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.
October 22, 2013
The doors of the Smithsonian’s museums were recently shuttered during the debt crisis and shutdown of the United States government. Americans who had long ago planned their trips to the nation’s capital, as well as foreign tourists and school children, arrived only to find signs barring them from entry “due to the government shutdown.” Elsewhere in the country, visitors to national parks, historic monuments and memorials, and even websites found a similar message. The shutdown and debt ceiling crisis brought home to many Americans the fragility of our democracy. That sense of loss and then relief prompts a reflection on why these items came to be significant and how they became, sometimes surprisingly, even precariously, enshrined as icons of our American experience.
The National Zoo’s panda cub born on August 23, 2013, weighed just three pounds when the camera inside the enclosure went dark on October 1. But the cub’s mother Mei Xiang remained diligent in her maternal care, and the Zoo’s animal handlers and veterinarians continued their expert vigilance—so that when the panda cam came back on, the public was delighted to see the little cub was not only healthy, but had gained two pounds and was noticeably more mature. Tens of thousands of viewers rushed to the website on October 18, crashing the system over and over again. The next day, the Zoo’s celebrated reopening made newspaper headlines across the nation.
The excitement reminded me of another type of opening, when the pandas made their original appearance at the Zoo during the Nixon administration. Those first pandas, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, came to Washington in 1972 because Nixon was seeking a diplomatic opening of a relationship between the United States and the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China. As part of a mutual exchange of gifts, the Chinese offered the pandas to the United States. And we in turn, gave the Chinese a pair of musk oxen, named Milton and Matilda. This was zoological diplomacy at its most elaborate—the State Department had carefully brokered the deal, ruling out other creatures, like the bald eagle, as unsuitable. The eagle, it determined, was too closely associated with our beloved national symbol. Bears were symbolic of Russia, and mountain lions signaled too much aggression. In any case, I think we got the better of the deal. The pandas became instant celebrities and when they took up residence at the Zoo, they transcended their diplomatic role, becoming instead the much-loved personalities and evolving over time into ambassadors of species and ecosystem conservation.
The Statue of Liberty, so familiar to us in New York Harbor as a symbol of freedom, is a historic beacon to immigrants, and a tourist destination, but it didn’t start out that way. Its sculptor and cheerleader Frédéric Bartholdi initially designed the large statue for the Suez Canal in Egypt. But finding a lack of interest there, Bartholdi modified and repurposed it for a French effort to celebrate friendship with America in celebration of the U.S. centennial. The sculptor found an ideal site for it in New York, and while French citizens enthusiastically donated their money to fabricate the statue, American fundraising for the statue’s land, base and foundation faltered. Hoping to persuade Congress to support the project, Bartholdi sent a scale model of Liberty from Paris to Washington, where it was installed in the Capitol Rotunda. But Congress wasn’t swayed.
Other U.S. cities sought the statue. Newspaper publisher and grateful immigrant Joseph Pulitzer eventually took up the cause—donations large and small at last rolled in. In 1886, with Thomas Edison’s newly invented electric lights installed in Liberty’s torch, President Grover Cleveland pulled the rope to unveil her face, and the Statue of Liberty was open. It was some 17 years later, as a massive influx of immigration was stirring civic debate, that the poem by Emma Lazarus with its famed phrase “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” was posthumously added as an inscription on its base. It’s wonderful to be able to visit the Statue in New York again every day, and Bartholdi’s model too, is here in Washington, residing on the second floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The shutdown of the immensely popular National Air and Space Museum came at a particularly unfortunate time. The museum was temporarily displaying, through October 22, Leonardo da Vinci’s handwritten and illustrated Codex on the Flight of Birds, a rare and unusual loan from the people of Italy. Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens missed out on an opportunity to see this amazing Renaissance document from the early 16th century—an experience made all the more poignant because it was put on display alongside the Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk Flyer. Almost like the fulfillment of da Vinci’s musing, this airplane opened the skies to humans in an unprecedented way after a series of flights on North Carolina’s Outer Banks on December 17, 1903. The Flyer was the first heavier than air, self-powered, piloted craft to exhibit controlled, sustained flight. It took on irreparable damage that day and never flew again. Few realize, however, that a disagreement between Orville Wright and the Smithsonian nearly prevented the flyer from ever coming to Washington. Orville was rightly offended by the incorrect labeling of another airplane on view at the Smithsonian. The label claimed the honor of first in flight went to an aircraft invented by Samuel P. Langley, a former Secretary of the Institution. The dispute lasted for decades and the Wright Flyer went to London and would have stayed there had not Orville Wright and the Smithsonian finally settled their differences in 1948 and the little aircraft that changed history came to Washington.
The Star-Spangled Banner on view at the National Museum of American History reminds us of how our government and nation was almost shutdown by war and invasion. In August 1814, British troops, had routed the local militia, invaded Washington, burned the Capitol, the White House and other public buildings and was advancing on to Baltimore, a strategic target with its privateers and port on the Chesapeake Bay. British ships pounded Fort McHenry which defended the city from invasion. Rockets and bombs burst overhead through the night in a vicious assault—but the troops and the fortifications held strong. And on September 14, Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and poet saw the huge American garrison flag still flying in the “dawn’s early light,” and penned the words that once set to music became our national anthem. The flag itself was paraded and celebrated almost to destruction throughout the 19th century; people clipped pieces of its red, white and blue threadbare wool cloth as souvenirs. Finally, in 1907, the flag was sent to the Smithsonian for safekeeping. We’ve cared for it well, using support from the federal government and donors like Kenneth Behring, Ralph Lauren, and others to carefully restore it and house it in an environmentally controlled chamber—but when visitors see the flag and learn its story, they soon realize how tenuous our country’s hold on its freedom really was 200 years ago.
That theme is also illustrated at the White House—when visitors again re-enter the East Room and view the full-length portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. This is the painting that Dolley Madison, slaves and servants saved when the British invaded the capital and burned the president’s house in 1814. The painting is not the original, but one of several versions from Gilbert Stuart’s studio. The original 1796 portrait was commissioned as gift to a pro-American former British Prime Minister, the Marquis of Lansdowne, who held a great respect for America’s first president. The Lansdowne was on long-term loan to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, but in 2000, the British owner announced his intention to sell it. Thankfully, the Donald Reynolds Foundation came to the rescue—buying the painting for the Smithsonian so that it could be enjoyed by every American. It can currently be seen in the exhibition “America’s Presidents” in the Portrait Gallery.
The basic principle of democracy—self-government, was spelled out in the Declaration of Independence that affirmed the founding of the United States on July 4, 1776. The Congress had John Dunlap print a broadside version of the Declaration, which was quickly and widely distributed. In the following months, a carefully hand-lettered version on vellum was signed by members of the Congress, including its president, John Hancock. This document is called the engrossed version. Lacking a permanent home during the Revolutionary War, the document traveled with Congress so that it could be safeguarded from the British. The engrossed version faded over the ensuing decades, and fearing its loss, the government had printer William Stone make a replica by literally pulling traces of ink off of the original to make a new engraving. Stone was ordered to print 200 copies so that yet another generation of Americans could understand the basis of nationhood. In 1823, he made 201—which included a copy for himself; that extra one was later donated by his family to the Smithsonian and is now in the collections of the American history museum. The faded engrossed version is on exhibit at the National Archives, re-opened for all to enjoy.
The Declaration of Independence has been preserved, enshrined, and reproduced. Its display continues to inspire visitors—and though its fragility might be taken as a metaphor for the fragility of the principles of democracy and freedom it represents, it also reminds us that democracy requires persistent care. Places like our museums, galleries, archives, libraries, national parks and historic sites provide the spaces in which the American people, no matter how divided on one or another issue of the day, can find inspiration in a rich, shared, and nuanced national heritage.
The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects, Penguin Press, is out this month.
October 17, 2013
For 16 days, the doors to the Smithsonian museums and National Zoo were closed to the public—and with them, the animal cameras that provided a video stream of the Zoo animal’s activities for curious viewers. As news of the animal cameras demise went viral, bereaved watchers took to the internet to express their frustrations, with universal lamentions. “This just got REAL,” tweeted the Daily Beast, while Ed Henry, Fox News’ White House correspondent, proclaimed that the panda cam shutdown “is where we draw the line.” Time even created its own panda cam to keep panda enthusiast calm while waiting out the shutdown.
Good news for panda enthusiasts. Beginning Thursday morning, the Zoo’s technical staff began the process of bringing the cameras back online, beginning with the overwhelmingly popular panda cam. While the Zoo grounds won’t reopen to the public until Friday morning, Zoo lovers can rest assured knowing that their favorite animals are now only a click away.
In the days since the panda cam went dark, the Zoo’s new panda cub has gone through some significant milestones. The most apparent is her size: since her last veterinary appointment on September 26, she’s grown from 3.07 pounds to a whopping 5 pounds. The cub has also begun to open her eyes, opening the right one three days after the panda cam went down, on October 4. Both of the cub’s ears are also fully open, and she now responds to sounds she hears inside the panda house.
Mei Xiang, the cub’s mother, has also been active while the panda cam has been down. Mei is leaving the cub for longer periods of time, to eat and venture outside. Her appetite has increased, as keepers note that she is now eating all of the leaf-eater biscuits and produce she is offered, as well as 60 percent of her bamboo. On October 12, Mei even chose to participate in a training session with keepers in the outdoor area. While mom is away, the cub keeps herself busy by scooting around the indoor area, though keepers note that the cub doesn’t manage to get very far—yet. Keepers estimate that by the time the cub is four months old, she will be strong enough to walk on her own. For now, she can push herself up on her front two legs, or right herself if she is stuck on her back.
Anxious panda cam viewers should note that a large amount of traffic when the cams first return could overwhelm the stream, causing viewing problems. If this happens to you, don’t panic—simply take a deep breath and refresh the page, which you’ll need to do if you plan on watching the panda cam for more than 15 minutes anyway.
October 7, 2013
The day before the government shutdown began, the American History Museum installed this stunning billboard from World War II in the west wing off the second-floor Flag Hall. The poster was conserved and reassembled in 12 separate parts and looks just as fresh and vibrant as it did at the beginning of the war, when it debuted.
This image, created by artist Carl Paulson for the U.S. Treasury Department, is believed to be the most popular poster design of World War II. It appeared in more than 30,000 locations in March and April 1942 and was revived by the Treasury in July 1942 and 1943. In the video above, curators William Bird, Jr. and Harry Rubenstein explain how the billboard came together.
The billboard will be on view to visitors as soon as the Smithsonian museums re-open. Until then, watch the video above to see how it was installed.