Speaking Truth to Power

Quinn Norton is a name that hovered on the edge of my consciousness for a chunk of time. She dated Aaron Swartz for 3 years and in the resultant furore after his death her name was a part of that story as it became clear that prosecutors had put pressure on her to offer testimony against him, something she did not do.

At this year’s Chaos Communication Congress she spoke on the topic “No Neutral Ground in a Burning World” with Eleanor Saitta which gave an historical perspective on governmental surveillance and how technology is impacting this need for legibility.



Then finally I found this piece, “A Day of Speaking Truth to Power, Visiting the ODNI”. The ODNI is the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, spook central, a scary place for anyone let alone a journalist with a reputation for speaking ill of the intelligence community (IC). It’s a great read for so many reasons. It paints a picture of the IC that is both confirming and revelatory and it also surfaces a number of interesting ideas, that could have been brought up in a completely different context, but found their way into this conversation instead.

When I read longer form essays I often take one quote, sometimes two, and send them to my email for recycling into a post (credited of course) or to remind myself to dig deeper into a topic, or just to add a highlight to a particular piece, to make it standout against everything else I am reading.

With this essay I sent myself 9 different quotes, I’ve listed 5 of them below. Please read all of it though, it’s fascinating.


It was clear to me part of this mess we’re in arose from the IC feeling that if everyone was giving away their privacy, then what they, the Good Guys, did with it could not be that big of a deal.


I said the end of antibiotics and the rise of diseases like resistant tuberculosis would mean that tech would end at our skin, and we’d be limited in our access to public assembly. It was probably the darkest thing I said all day, and one of my table mates said (not unkindly) “I don’t like your future.”


I realized that one of the problems is that being at the top of the heap, which the security services definitely are, makes the future an abomination and terror. There is no possible great change where the top doesn’t lose, even if it’s just control, rather than position. The future can only be worse than the present, and a future without fear is a future to fear.


They were mostly pleasant and thoughtful people, and they listened as best they could. One told me I made her feel like Cheney, “And I’m not used to feeling like Cheney.”


When we learn to live online we will want to be full humans again. When, as one of the outside experts put it, the Eternal September is over, we will learn once again to mind our own fucking business, and we will expect others to, as well.


That last quote is something we are going to visit again and again over the next 20, 30 or 50 years (it will likely be a hard slog). The truth is that being online is such a young concept and we haven’t a clue yet, what it means in human terms, social terms, societal terms. In the same way that we expect privacy at a coffee table in a public coffee shop, even though it is possible for someone to listen to our conversation, we will find a social code developing that covers the digital in ways we will find reminiscent of the analogue.


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