Friday, July 12, 2013


I love watching old TV shows, especially those from the days of my childhood.  I used to think it was because they were better than contemporary fare, but now I’m not so sure.  I mean, for every good show from those days like Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone, there were plenty of turkeys like Gilligan’s Island and My Mother the Car.

One show I’ve been watching lately is The Outer Limits (1963-1965).  Now some installments were better than others, but the other night I watched an episode of the series that was so relevant to recent reports of mass surveillance that, were it not fifty years old, I might’ve thought it had been written by Edward Snowden or Julian Assange.

Entitled O.B.I.T., the show is about a senator who is sent to a secure military facility to investigate a murder.  While there, he also finds that people on the base and in the neighboring town are suffering from severe morale problems, with a climate of fear pervading the region and alarming levels of alcoholism, mental illness and divorce.

He discovers the reason for the problem is the Outer Band Individuated Teletracer (O.B.I.T.), a television-like device that allows a viewer to see and listen to anyone, anywhere within a 500-mile radius.  Sort of like an invisible video camera that could be directed anywhere, it enabled its users to spy on anyone they chose.

And spy they did.  That was the cause of the terrible sense of fear and hostility that had descended upon the region.  Husbands spied on wives.  Bosses spied on underlings.  Coworkers spied on each other.  As you might imagine, it came to a point where no one could trust anyone else and everyone was soon at each others’ throat. 

Worse, it turned out that there were several O.B.I.T. devices scattered around the world, each generating chaos in its wake.  In spite of the fact that its users soon realized the conflict that was being caused by the device, their curiosity and emotional insecurity compelled them to use it again and again.  One military officer admitted that he was powerless to fight his addiction to eavesdropping with O.B.I.T.

Long story short, the episode ends with the revelation that the devices were created and installed by an alien race bent on conquering our planet.  Here’s a quote from the climactic scene:

Lomax (revealed as an alien): The machines are everywhere! Oh you'll find them all, you're a zealous people. And you'll make a great show of smashing a few of them. But for every one you destroy, hundreds of others will be built. And they will demoralize you, break your spirits, create such rifts and tensions in your society that no one will be able to repair them! Oh, you're a savage, despairing planet, and when we come here to live, you friendless, demoralized flotsam will fall without even a single shot being fired. Senator, enjoy the few years left you. There is no answer. You're all of the same dark persuasion! You demand – insist – on knowing every private thought and hunger of everyone: Your families, your neighbors, everyone — but yourselves.

Wow.  And this from those quaint and innocent times when the worst you had to fear from the government was having your phone tapped or your mail opened, and only then if they suspected you of something.  Now all of our phones are tapped, all of our postal mail is photographed, and almost every interaction we have with anyone that somehow enters the digital domain—be it email, text messages, retail purchases, the web links you click, the organizations you support (or even communicate with), entries on your blog, everything you say or do on Facebook, Twitter or other social networking sites, your financial information—all of these and much more are being recorded and stored all the time.

They can even remotely activate the microphones on our cell phones, making them into bugs to listen in on nearby conversations.  The phones don't even have to be turned on for them to be able to listen.

Eerily similar to the device in The Outer limits, wouldn't you say?  Only our modern O.B.I.T. wasn’t inflicted upon us by aliens, but by our own governments.

Anybody remember J. Edgar Hoover?  He was the director of the F.B.I. from 1935-1972.  During that time, he amassed great power due to his extensive surveillance files on thousands of people, including presidents and their families, leaders of politics, industry and especially dissidents.  He used these files to perpetuate and expand his bureaucratic empire via blackmail and intimidation.  Several presidents tried to remove him from power, but they all failed because he had dirt on everyone.  That’s why F.B.I. directors are now limited to ten-year terms.  The leaders of government wanted to prevent anyone from ever again gaining such power.

The point is that, as recognized so long ago in the Outer Limit episode, such power will always corrupt its possessors.  And our governments (and the institutions they serve) now have a degree of power undreamt of by the likes of Hoover, and it cannot but be used illegitimately, to intimidate and control us. 

Of course, defenders of such surveillance will say that only a select few have access to such information and that it will only be used within narrowly defined limits in the War on Terror, but we have no way of being assured that rogue elements within the intelligence establishment won’t use this power for their own ends.  Indeed, rogue elements have already appeared in the form of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, but thankfully their rogue activities were done in the name of freedom and openness, rather than for oppression. 

But now that the ability exists to document your every movement, every interaction with anyone on every day of your life for the rest of your life, the possibilities are endless.  Anyone who has made a small misstep in his past (and who among us has never made such mistakes?) can be targeted for blackmail and other forms of intimidation if they step out of line. 

Any politician or activist who attempts to oppose the intelligence (sic) and defense (sic) establishments will have exposed anything they’ve ever done wrong and there’s no way they can hide their past mistakes from scrutiny.  If they flirted in their youth with extreme politics of the Left or Right, downloaded raunchy porno when in their teens or did anything else that can be used against them, it will be used against them if they challenge the status quo.

This awesome power will also be used in personal feuds among competing bureaucracies within the intelligence (sic) and defense (sic) establishments, leading to ever greater levels of bureaucratic stupidity, and these are but a few of the institutional uses of the technology that spell doom for anything resembling a right to privacy..  

Other possible abuses abound.  Let’s not forget that computers can be hacked and there’s no guarantee that unauthorized personnel—both inside and outside of our countries and their governments—will also be able to use the information for an endless (and terrifying) array of purposes.  The power it conveys is impossible to resist and you can be sure it will come to be used more and more as our Masters fall under its spell.

Mr. Lomax, our alien from The Outer Limits was right.  Mass surveillance, our modern day O.B.I.T., will ultimately destroy our societies much more efficiently and completely than mere bombs or bullets.  

As Robert Anton Wilson said, “national security is the chief cause of national insecurity.” He was right and we're seeing it played out before our eyes.  He meant that when the preoccupation with national security becomes so great that everybody comes to be spying on everyone else, none of us can possibly be secure.

Welcome to Gulag Earth.

You can watch The Outer Limits here.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Bill. This one is a hard one on which to comment. The messages go both ways; we are being read, and we are being nudged by what is thrown in front of us. I am astounded at how so many companies and organizations on the web feel that they have to provide ad space on their pages, constantly throwing garbage advertising at us. Wading through the onslaught is like walking to work through a field of old tires. It can be done, but boy does it slow one down.