You can back away from caring about suspicionless surveillance by arguing, “It doesn’t concern me, I have nothing to hide.” But there can’t honestly be people who have nothing to hide, right?

Doesn’t everyone watch weird porn or talk about their spouse to an ex or explore doubts about their religion or Google Katy Perry lyrics? Don’t some research suicide methods or drug rehab centers or just barely legal drugs? It can’t just be me. These are the things we may wish to hide from our boss, our spouse, our family, or our friends, but they are also the things we expect will be uninteresting to  law enforcement in comparison to graver crimes others commit. The government might have an open file on us, and it might contain all of our questionable internet and phone activity, but who cares?

Perhaps still people feel they, as individuals, are doing nothing that would ping the government’s anti-terrorism data filters. In that sense, they might rightly feel that they are not effectively being watched. But surveillance is not an individual problem—it is a group one.

Our ability to act and speak and even think freely cannot be exercised comfortably when we are constantly watched. With a slight change to the definition of words like “terrorism” or “potential threat”, whole new swathes of data might become incriminating. In a more extreme possibility, the list of crimes worthy of detection and prosecution based on aggregate collection of metadata could be expanded to include crimes like drug use or trafficking and acts of civil disobedience. Youthful indulgences or moral campaigns might become bad marks on our record.

As Wired writer Moxie Marlinspike points out, you should be able to do illegal things, sometimes. Breaching the edges of legality while hidden within a group is the mechanism by which a nation of laws evolves, as seen recently in the changes to laws regarding same-sex marriage and medical marijuana. Jim Crow laws were broken before they were banned, as were anti-sodomy laws. Society did not crumble then, nor will it, to use Marlinspike’s example, when marijuana becomes a universally legal treatment for the pains of cancer and other ailments. Marlinspike writes:

Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100% effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. If perfect law enforcement had been a reality in Minnesota, Colorado, and Washington since their founding in the 1850s, it seems quite unlikely that these recent changes would have ever come to pass

Would there have been a massive push for medical marijuana were it not for illicit smokers discovering its painkilling effects? Patients in the nearly twenty states that have legalized medical marijuana would laugh if you suggested so. Similarly, would a vivid LGBT community have developed without people violating anti-sodomy laws for decades before they were repealed? Doubtful.

Though it might sound paranoid to imagine the United States government abusing its powers to target petty crime, many members of minority groups and protest organizations know too well that it is not beyond the United States government to cast their net too broad. Just this week, New York City Muslims filed suit against the New York City Police Department. Constant surveillance, including the recording of conversations and the collection of license plate numbers, has thwarted their efforts to gather and to practice their religion. Asad Dandia, plaintiff and leader of the group Muslims Giving Back told the ACLU:

“I am constantly frightened. What if I say the wrong thing?…Islam requires giving back to the community that which you have been given by God. I’ve done nothing wrong and yet I am unable to practice Islam fully because of what the Police Department did to me.”

It has been argued that because such surveillance has long been targeted at religious groups, civil rights activists, organized protesters, and political advocacy groups, then we should not be surprised by the NSA’s PRISM program. Really, though, I’m sure there are few who are truly “surprised” by the recent leaks. We have known for over a year that the NSA was building a massive data center, thanks in part to Wired’s March 2012 cover story. It was assumed, then, that the collected data would be culled from United States citizens.

The totality of the NSA surveillance has arrived with a whimper, even though similar things seem so dramatic in fiction like 1984, in part because of all of the sinister surveillance that preceded it. We have become somewhat jaded, inclined to a one-upmanship mentality that says, “So what if you’re being watched, I’ve known that I’m being watched for years and you never cared before.” But this is again a misguided argument, one that avoids a chance to finally get together a united front of, imagine this, right wing government-skeptics, progressive politicians, Muslim leaders, and young protesters. Though it is frustrating to wonder where the privileged opponents of suspicionless surveillance were when the practice only targeted minority groups, now is not the time to hang tightly to that grudge. Instead, it ought to be the time to engage in a bipartisan debate regarding the implications of a government (and private contractors) who can watch whomever they want, looking for traces of whatever vaguely defined threats have been defined for the time.


“Hero or traitor?” was the original question. I don’t like these labels, and they are putting people into categories of two extremes, villain or saint. … By law, he fits the legal definition of a whistle-blower. He is someone who exposed broad waste, abuse and in his case illegality. … And he also said he was making the disclosures for the public good and because he wanted to have a debate.

-Jessica Radack, lawyer from the Government Accountability, in conversation with USA Today

During the last week, I’ve had several conversations about PRISM and the leaks that revealed the program. Almost invariably, these conversations veer toward a discussion of Edward Snowden. Is he a self-sacrificing hero or an egotistical fabricator? Has he enlightened American citizens, or put the country at risk? And how about that pole-dancing girlfriend?

Talking about Edward Snowden (and, I admit, writing about him) is much easier than talking about the implications of the NSA’s surveillance of American citizens. Stories about his character and personal life are easy to spread. This is the result of a over a decade of suffocating celebrity culture, and the frenzied pace of social media. We are obsessed with individual notoriety and fame, and we apply the same paparazzi mentality toward every public figure, whether they be accused murderers or politicians. The celebrification of people from all fields impedes us from engaging in meaningful discourse of the issues America faces today. By indulging our curiosity for the details of Edward Snowden’s personal and professional life, we lose sight of the act he committed, a leak of information regarding a suspected but hitherto unconfirmed surveillance initiative geared by the United States Government toward its own citizens.

We are allowing ourselves to play a game of individualistic considerations, not public interest. The thought “I have nothing to hide, it doesn’t affect me,” pairs easily with the question, “Who is this Snowden guy, anyway?” Americans act as though the likeability of Edward Snowden is a prerequisite to our acting on the truths he unveiled, those truths seeming remote from our individual well-being, anyway. It is easier to work our way through character analysis than to engage in complex issues of privacy and civil liberties. If we can dismiss him, and the surveillance doesn’t bother us in any immediate way, then we don’t have to worry about what he says.

The troubling thing is that journalists are aware of the tendency of facile gossip and character dissection to displace serious discourse. They remark on it even as they engage in it. Jezebel‘s Katie J.M. Baker writes, “It’s bullshit to focus on Snowden’s personal life instead of the real bullshit he exposed,” but she buries this sentence in an article about Snowden’s girlfriend that analyzes the woman’s Instagram photos and blog musings. Writing in Mashable, Alex Fitzpatrick advise Snowden that if he “wants to minimize the media’s increasing tendency to characterize him as an exaggerator, he would be wise to choose his words more carefully.” The article is entitled “Edward Snowden Falsely Claims Government Accused Him of Treason,” and it seizes upon a possibly inaccurate statement Snowden made in today’s live Q&A with readers of the Guardian. Fitzpatrick misses the point, though. If we are worried about whether Snowden is making false claims about the government’s reaction to him, then we may already be at a point where we have forgotten his original claims, those which have been deemed credible by a number of past NSA whistleblowers.

It matters little whether Edward Snowden, the man, is not careful with his words when speaking off-the-cuff. Nor does it matter what his girlfriend is like or whether he reported his salary with precise accuracy. Snowden summarized the state of things best himself in today’s Q&A with Guardian readers

Unfortunately, the mainstream media now seems far more interested in what I said when I was 17 or what my girlfriend looks like rather than, say, the largest program of suspicionless surveillance in human history.

What matters is that the United States government is engaged in unfettered surveillance of its citizens, and that they have been doing so via un-Democratic channels for years. When polled, however, many Americans do not find this to be an issue. According to a CNN/ORC International Survey, 51% of Americans think the NSA’s surveillance of American phone records is the right thing to do, and even more approve of internet surveillance programs. The failure of Americans to be wary of such massive government power is unnerving.

We have quickly and effectively been steered away from addressing the NSA’s incursions against our liberty by our and our media’s failures. The most frightening possibility, though, is that some of this diversion was intentionally engineered by another layer of secretive private contractors. Peter Lundlow, writing in The New York Times, indirectly suggests that by succumbing to our interest in the personal narrative of Edward Snowden, we may have already fallen victim to intentional campaigns designed to thwart a backlash against the NSA. Private intelligence firms, Lundlow explains, set out to manipulate the American public much in the way Army psyops teams do when operating in foreign wars. Psyops are “planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.” This is little different than what happens here, as leaked emails from companies like Team Themis, a consortium of private security firms, suggest. Team Themis has worked to undermine the credibility of journalists (Glenn Greenwald) and critics of government agencies (ChamberWatch).  Team Themis’ work, in short, is to engage in Psyops campaigns against the American public. As Lundlow writes,

[I]t is sometimes more effective to deceive a population into a false reality than it is to impose its will with force or conventional weapons.  Of course this could also apply to one’s own population if you chose to view it as an “enemy” whose “motives, reasoning, and behavior” needed to be controlled.

In this frame, the enemy is the American public, as informed by journalists and organizations critical of the War on Terror’s tactics. Propaganda is no new thing, and has been used by the American government to bolster past war efforts. But rather than try to encourage Americans to behave in ways that enhance public safety (for example, “If you see something, say something,” or “Loose lips sink ships!”), these psyops practices aim to alter our sense of reality in order to protect not citizens and country, but the closed-door practices of our elected (and appointed) officials.

Personally, I try to avoid indulging in thoughts of government disinformation, which reek of conspiracy theory quackery and seem rooted in pathological paranoia. But with the news of NSA surveillance giving way so easily to character assassination of Edward Snowden, it seems our media, which ought to lead the public toward informed conversations about its government institutions, is more vulnerable than ever, weakened by its preference for reporting on personalities rather than nuanced issues. We will tire of Snowden, then, as we tire of other over-exposed personalities, and the policies we ought to debate will fade from public scrutiny, allowing the NSA to continue and expand its secretive work.

Photo by Yoram Reshef

At MIT, Professor Neri Oxman researches material manufacturing methods that mimic naturally occurring processes. She suggests that her work might yield new armor or insulating materials, and she hopes that it will one day be scalable to apply to entire buildings.

Oxman’s name might be familiar. She appeared on the cover of Fast Company and the pages of Interview, and when you Google Neri Oxman, the most popular results reveal an interest in her marital status before returning back to MIT, the place of her professorship.

Not comfortable being merely a medical student, materials designer, computer programmer, artist, and public speaker in her fewer than forty years, Neri seems to also have time to appreciate Borges. Her latest exhibit, the deliciously titled “Imaginary Beings: Mythologies of the Not Yet,” explores the surrealist’s creatures each as the embodiment of a trait toward which humans aspire. The powers that have eluded humans so far, personal flying wings and elective invisibility, are embodied by each of her sculptures at the Center Pompidou in Paris.

That a woman so well-composed by nature would hold the latter’s processes in such high regard should not be surprising. In truth, it would be easy to dismiss her ideas as yet another speculative fancy never to have bearing upon society-at-large. Whether one thinks she is a prophet of what is to come, or another sensationalist academic is not the argument here. Instead, her ideas should be read and shared because they dare to start from scratch rather than polish old paradigms.

Neri Oxman for GQAmidst features on blonde Swedish DJs and this summer’s best sweaters, GQ still hosts a 2009 article about Oxman on its webpage. It might be the best place to begin to understand her past, present, and future. The daughter of two architects, Oxman went to medical school before deciding she did not wish to be a doctor. After a bout of architectural studies, she landed at MIT’s Media Lab, where she develops new building materials:

One of her big inspirations? Human bone. Bones get thicker when a woman is pregnant and thinner when people are in outer space. It’s exactly this process she’s trying to mimic with her latest project: composite walls made of rubber, plastic, and other materials. They’re designed to react to structural and environmental factors like weight and wind, forming columns and windows in the ideal places.

As she told Interviewwhen designing a new building, “Forget about the way it looks,” she says. “Think about how it behaves.”

In a lecture given to a Pop! Tech audience, Oxman says that she is not interested in designing objects, so much as she is concerned with processes that create forms. After millennia of teasing scultpures and buildings out of marble and glass, we are now close to having 3D printing technology that is scalable for multi-level projects. If that is the case, why shouldn’t our buildings be made from materials adapted to the climate they inhabit? Oxman would say that we shouldn’t find materials to fit our climates, but that we should instead design processes that allow us to assess local conditions and create materials that respond to climate. Just as organic evolution led to a vast diversity in sun-determined melanin levels responding to light and shade, so too should we demand designers to create efficient and sensical building materials.

But will it ever be feasible to patiently calibrate and print building materials when there is concrete to be had? “Nature knows how to organize  matter,” into muscles, silk, trees, and other systems. But nature is stranger to what Oxman calls pumps (“that which enables us to build taller) and wheels (“that which allows us to move faster”). We humans opt for targeted single-function design and building, whereas nature supports the calm unfolding of adapted processes. If animals and atmosphere could speak, they might ask us, if you please, to slow down and give them tie to adjust to our rapid expansion of population, needs, and resource use.

Oxman asks whether, by emulating nature’s methods, we might also mirror its pace and, as a result, become a more sustainable race.

Until she finds the manufacturer willing to employ her methods toward building these new materials, Oxman is likely to continue working on smaller projects for art museums and academic audiences. These works are no less innovative. One recent project, Second Skin, aims to map the pain profile of individual patients. Inspired by animal coding patterns, such as the colored spots on a cheetah or Dalmation, Second Skin is a customized healing device 3D printed according the pains of the injured. Instead of color, the finished product would control the stiffness of each printed bit of the Second Skin garment. For example, Oxman’s specially designed 3D printer would proffer a protective glove to ameliorate carpal tunnel syndrome. If in the future we can map the pain profile of each patient, we will have the power to create a brace that will best help the patient in a way that no mass produced tool ever can.

Oxman’s work provokes more questions than she has time to pursue, and it leaves one wonder whether there are others attempting to integrate biological senses and mechanisms into mechanical production and analysis. Should we rest at finding methods for printing variegated surfaces that are responsive to all natural elements, or should we also think of ways to automate their building beyond the 3D printer? Would it be possible ever to seed the slow accumulation of a house, defined loosely by a programmable substance that grows as thick as a tree’s wood? Could we experiment in ghost towns, using them as sites for testing technologies that “grow” a network of transit tunnels and roads? There are robots that wear their lifelessness without artifice, but there are also those that approach, asymptotic, life. But do we have many that work random neural misfires and revelations into their programming? Are their computer programs that, when they reach an error, troubleshoot it with human perspicacity? Will a robot ever kick the computer it seeks to fix out of frustration, much in the way that a man might hit a cathode ray TV stuck on static?

Related links:
The following explore designs inspired by nature, rather than processes.

Brilliant Bio-Design: 14 Animal Inspired Inventions

Biomimicry Institute