Electronic Intimacy Essay

Citizenfour (2014) is a film that seems to unfold in real time. It is as if the plot were revealed to the filmmaker at the same time as the audience. The filmmaker is in the story and while never shown is directly and intimately involved. In the film’s opening sequence, she reads aloud the electronic communications sent to her by her source. The filmmaker is Laura Poitras. The source is Edward Snowden.

From a documentary point of view, Citizenfour is the record of an event that may yet shape the future of our democracies: the 2013 meeting in a hotel room in Hong Kong between Poitras and Snowden. Later they are joined by Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. From that initial meeting over the course of several days and the exchange of information that took place came revelations about tools like xkeyscore and programmes like Prism and Tempora, and about the extent to which a global network of electronic surveillance established and controlled by the United States and its allies reaches into the lives of ordinary people all over the world.

The Hong Kong meeting is at the heart of the film, and will justly command its place as a document of genuine and lasting historical interest. But Citizenfour is also, and I want to suggest more poignantly, the story of multiple exiles. Snowden, who will most likely never set foot in the United States again unless he is a prisoner, is not the only one in exile. It is also about Poitras, who, after years of harassment by border authorities as a result of her work has moved to Berlin, and Greenwald, who discusses with Poitras at one point how it would be imprudent to return to America for the time being.

The United States is to be understood in the film both as the literal place Snowden, Poitras and Greenwald were born, but also as a power that reaches outwards, exercising surveillance, threatening extradition, interfering in your work wherever you may live.

It is a truism to observe that the more the internet has insinuated itself into the fabric of our lives, the more vulnerable we have all become to being spied upon and monitored. Hence the unsurprising mundaneness of crime-thriller scenarios and representational conventions in films like Enemy of the State (1998) or the Bourne Identity (2002) with which most people have become tritely familiar. Yet no other film before Citizenfour – not even Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Conversation (1974) or Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s celebrated The Lives of Others (2006) – had evoked for me the sense of claustrophobia and oppression or the full intimacy of the intrusion in the personal by the surveillance apparatus.

Control is a force that prevents communication by forcing us to self-censor: and so Citizenfour focuses on the difficulties of the exiled in talking to one another. There are long electronic trails prefaced by blocks of encrypted text, sometimes resulting in failure when it cannot be confirmed that it is safe to talk.

The main character, Snowden, is both present and absent. He speaks through Poitras’ voice in the first act, when he is still known only by his handle, ‘Citizenfour’. He occupies the screen for a full hour in the second, confidently at the beginning, then more and more anxiously as the two alternate futures he had anticipated – imminent capture or a protracted, possibly life-long seclusion – draw near him. He disappears again in the third, as Poitras can no longer reach him. Thus, we are unable to be with him during those forty, undoubtedly surreal days he spent at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Nor do we witness the circumstances of his settling into a new life and a new kind of normalcy after the granting of his temporary Russian asylum. Here the film loses itself somewhat, suspended between the clinical political essay and the impassioned documentary orphaned of its central character.

When we encounter Snowden again, it’s by means of an extraordinary shot through the kitchen window of his new home. Here we find that he has been joined in Moscow by his long-time partner, Lindsay Mills, whom he had left before travelling to Hong Kong without a word of explanation. This was so he could carry out his plan without implicating her. The two are making dinner.

The camera and the microphone used to be the main tools for electronic surveillance, which has always placed cinema in a somewhat awkward and structurally ironic position with regards to these issues. When we are immersed in the lives of the characters of ordinary narrative films we are not just implicitly cast as voyeurs, but also as omniscient, all-reaching government spies. The silent shot of Snowden and Mills filmed by a camera placed in the darkness outside their Moscow home reproduces this relationship in the era of computer surveillance, when seeing is no longer the principal or most effective way of knowing. The image is no longer essential or even useful. They can tell more about you by your metadata.

Outpaced, outmoded, cinema struggles to express this reality except by resorting to older tropes. Shooting Snowden and Mills as if they were under direct visual monitoring by the agents of a secret police gestures metaphorically at the scenarios described in the film by Snowden. In our surveillance paradigm, new and even more ruthlessly pervasive technologies of intrusion are able to capture, by plugging into your search history along with your communication patterns, not just whom you consort with and the content of your speech but also your desires. If Citizenfour tells this story imperfectly, it’s because we haven’t yet developed an adequate language for it.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand. His PhD examined the relationship between memory and technology. He blogs at Bat, Bean, Beam and tweets as @gtiso. He edited Issue 219: Winter 2015 Aotearoa edition of Overland.

More by Giovanni Tiso

The first report in a weekly series

BOSTON — On a quiet Saturday afternoon at the Powers home in Orleans, author William Powers, his wife Martha Sherrill and 15-year-old son William are quietly observing the Sabbath. It’s not a religious Sabbath; they call it their Internet Sabbath. From Friday night through Sunday evening, there are no video games, no computers and no smartphones.

Powers says it was very difficult at first. “It almost had an existential feeling of, ‘I don’t know who I am with the Internet gone.’ But after a few months it hardened into a habit and we all began to realize we were gaining a lot from it.”

In our “always on” lives, there are many like Powers who worry we are too immersed in the digital world and not present enough in the real world. Observers such as digital guru Baratunde Thurston say we can’t seem to resist the lure of our smartphones, even when we are in the company of others. They are like a little Christmas present, Thurston says, “a gift where someone is telling you that you are the most important person.”

So we check our screens frequently (some say compulsively) — even when we are sitting across from someone else. And that has consequences, according to one recent study, which found the mere presence of cellphones in face-to-face conversations inhibits the development of closeness and trust, and reduces the amount of empathy we feel from our partners.

The Powers family, of Orleans, has embraced an Internet Sabbath — from Friday night through Sunday evening — to get away from their digital lives. (Iris Adler/WBUR)

The study reinforces the thinking of some prominent skeptics, chief among them MIT professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle. She applauds the many benefits of digital technology, but she says we still have a lot to learn about how to use it without undermining our values.

“We are not meant to get rid of this,” Turkle says. “We are meant to use it for our human purposes, but we first have to figure out what our human purposes are and I am pretty sure they are not sitting at the dinner table not talking to our 8-year-olds.”

We’ve all heard plenty of complaints about how these technologies interfere with family life, but Turkle says in her 15 years interviewing hundreds of adults and teens, it’s surprising how often it is young people who complain about their parents’ obsession with these devices.

“They complain about parents picking them up at school and not making eye contact with them until they finish the last email,” she says. And she says parents attending sporting events often miss their child’s important play because they have been checking their email.

Turkle adds that many young people feel they have to compete for their parents’ attention. “Adolescent men complain about how they used to love watching Sunday sports with their dads, and now dads are on their iPhones or laptops and they are completely sucked into the Internet space.”

The kids are plenty distracted as well. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study (PDF), young people ages 8 to 18 now spend nearly every waking moment when they are not in school using media — more than 7.5 hours a day.

And half of all Americans say they prefer to communicate digitally than talk in person, according to a Time Inc. study.

Thurston says that for many, even phone conversations are too much of a burden. “When I see my phone ring I actually get annoyed,” he says. “Like, ‘Why would you interrupt me?’ Unless you are hurt or you are dying, you can text me.”

Texts — their brevity, their simplicity, their utility — have tremendous appeal. According to a Pew Research Center survey, teens now text 100 times a day.

Boston University senior Ciera Wade says she can’t remember the last time she had a phone conversation with her parents. “It has entirely been text messages,” Wade says. “In a text message, no one can hear your voice, so if I say ‘I am great,’ you believe it, but I might be crying as I am typing ‘I am great.’ So texting allows me to mask.”

Wade also admits that she gets nervous when she has to make the leap from texting to an actual phone conversation. MIT’s Turkle has found that many young people, so reliant on texts and tweets, are intimidated by in-person conversation. She worries that as we ramp up our digital communication, we are “dumbing down” our conversations.

Digital communication, Turkle says, “is not so good for the sort of nuanced understanding and relationship-building you get when you are present with your friends — for sharing intimacies, for sharing difficult news, for saying you are sorry, for really getting to know someone. It gives us that sense of connection without the demands of intimacy and the responsibilities of intimacy.”

Nancy Baym, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, doesn’t share these concerns. She says research suggests that digital communications enhance relationships and that “the evidence consistently shows that the more you communicate with people using devices, the more likely you are to communicate with those people face to face.” She says every new technology raises the fear that we will lose or lessen our human connections, but that we eventually figure out how to adapt.

Others believe that digital devices present more of a challenge, that they are more alluring, more irresistible and perhaps more addictive than previous technologies. The psychiatric world is still debating whether so-called “Internet addiction” qualifies as a true disease, similar to other addiction disorders. The new version of the DSM, the psychiatric diagnostic manual, will reportedly list “Internet-use disorder” as a condition “recommended for further study” when it comes out this spring.

But Baym says she has seen no compelling evidence that this technology is more addictive.

“I am not buying that this has some special power to control our behavior in a way that offers a new threat that history has never before seen,” she says.

Whether or not this technology presents a unique challenge, few would disagree that the lure is strong, and many are now beginning to conclude that it is time to seek a greater balance between our plugged-in and unplugged lives. For instance, we’re seeing the advent of digital detox retreats, device-free bar nights and tech-free cold spots.

And even industry leaders are striking a cautionary note. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt told this year’s graduating class at Boston University to get offline, at least one hour a day.

Life, he told them, is not lived in the glow of a monitor. “It’s not about your friend count. It’s about the friends you count on.”

Meanwhile, at the Internet Sabbath at the Powers home in Orleans, Powers says his family has found a balance between the wonder and burden of digital technology.

And 14-year-old William says after six years, he has come to appreciate his weekends offline with his family.

“I think that if we were on the Internet we’d be talking about Internet stuff, and now we talk about real life,” he says. “I haven’t missed anything and I have really gained a lot.”

Although an Internet Sabbath may be too ambitious for many who are rarely more than an arm’s length away from their smartphones or laptops, experts, even tech enthusiasts, say it is useful to take some time away from the pings and beeps and chimes to evaluate our and our families’ changing relationship with technology.

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