Privacy Advisor

PRIVACY IN POPULAR CULTURE: This NSA PRISM Story Isn’t Funny … Except When It Is

June 12, 2013

By Sam Pfeifle
Publications Director

This NSA PRISM and online surveillance story is enormously important. It has opened up a new nationwide, perhaps global, discussion on personal privacy and the tradeoffs people are willing to make between privacy and security. It may lead to new law, new cultural norms, new technology.

However, it has already led to some excellent material for some very funny people. We would be seriously remiss if we didn’t sift through it a bit.

First, however, it must be said that exactly zero of the “Can you hear me now?” jokes are funny. I’m sorry. They were cliché years ago. That a professional like Marshall Ramsey (Creators Syndicate) went with this just seems lazy to me:

 

Talk about a layup. (Similarly, there are also dozens of vanity Twitter accounts, like https://twitter.com/PRISM_NSA, but I haven’t really found a funny one yet.)

Plenty of other editorial cartoonists stepped up their game, though. I like this one from Mike Thompson (Creators Syndicate), though it would have been nice if he’d actually identified Xi Jingping correctly:

Of course, the joke would probably be lost on most Americans if he’d used the Chinese leader’s name… But that’s another matter.

One thing Americans definitely understand, though, is Facebook. Which is why I love the simplicity of this image I’ve seen shared dozens of times, though I can’t discover the original creator:

So elegant. If only they’d used “NSA” instead of “CIA.” The poor CIA – they get blamed for stuff just kind of out of hand (by the way, I wouldn’t want to be the marketing guy for the National Speakers Association). There’s a funny piece in the novel World War Z where a former CIA operative goes on a screed about how, to paraphrase, “it’s not like the CIA was actually collecting information on everything everybody did.” I love it when a novelist’s imagination is outdone by reality.

That’s the baseline premise of one of the funniest recurring segments I’ve come across, actually, from the consistently funny Daily Show. They’ve launched the quite brilliant series “Good News! You’re Not Paranoid.” Take a look here:

The open is particularly brilliant - “Brought to you by tinfoil: Why not wear it as a hat?” – but I’ve also got an affinity to the riff on IT guys and their power-hungry nature: Yeah, you can read my e-mail any time you want? That’s great. “In the meantime, can you just get my f’ing Excel to work? I’ve got a presentation in half an hour.”

Of course, the other tactic is to go over the top with a healthy dose of profanity (the Internet has been a boon to folks who like to swear on video). Funny or Die delivers in a big way here, with a spoof of a spokesman announcing a new program on behalf of AT&T and Verizon, Operation: Everyone Talk Like a Terrorist All the Time.

The premise? “If we all openly discuss terrorist plots in each of our phone conversations,” well, listening in will become irrelevant. “We just need to work it into our daily vernacular.”

Just watch (not safe for conservative workplaces…):

If you don’t laugh out loud at that, well, you are not easily amused. (Make sure to check out Andy Borowitz’s work on this issue for The New Yorker, too. He’s been knocking pieces out of the park with things like “Useful Phrases for the Surveillance State.”)

For some of the best contributions to this global comedy show at the NSA’s expense, though, you’ve got to be a little more embedded in nerd culture. The sublime comic series xkcd offers this, for example:

Dwarf Fortress has been described as “the most inscrutable video game of all time,” so no worries if you don’t get the joke. But there’s something kind of a priori funny about the comic anyway, right? Is the U.S. government really playing an epic game of Dwarf Fortress when it comes right down to it?

And if you’re into nerd culture, you know that no giant public discussion can exist without spawning a Tumblr account to take advantage of it. My personal favorite at the moment is the visionary Obama Is Checking Your Email, which consists of nothing but Obama looking at computer screens and his Blackberry. You know, like this:

I’m not sure why it inspires instant giggling for me. Your reactions may vary. But a simple joke like that sometimes has the most legs. (As a side note: Do you think Obama himself paid to buy this URL that other people might confuse with that aforementioned Tumblr?)

Oh, and if there’s one trend that trumps even instant Tumblr accounts it’s the rise of the memes. Surf the Internet much, then you know the base group of images used to make a joke. Suffice it to say that everyone and your mother has taken a swing at Obama and the NSA this way.

Such as, crazy ex-girlfriend:

Nicely modified with the NSA logo in the background, no? I can’t show you any of the outraged Jean Luc Picard ones, since they all contain requisite profanity (it’s part of the joke), but how about at least one more from distraught suburban girl:

Seriously, you think the NSA could at least lend a helping hand.

Okay, okay, one last meme to bring this survey to a close. Sure, this NSA surveillance story is a big one, but, as with anything the mainstream media gets their teeth into, it’s a certainty that things have been blown out of proportion. Such is the reminder we’re given from Too Damn High guy:

I mean, these NSA jokes aren’t even fresh. Heck, check this piece put together by the always-on Onion back in 2011:

That’s right, just about half the Internet-using world has been doing the NSA’s job for them for years… So what's all the fuss about?