A talk radio piece on United States National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s extended layover at the Moscow Airport and subsequent temporary political asylum in Russia beguiled an hour of gridlock the other day, and called to mind several not-so-recent news stories that had seemed unrelated until that eternal moment; and these items in turn left a few unanswered questions behind, lingering under the enervated solitude of day’s end like strange faces floating past through crosstown traffic: so, on reaching my destination, I dusted off some notes left over from a previous foray into nowhere, and tried to make at least temporary sense of just two of the dark characters that populate our murky atmosphere.
Sean Parker, a “16 year-old hacker [who] managed to break into the computer networks of numerous multi-national corporations and even military databases” (and who was investigated by the FBI, but “was sentenced only to community service”), is described by Vanity Fair as “the hard-partying, press-shy genius of social networking, a budding billionaire […] about to be famous.” At 19 he co-created Napster; at 24 he was Founding President of Facebook; at 30 he was portrayed by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network. A rise to stardom: one that continues uninterrupted, even by those wild parties.
Julian Assange, meanwhile, spent “his teenage years as a computer hacker who broke into dozens of systems, from the Department of Defense to Nortel, and was eventually convicted on 25 charges of computer fraud and fined thousands of dollars.” Using language borrowed from the American mass media’s coverage of global guerilla war, Forbes describes Assange as “a moral ideologue”, “the prophet of a coming age” who is “gunning for corporate America” and has “enraged the Pentagon.” Forbes says the activities of Assange’s organization Wikileaks constitute an “information insurgency” whose weapons are “informational IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices]” which cause “data explosions” inside the targets. He is the subject of the documentary We Steal Secrets and the thriller The Fifth Estate, and according to Reuters presently “lives in a small office room converted to living quarters” at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.
If you read between the propaganda lines, it’s the sinister Assange, rather than golden boy Parker, who supposedly most resembles us. In our paranoid time’s latest plot twist, a foreign threat has immigrated, and stalks its brainwashed prey from within our borders. Anyone might be an insurgent. “60% of employees admit to taking sensitive data before they leave a company,” Forbes claims; and “these damaging revelations can be detonated at will” in an asymmetrical war where the enemy is hard to fight because – as one expert says – “‘There’s no single site to drop a bomb on.’” The distracted mind flashes to a bygone day’s dinnertime TV pictures of sickly green videos shot from the nose cones of “smart bombs” homing in on Baghdad. Social static.
As I wandered behind the wheel, thinking of Assange and Parker in terms of contemporary currents running through American society, a couple of questions occurred to me. What’s the difference between these two men? How do such images – Glamorous Star, Dangerous Terrorist – end up sticking to two living people who can’t possibly live up to them? What does this phenomenon suggest about the conditions of everyday life in the US?
Ritual human sacrifice serves a purpose, and it’s very old, and it’s not going away anytime soon. And yet an individual needs to personify an abstraction before he or she can be turned into a scapegoat. Espionage and cyber war are real, but recent media imagery related to American social life often comes across quite transparently as the tool of some rather dubious interests. One would do well not to ignore them.