Pop Stuff: The Snowden Effect
While he might not have a moonwalk that catapaulted him into the stratosphere, the specter of Edward Snowden’s leaks makes even Michael Jackson’s influence on pop culture seem insignificant
At barely twelve years old, MichaelÂ Jackson had my heart. Padded shoulders,Â one fingerless glove and a boom box and IÂ was a dancing machine, moves practiced via aÂ diligent diet of MTV. The King of Pop was my secretÂ avatar but being caught mid-pelvic thrust wouldÂ be mortifying, so my bedroom door was my safeguard. Today I’dÂ google the moonwalk and find online tutorials and door or not,Â the Internet goblins would know. Google’s founder Eric SchmidtÂ once famously told CNBC, “If you have something that you don’tÂ want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the firstÂ place.” I disagree. All secrets aren’t immoral. They make us whoÂ we are.
My contemporary idols are a little less flashy. Edward SnowdenÂ tops the list. A US citizen, former CIA employee and NSAÂ contractor, Snowden lives in asylum in Russia, having blown theÂ lid on global surveillance. He has worn every moniker from heroÂ to whistleblower to traitor. Hushed quiet after sharing his viewsÂ that the NSA’s spying programs were unconstitutional, he riskedÂ his life in revealing the details to journalists. Americans found outÂ that their National Security Agency sweeps their phone records, canÂ trawl their internet footprints and could contact Google, FacebookÂ or Apple for their user data. The world followed, country afterÂ country, realizing that in the game of Hide and Seek, Big BrotherÂ had tagged the whole playground.
While he might not have a moonwalk that catapaulted himÂ into the stratosphere, the specter of Snowden’s leaks makes evenÂ Jackson’s influence on pop culture seem insignificant. In justÂ three years, Snowden has won numerous human rights awardsÂ and been the subject of several films, including the Oscar-winningÂ documentary Citizenfour and Oliver Stone’s eponymous SnowdenÂ where he will be played by Joseph Gordon Levitt. Most recently, IÂ went to watch Daniel Radcliffe in his latest play, Privacy. SnowdenÂ appeared god like on a screen to drive the point home. You knowÂ the world has pivoted when even Harry Potter thinks EdwardÂ Snowden is head Wizard.
So as real life vigilante becomes big screen hero and privacyÂ becomes a topic du jour, what are we doing about it? GovernmentsÂ have always watched their citizens; the NSA in the US, the Snooper’sÂ Charter in the UK, or recently formed NETRA in India. ButÂ barring autocratic nations like Russia and China, we assumedÂ that heightened surveillance would only arise in an unlikelyÂ dystopian future, where dictators imprint chips into every newborn.Â Meanwhile, we volunteered the keys. We let Apple track our locationÂ and our heartbeat. We give Facebook our six degrees of separation.Â We ask Google things we wouldn’t ask our parents and sendÂ intimate emails on an unmanned digital highway. Unless you’reÂ Mark Zuckerberg who, hacker wary, tapes over the webcam on hisÂ laptop, the rest of us trust that our information is safe or that theÂ trade-off is worthwhile because the prying eyes are simply lookingÂ for the suicide bomber.
True until it’s not. In a post-Snowden world, being apatheticÂ about privacy rules means we run the risk that they won’t be as ironcladÂ as the lock on the bedroom door. A society under scrutiny is farÂ more likely to create legions of robo humans than it is to preventÂ mass murderers. We can’t be ourselves without our secrets and we’dÂ do well to heed Snowden’s wake up call to fight to protect them.
Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai.