Nervous Laughter

John’s post about black humor and deadpan joking about the NSA hit a nerve. I’ve been hearing the same jokes on Google Hangouts and reading the comments over email list serves. But I’ve seen the pattern before. “Oh you just mentioned democracy, now we’ll know why Skype connection cuts out.” It is the same joke we made when we were living in China. 

I knew I was taking a risk writing about my encounters with the Great Firewall of China. I continue to blame speed issues in my browser when I open more than a few tabs on the spyware the Chinese government probably dropped on my Mac while I was connected in Chongqing. I even wiped my computer clean this week because I was still having trouble, a year later. My husband and I still speculate, baselessly, that the governments bloatware was slowing my computer down.

This dry joking about surveillance and spying puts the US government on par with how we once talked about China. When we joke about the NSA, we are trying to express the same frustration with the inevitability and helplessness of the situation. We lack the power to protect ourselves, or the ability to know for sure whether what we suspect is happening, is really happening.

I’ve been frustrated reading each development in the Prism story. That frustration lies in part with myself, with my complacency upon hearing it. We all expected it was a possibility, and it started to look more likely was we learned about Utah data centers and the like. As John points out, this humor is a coping mechanism for dealing with powerlessness. Expats in China take that stance because that’s the best you can do, to grin and bear it. But it worries me that I’m starting to feel the same way in America.

Now I’m thinking, It is just as likely that the bloatware slowing down my computer wasn’t planted by China, but by the US government. We were Americans abroad from 2011-2012. We were connecting through VPNs and logging into our US-based accounts. 

I’ve gone to the Apple store last week and I’ve wiped my machine clean with a new install of the OS. So far, everything seems to be running more smoothly on the clean install. I’m reticent to reinstall everything with my Time Machine backup, if only because I still speculate whatever spyware was on there will make its way over along with the rest of my files and profile settings. Even if my speculation is baseless, the fact that it’s a possibility I have considered gives me pause. I know this is tinfoil hat territory. But with each revelation it’s starting to feel like we can expect the worst.