Privacy 2014: The Fable of the Hoarder

In recent years, “hoarders” — people who collect lots and lots of stuff, until it overpowers them — have become a hot topic in the news and on “reality television.” The mainstream consensus seems to be that “hoarders” are mentally ill, or at least socially abnormal, and need to be “helped,” or at least stopped from amassing huge piles of stuff. I personally disagree with the idea of using force to combat “hoarding,” but I think there’s something useful as allegory in the phenomenon.

I knew a guy once who answered to the general description of “hoarder.” He collected … well, everything. Over the years I knew him, his house filled up with “antiques” (read: Any piece of furniture more than a few years old), “classic computers” (read: Obsolete electronics) and stacks and stacks of old newspapers and magazines.

My friend didn’t suffer from any lack of will to organize his life. He also collected organizing stuff — storage totes, shelves with little cubby holes for categorizing small objects, books on “taking control” of disorganized households. Unfortunately, all he did with that stuff was … well, collect it. It stacked up on top of those old newspapers, which stacked up on top of those obsolete electronics, which stacked up on top of that old furniture. Oh, and he collected cats, too. Lots and lots of cats. Which meant that all those stacks of stuff were covered with cat hair, cat hairballs, and other cat leavings. He had a lot of stuff. Most of it was probably worthless, ruined by his collecting habit if it had ever been worth anything at all.

He never did get organized, and when he died I’m sure his adult children (they had grown up and moved out before he developed his disorder, if indeed it was a disorder) had a heck of a time cleaning out his house and saving anything of value.

I was reminded of my old friend when I ran across a news story on the The NSA’s problems in doing anything useful with all the data it collects through its unconstitutional surveillance operations (“NSA Can’t Make Sense of Masses of Culled Data,”, December 26, 2013).

I think a lot of us — yes, me included — may have been looking at all this illegal NSA spy stuff, revealed over the last several months by whistleblower Edward Snowden, from the wrong perspective. We’ve seen it in Orwellian terms: An omniscient state tightening its grip on the populace by tracking our every move, our every purchase, our every electronic statement.

Now I’m beginning to think that what we’re seeing may actually be the equivalent of my hoarder friend’s obsession.

To the extent that hoarding may be symptomatic of mental problems, I suspect that its genesis lies in a perception of loss of control of one’s life. The acquisition of lots and lots of stuff is an attempt to re-assert that control — to act, to take charge.

It seems to me that NSA data hoarding reveals the same set of fears. It’s not an all-powerful state asserting its power and control. Rather it is a failing, quaking, fearful state attempting desperately to re-assume its lost powers.

Like the hoarder who doesn’t understand that his stuff is controlling him rather than him controlling it, NSA can’t come to grips with the fact that the emerging anarchic world order — decentralized, voluntary networks of equally empowered peers — will determine the future of centralized, hierarchical governments, not vice versa.

That’s not to say that government and its spies aren’t still dangerous, but they’re getting more and more dangerous to themselves and less and less dangerous to the rest of us. Their stacks of newspapers are just dripping dust and cat urine through their obsolete electronics and rotting the substructure of old furniture underneath. The whole thing will eventually come down on top of them.

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