"Reality/Virtual Reality and the Challenge of the NSA"

Zooey Pook
February 3, 2014

On 20 April 2013, the Wall Street Journal reported that the National Security Agency has access to 75% of the activity that occurs on the internet (Valentino-Devries and Gorban). Taken in consideration with whistleblower Edward Snowden's leaked documents revealing an NSA global spying program, and the NSA's refusal to answer if they are spying on members of congress, it is clear that some serious ethical questions in our modern information age have arisen (Ackerman and Pengelly). Beyond the Watergate Scandal and any nightmare either realized or imagined during the Cold War , the NSA has the largest amount of spying capability, and poses the largest threat to privacy in the world's history. This threat and the public and private debate surrounding it all echo concerns of Cathy N. Davidson, in her lecture on "21stCentury Literacies," in which her final part speaks to questions of our current digital literacy, in which one major area of concern lies around the blurred lines of privacy and security, in which Davidson proclaims of our internet policing forces, "Are they protecting us or invading our privacy?"

La Figa's short film of the week pick for Christmas 2013, The NSA is Coming to Town, a film by the ACLU, certainly chimes in on this debate of the modern information age and offers a resoundingly unequivocal answer to Davivdson's question: They are invading our privacy! This film, which features a soundtrack of a parodied, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, first speaks to the ideology of the holidays being traditionally a time for family and happiness, and proceeds to show us how this tradition through an attack on privacy is being undermined by the NSA's spying efforts this holiday season. This is shown symbolically through the use of questionable Santa Clauses, clad in the traditional red and white bearded costumes but with the addition of spy gear in the form of sunglasses and gloves. These Santa Clauses move slyly, creeping, jumping, and moving swiftly to spy on citizens in parks and coffee houses, by taking pictures of them, peeping on them with binoculars, checking their phones and internet records, and even taking sound recordings with a boom-stand equipped microphone!

What is clearly at stake in the Spying-Santa metaphor is driven home at the end of the video, when we are asked why we allow ourselves to be spied on technologically, when it is clear in reality this would not be tolerated. But if this assertion narrated at the end of the film was so obvious, then why do we in fact tolerate this less blatant but still obvious act of spying? Well perhaps it is a problem of the latest information age itself where not only privacy/security are blurred but reality/virtual reality. Psychoanalytic theorist, Slavoj Zizek writes of this second blurring of lines in regards to The Matrix, stating,

On the one hand, VR marks the radical reduction of the wealth of our sensory experience to- not even letters but-the minimal digital series of 0 and 1 of the trasmission and non-transmission of an electrical signal. On the other hand, this very digital machine generates the 'simulated' experience of reality which tends to become indistinguishable from the 'real' reality, with the consequence of undermining the very notion of 'real' reality" (Zizek 241).

Thus, perhaps, a serious concern in digital literacy and our modern information age is a classic epistemological one that David Weberman writes about in terms of the debate of philosophers like Plato and Descartes who contend that knowledge is eternal rather than empirically determined, and thus by this logic VR could be as metaphysically true to us any real reality (228). Furthermore, VR can be improved upon (a simulated ride more enjoyable than a roller coaster) and thus preferable to our "real" reality, so why not spend our time in simulation, which so many Americans do! Perhaps such a blurring of reality/virtural reality is the greatest question ahead in terms of our modern information age and the fight against the NSA is thus not a political one but an epistemological one, as we Americans seem to be having trouble grasping the reality of this digital issue.

Works Consulted

    Ackerman, Spencer, and Martin Pengelly. "NSA Statement Does Not Deny 'spying' on Members of Congress." Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 04 Jan. 2014. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.

    Davidson, Cathy. "21st Century Literacies (part 2)." Lecture. Feb. 2014. Coursera. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.

    Gorban, Siobhan and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries. "New Details Show Broader NSA Surveillance Reach." The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 20 Apr. 2014. Web. 03 Feb. 2014

    Sonenstein Sonrouille, Shannon. "Short Film of the Week: "The NSA Is Coming to Town" | La Figa." La Figa Short Film of the Week The NSA Is Coming to Town Comments. La Figa, 25 Dec. 2013. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.

    Weberman, David. "The Matrix, Simulation And The Post-Modern Age." The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Chicago: Open Court, 2002. 225-39. Print.

    Zizek, Slavoj. "The Matrix: Or, The Two Sides of Perversion." The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Chicago: Open Court, 2002. 240-66. Print.


The NSA is Coming to Town showcases privacy and security.