The growing capacity for collecting large amounts of data about individual citizens has brought big brother government a step closer. We are indebted to Edward Snowden making major personal sacrifices in order to let that ferocious cat out of the bag.
But this capacity for accumulating information confronts us once again with a split in American traditions that has been with us for a long time but does not always receive the attention it deserves.
This reflection begins with an innocent news story. A group of smart medical researchers has developed a plan to use cell phone data to assess the extent to which diabetics get exercise and otherwise take good care of themselves and their disease. Doctors and others can remotely access the extent to which diabetics follow instructions for keeping their disease under control. Management of the disease passes more firmly into the hands of professional health-care providers. Disease management, in this model, leaves the patient pretty passive, following orders of the medical experts.
Interestingly enough, at the same time there is a lot of experimentation which puts more responsibility for managing their chronic disease on the patient. Instead of simply issuing instructions to the patient's, the health-care establishment will train diabetics to help each other manage their disease more effectively. Researchers have developed various visual aids to make it easier for patients to assess their own condition and to act to stabilize it. The emphasis is on the self-reliant and autonomous activity of patients to keep their disease in check.
This example from health-care represents a deep split in the American tradition. As in health-care, we also have two models of education. The one, currently dominant, inculcates information and skills and then tests the effectiveness of this effort. In the alternative tradition, which used to be more powerful than it is at the moment, the emphasis is not on transmitting information but on developing skills for exploration, for teaching oneself, for "learning to learn." The goal is to develop self-directed and self motivated learners.
This same split is manifest in politics. Often electoral politics is considered the center of democracy. Citizens presented with carefully vetted and manipulated information are asked to make various choices. Governing, formulating policy, actually running things, is the exclusive domain of politicians and bureaucrats, of experts and professionals. But on the other hand there is a lively tradition of community organizing. People in neighborhoods, in cities and towns, and nationwide, get together to protest, to resist and win changes from government or private businesses. The recent spate of laws legalizing gay marriage is just one example of this other form of American politics. This startling change in our institutions is the result of intense and persistent organizing. Gay rights organizations were not willing to restrict their political activity to voting.
When I became a US citizen, the presiding judge delayed all of the day's business because he insisted on reading the entire Declaration of Independence to this group of new citizens. He wanted us to remember, he said, that the United States was born in revolution. This revolutionary tradition has been with us ever since – in the spectacular accomplishments of the civil rights movement and of women's liberation as well as in many unsung victories (and defeats) of local groups of citizens who met, organized and demonstrated to make their lives better.
But there are many forces that have been habituating us to a very different role as citizens: the military trains its recruits to obey orders without questions, employers demand obedience from employees on pain of losing their job, in many churches the faithful are exhorted to obey the teachings of the priesthood, society demands conformism on pain of being ostracized.
Americans have faced this difficult choice for a long time between striking out for themselves and their communities together with their neighbors, or be passive followers of some religious, or temporal authority.
The development of new digital surveillance techniques confronts us with this choice in a new area of life. It is not clear at the moment, which of the two kinds of Americans will lead us into the future. Most of us are fortunate not to be faced by the agonizing choices made so bravely by Edward Snowden. But we too must decide, almost daily, whether to be obedient and do as we are told, or whether we will keep alive the American tradition of independence and self-organization to make life better for all of us.