

As Robert Anton Wilson once famously said, “what the thinker thinks, the prover proves.” Still later, he used the metaphor of reality tunnels:

“When we begin to realize that we’re all looking from the point of view of our own reality tunnels we find it is much easier to understand where other people are coming from or the ones who don’t have the same reality tunnel as us do not seem ignorant or deliberately perverse or lying or hypnotized by some mad ideology. They just have a different reality tunnel and every reality tunnel might tell us something interesting about our world if we’re willing to listen.”

Whatever your natural bias, his advice in this case remains as poignant today.

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