John Oliver had a pretty big get on Last Week Tonight on Sunday, Edward Snowden, NSA leaker and revealer of the ways in which our government is spying on our data. The problem is, we don’t know who this man is, or why we should really give a hoot. Oliver interviews a number of people on the street who, if they have heard the name Snowden at all, incorrectly identify him as Julian Asange from WikiLeaks.
Oliver tried to tease out reasons why the American public should care from a very technically minded person. Ultimately Oliver chose to frame it as “can the government see my dick pics?” Sure, it’s crude and an oversimplification of the privacy rights of citizens, but it’s something that at least some of us will care about. And the analogy worked as Oliver quizzed Snowden on the ways in which certain government programs can see our unmentionables if we’re foolish enough to ever have them touch the Internet ever.
I think there are a couple of problems when we try to have a complicated discussion as a society. We’re not all very technically minded, and the technically minded among us aren’t very good at teasing out what should be common knowledge, and what is just easy to them because they’ve spent years working with the stuff. And societally, we’re not good at assessing long term risk. We eat too much even though it negatively affects our health in the long run. We don’t save enough for retirement because it’s so far away, you get the idea.
I have this problem all the time when trying to explain something technical to someone else, even when I think it’s pretty simple. Part of this is I’m not actually that inclined to be a teacher. I like writing about technical problems, but sit me next to someone on a computer trying to work something out and I go a little crazy. I’m tempted to snatch the keyboard and mouse away and just do it rather than try to explain in non-technical terms.
Other times it’s simply a matter of thinking something is easier than it is, or thinking we’ve explained ourselves when we really haven’t. And the American people have a shorter attention span than we’d care to admit. We need a simple analogy. And that’s not all that unreasonable of a demand. There are a lot of things we should technically care about, international crisis in Iran, Yemen, Syria, ISIS, Boko Haram (if I spelled it incorrectly, then good ). We’re supposed to worry about climate change, our health, health care, the rapid pace of technology and how our technology is made. The list goes on and on.
So, yeah, maybe not all of us have dick pics, but what do we have that we’d rather the government not see? If we’ve put that thing on a computer, the government has probably seen it.