Darpa, the Pentagon's research arm, recently granted a $14 million contract to build Insight, a system to make sense of the mass of surveillance data gathered on the movements of people of interest. When Darpa states that this system is designed to track "high value individuals" they're not talking about figuring out where Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are having lunch. The Insight system is meant to integrate data from the wide variety of surveillance sources available to the government, from multispectral imagery to good ol' fashioned wiretaps, and provide an accurate tracking of terrorists so that they may experience the joys of a Tomahawk cruise missile flying through their bathroom window.
Everything, All the Time
This ability for the Pentagon to now identify and track the activities of virtually any human on this planet is enough to get the more paranoid among us to start googling "Faraday Cage" and sifting through the steel mesh selection at the hardware store. This and many other technological developments have created a brave new world where personal privacy is a delusion, every action and statement is publicly archived for eternity and we are exposed to barrages of information in a manner depicted in The Eagles' Life In The Fast Lane: "everything, all the time."
Cute Kitten Photos & Breaking Headline News
Marshall McLuhan's Global Village took another step towards consummation when the bulletin that the first photojournalists to die in the Libyan Civil War broke on Facebook rather than through one of the established news organizations. The Academy Award-nominated Tim Hetherington and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Chris Hondros were killed in Misrata by a mortar attack that seriously injured two other photojournalists. Millions of people already get their online news from aggregate sites like Google News, which do not differentiate between Reuters and the Peoria Journal Star, but now we are crossing over into the age where New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson is at a par with our extraterrestrial quilter conspiracy theorist Crazy Aunt Jill in providing our news. Strangely, headline news such as the Misrata deaths is now being broken on the same social networks primarily renowned for the exchange of cute kitten and baby pictures.
Is Rugged Individualism Dead?
It is indisputable that these technologies are bringing about a fundamental change in the way we all interact with each other as well as our own individuality. Can the American tradition of rugged individualism survive in an era of information collectivization where a dabbawala stubbing a toe while delivering tiffin lunch boxes in Mumbai enters our online consciousness through the same vector as a tsunami or a war? There will be some who will find themselves facing such cultural shock that the prospect of living in the "know everything about everyone in real time" age that they will pack their aluminum foil hats and head for an electricity-free hut in Kiribati. For the rest of us who realize that living the online life means having nothing to hide, it can be the dawning of a new age of information meritocracy. No longer will the worth of a person be measured solely by their bank account, but by the amount of information they can absorb and leverage.
The President = Our Crazy Aunt Jill
Darpa & Facebook technologies are not even two sides of the same coin, they may very well be the same side. The dizzying advancement in individual information systems has created a revolution where more words were published in the last 5 years than in the entire rest of the history of mankind. Granted, not all of these words are Einsteinian revelations or Tolstoyan treatises, as many are written by the Crazy Aunt Jills of the cyberworld, but the method whereby we are exposed to these words has become undifferentiated. It's as if a Presidential edict and a grocery shopping list now had equal impact on our lives.
Information is the great equalizer of our generation. In the online world, every high school dropout is on an equal playing field with Harvard MBAs. While some may be threatened by this paradigm, many more will embrace it and excel.