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The Last Commencement Address: Surveilling the Class of 2014

Posted on May 29, 2014

Photo by Kevin Dinkel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch.

Internet Class of 2014, I’m in awe of you! To this giant, darkened auditorium filled with sparkling screens of every sort, welcome! 

It would, of course, be inaccurate to say, as speakers like me once did, that after four years of effort and experience you are now about to leave the hallowed halls of this campus and graduate into a new and adult world.  The odds are that you aren’t.  You were graduated into that world long ago.  I’m not sure that it qualifies as adult at all, but a new world it surely is, and one I grasp so little that I feel I should be in the audience and you up here doing what graduation speakers normally do: offering an upbeat, even inspirational, explanation of our world and your place in it.

Honestly, I’m like one of those old codgers I used to watch in the military parades of my 1950s childhood.  You know, white-haired guys in open vehicles, probably veterans of the Spanish-American War (a conflict you’ve undoubtedly never heard of amid the ongoing wars of your own lifetime).  To me, they always looked like they had been disinterred from some museum of ancient history, some unimaginable American Pompeii.

And yet those men and I probably had more in common than you and I do now.  After all, I don’t have a smartphone or an iPad.  I’m a book editor, but lack a Kindle or a Nook.  I don’t tweet or Skype.  I can’t photograph anyone or shoot video of anything.  I don’t know how to text or read my email while walking in the street or sitting in a restaurant.  And when something goes wrong on my computer or with the Internet, I collapse in a heap, believe myself a doomed man on an alien planet, mourn the passing of the typewriter, and call my daughter and throw myself on her mercy.

You were “graduated” long ago into the world that, though I live in it after a fashion as the guy who runs, I still find as alien as a Martian landscape.  Your very fingers, agile as they are with little buttons of every sort, speak a new and different language, and a lot of the time it seems to me that I have no translator on hand.  Your world, the sea you swim in, has been hailed for its many wonders and miracles—and wonders and miracles they surely are. Dazzling they truly can be.  The tying together of the planet in instantaneous communion as if space and geography, distances of every sort, were a thing of the past still stuns me.

Sometimes, as in my first experience with Skype, I feel like a Trobriand Islander suddenly plunged into the wonders of modernity.  If you had told me back in the 1950s that someday I would actually see whomever I was talking to onscreen, I doubt I would have believed you.  (On the other hand, I was partial to the fantasy that we would all be experiencing traffic jams in the skies over our cities as we zipped around with our own personal jetpacks strapped to our backs—a promised future no one ever delivered.)

There’s a book to be written on just how disorienting it is to live into the world of the future, as at almost 70 years old I now find myself doing.  There is, however, one part of our futuristic world that I feel strangely at home with.  Its accomplishments are no less technologically awe-inspiring, no less staggeringly sci-fi-ish than the ones I’ve been talking about and yet, perhaps in part thanks to a youth heavily influenced by George Orwell’s 1984 and other dystopian writings, it seems oddly familiar to me, as if I had parachuted from a circling spacecraft onto an only slightly updated version of my own planet.

The Sea in Which You Swim and They Phish

That bright and shiny world of online wonders has—as no one could have failed to notice by now—also managed to drop the most oppressive powers of the state and the corporation directly into your lap, or rather your laptop, iPad, and smartphone. You—yes, I mean you with that smartphone in your pocket or purse—are a walking Stasi file.  “Your” screen, in fact, all the screens on the walls of this vast room and in your hands really belong to them. It’s no more complicated than that. The details hardly matter.

Yes, you or this college paid for them. You yak endlessly with your friends on them, do your business on them, and pay your bills with them. You organize, complain, and opine on them. You find your way around and connect with acquaintances, friends, lovers, even strangers, via them.  You could no longer imagine living without them. And yet the much-ballyhooed techno-liberation they offer you is actually your prison.

True or not, I remember being told long ago that certain tribal peoples on first contact with the camera refused to be photographed, fearing that those photos could take possession of and steal their souls, their spirits. In the twenty-first century, thanks to the techno-wizardry of both the state and the corporation, what once might have been dismissed as superstition has become a kind of reality. Thanks to those ubiquitous “private” screens that you’re under the impression you own but that are in most ways that matter owned by others, “they” can possess “you.”  Without your feeling the pain of it, you are constantly being observed, measured, and carved up into your many discernable traits.  Those traits are then reassembled, corporately bundled like so many financial derivatives, and sold off to the highest bidders.  Your soul, that is, is being corporately possessed and disassembled into a bevy of tastes, whims, typologies, and god knows what else for the marketplace.

Meanwhile, the national security state has your number, too, and it won’t hesitate to come calling.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re phoning, emailing, or playing video games—the national security state wants YOU.  Again, details aside, it isn’t all that complicated.  The ever-expanding post-9/11 apparatus of surveillance and power has come to treat Americans as if we were a foreign population.   It’s all being done in the name of your safety and of security “threats” that only grow, as that national security apparatus continues to engorge itself on your communications, while becoming ever more technologically skilled and inventive.


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