November 20, 2013
Elizabeth Mitchell’s The Sounding Joy, released by Smithsonian Folkways for this holiday season, features new recordings of traditional American carols rescued from obscurity by the late Ruth Crawford Seeger (Pete Seeger’s stepmother) in her 1953 songbook, American Folk Songs for Christmas. These simple devotionals evoke, as Ruth Seeger put it, the “old-time American Christmas. . .not of Santa Claus and tinseled trees but of homespun worship and festivity.”
“That’s what we did in our house,” says Ruth’s daughter, Peggy Seeger, who is featured on the album, along with Joan Osborne and Natalie Merchant. We spoke with Peggy about her contribution to the recording as well as her memories of her mother and Christmastime.
Which tracks did you record on The Sounding Joy?
I was asked to do “Christmas in the Morning,” and I chose to do “Mother’s Child” because it was one that I sing a lot in concerts and I absolutely love the tune. But I didn’t care for the original words, “a child of god,” so I [changed it to] “I’m a mother’s child,” which any religion can sing.
So it was important to you that these songs appeal to all faiths?
Oh, yes, absolutely, definitely.
How did it feel to return to these songs?
I love them. The collection is very interesting because my mother was the daughter of a Methodist minister, and she was pretty atheistic. My father was a combination of an agnostic and an atheist. And I’m very surprised that so many of the songs mention God and the Lord. These are terms that I kind of tried to avoid. Now that I live in England, which is very multicultural, I avoid them even more than I would in the United States.
My mother had a real ear for picking songs. She got an awful lot of these, most of them off of the Library of Congress recordings. She brought home these 16-inch aluminum records and listened to them with a thorn needle—I’m talking about the mid-1940s, early ’50s, and the only way you could listen to those records was with a thorn needle because a steel needle would ruin the tracks. It was our job, the children’s job, to keep the needle sharp using a sparkler. You’d put the needle into a little clamp and then you whizzed a wheel around it that put sandpaper on it, and that sharpened it again.
We heard these songs in the house as [Ruth] was transcribing them, from a very early age. Grew up with them. I know them all. I always loved [my mother's] accompaniments. They’re not easy to play, actually. To play and sing these songs with her accompaniments needs a lot of concentration. It’s not just ump-chump-chump-ump-chump-chump, and it’s not just chords with the left hand. There’s a lot of contrapuntal countermelody going on there.
Why are these songs still relevant? What can modern audiences gain from this recording?
They have choruses that a lot of people can sing. A lot of repeated words. And for many people now, religious or not religious, Christmas is a time to get together. Having some new songs to sing at Christmas is a very nice idea. . . . Many of [these] songs sprang out of people singing together. That’s why there’s so much repetition. Often you have to repeat it for people to learn it and catch up with it, and for them to be able to feel themselves singing together, feel the edges of the room, as it were.
Do you celebrate Christmas?
Not anymore. . . . I’ve kind of lost interest in Christmas, with the horrifying commercialization. I don’t want to go into the stores anymore at Christmastime. I don’t want to hear all of the Christmas songs which you hear over and over ’til you are sick of them. . . .
The best Christmas I ever had was when I was about 7. It was a sad time for some people because there was an epidemic of polio in Washington, D.C, so we didn’t go into town to get presents. We stayed home and made presents for each other in the house. My brother, who was 9, got a little carpentry set before Christmas so he could make little cradles for our dolls. My mother taught me how to crochet and I crocheted things for my sisters’ dolls. My mother loved Christmas. She adored it.
November 18, 2013
To Americans living in the late 19th century, yoga looked an awful lot like magic. The ancient discipline appeared to Western observers primarily in the form of ethnographic images of “fakirs”—a blanket term encompassing Sufi dervishes, Hindu ascetics and, most importantly, stage and street performers of death-defying stunts, such as the bed-of-nails and Indian rope tricks. In 1902, the “fakir-yogi” made his big screen debut in a “trick film” produced by Thomas Edison, Hindoo Fakir, one of three motion pictures in the Sackler Gallery’s pioneering exhibition, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.”
Hindoo Fakir, said to be the first film ever made about India, depicts the stage act of an Indian magician who makes his assistant disappear and reappear, as a butterfly emerging from a flower. To a modern eye, the special effects may leave something to be desired. But Edison’s audiences, in nickelodeons and vaudeville houses, would have marveled at the magic on screen as well as the magic of the moving image itself. Cinema was still new at the time and dominated by “actuality films” of exotic destinations and “trick films,” like Hindoo Fakir, which featured dissolves, superimpositions and other seemingly magical techniques. Indeed, some of the most important early filmmakers were magicians, including George Melies and Dadasaheb Phalke, director of India’s first feature film. “The early days of cinema were about wonder and showing off this technology,” says Tom Vick, curator of film at the Freer and Sackler galleries.
Early cinema was certainly not about cultural sensitivity. The similarity between “fakir” and “faker” is no coincidence; these words became synonyms in the American imagination, as performers in circuses and magic shows invoked supernatural powers commonly attributed to the fakir-yogi. Howard Thurston, a stage magician from Ohio, appropriated the Indian rope trick for his popular 1920s traveling show. In the 1930s, the French magician Koringa, billed as the “only female fakir in the world,” baffled audiences with hypnosis and crocodile wrestling. Her assumed Indian identity was an “understandable idea by that time,” says Sita Reddy, a Smithsonian Folklife research associate and “Yoga” curator. “The fakir became something that didn’t have to be explained anew; it was already circulating.” Fakir was, if not a household name, a part of popular parlance—pervasive enough that in 1931, Winston Churchill used it as a slur against Gandhi.
Yet Western taste for fakir-style huckstering appears to have waned by 1941, when the musical You’re the One presented the yogi as an object of ridicule. In a big band number called “The Yogi Who Lost His Will Power,” the eponymous yogi runs through all of the typical “Indian” cliches, wearing the obligatory turban and robes, gazing into a crystal ball, lying on a bed of nails and more. But the lyrics by Johnny Mercer cast him as a hapless romantic who “couldn’t concentrate or lie on broken glass” after falling for the “Maharajah’s turtle dove”; for all his yogic powers, this yogi is powerless when it comes to love. Arriving at the tail end of the fakir phenomenon, You’re the One encouraged audiences to laugh, rather than marvel, at the stock character.
How did yoga make the leap from the circus ring to the American mainstream? Reddy traces yoga’s current popularity to the loosening of Indian immigration restrictions in 1965, which brought droves of yogis into the U.S.—and into the confidence of celebrities like the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe. But the transformation began much earlier, she says, with the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu spiritual leader whose 1896 book, Raja Yoga, inaugurated the modern era of yoga. Vivekananda denounced the conjurers and contortionists he felt had hijacked the practice and instead proposed a yoga of the mind that would serve as an “emblem of authentic Hinduism.” Vivekananda’s vision of rational spirituality contended with the fakir trope in the early decades of the 20th century, but after the 1940s, yoga was increasingly linked to medicine and fitness culture, gaining a new kind of cultural legitimacy in the West.
The physicality of yoga is revived in the third and final film of the exhibit, in which master practitioner T. Krishnamacharya demonstrates a series of linked asanas, or postures, which form the backbone of yoga practice today. This 1938 silent film introduced yoga to new audiences across the whole of India, expanding the practice beyond the traditionally private teacher-student relationship for the first time in history. Unlike Hindoo Fakir and You’re the One, the Krishnamacharya film was made by and for Indians. But like them, it affirms the power of the moving image to communicate the dynamism of yoga.
October 30, 2013
Andy Carvin is a man of many titles—“digital media anchor,” “real-time news DJ” and “online community organizer,” to name a few—but the one he is most comfortable with is “storyteller.” NPR‘s social media strategist, Carvin used Twitter during the Arab Spring to communicate with protesters in the Middle East and verify eyewitness accounts from the front lines, most of the time while he was on his iPhone in the United States. He recently published a book about his work, Distant Witness.
Carvin has donated his old phone to the American History Museum, which will include it in “American Enterprise,” a 2015 exhibition on the role of innovation in the nation’s emergence as a world power. “Engaging with people through my phone on Twitter was a story itself,” he says of his reporting in 2011. Carvin, who still tweets up to 16 hours a day, sees his work as a “form of real-time storytelling…sorting itself out, 140 characters at a time.”
See how the process works in this selection of tweets, and read on for our interview with Carvin on social media in journalism:
How did you use this phone during the Arab Spring?
My job at NPR is to be a journalistic test pilot: I experiment with new ways of conducting journalism and figure out what works and what doesn’t. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, I had contacts in Tunisia and other parts of the region who were talking about protests through Twitter and other social media. Initially I was simply retweeting what they were saying, but as the revolutions expanded from one country to another, I ended up using Twitter to create an online community of volunteers who served as sources, translators and researchers for me. We would all engage with each other mostly through my mobile phone, trying to sort out what was true and what wasn’t.
From 2011 to 2012, I was on Twitter upwards of 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, much of the time on that phone, and rarely in the places where these revolutions were taking place. I don’t have a background as a combat reporter, so this was very much an experiment in collaborative, virtual reporting, in which ultimately my iPhone and Twitter served as the focal points.
I was mostly in the U.S. while this was going on, but I made trips to Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and a number of other countries in the region. I discovered very quickly that when I would be in a place like Tahrir Square in Egypt, I found it really hard to get a big picture of what was going on, simply because when you’re surrounded by tear gas and people throwing rocks, you have a fairly limited field of view. Once I could get away from that scene and get back online, over my phone, I’d immediately have contact with dozens of sources across the field of battle who could help paint this picture for me and give me the type of situational awareness that I actually didn’t have when I was there in person.
A lot of your social media work was fact-checking or fact verification. Did you then funnel those facts to NPR or other journalists?
It varied. I was regularly in contact with our reporters on the ground, so as I discovered things that seemed relevant to our reporting on air and online, it would get incorporated into that work. But much of the time, the goal was to do a long-term experiment in social media and mobile journalism in which I wasn’t working under the assumption that my tweets would ultimately develop into some type of news product, like a blog post or a radio piece. Instead, engaging with people through my phone on Twitter was the story itself. It was the experience of being part of this real-time rollercoaster, with me essentially as a broadcast host trying to explain to people what was going on, what’s true, what’s not—but doing it through Twitter and pulling in people who are on the ground, using these same mobile technologies to share their experiences in real time.
[Social media] worked in parallel to our other reporting methods. It certainly wasn’t a replacement to our foreign correspondents being on the ground in all these places. If anything, it complemented that kind of journalism.
But Twitter can also amplify rumors and spread false reports very quickly. How do you answer that criticism?
All we have to do is look at the last year or two to see a vast array of egregious errors that journalists have made on cable television and broadcast news and online news in general. Whether it’s the Boston bombing mistakes or some of the reporting during the shooting in Newtown, the rumors that spread those days didn’t begin on social media; they began with incorrect reporting on air and online. Now, people immediately began talking about them through social media, so word of this reporting spread just as fast as it would have spread if the reporting had been accurate.
The problem is that news organizations often don’t see this social media space as their concern, except for promoting their work. If they report something incorrectly on air, they’ll correct it when they can—but ultimately the people online are going to have to sort it out themselves. I personally think that’s a big mistake. If anything, I think news organizations should have journalists active in these communities so we can slow down the conservation, ironically, because you think of Twitter as speeding up the news cycle.
You can slow it down by telling people: “This is what we know and what we don’t know. We have not been able to confirm what this other network is reporting, and we don’t have the evidence to back that up.” The types of things that you sometimes say on air but don’t always spell out. The average news consumer doesn’t know the difference between when a news anchor says, “We have confirmed,” versus “We have received reports,” or “Our news outlet has learned.” These all have very distinct meanings in journalism, and we never explain to anyone what they mean.
If you’re part of a conversation with the public on Twitter, you can say to them, just because this network said they’ve received reports that something has happened, that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near being confirmed. You can actually improve the media literacy of the public so they become more responsible and less apt to be part of that rumor cycle.
So generally speaking, yes, social media amplifies rumors. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. But I think we have to take a really hard look at ourselves in the media and ask, where are these rumors originating? And when they’re originating through our own reporting, what can we do to alleviate them online?
Twitter is also used by ordinary people, celebrities, comedians, etc. Do you see all those uses of Twitter as different silos, or are they all part of the same phenomenon?
They’re all part of the same ecosystem in the same way that life and culture overlap different ecosystems. If you think about what we do in our online worlds, we occasionally enjoy comedy, we talk to our friends about the crappy meal we had at a restaurant the night before or the bad customer service we got from some business. Other times we’ll talk about serious things, try to help friends online, maybe talk about the news. None of these are mutually exclusive. They’re all aspects of who we are and how we engage with our friends and family.
Twitter and social media in general just amplify those same concepts and put them in a space that makes it easier for people who would never normally meet to engage in conversations. So I’m perfectly proud to admit that I watch cat videos and read BuzzFeed and TMZ on a daily basis, while at the same time talking to sources in Syria and reading the latest essays coming out of Foreign Policy magazine. I don’t see that as contradictory because those are things that interest me offline as well.
I think a lot of the people who follow me for professional reasons follow me because I’m also a real human being on Twitter. I talk about my family, I talk about how things are going at work, the apple picking that I took my kids to a week ago or whatever. Social media gives you a chance to demonstrate to the world that you’re not just a talking head on a screen somewhere and that you actually are multidimensional. I think that adds to your authenticity in ways that make people more likely to trust you, to the point where they may want to share things with you as well. Being yourself on Twitter and social media is just a natural part of being a good citizen and cultivating sources online.
Is it possible to share too much information?
People overshare. There’s no doubt that happens. I’ve been guilty of doing it myself sometimes. But we’re all figuring this stuff out at the same time. There is really no precedent in history for this type of network that we’ve created. There’s an identity crisis when it comes to privacy right now, too. On the one hand we have a habit of oversharing, but on the other hand, people are very concerned about what the government is doing here or overseas. I don’t think anyone’s been able to sort this out yet. They know privacy when they see it, and they know oversharing when they see it. That’s just something that’s gonna have to sort itself out over time. I don’t think at the moment it’s necessarily going to stop those people who want to use social media in constructive ways from using them in constructive ways.
What phone do you have now?
I have an iPhone 5.
How do you feel about iOS 7?
I actually haven’t upgraded to it yet. It’s funny, I don’t consider myself a true early adopter of technologies in the sense that I don’t get new gadgets or tools in the first generation. I’d rather watch other people figure out whether they’re functional or not, and once they’re a bit more stable, then I like to tinker with them and figure out how they can be used in a broad sense.
I’d rather be on the cutting edge of figuring out what’s going on in the world than figuring out how to work my iPhone. I can always play catch-up on that as I need to.
October 29, 2013
“Times have changed,” reads a disclaimer at the Natural History Museum, “and so have the dates in many of our fossil displays.” This notice, accompanied by a revised geological timeline, is currently posted throughout the museum’s fossil halls. It’s a stopgap measure to update exhibitions that haven’t changed in 30 years—but it won’t be needed for much longer. The Natural History Museum is about to undergo a gut renovation that will not only update these exhibitions, but also transform their narrative of earth’s fossil record.
The “Deep Time” project is the largest and most complex renovation in the museum’s history. All of the current fossil exhibitions, including Life in the Ancient Seas, Dinosaurs and Ice Ages, will come down to make way for the Deep Time Hall, a thematic, rather than encyclopedic, timeline of life on Earth. This exhibition, slated to open in 2019, will illustrate the relevance of paleontology to modern life, portraying ancient plants and animals as interconnected parts of ecosystems and revealing a fossilized world just as complicated as ours.
“We study things like climate change and carbon dioxide in the past, extinction, things that are going on in the world today,” says Matt Carrano, lead curator of the Deep Time initiative. “It’s all of these big systems that work together. . . those are the systems that we are paying attention to in the present.”
The biggest change is chronological: the Deep Time story will run in reverse. Visitors entering the exhibition from the rotunda will start with the most recent past—the Ice Age, during which humans actually lived—and travel backward in time to the primordial Earth. In many museums, Carrano says, the prehistoric world feels like an “alien experience” and visitors “may as well be taking a spaceship to different planets.” Deep Time, on the other hand, will move from the familiar to the abstruse: “You have a house, you’ve taken it down and now you’re looking at the foundation—rather than you have a hole in the ground and you’re trying to tell people that there’ll be a house there later.”
The infrastructure of the gallery space will also receive its first makeover in more than a century. When the Natural History Museum first opened in 1910, the paleobiology wing consisted solely of the “Hall of Extinct Monsters,” little more than a trophy gallery for dinosaur fossils. Over the years, more and more exhibitions were tacked onto the space, resulting in the labyrinthine form of the fossil halls today. The renovation will remove the false walls subdividing the space and restore its original Beaux-Arts architecture. The new Deep Time Hall will be one cavernous, continuous gallery, with “display islands” that elaborate on specific themes.
Of course, no paleontology exhibit would be complete without a few dinosaurs, and the revamped space will display them to maximum effect. The fossil halls’ biggest draws, including the giant diplodocus on view and the Wankel T. rex on the way, will be placed in the center of the gallery so that visitors can see them all in one glance.
Other changes will be less noticeable, but more scientifically compelling. Carrano points to the current display of an allosaurus about to attack a stegosaurus: “What’s the point of showing that, besides the entertainment? We could talk about: What is it that predators do? What is it that herbivores do? Is that any different from today? Probably not. As dramatic as those animals are, they’re doing things that you can see happening out your window right now.” In the new exhibition, these creatures might represent predation or the relationship between species form and function. The work of the Deep Time team is as much about storytelling as it is about stage-setting for some of the Smithsonian’s best-loved fossils.
After the current fossil exhibitions go back into storage, a temporary gallery, focusing mainly on dinosaurs, will open on the second floor. Carrano puts it mildly: “We’re very conscious of the fact that you can’t just take the dinosaurs away for five years.”
October 24, 2013
“You are being watched.” This warning opens every episode of the hit CBS TV series, “Person of Interest,” created by The Dark Knight screenwriter Jonathan Nolan. In the wake of recent revelations about NSA surveillance, however, those words hew closer to reality than science fiction.
The “Machine” at the center of “Person of Interest” is an all-seeing artificial intelligence that tracks the movements and communications of every person in America—not through theoretical gadgetry, but through the cell phone networks, GPS satellites and surveillance cameras we interact with every day. The show’s two main characters, ex-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel) and computer genius Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), use this power for good, chasing the social security numbers the system identifies to prevent violent crimes, but they’re constantly fighting to keep the Machine out of the wrong hands.
“Person of Interest” has been ahead of the curve on government surveillance since it debuted in 2011, but showrunners Nolan and Greg Plageman (NYPD Blue, Cold Case) have been following the topic for years. Both writers will appear at the Lemelson Center symposium, “Inventing the Surveillance Society,” this Friday, October 25, at 8 p.m. We caught up with the pair to talk about the balance between privacy and security, the “black box” of Gmail and the cell phone panopticon in Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
I want to start with the elephant in the room: the NSA spying revelations. Now that we have definitive proof that the government is watching us, you guys get to say, “I told you so,” with regard to the surveillance on “Person of Interest.” How did you react when you heard about the government’s PRISM surveillance program, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden?
Jonathan Nolan: With a mixture of jubilation and horror. [laughs] “We were right, oh, dear, we were right.” Shane Harris [author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State], who’s joining us on the panel on Friday, is the one we went to again and again for research, and PRISM was really the tip of the iceberg. Not to sound snobby, but for people who were carefully reading the newspapers, they weren’t revelations at all. William Binney, another NSA whistleblower who’s not on the run, has been saying this publicly for years, which points to this other interesting aspect—the fact that the general public may not care if there’s a massive surveillance state. As the story’s developed, there’s been a slow trickle of information from Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian and the Washington Post, in terms of the documents they have from Snowden, to try to keep the story on the front burner. Clearly the story has got traction. But to what degree the public will actually put up with it is actually a question we’re trying to deal with now on the show.
Were you surprised by the public’s response, or lack thereof?
Greg Plageman: Yeah, I really think the capacity for outrage has been mollified by convenience. People love their phones, they love their Wi-Fi, they love being connected, and everything that’s wired is now being pushed into the cloud. We use it all the time, every day, and we can’t imagine our lives now without it. What the president has been saying, how we have to strike a balance between privacy and security—the problem is they don’t. They never do. And they wouldn’t have bothered even paying lip service to it if Snowden hadn’t blown the whistle. So I think now people are reeling from the “OK, so what?” When you tell them the consequence is we’ll be less secure, or you lose some convenience in your life, that’s when people tend to become placated. I think that’s a scary zone where we come in as entertainers and say, let’s present to you the hypothetical, dramatically, of why you should care. That’s the fun of our show.
How do you personally weigh in on that debate? How much liberty do you feel we can or should sacrifice for security?
Nolan: There’s a reason why people [used to] send letters with wax seals. That sense of privacy, the conflict between the state and the needs of the citizens, has been around for an awfully long time. We’re quite distrustful, at least in the writers’ room, of anyone who comes in with an over-simplistic answer to that question. It’s all terrible or, in the name of security, you can have access to all of my stuff, is an answer that is only acceptable, if possible, in the immediate short term, where we’re not at war, and there’s no widespread suspicion of the American public.
We’ve said this from the beginning, from the pilot onwards: privacy is different from what have you got in the bag. When the government takes your privacy, you don’t necessarily know that it’s been taken from you. It’s a fungible, invisible thing. That’s why this argument that has been hauled out into public view by Snowden is a very healthy one for the country to be having. If someone takes away your right to express yourself or your right to assemble or any of the rights in the Bill of Rights, you’re going to know about it. But when someone takes away your privacy, you may not have any idea until it’s far too late to do anything about it.
How did you develop the Machine in “Person of Interest”? Why did you make it work the way it does?
Nolan: We just use[d] our imagination. We did research. Aspects of the show that at first blush, when the pilot first came out, people kind of dismissed as curios—like, why don’t they find out if the person is a victim or a perpetrator, why don’t they get any more information than a social security number? It’s a great jumping-off point for a nice piece of drama, absolutely. We’re not shy about that. But actually, a lot of the mechanism of the Machine was based on Admiral [John] Poindexter and Total Information Awareness, which was the great-granddaddy of PRISM.
Poindexter is a really interesting Promethean figure who figured out a lot of what the general public is now just starting to get wind of. The tools were already here to peel back all of the layers of every person in the United States. It’s now become increasingly clear that there is no way to be sure that you’ve hidden your voice or email communications from the government. It’s almost impossible. If you want to communicate privately, it’s a person-to-person conversation and your cell phone is literally left elsewhere or broken, like we do in our show all the time, or handwritten messages. We really have stepped into that moment.
So the question was how do you go about this conscientiously? If we were to build this, how do you ensure that it can’t be used for corrupt purposes? How can you be sure that it isn’t used to eliminate political rivals or to categorize Americans according to their political profiles or their leanings, all that sort of stuff? It seemed like the simplest answer to that question was to make this thing a black box, something that absorbs all this information and spits out the right answers, which interestingly is exactly how Gmail works. That’s why we’re all willing to use Gmail—because we are promised that a human will never read our emails. A machine will read them; it will feed us ads, without invading our privacy. And that is a compromise we’ve been willing to make.
The show explicitly states that the Machine was developed in response to 9/11, that 9/11 ushered in this new era of surveillance. Right now, it seems we might be entering a new post-Snowden era, in which we, the general public, are aware that we’re being watched. How will the show respond to that new reality—our reality, outside the world of the show?
Plageman: In terms of whether or not we’re entering another era, it’s difficult to say when you realize that the assault on privacy is both public and private now. It’s Google, it’s Facebook, it’s what you voluntarily have surrendered. What Jonah and I and the writers have been talking about is: What have you personally done about it? Have you changed your surfing habits? Have you gone to a more anonymous email provider? Have any of us done any of these things? There’s a bit of a scare, and we all react and say, wait a minute, do I need to be more privacy-conscious in terms of how I operate technology? And the truth is it’s a huge pain in the ass. I’ve tried a couple of these web-surfing softwares, but it slows things down. Eventually, if you want to be a person that’s connected, if you want to stay connected to your colleagues and your family, you realize that you have to surrender a certain amount of privacy.
I also believe, just having a son who’s now entering his teens, that there’s a huge generation gap between how we view privacy. I think older generations see that as something that we’re entitled to, and I think, to a certain degree, younger generations who’ve grown up with Facebook see it as something that’s already dead or wonder if it really matters, because they don’t understand the consequences of the death of privacy.
Nolan: In terms of the narrative of our show, we’ve already started looking into the idea that there will be a backlash. Maybe this is wishful because we’ve looked at this issue for so long [and seen] the slightly underwhelming response to the revelations by Snowden. We’re certainly not looking for people to take revolution in the streets. But you feel like it would be some consolation if there was an aggressive debate about this in Congress—and quite the opposite. You had both political parties in lockstep behind this president, who didn’t initiate these policies but has benefited from the extended power of the executive, in place for generations of presidents from the postwar environment, from Hoover and the FBI onwards. There isn’t much debate on these issues, and that’s very, very frightening. We’re very close to the moment of the genie coming completely out of the bottle.
One of the questions that Shane deals with most explicitly in his book is storage. It sounds like a banality, like the least sexy aspect of this, but storage in many ways may actually be the most profound part of this. How long is the government able to hang on to this information? Maybe we trust President Obama and all the people currently in power with this information. Who knows what we’ll think of the president three presidents from now? And if he still has access to my emails from 2013, in a different political environment in which suddenly police that are mainstream now become [secret] police, or people are sorted into camps or rounded up? It sounds like tinfoil hat-wearing paranoia, but in truth, if we’re looking at history realistically, bad things happen, fairly regularly. The idea that your words, your associations, your life, to that point could be cached away somewhere and retrieved—it feels very much like a violation of the system, in terms of testifying against yourself, because in this case the process is automatic.
These issues that we’re fascinated by are one part of our show. We presented our show as science fiction in the beginning—but, it turns out, maybe not as fictional as people would hope. Another science fiction component that we’re exploring in the second half of this season is the artificial intelligence of it all. We took the position that in this headlong, post-9/11 rush to prevent terrible things from happening, the only true solution would be to develop artificial intelligence. But if you were to deduce the motives of a human being, you would need a machine at least as smart as a human being. That’s really the place in which the show remained, to our knowledge, science fiction—we’re still a long way off from that. For the second half of the season, we’re exploring the implications of humans interacting with data as the data becomes more interactive.
Jonathan, you previously explored the idea of surveillance in The Dark Knight. How did you develop the system Batman uses to tap the cell phones in Gotham?
Nolan: The thing about a cell phone is it’s incredibly simple and it’s a total Trojan horse. Consumers think of it as something that they use—their little servants. They want a piece of information, they pull it out and they ask it. They don’t think that it’s doing anything other than that; it’s simply working at their behalf. And the truth is, from the government’s perspective or from private corporations’ perspective, it’s a fantastic device to get unbeknownst to the consumer. It’s recording their velocity, their position, their attitude, even if you don’t add Twitter into the mix. It’s incredibly powerful.
In The Dark Knight, [we were] riffing off of storylines from existing Batman comic books. There’s a shifting side to [Batman] where he’s always playing on that edge of how far is too far. In the comic books, at least, he has a contingency and a plan for everyone. He knows how to destroy his friends and allies, should they turn into enemies, and he’s always one step ahead. In a couple of different storylines in the Batman comic books, they play with the idea that he would start constructing [a surveillance device]. In the comic books, it was mainly about spying on his friends and allies and the rest of the Justice League. But for us it felt more interesting to take existing technology and find a way [for] someone like Bruce Wayne, who’s this brilliant mind applied to the utility belt. There are all these gadgets and utilities around him—why should it stop there? Why wouldn’t he use his wealth, his influence and his brilliance to subvert a consumer product into something that could give him information?
In the previous incarnations of Batman on film, it was usually the bad guys doing that—rigging up some device that sits on your TV and hypnotizes you and makes you an acolyte for the Riddler or whatever. In this one, we sort of continued the idea because Batman, most interestingly, is a bit of a villain himself—or at least is a protagonist who dresses like a villain. So he creates this all-seeing eye, the panopticon, which I’ve been interested in since I was a kid growing up in England, where they had CCTV cameras everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s.
[Batman] would deploy those [cell phones] as a nuclear option in terms of trying to track down the Joker’s team, something that definitely spoke to the duality of the character. He does morally questionable things for a good end—hopefully. In The Dark Knight, as epic and long as it took us to make it, [we] really only got to scratch the surface of this issue, the devil’s bargain of: What if someone built this for a really good, really singular purpose? What level of responsibility would they feel towards it, towards what they created?
It’s something you really hope the government is sitting around agonizing over. [laughs] I hope the government spends as much time worrying about this as Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox do in The Dark Knight, but I’m not 100 percent sure that that’s the case. Certainly if you look at the history of polity and the way that government interacts with checks and balances, you kind of need a crisis, you need a scandal, you need something to prompt this self-policing.
Plageman: Are you saying that the FISA court is a joke, Jonah?
Nolan: [laughs] If it is a joke, it’s a joke on all of us. But again, we don’t want to sound unsympathetic. “Person of Interest” takes for granted the existence of this device and, potentially controversially, the idea that in the right hands, such a device could be a good thing. But I don’t think Greg and I or any of our writers are ever looking at this issue and reducing it to black and white.
We’ve occasionally read that the show is kind of an apologia for PRISM and the surveillance state, just as I had read, a few years ago, certain commentators looking at The Dark Knight and imagining that it was some kind of apologia for George Bush. All those ideas are ridiculous. We look at this show as a great mechanism for posing questions, not supplying answers. That’s where we hope it’s not didactic, and The Dark Knight was certainly not intended as didactic. I think where we were ahead of the curve when it came to “Person of Interest” was that the thing we were assuming was still a question for everyone else. We kind of started the show in the post-Snowden era, as you put it. The show’s premise is that the surveillance state is a given, and we’re not changing that, and you’re not stuffing the genie back in the bottle. So what do we do with all the other information? That I think will increasingly become the real quandary over the next 10 to 15 years.
Jonathan Nolan, Greg Plageman and Shane Harris will speak in a panel discussion on Friday, October 25, as part of the Lemelson Center symposium, “Inventing the Surveillance Society.” This event is free and open to the public. Seating is limited; first come, first seated.