How U.S. Democracy Has Responded to Networked Culture

Three ways of looking at the NSA over the past decade
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Street graffiti by graffiti artist Banksy is seen on a wall, next to a CCTV camera, in central London (Reuters)

Earlier this week, engineering professor Debbie Chachra tweeted a mini-syllabus:

Taken together, the three essays propose how American democracy has responded to the past decade of digital, networked culture. They all seek an answer to the question: How does American democracy -- a product of Enlightenment ideas, Industrial Revolution expansion, and 20th century infrastructure -- respond to the problems of networked democracy?

The three essays take three different forms. Tim Maly's is as much nonfictional think-aloud as it is fictional allegory, the tale and memories of a narrator vacationing in Ontario's cottage country. It ends by presenting the problem of the NSA in a way few others have proposed. (And, for all this complexity, it's readable in minutes.)

Quinn Norton's takes a sweeping view of recent history, fusing computer pods in dusty Iraqi desert, active and international Wikileaks chat rooms, and the Gotham-infused blog of writer-programmer Paul Ford into a single entity.

And the last piece, by Eldan Goldenberg, is a blog post about possible ways to respond to the NSA politically -- and, in a way, to US democracy as a whole. It is an prime piece of web writing, concerned with action, poetic when it needs to be, and bound to the work of other writers (including Maly, Norton, and The Atlantic's own Ta-Nehisi Coates). Goldenberg's post shows a mind at work, unafraid to situate itself like a constellation.

The effect is cumulative: The weirdness of Maly's tale is enveloped by history in the world Norton describes, a world which, in turned, Goldenberg navigates. The three works connect ideas I've been thinking about in politics, economics, history, and civics. You might want to read them.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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