Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | June 11, 2013


Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know a few things we didn’t know a couple of weeks ago:

  1. The will of the authorities to transform the USA into an authoritarian state is stronger and more devious than we thought.
  2. The authorities have the clout to make huge organizations like Verizon complicit in their anti-populace crusade far more easily than we thought.
  3. Unless the US military is planning to take a stand against Executive and Congressional abuses of power being paraded in front of our noses, we are looking at an unprecedented corruption of the American governance system in collusion with behemoths of business and media.

So please, explain exactly: how is this is different from a conspiracy?

But this post isn’t about doom and gloom; it’s about what we can easily do about it. I’ll use the NSA’s appropriation of communications data from Verizon and over 50 other companies that feed them data as an example of how the powers that be intimidate us into fear and compliance.

Unusual Suspect

Intimidation that we experience in the midst of getting beat up is mostly a reptilian brain/body survival reaction that doesn’t involve much thinking. But that kind of intimidation isn’t what keeps us under thumb of bullies, whether lone thugs or abusive regimes. The long-term intimidation required to keep us trapped in abusive situations is all about imagination. Getting beat up doesn’t intimidate us like rehearsing the beating and anticipating more do, or like imagining ourselves getting beaten like someone else did. Memories and apprehensions are imaginary. They are not the same as the events we remember or anticipate. They are often quite different.

This is good news, because although we can’t always control whether someone beats us up, we can control our imaginations after the beating. The fact that we were beaten doesn’t need to intimidate us. Sure, some time and recovery — including reprocessing memories and apprehensions — has to happen before we’ll brave facing our abusers again. But most of our fears don’t stem from abuse we’ve experienced, rather from reliving past abuse and imagining potential abuse we feel threatened by. That’s all conjectural. So, minimizing intimidation depends on managing our imaginations.

The best antidote to imaginative hysteria — which is always a major ingredient of intimidation — is realistic thinking; in particular, quantification. Nothing quells screams of, “The sky is falling!” quite like asking, “And just how much sky would that be?” Patients are often asked to rate their pain on a scale from 1 to 10. Simply quantifying their pain helps them get a handle on it and can even reduce it. If my pain is a 6, I have decided that it isn’t a 7, 8, 9, or 10, so all the reactive systems in my nervous system that would be activated by 7 or greater pain can just cool it. Simply quantifying a problem evaporates much — and often almost all — of its intimidating power. I’ll illustrate with NSA communications data collection as an example.

Big Brother Is a Projection

In Orwell’s 1984, no one ever saw Big Brother except on posters and TV screens. The Wizard of Oz was also a projection manipulated by a little man behind a curtain. To believe that the powerful would not make good use of myth in order to project an exaggerated image of their power well in excess of reality would be to credit their honesty far too much and their ingenuity far too little. We can be sure that the authorities have much less authority than we believe, and that the powerful have much less power than they appear to, judging solely on the basis of their own psychology. How do we know? Because that’s what we would do. And that’s not all we’ve got to go on.

Still, it’s freaky to think that Big Brother is “listening” to your phone calls and snooping your emails and texts. (Let alone that the leaders of the USA, not Russia, are the ones looking more like Big Brother each day!) It can send shivers down your spine and ignite your imagination into a frenzy. Notice that both your shivers and your imagination are reacting to information that’s completely unquantified. “All your calls” or “Everyone’s emails” is not a quantification, but our imaginations could care less. Once we examine and quantify the realities involved a bit, you’ll see how unrealistic our imaginations are. They can’t tell fact from fiction. They trigger emotional responses by means of images, whether the images are possible, improbable, or preposterous.

Given a person of interest, mountains of communications data offer authorities incredible opportunities to pursue their agendas of violation against that person. The scary thing after we blip onto their radar screens is that they have the will and means to pursue and overwhelm us. But we don’t recognize the lions on our side:

  1. How difficult it is to get to that point
  2. The unlikeliness of playing into their motivations so that they want to take it to that point
  3. The economic and political realities involved

The fact that we don’t adequately recognize these factors, all of which represent hurdles to the authorities and hiding places to us, indicates just how far off our perception is from reality.

It’s a BIG Haystack

First, they have to find you. You might think, well of course they can find you. Not so. Once they identify you, they can find you. To identify you with the intent to find you, you need to get their attention, and then you have to pique their interest. All in all, we tend to take ourselves far too seriously and overrate our importance. You know where you are and what you’ve done that might make you interesting, but until it becomes big enough or bad enough to blip on their radars, you are hidden in plain sight amid a mind-boggling jumble of hundreds of millions of other people busily going places and doing their own interesting things. Until the authorities spot you, they can’t get you. Your communications data is still a pile of needles just like over 313 million other piles of needles, most of which look just like yours. What makes you so special?

We make far too much of our computers. Creator hubris, I suppose. Sure, a computer can find your conversations in a pile of trillions in a matter of seconds if it knows it’s looking for you. How is it going to start with your ID? Someone would have to enter it. And where did that person get your ID from — another computer? And how did it find you? In fact, computers don’t find people, they find patterns. They don’t know “Millard Melnyk” from “male” or “unemployed” or “Canadian.” So, to be more than one of thousands or millions, you would need to fit a profile that:

  • is unique enough to yield a small set of people, thus raising your odds of being selected from among them for authoritarian mischief;
  • is important enough for them to care that you got their attention;
  • is strategic enough for them to commit resources to giving you grief;
  • promises them the bang for the buck they want, because they aren’t interested in you or harming you per se — they are interested in what they stand to profit by it.

That’s a pretty restrictive list of qualifications. Not many people would meet it. That leaves a nation full of those who don’t, and it’s a pretty big nation.

We think nothing of the number 313.9 million (the US population as of 2012.) But just like you have no clue how big Texas is until you actually try to drive across it, we have no clue how immense that number is, nor the magnitude of complications it implies. To find your five or ten or twenty recorded conversations that might incriminate you out of 314 million people X average 30 conversations a day X 365 day a year X however many years they’ve been collecting data is a huge and complicated task. (The NSA’s PRISM program began collecting data from Microsoft in 2007, one of the first of over 50 companies that feed them data, according to a leaked top secret PowerPoint presentation excerpted in an article by the UK’s Mail Online.)

Let’s get a feel for the immensity of the problem of spotting your dirty little secrets from among the billions of others like yours. Let’s say that they have five years of communications data. According to my crude formula, that’s over 17 trillion conversations to separate your handful from. The drive from Louisiana through Texas to New Mexico on I-20/I-10 is just over 800 miles. If each message were put in a letter-sized envelope and laid end-to-end across the great state of Texas along that 800-mile route, you’d have a trail of over 5.5 million messages. To expand that trail to include 17 trillion messages would form a line of envelopes as wide as 3 million states of Texas. You’d have to drive more than 240 million miles — 2.5 trips to the sun — just to collect them all. Then you’d still have to read them. Then you’d still have to analyze them, rank them, and decide what to do with them. Only then would you know if and what to do to whom. And then you’d have to pay people to do it.

Unless you’ve actually looked at the contents of even a small database and the voluminous lists that the most precisely crafted queries generate, you have no idea of the scale of the analysis problem that authorities are faced with — if what they actually want is to do that kind of analysis. Just think about how difficult it can be to manage just one year’s worth of personal transactions in a teensy database like Quicken or your online check register. How long does it take you to answer a simple question about data you’re already familiar with? Communications are not nearly as straightforward as checking transactions and way more voluminous. To pay attention to those incriminating conversations you had, authorities would have to pick them out from among all the others just like yours at a scale of over 360 million people talking to each other all day long, all year long, for years. The best that computers can do is narrow down mountains of data to shorter lists that you’re more likely to be interested in. They can’t think yet. Analysis, decision-making, and planning, and execution (all very expensive) are still up to people’s brains and limited by their staff counts and budgets.

There Are Limits

What would make you stand out from the heap to catch the authority’s attention? All the answers to that question boil down to something quite simple: interfering with their agendas. That involves a problem of scale. Until you are big enough to make a dent, you aren’t worth taking a swat at. How much interference can a citizen with a few tens or hundreds of thousands of wealth and a fairly small sphere of influence pose to regional or national agendas worth hundreds of millions or billions? This is like running away from a bear. You don’t have to run faster than the bear as long as someone else runs slower than you. You don’t have to worry that the authorities will level the big guns at you as long as bigger threats than you need to be dealt with first. In other words, as long as you’re not near the top of their list, you’re relatively safe. Thinking otherwise is a kind of narcissism.

Computers make it easier to identify people who fit a pattern or profile, but doing something about them is still just as costly, computer or not. If 1/3 of us boycotted the IRS and refused to pay taxes, they would be able to prosecute only a fraction of us, because their enforcement systems have limits. Some of us would go to jail, but the rest of us would have several thousands of extra discretionary cash to do with as we pleased. They’d put us on a to-be-prosecuted list somewhere and put tax liens on our properties (if we have any) and bad comments on our credit reports. If we did it just once, they would eventually work through more of the list and the tax liens and trashed credit would start to pinch our ability to transact. But it’s a simple capacity problem. If we did it again the next year, the list would nearly double, and the next year nearly triple. Do you think that might light a fire under a bunch of laconic Congressional asses hot enough to get them off their asses and revamp the tax system? I do. We could even throw in pardons and credit forgiveness for everyone who participated in the boycott, as a reward for succeeding where scores of Congresses have already failed. 🙂

This would work like DOS (denial of service) attacks do: by overwhelming the capacity of a system, the system grinds to a halt and crashes. The Feds don’t have enough enforcement officers, court capacity, or prison space to incarcerate more than a fraction of us. So then, risk becomes a simple probability problem. What are the odds of getting prosecuted if they can, say, prosecute 10,000 people a year (which is probably generous)? With a list of 100 million offenders, that’s 1:10,000 odds, about the same odds as getting a royal flush in a poker hand. The chances getting punished would be about the same: almost zero! (0.000154% according to Wikipedia.) If that seems far-fetched, just be honest — how many royal flushes have you held in a lifetime, assuming that you play poker (and who doesn’t these days?) After a year two, the odds of trouble would drop to less than half of that figure, and less than a third the next year. Of course, it’s all more complicated than that, but the actual odds that a professional statistician could calculate considering all the important variables wouldn’t differ in magnitude, just accuracy.

Just for the record, I’m not advocating that we take illegal action. Boycotting the IRS is just a for-instance to show how imagination makes us feel about risk, and that it can be strikingly disproportionate given what the facts justify. Although, if 100 million Americans decided to boycott the IRS next year, I wouldn’t object! I could even be persuaded to join them. 🙂

What Moves You When You Have No Heart?

We should not only factor in the authorities’ limited capabilities, but their motivations, too. What do these people want, really? Wealth, sex, power, large-scale domination, and resource control, sure. All that. How much of that can little old us offer them? We’re far more valuable to them as busy bees in their hives than we would be stewing and scheming in 8 x 8 cells. It would take hundreds of me to provide what just one of them looks for in an afternoon’s diversion! Again, thinking that they would be interested in spending hard money, time, and resources to go after insignificant me would be pretty narcissistic. Even they aren’t stupid or crazy enough to throw Benjamins after pennies.

The economics and politics are simple: they won’t take action that’s disadvantageous to their agendas. If it costs too much, they won’t do it. If it doesn’t help them meet their targets, they won’t do it. If it has a high chance of backfiring on them, they won’t do it. That leaves a huge, safe probability space and a very small danger zone.

Cast a Long Shadow

Intimidation can be effective on small scales, but it’s a highly inefficient method of mass control, especially when people remain realistic. A bully can’t physically endanger the entire playground. He can’t beat up everyone in the class — there just isn’t time in a day. Besides, he takes a risk each time he does beat someone up. He might get into trouble, or he might meet his match, or this beating might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, unleashing a tsunami of resentment from huge accounts he’s built up over time. Beating people up is just a means to an end. He’s looking for leverage, and that requires the complicity of his victims’ imaginations. With the help of their imaginations, he can intimidate the entire playground. To intimidate thirty, he need physically abuse just a few, and only enough to freak out the imaginations of the remainder. Then he can let their imaginations do the hard work for him. Leverage.

We are always complicit in our own abuse, because we can’t get abused 24×7. In between beatings, our imaginations keep us intimidated. But imagination, like any other cognitive process, fades and loses hold after a time, and so the beating needs to be repeated. Of course, each one is costly and risky. Leverage can be amplified by amplifying the severity of each beating. The threat of losing your eye is far more potent than the threat of a black one, amping up your intimidation proportionally. The threat of death is surpassed by only one calamity that we fear more: worthlessness.

Worthlessness, fortunately for bullies and thugs everywhere, is far easier to impose than injury or death, and far less risky. You can succeed in making people feel worthless with little more than words. This is the tactic that many of our parents used against us as we were growing up, and some of them continue the habit even once we’re grown.

(By the way, amplifying our fear of catastrophe to exaggerate our intimidation concerning risk is how the protection racket we call “insurance” works. I’m not saying that insurance is unnecessary, although I’ve lived without it (except as legally required) just as safe and dandy as could be for about a decade. I am saying that we pay far too much for it, and the financiers are making far too much money from it. A little realism would do a helluvalot more for you than Geico ever could. I probably saved far more on my insurance costs than you did, regardless what kind of deals you got, and we both benefitted from our respective “coverages” about the same — unless you had a significant claim, in which case I’m sure you’re glad that you were “covered.” I’m glad that I wasn’t because, in fact, I didn’t need to be.)

Insane surveillance programs are great examples of leverage. The reality is that you are hidden safely somewhere in the mountains of data they are collecting in order to hype you into a state of panic merely by collecting it. Think of the closing scene of the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. That’s a figurative fraction of the size of just one of the many digital warehouses required to collect all that data. You couldn’t even find yourself in there, and you already know who you are. In fact, collecting all our communications gives the authorities very little real power, but lots of fear-inducing, intimidating power as long as we let our imaginations be manipulated into it. We don’t allow ourselves to be intimidated, we enable it. But we don’t have to.

So is it OK for the authorities to collect all that data? Of course not. It’s just not as dangerous as we tend to think and far crazier than we realize. Crazy, that is of course, if they actually think all that data will give them the power they want. But what if they don’t actually want the data, but the fear that they instill in us by having the data? That’s far more realistic and likely. Once fear gets energized, it drowns out the realities of the risks we face and our imaginations take over. Windmills become giants and we become Don Quixotes jousting them or Sancho Panzas hiding in the bushes. The windmills aren’t the important problem. Even if we eliminated all of them, we’d still be left with psyches that are too easily intimidated and vulnerable to the next guy that builds another windmill. We’re the ones who need to learn and change. It’s a lot easier, less costly, and less painful to learn to manage our own imaginations than it is to rid the world of everything that could possibly freak them out.

Whose Side Are We On?

Devil’s advocates might argue that I’m exaggerating imagination’s role in exaggerating our fears and keeping us intimidated. After all, if the NSA weren’t collecting data, there would be no reason for intimidation and we’d feel less intimidated. We wouldn’t need to get creative and adapt our psyches to handle authoritarian shenanigans if there were no shenanigans. Such greater-than/less-than, what’s the real culprit, chicken-or-egg arguments used to be fun, but now they seem silly and bore me. We should take a tip from science: the fastest way to finding answers is experimentation, not argumentation. As experimenters, we should address the biggest bang-for-the-buck issues first, not the riskiest and most failure-prone. What’s easier, less expensive, and less risky: monkeying around with our own imaginations, fear levels, and feelings of intimidation, or getting the NSA to change its policies? Besides, I think it’s strange to consider our psyches as dependent functions of external forces, especially when those forces are intent on our violation. Aren’t we more independent and self-determined than that? And, if we can eliminate some of the hype from our own heads, won’t we be in better positions to assess the real risks posed by idiot organizations like the NSA? I think so. Which raises a basic question about protest and dissent.

In an abusive or oppressive situation, which factors do more to perpetuate it — the abuse and oppression, or a victim’s beliefs about them? The abusive, oppressive incidents happen over moments or minutes or hours. Victims’ rehearsals of them can last for a lifetime, and their anticipations of further abuse often spill over onto anyone who resembles their abusers, even if he or she had nothing to do with the travesties and has no intention of doing the like. Who are you left thinking about when you hear stories of monsters and serial killers? The victims? We know the names of Bundy, Gacy, and Ridgway — how many of their victims names do we know? Of course, our social and criminal systems make violators and violation their primary concerns. “Justice” has little to do with attention to victims, almost nothing to do with improving their lot after a crime, but is primarily intent on establishing the “guilt” of perpetrators and punishing them. That improves the situation how, exactly? Deterrence is a myth, as shown by study after study; yet we persist in our delusion that it’s effective. In short, who gets center stage in most of our stories of abuse, both journalistic and literary? Monsters loom large in imagination. How did we end up with this perverted prioritization, this fixation on wrong? And consider who the monsters, serial killers, and criminals themselves would like to see in the limelight. Doesn’t it seem strange that we would agree with them on something so fundamental as who gets attention, who it all revolves around? When it comes to abusive, unjust situations, violators and victims alike largely believe in the same underlying priorities. There’s something wrong with that.

What if “victims” disagreed instead; to start with, about considering themselves “victims?” In fact, we’ve learned over the past several decades that the sooner “victims” get to a point where they see their violators as victims, as deficient and damaged rather than superior and capable, the sooner they reclaim their dignity and power as human beings. We’ve got tens of thousands of years of evidence that focusing attention on violators just perpetuates their power and freedom to violate. What if we turned our eyes and our hearts instead to the violated? What if we created institutions and systems that put them front and center? Who knows? We might get different results.

I think this essay gives you some ideas that point to the key: disempower violators and empower ourselves in our own minds. Very little stands in our way along that path. Once we’ve learned to remove the imaginary logs of self-defeating hysteria from our own eyes, I think we’ll see clearly enough to remove from our brothers’ eyes what then will obviously be specks.



  1. Very interesting and enlightening article. Some of the news has me concerned as I have seen people I know effected by the corruption. Truth be told most of us in the US have been effected by it sad. I believe its a trickle down effect. Thanks for the insight

    • 🙂 Thanks for the kind feedback! An Aussie friend recently told me that, after visiting here 5 times over the years, he never plans to come back to what he called a “police state” compared to conditions in Australia. How far the champion of democracy has fallen! It is sad.

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