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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

Soleil Nathwani Oct 07, 2016
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Michael Jackson in 1992. Photo: Casta03/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 3.0

Michael Jackson in 1992. Photo: Casta03/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY 3.0

At barely twelve years old, Michael Jackson had my heart. Padded shoulders, one fingerless glove and a boom box and I was a dancing machine, moves practiced via a diligent diet of MTV. The King of Pop was my secret avatar but being caught mid-pelvic thrust would be mortifying, so my bedroom door was my safeguard. Today I’d google the moonwalk and find online tutorials and door or not, the Internet goblins would know. Google’s founder Eric Schmidt once famously told CNBC, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” I disagree. All secrets aren’t immoral. They make us who we are.

My contemporary idols are a little less flashy. Edward Snowden tops the list. A US citizen, former CIA employee and NSA contractor, Snowden lives in asylum in Russia, having blown the lid on global surveillance. He has worn every moniker from hero to whistleblower to traitor. Hushed quiet after sharing his views that the NSA’s spying programs were unconstitutional, he risked his life in revealing the details to journalists. Americans found out that their National Security Agency sweeps their phone records, can trawl their internet footprints and could contact Google, Facebook or Apple for their user data. The world followed, country after country, realizing that in the game of Hide and Seek, Big Brother had tagged the whole playground.

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While he might not have a moonwalk that catapaulted him into the stratosphere, the specter of Snowden’s leaks makes even Jackson’s influence on pop culture seem insignificant. In just three years, Snowden has won numerous human rights awards and been the subject of several films, including the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour and Oliver Stone’s eponymous Snowden where he will be played by Joseph Gordon Levitt. Most recently, I went to watch Daniel Radcliffe in his latest play, Privacy. Snowden appeared god like on a screen to drive the point home. You know the world has pivoted when even Harry Potter thinks Edward Snowden is head Wizard.

So as real life vigilante becomes big screen hero and privacy becomes a topic du jour, what are we doing about it? Governments have always watched their citizens; the NSA in the US, the Snooper’s Charter in the UK, or recently formed NETRA in India. But barring autocratic nations like Russia and China, we assumed that heightened surveillance would only arise in an unlikely dystopian future, where dictators imprint chips into every newborn. Meanwhile, we volunteered the keys. We let Apple track our location and our heartbeat. We give Facebook our six degrees of separation. We ask Google things we wouldn’t ask our parents and send intimate emails on an unmanned digital highway. Unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg who, hacker wary, tapes over the webcam on his laptop, the rest of us trust that our information is safe or that the trade-off is worthwhile because the prying eyes are simply looking for the suicide bomber.

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True until it’s not. In a post-Snowden world, being apathetic about privacy rules means we run the risk that they won’t be as ironclad as the lock on the bedroom door. A society under scrutiny is far more likely to create legions of robo humans than it is to prevent mass murderers. We can’t be ourselves without our secrets and we’d 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. 

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