Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 about the nature of the digital surveillance state opened a floodgate of public debate about unwarranted mass surveillance using big data and metadata. Indeed, the very word “metadata,” once the arcane jargon of data jockeys and digital librarians, entered common parlance, thanks to its centrality to arguments over just how meaningful and information-rich such data could be. The subsequent revelations have shown how privacy and freedom are inextricably tethered to discourses of national security which are in turn anchored in large scale, dislocated, material infrastructures. In spite of these close interrelations, such connections frequently remain obscure and hidden away from public view – and understanding.
In this contribution to BD&S, “Data Flows and Water Woes: The Utah Data Center” media scholar Mél Hogan looks specifically at the material infrastructures of the NSA that facilitate such surveillance flows. She argues that these infrastructures monumentalize our priorities, by way of their location, dependence on natural resources and public infrastructures, and impacts on the environment.
In the following paragraphs, digital labour researcher Sarah T. Roberts engages Mél Hogan in a dialogue about the topics raised in her work and discovers why they are so crucial for all of us right now.