New York Times: “A consortium of major universities, using Homeland Security Department money, is developing software that would let the government monitor negative opinions of the United States or its leaders in newspapers and other publications overseas. Such a ‘sentiment analysis’ is intended to identify potential threats to the nation, security officials said.”
This is not the United States of America I know. The America I’m familiar with is a place where the actions of our leaders, whether Republican or Democrat, are regularly questioned, both by trustworthy patriots and those who observe our follies from abroad. It is a place where one can utter, “President Bush sodomizes goats in the Rose Garden during the winter,” without fear of imprisonment. It is a place where one is not labeled a terrorist threat because one expresses a view that differs from what the majority answers in the latest Gallup poll.
What good can come from “sentiment analysis?” Will this sentiment analysis understand that a person often writes strongly when they are pissed off or when they have feelings to express? Will this sentiment analysis detect subtext, nuances, and hyperbole? Will it have a head for satire? Will we bomb another nation or imprison a few writers because this “sentiment analysis” says so? Because someone misunderstood this decade’s answer to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal?”
Here is the DHS’s m.o.: “to identify common patterns from numerous sources of information which might be indicative of potential threats to the nation.”
Let us consider that bold objective. Potential threats from mere words.
Words are unarmed components assembled together with care (and sometimes not) by a writer to articulate a series of ideas and emotions. The series of ideas and emotions, expressed through articles and books, is then examined by a reader. It is the reader who decides whether to feel happiness, despair, fear, anger, resentment, and the like. It is the reader who interprets this series, using the thoughts and knowledge at his disposal, and who may or may not change his mind as a result.
Again, these thoughts and emotions come not from the words themselves, but from the readers who parse the work, which, as any English lit major knows, will have millions of interpretations. A reader might be inspired enough or give a damn enough to actually do something astonishing, but perhaps the kick was there all along and reading simply jump-started the inner drive.
The threat then resides with a population capable of being subverted or motivated by whatever criteria the “sentiment analysis” determines is bad. But is this really fair? Was A Catcher in the Rye the thing that caused John Hinckley, Jr. to attempt an assassination on Reagan? Or was Hinckley a looneytune to begin with?
Is it really the words or the people that the DHS is afraid of? What happens next? Books and websites banned? The ability to read, write, and express banned?
It must not. Civilization has advanced too long and hard for a bunch of authoritarian pricks to take away human ambition with the stroke of a pen. What they don’t know is that we have the power to use that pen too.