08/26/2014 01:58 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

Surveillance and the Creative Mind

In a world where many aspects of our daily lives are written or recorded and transmitted digitally, our raw thoughts and casual observations are increasingly open to scrutiny and vulnerable to interception. Our behavior is frequently documented, whether it is by government agencies, corporate entities, news organizations, or fellow citizens. This means that every iteration of an evolving idea, off-hand comment, and emotional outburst could be recorded. Given how often we all misinterpret each other, especially in writing, the exponential increase in documented human behavior is cause for concern.

It is as if we have two selves, one virtual and one real. In many ways, the virtual mirrors the real, but our virtual selves are more likely to be distorted versions that are easily misunderstood and open to manipulation. Life on the record is affecting all of us in ways we don't fully understand yet. It is challenging our social norms and legal structures, in addition to undermining the processes that engender creative thought. The American climate of fear about terrorism has combined with this technological shift into a potent mix that stifles debate and free expression.

The Creative Process

Creativity involves trying new things that may seem eccentric, that go against the grain, challenge our assumptions, or push the limits of our inherited norms. Creative endeavors require an uninhibited flow of thought and imagination, followed by meticulous processing and refinement. Eventually, these ideas take final form in something new and valuable. But before they do, the creator must sift through countless amorphous concepts and faulty notions. It is as if the creative brain is a continuous stream of data, millions of bits pinging their way haphazardly through the mind's eye waiting to be captured and analyzed, separated from the noise, and merged into a coherent whole that improves lives, deepens human understanding, or brings joy. The creative process of refining an idea through trial, feedback, analysis, and retrial is akin to the R&D process and trade secrets of companies. It is like a president's circle of advisors, a lawyer's communications with a client, or a doctor's conversations with a patient. In the case of an intelligence agency, it would be sources and methods.

We all have creative potential, and adopting creative habits can enhance anyone's creativity. Through advances in research about neuroplasticity, it is becoming clear that changing routines and ways of doing things can actually rewire our brains and change our thought patterns. This is a powerful realization that can be used for both good and bad, especially as intervention techniques improve. Just as one can actively cultivate greater openness to new ideas and prosocial behavior, this knowledge can be used to manipulate and control people.

For writers, the creative process involves constant re-writing. Once we get our thoughts on paper or a screen, we can contemplate them from a different perspective, which enables us to more objectively analyze their validity. There is sometimes a large gap between the meaning one is trying to convey and the words used to capture it. This is because words can be imperfect vehicles to convey thoughts, flawed representations of concepts. Utilizing them with precision and impact is an art form. Drafts are essentially experiments with different types of wording, not necessarily our actual beliefs or intentions. That is why writers frequently seek feedback from trusted friends and colleagues, typically sending drafts via email in the modern era. Externalizing thoughts helps us think through what we are trying to communicate, which is healthy behavior for anyone. When our motives and intentions are misconstrued, we seek to correct our words. This happens often. In the process of drafting an argument or story, the number of iterations can easily be in the dozens, if not the hundreds.

All creative works result from numerous attempts to find the precise representation of the notion or feeling we want to convey -- whether through painting, music, website design, stand-up comedy, or film. There is no blueprint or set of rules when you create something new. It first exists in your mind. Then you try to make it real. If it turns out to be a bad idea, you start over. But in order to test and refine it, you have to get it out of your head and examine it. Without this key part of the process, you could never reach the end goal.

Creative efforts always bear some risk of being undermined by theft, plagiarism, or manipulation. Certain forms of creative expression can even expose individuals to the risk of retribution simply for challenging people to think differently. This is why creative people tend to be very protective of their process.

Modern Surveillance

Throughout human history, those who question conventional wisdom or existing power structures have frequently made those invested in the status quo vengeful, from Galileo, to Martin Luther King Jr., to Ai Wei Wei. There has always been a risk that drafts and personal information could be used against the creator, but the risk has increased dramatically in the last decade due to Internet proliferation, an underinvestment by tech companies in security, and the actions of intelligence agencies, law enforcement, and criminals around the world.

The process of hacking into a computer/smartphone or collecting and decrypting the data streaming out of it has gotten very easy. Tech companies have been enhancing encryption and other security measures, but vulnerabilities remain. This means that there are countless opportunities to intimidate, manipulate, or halt the creative process, even to watch ideas evolve in real time and intervene to alter their course.

Information is power. Simply possessing drafts and knowing habits are enough information to harm one's process, credibility, or psyche. Facebook has already proven the ability to remotely manipulate people's emotions en masse without their knowledge. "Character assassination" is easy if you know everything about people or possess records of their evolving thoughts. Intimidation is simple if you can anonymously reach into anyone's computer and alter or steal information from anywhere on the planet. The ability to target individuals, retrieve Internet search histories, remotely activate recording devices without users' knowledge, map relationships through metadata, and pinpoint physical locations through cell phones will certainly give some pause before openly criticizing the powerful -- or even explaining reality in a way that challenges their agendas.

In the United States, we have already been seeing the chilling effects of self-censorship due to mass surveillance. Some American writers are opting not to research and explore certain sensitive topics, cowed by fear of retribution. This is because trying to fully comprehend and meaningfully convey different perspectives and realities requires intellectual immersion in a subject matter. It involves asking tough questions and entertaining all possible answers. To understand how others see the world entails a concerted effort to empathize as deeply as possible, take on other personas, and then write from those perspectives. These exploratory ventures into the human psyche bring insights that inform the work, but they are part of the process, not the final product.

Historical examples demonstrate that the mere suspicion of being watched is often enough to silence individuals or disrupt their thought processes. When Ernest Hemingway was monitored by the FBI, he found it impossible to do any creative work. For John Steinbeck, merely depicting the bleak reality of poverty in a way that resonated with the public earned him the dreaded "Communist" label, which meant he was also targeted by the FBI. Of course, Steinbeck had the courage to keep writing, to continue enhancing human understanding through creative expression. But would he have had that courage if he knew that all of his drafts were being remotely stolen by an entity determined to collect everything?

When surveillance is done en masse, it is not just the targeted who are affected; it is potentially anyone. Although very few are watched in real time, default processes of collection and storage, if done comprehensively, would mean that records could be accessed on anyone at any point in the future, aided by increasingly powerful computers and sophisticated algorithms that make it ever easier to pinpoint individuals. Fortunately, the U.S. FISA Court ordered the U.S. National Security Agency to halt collection of "wholly domestic" email communications in 2011 and President Obama has limited the reach of U.S. phone metadata collection. But this does nothing to protect those outside the United States or to protect Americans from surveillance by foreign intelligence agencies, especially Americans who travel and access the Internet from abroad.

Despite paternalistic assurances that Americans have no reason to fear their own government, caution is warranted. The pattern of deception by U.S. executive branch officials makes it hard for reasonable people that are paying attention not to be skeptical of their latest pronouncements. Though the risk is not high, it would be naïve to assume there is no danger at all. Recent U.S. history paints a clear picture of abuses by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, often with the approval of politicians. Arbitrary and illegal exercise of government power happens in the United States, as it does everywhere. Though the rule of law is strong within the United States, it is not absolute. It never has been.

Our Constitutional system of checks and balances is so effective precisely because it recognizes that all people are fallible and that power is often abused by those who wield it, necessitating corrective course changes from time to time. Attempting to improve public policy by challenging the government's actions, questioning its rationale, and demanding accountability is as patriotic as any form of public service.

A Climate of Fear and Intimidation

Outspoken intellectuals, minorities, and campaigners for equal protection under the law have been repeatedly deemed "suspicious" and oftentimes harmed or intimidated, not because they were doing anything wrong, but simply because they scared or angered the powerful. Being the "other" or trying to dispel myths about the "other" have historically made people potential targets. The Japanese Internment, the Red Scare, and the Civil Rights Movement are a few recent examples. The post-9/11 War on Terror is the latest iteration in this pattern of overly broad responses to external threats or social unrest. Fortunately, Americans have an equally clear pattern of correcting our excesses, which is starting to happen, but there is more to be done.

The fear still gripping American society can mean that questioning the machinery of the War on Terror leads to angry rebukes from one's fellow citizens. Our collective paranoia has led us to overly empower intelligence agencies that often do not think about the broader repercussions and unintended consequences of their actions -- such as the premise that the mere use of encryption is cause for suspicion, rather than simply an attempt to protect one's intellectual property or to bring peace of mind to private conversations. Meanwhile, only a few years have passed since Representative Peter King held McCarthyesque hearings on American Muslim radicalization; innocent torture victims have yet to see justice or an admission of fault for the crimes committed against them; and Representative Mike Rogers has been publicly speculating that Edward Snowden is a Russian spy without providing any evidence whatsoever. Unless there is actual evidence, this is grossly irresponsible behavior for an elected official; if there is evidence, it should be presented. On top of this, a culture of secrecy and over-classification has made the federal government disturbingly opaque, which is probably encouraging leaks in the first place. Perhaps the most dangerous behavior is coming from President Obama, who has been employing Draconian measures by American standards as he has cracked down on leaks and journalists, invoking the Espionage Act more times than all previous administrations combined.

This is an intimidating environment to operate in if, for example, you are trying to explain the Arab world's perspective to Americans who are reluctant to see how our actions in their homelands are sometimes a contributing factor to conflict, or who refuse to entertain the notion that our broad, highly militarized response to 9/11 is likely fueling terrorism. The same social forces that have stifled the debate about how to prevent terrorism also helped give rise to the surveillance state. In the immediate aftermath of the Snowden revelations, the hysteria in American public discourse reached a fever pitch, with exaggerated claims coming from every direction, as the shrill cries of reactionaries crowded out more reasonable voices.

Mass surveillance compounds this climate of fear, and it is leading many to simply keep their heads down and adhere to the status quo. Fewer people are asking if there is a better way to do things. Fear is dampening human curiosity and ingenuity. If I were one of the thousands of innocent Muslim Americans who have already been targeted, spied on, coerced, or intimidated by their own government simply because of their religion or national origin, I would probably be too afraid to write these words.

Thirteen years of war have changed American society.

Looking Ahead

Nevertheless, for most Americans there is currently very little danger of being targeted by the U.S. government. And while mass surveillance programs should be publicly debated before being built in secret, the NSA's global data collection machinery is primarily a technical response to the flood of digital information we are all learning to manage, and which was implemented with the intent to protect the United States (see, for example, the explanation offered by General Hayden in a calm, reasonable debate with Barton Gellman [starting at 46:05, but the whole debate is worth watching]).

Despite some abuses, the rights afforded to American citizens and U.S. residents are among the strongest protections in the world. The U.S. domestic surveillance system is less intrusive than those of countries like Russia, China, Iran, or even France, although U.S. technical capacity is superior. For non-Americans outside the United States, President Obama has provided the protection of the 1974 Privacy Act, which may come as little comfort, but is nonetheless significant.

Of course, any government could share the information it collects with another government, even if it would be illegal for the recipient to gather that information on its own citizens, as occurred between the NSA and the United Kingdom's GCHQ. Moreover, the borderless nature of the Internet means that any sophisticated spy agency, criminal organization, or group of hackers could target anyone anywhere in the world or steal troves of information from corporate or government databases. In short, we are all vulnerable every time we venture onto the information super highway.

Mass surveillance might make it easier to stop terrorists and other criminals, but it also makes it easier to harm the innocent and silence dissent. Finding a way to effectively identify and target people based on genuinely suspicious behavior while preserving the privacy of law-abiding citizens can be hard. Modern technology has empowered the nefarious just as much as it has enhanced commerce, facilitated exchange of ideas, and enabled long-distance collaboration. But we all need the ability to deliberate privately in small groups; to draft, debate, and re-draft before making public; to research, explore, try new things, and make mistakes without being continuously monitored.

Creative expression is not only a means of engaging an audience; it is healthy behavior for all people. Venting frustration, sharing unfiltered thoughts with friends, and exploring confusing emotions and desires help us work through our personal struggles faster and find greater satisfaction in life. They are part of learning and coping processes that enrich human existence. Fear of being recorded in vulnerable situations or speaking carelessly, and then judged, is inhibiting many people.

Information is power. Though abuses of collected information by the NSA appear minimal thus far, what the Snowden revelations have taught us is that humanity is approaching the technical capacity for global omniscience, as well as the ability to remotely intervene almost anywhere without being detected, including inside private residences. How to check such power, and whether or not such power should exist in a single entity is the core of our debate. Beyond that, adjusting our social norms and legal structures to life on the record is itself a huge challenge.

As the U.S. Congress debates reform legislation and tech companies try to restore trust in their services; as corporations contemplate how much data to collect and how transparent to be about what they collect; as criminal justice systems slowly adapt to our new digital existence and as societies around the world struggle with the balance between security and liberty, control and autonomy, order and creativity, we cannot casually dismiss the negative effects that mass surveillance has on creative thought and free expression. Societies innovate and adjust to changing realities faster when average people feel free to tell the powerful when they are doing things wrong, no matter how contentious the issue. Being able to openly debate anything and everything without fear enables good ideas to filter to the top faster. That is why the United States has historically been so inventive, adaptive, and able to overcome difficult challenges.

As the space for private moments becomes vanishingly small, we must set limits before we lose it entirely. If a system of benign electronic and algorithmic surveillance is to exist in the United States in order to keep us safe in a globalized world with porous borders, we must update our jurisprudence. We must collectively define a clear boundary between public and private in the digital world, limit the duration of data storage, and make known what data can be gathered, how it can be used, and under what circumstances. Developing more effective means of detecting unauthorized intrusion into computers should be a priority. Deepening our data-driven understanding of human behavior to reduce the risk of misinterpretation is essential. Most importantly, we need to raise public awareness about how to protect ourselves online, create more effective transparency mechanisms, and impose checks on surveillance power that establish trust between government and citizens -- all while not excessively limiting the ability of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to protect society from genuine threats. This is no easy task. Adapting to our new reality will require technical, legal, diplomatic, and political solutions as well as much hard work. It will require thinking about the global implications for human society of our actions. Above all, it's going to take a lot of creativity.