In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 poem Ozymandias, a traveller from an “antique land” tells of “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” standing in the desert. The shattered visage of ruler Ozymandias lies half buried in the sand, bearing a “sneer of cold command.”
The poem is a meditation on the power of time to reduce emperors to dust and empires to rubble.
Time has been on my mind lately. It was just over a month ago the massacre at the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo commanded global attention. The event and its aftermath burned hot and fast in the news for a two-week period, aided by the quickly-released “Je Sui Charlie” app from Apple.
The attack in Paris claimed 12 lives, versus 2,000 reportedly killed the same week by Boko Haram extremists in Nigeria. Boko who? The latter story has dropped into the cultural vaultzheimer that previously swallowed KONY 2012, two missing Malaysian airline flights, and Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in the Gaza Strip.
The above items are available for our inspection and recollection through a quick Google search. But who has time for the recent past when the focus for content providers and news consumers alike is now, now, now?
It’s all about monetizing the moment. By the time one big event has occurred, with an attendant explosion of online discussion, flaming, and sockpuppetry, the news cycle spits out some new disaster, significant or trivial.
Glenn Greenwald likely understood this. Some have accused the US journalist and constitutional lawyer of hoarding Edward Snowden’s leaked documents for his own profit and glory. Instead of dumping all the NSA whistleblower’s material online, Greenwald decided to publish instalments over time by partnering with select newspapers and the investigative news website, The Intercept (portions also appeared in his 2014 book, Nowhere to Hide).
Greenwald already had an object lesson in how not to work with classified documents. In 2010, WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange arranged with major newspapers around the world to release material from leaked Iraqi war logs and US State Department cables. The data dump could have supplied these papers for months if not years of material, but the reporting fizzled out in fairly short order.
Perhaps management at some of these organizations felt that readers’ attention spans could not sustain a long-term focus on recent history, as opposed to the present moment (the cables dated from 1966 to 2010). Or perhaps the material was simply too radioactive. In any case, the US and UK press then turned on the messenger, making the character of Assange – and trumped-up claims of criminality – the focus of the story.
Greenwald’s timed-released efforts also aren’t immune to information overload. The public is becoming inured to further revelations from Spookworld, it appears. Last week, a report in The Intercept claimed the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ hacked into European SIM card manufacturer Gimalato, leaving cell phone users across the world wide open to surveillance. It seemed, to quote Roger Waters somewhat out of context, “just another brick in the wall.”
On the plus side, filmmaker Laura Poitras’ film about Edward Snowden, Citizen Four, won the 2015 Academy Award for best documentary. Yet to date the Snowden leaks have not resulted in any significant policy changes on warrantless wiretapping, or inspired challenges to the arbitrary authority of the alphabet agencies in the US, the UK, or Canada. What the spy revelations have done is make for some great popcorn entertainment, while the tentacles of national security tighten further around a distracted population.
If Shelley lived today to pen Ozymandias, his contribution would just be a small piece of entertainment, a bare snippet of html, blown along in a dust storm of digital media. Yet his words remind us that the sands of time eventually claim all things; the powerful and powerless alike. That not-so trivial truth feels both disconcerting and liberating at the same time.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.”
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The Vancouver Courier, Feb. 27