Edward Snowden told The Guardian, in the piece that identifies him as the whistleblower who gave the NSA’s surveillance documents to the press, that “what I’m doing is self-interested: I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”
I hadn’t thought much about NSA surveillance and its possible effect on our creativity. Indeed, I hadn’t thought too much about the NSA at all — I had been focusing more attention on the battle over Egypt’s Culture Ministry. And, I suppose, the knowledge of our surveillance culture had been coming out in so many bits and chunks that it seemed like something I’d already been told.
But once Snowden mentioned it, I wondered about how my freedoms to create had been impacted by this potential and real surveillance, but also by the gradual move to writing on Internet-enabled devices, to the blurring of public and private spheres (email instead of letters; Facebook instead of private conversations), to writing with a constant feel of “public-ness” about it.
When I was a teenager, I wrote on loose-leaf paper. Well, I wrote on a computer sometimes, but it was only a holding-place for prose; I didn’t imagine my words sailing right off the diskette (that was how I stored things, right?) or merging near-seamlessly into some public place. My words would have to be printed out, mailed somewhere, examined, judged, accepted, re-typed, laid out, printed, distributed.
Now, I often write directly in WordPress, just a hair’s-breadth away from someone — anyone — reading what I write. Sometimes, I hit “publish” long before I meant to do it.
Whether or not we are being surveilled in any particular moment, or most moments (hello, NSA!), the space for creativity has changed. We compose, or at least I compose, with a greater sense of being watched as we do it. There are important reasons to stave off this mental shift, to force it back. But it’s difficult.