Illustration by CHARLES BURNS

DAVID BYRNE: What will life be like after the Internet? Thanks to the mass surveillance undertaken by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the general creepiness of companies like Google and Facebook, I’ve found myself considering this question. I mean, nothing lasts forever, right? There’s a broad tech backlash going on right now; I wonder just how deep the disillusionment runs. I get the feeling that there are folks out there who would relish putting the Internet behind us sooner rather than later. Imagine that: even the Internet could be a thing of the past one day. What would that be like? No Facebook. No Google. No government nerds looking through your webcam. But could we become more secure without abandoning the Internet? What if there’s a third way? One that doesn’t involve either passive resignation to being exploited or a Luddite smash-the-looms fantasy. What if we began to develop and encourage the adoption of machines and a network that are actually secure—through which neither thieves, corporations, nor the NSA could track us—and what if these could be configured by us, to really do what we want them to do? To stop the spying, stealing and monitoring, but to allow other things to continue.

What would that look like?

We all know that the NSA and the U.K.’s Government Communication Headquarters are reading our emails and texts, listening to our phone conversations, storing our metadata and using our computers and phones to watch us. A bunch of dorky guys amassing huge collections of pictures of tits and dicks. […] I know I feel safer now! Happy viewing, guys! If we had any doubts before, now we know that the government doesn’t trust us—so very many of us—and we certainly don’t trust it. Meanwhile, thieves have managed to get their hands on more than 100 million credit card numbers and PINs from Target and Neiman Marcus. Lots of cyber thieves operate in the former Soviet republics, so maybe that new sports car in Baku or that night on the town in Sofia is courtesy of your hard-earned savings.

It’s not just the government and thieves who take advantage of the web’s weird combination of opacity and insecurity; Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and other tech companies repurpose our phones and tablets into tracking and monitoring devices. Google, for one, makes a lot of money gathering information from us and selling it to advertisers. The free conveniences we enjoy—email, endless web browsing, cats and all sorts of gossip—are not, in fact, free. They are merely clever trade-offs for information about you. In return for access to much of the world’s knowledge, we hand over valuable personal information about everything we believe, everything we’re curious about, everything we desire or fear—everything that makes us who we are, at least to the retailers, advertisers and secret government agencies on the receiving end.

It is we who are being sold. MORE