My mom always wanted big, broad, impossibly large windows.
When we moved into our new house after searching for months, that’s the first thing she said. In a subtle tone that only the stress of three childbirths and years of parenting could bring, she said that it was all so very nice – so very, very nice – except for the windows. “They’ll never catch the light,” she said.
And for the most part, they didn’t. On cloud-drunk days, the house was the center of a black hole with the slivers of ambient light being vacuumed into the corners of the windows. And on summer afternoons when the sun would stretch on a smile that beamed endlessly, we still needed a flashlight to navigate some of the rooms in the house.
Living there for a year, I decided to come up with a solution myself. Though I think of my six-year-old self as a boy soaked in sunlight rather than cloaked in darkness, back then I raced towards my mother with bundles of paper and drawings. On an avalanche of disordered sheets of white, I presented my mom a design that would brighten up her day in all senses: a glass house.
I told her to imagine it. Imagine that the windows wouldn’t be a subset of the house, but they’d be it entirely. Imagine that every day the sun would greet her and me alike with a rosy glow that warmed our feet and toes. Imagine that in all directions the light would be reflected and reflected again from all angles. And imagine that in doing so, the rays of sunshine wouldn’t be blocked by the house but instead pass through it. We would be sunlight entirely, a single point on a wave of yellow, and our house would be lit up daily.
Poring over my scribbles and doodles, frantically pointing to one warped blueprint after another, my mom gently smiled. “Thank you,” she said. “But not now. Maybe later.”
At first, I was dismayed at her hesitance. Here was the life she craved, one with windows for walls, one where light flooded rather than trickled, where every day would glow unimpeded, and where no matter the location, everything would be illuminated in sunshine. It was perfect not simply because it was what she wanted, but because it was so much more than that.
But through the same nuance she used to veil her original disappointment in the little mousetraps we had for windows, she was trying to tell me that a glass house is not what she wanted.
Only 20 years later, after a flurry of facial hair and braces and etching out my own individuality, did I learn why. The revelation occurred on June 9, 2013 (and refreshed yesterday with leaks regarding Australia and Indonesia) during a breakfast of eggs and coffee. As the light dripped through our windows and I scrunched around food while watching television, I learned of the National Security Agency’s indiscriminate collection of nearly all forms of data and metadata both foreign and domestic, and more importantly, what my mom was trying to tell me.
Born in Socialism Poland and raised there her entire life, my mom was stressing to a six-year-old Kacper that while light is important, it is not all-important. There are curtains for a reason, and there will be days when they will have to be drawn, when the light glinting through the glass is overbearing, blinding even.
Though my mother experienced an iron curtain in Poland and though I may be reading into her subtlety with too academic of an interest, I feel that underpinning her words was the innate idea of privacy. Living under a longstanding, parasitic tradition of invasive dictators who minutely scrutinized the actions of the masses for their own political gains – from compiling long, arbitrary dossiers or tracking citizen’s movements with intense vigor – my mother’s experience under a quasi-totalitarian regime led to a deeply ingrained belief of modern-day privacy that is both physical and digital.
The NSA, I feel, have worked against this belief through apparently, though certainly clandestine, democratic means. While arguing against the legitimacy of these constitutional claims is a case law consideration, the important fact is that our private lives have been invaded into for the supposed public good. By allowing analysts to track, chart, dissect and determine relations through our digital data, we are fighting terrorism by ensuring that we aren’t terrorists ourselves.
This, of course, is horseshit. Forgetting that little data serves to support the claim that terrorists have been foiled by such dragnet collection and that politicians and NSA supporters alike have refused to divulge the extent of the mass surveillance, the spy agencies have succumbed to full-blown myopia. Instead of standing as a vanguard against terror, they have wrought it. By collecting all, people begin to self-censor themselves. They may no longer keep a domain of individuality where they are free to influence themselves from other parties and instead comply with some broader mandate. In the act of being charted up, analyzed, and held hostage by their opinions, they may no longer be autonomous.
The freedom that was supposed to be guaranteed through mass surveillance is limited in the degenerate pursuit of it. For though the intentions were good, if they were trying to stop the vulnerability against a global threat by surveying all, they have failed because everything has become dangerous; if complete surveillance was a means to ensure hope against fear, then those same invasions – the fear-inducing perversions that senseless violence can cause – have become commonplace; and if it was avoid the sacrifice of liberty in the hopes of security, then they have lost both.
For no matter what is said, the terrorists won when we became them.
My friends shrug indifferently at these revelations. They say they aren’t doing anything wrong so they need not worry. But I don’t think so. To be guilty before being considered innocent is a slippery slope. Besides not knowing a concrete definition of terrorism or the certain key words that will result in flagging and further government scrutiny, I think back to my mother’s nuance and my crayon-scribbled glass house and I am reminded that the moment you open the window to the world, you’ll catch a cold.
No matter the amount of light that shines, you’ll no longer be private, you’ll no longer be yourself, and one day – maybe after you’ve been scrutinized, judged, and deemed a threat, and it’s cloudy and rainy and thunder is on the way – you’ll pray for blinds.