By David Shribman
This is an era when every question seems to have an answer -- and when that answer is as close as your phone, your laptop or your tablet. But these implements, which answer so many of the questions that we did not know we had, also have raised difficult new questions that we now know we cannot avoid.
Many of these critical questions have become part of the national debate in recent days in the wake of disclosures about how the new technology has opened up new avenues of government surveillance.
Here are three of the most important questions suddenly dominating American civic life:
What is the balance between freedom and security?
This may seem like one of the eternal questions pondered by the ancients -- you're thinking of freedom and order, an entirely different matter -- but in fact it is a recent issue, raised by terrorism and the specter of weapons of mass destruction.
Until Sept. 12, 2001, Americans gave little thought to the clash of freedom and security, because the pressure against freedom came mostly from barriers involving race (American blacks were denied the freedoms whites enjoyed), gender (traditional roles and some laws imposed barriers to women in the classroom, workplace and elsewhere) and religion (dating to the exclusionary impulses of colonial settlements, which did not recognize the hypocrisy of religious discrimination by people who traveled to the New World for religious freedom). Security was a targeted issue, not that much of a broad issue, except of course during the Red scares after both World Wars.
The modern pressures on freedom come less against social mobility and personal expression than they do on the heretofore widely accepted freedoms of personal mobility and personal communication. In the contemporary world, unfettered access to public venues (the latest victim: sports stadiums) and the ability to communicate without government surveillance (cellphones and computers) are now genuinely at risk.
The combination of the modern means of communication and the nature of modern terrorism raises the question of whether restrictions on the one might help battle the proliferation of the other.
That is the central precept the administration is employing in arguing that its use of cellphone and computer records is a minimal but justifiable intrusion on what, only weeks ago, was regarded as commonplace commerce and communication. Indeed, the head of the National Security Agency said that these techniques have interrupted "dozens" of terrorist plots.
But even among those who are reliably counted as national security absolutists -- many on the right and some on the left -- there are grave questions about whether the intrusions are worth the cost.
The price of freedom has been an enduring American question, dating to the 18th century. It was posed for white men of the patrician class in the battle for taxation with representation in 1776, for blacks in the Civil War between 1861 and 1865, and for all mankind in the World War of 1939-1945, when the Axis powers enslaved, and in some cases exterminated, millions.
But now this large question is being applied to small, unremarkable aspects of modern life that have grown out of the wide distribution of the computer and the cellphone. Suddenly a theoretical debate is a practical one, as close to the heart as the smartphone in your breast pocket. Seldom has a debate that seemed to be suited to the philosophes been thrust quite so swiftly into the public square.
What is the cost of big data?
Until the beginning of this month, big data -- the accumulation of vast amounts of information in the search for patterns of behavior and prospects for corporate revenue -- was a relatively benign thing, even a possible economic panacea. What is the salvation of the advertising-starved news business? Sell big data. What is the best way to shape products and marketing appeals? Examine big data.
But does big data infringe on our freedoms? Is there a threat to personal freedom by the use of individuals' information as part of a mass examination of consumer or personal or political behavior? Are the tools that make our lives easier -- that allow us to plot in a moment's time the best route between Pittsburgh and Toledo, or that tell us what's on the menu at the new bistro across town, or that let us find the date of the Peace of Westphalia with a few keyboard strokes -- actually making our lives easier to predict and thus easier to manipulate?
In other words, we again ask the price of progress. It never is free. Consider what Henry Drummond, a character in "Inherit the Wind," said on the subject, remembering that the play was written in 1955 and as a result the language and imagery will seem antiquarian to our ears:
"Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, 'All right, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.'"
Who is a whistleblower and who is a threat to national security?
This question brings us back to the threat these measures are designed to combat, and it is an analogue to the distinction between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. One woman's whistleblower is another woman's threat to national security.
This question has skewed many of the usual patterns and alliances. Many of those who celebrate the leaking of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg in 1973, for example, are deploring the leaks by Edward J. Snowden in 2013. Many of the loudest advocates of government openness believe the Snowden disclosures are of a nature and magnitude quite different from the customary leak. The tea party is split between those emphasizing civil liberties and those stressing national security.
This brings us full circle, back to the vital balance between freedom and security, rendered all the more difficult in a nation that only recently asked why authorities did not know more about the brothers accused of bombing the finish line at the Boston Marathon.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.