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April 2, 2014

It’s not what you know. It’s not who you know, either. It’s who knows what about you.
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:35 PM *

So from the Twitter account of David Graeber (as in Debt, among other things) come the following tweets:

I am sure that there will be people right along to ask how anyone can really know whether he’s being evicted, and if so, whether it is really for the reasons he states. And of course, I don’t know; I’ve never met the guy, and I am not acquainted with his circumstances. I don’t know the functionaries either, nor the officials who ordered them to act. I know that I have seen the tweets, but beyond that, I am out of the world of facts and into one of speculation, inference, and guesswork. So are most of us. Even Graeber himself cannot really know the reasons why anything has happened to him.

But, assuming arguendo that the facts and causes of the matter are exactly as stated, we are back to the matter of knowledge from a different angle: the knowledge of who was involved in Occupy Wall Street from the beginning. And not just abstract knowledge, but usable knowledge on an institutional level, knowledge that can be dispersed and acted upon, both officially and unofficially.

Knowledge is power, and there are people who have more of it than we do. Some work for governments, but some don’t. Call them, if you will, the Powers that Be. We individuals have to filter out our knowledge out of a soup of misdirection, denial, fragments1, and propaganda. TPTB, meanwhile, seem to get their knowledge undiluted at source2.

(Not that they always get good information, nor act on it when they do, mind.)

This imbalance is a palpable problem, not just for Graeber, but for us all. Whether it’s prosecution for the three felonies a day we are all alleged to commit, or mere public humiliation, the risk of abuse by means of knowledge (and the lying pretense of knowlege) is a real engine of fear. I don’t know anyone who has not chosen to do or let be, speak or be silent, with an eye to whom they might piss off and what the consequences could be.

Back when The Wire was new, I was much struck by this speech3. But even then, the choice to overlook the minor crimes of ordinary people passing their evenings in “the poor man’s lounge” seemed more of a dream than a realistic idea. Now it just sounds hopelessly naïve, even in such a gritty show. Who is using what is intelligence, to be collected, collated, and kept.

In contrast, there’s a recent novel on the subject of surveilance4 in which the protagonist who knows too much can only escape from the clutches of officialdom by pleading guilty to a minor crime. That rings more true: people in those circumstances are not acquitted in real life. TPTB, even when thwarted, do not let their critics go without a macula, a smudge, to diminish their credibility. The vindictive impulse is universal, but it’s usable knowledge that gives it teeth.

But this desire to know is not limited to the powerful, or I wouldn’t be reading Twitter. And it’s not modern, either. One aspect of Catholic doctrine is the perpetual virginity of Mary: the idea that even after the birth of Jesus, she and Joseph did not have sex. I’ve never been comfortable with that, not because I have an opinion either way, but because it’s an incredibly intrusive thing to have a doctrine about at all.

What’s modern is the amount to which the thirst for knowledge is rewarded, even for hoi polloi. I can read and muse about the troubles of relatively ordinary people I have never met, and about whom I know very little. And that curiosity has led to the kind of indexing and searching technology that allows me to check if their stories have been denied yet, and if so, by which people affiliated with what organizations. I can then research the organizations, and read critiques of the tools I used to do so.

Most of my knowledge may not be actionable, but it sure is interesting.

And at times like this, I think about how the grain for the bread of Rome came from conquered Egypt, and how her circuses were paid for by the tribute of the empire, and how the social structures that permitted the taking and holding of the empire produced the population that needed to be appeased with bread and circuses. The mitigation is the fruit of the problem, as always.

  1. Read to the end of that article. Scary stuff in there.
  2. Another article to read all the way through.
  3. The automated captions on the video are ludicrous. If you prefer to read rather than listen, a transcript of the speech is here.
  4. This is a reverse spoiler. I’m giving away the ending, but not the title. Please follow suit.
Comments on It's not what you know. It's not who you know, either. It's who knows what about you.:
#1 ::: Brad Hicks (@jbradhicks) ::: (view all by) ::: April 02, 2014, 10:40 PM:

You know, TPTB are pretty confident they can handle a few hundred or a few thousand activists. And they're clearly right. But they think that means they can handle any possible dissent to the bipartisan consensus. And they're clearly wrong.

I'm sure that Ferdinand Marcos was pretty confident he had dissent under control. I'm sure that Erick Honecker thought he had dissent under control. I'm sure that Viktor Yanukovich thought, for a while, that he had dissent under control. And for a while, each of them was right.

Did you see the World Economic Forum's 2014 report on Global Risks? They listed 11 things that could go wrong, none of them certain but none of them by any means unlikely, any one of which would be a problem for some or all of us. But then they made a more chilling observation: our leaders, both political and economic, can handle any one of those 11 things that goes wrong. And can handle any two of them at the same time, although things would go badly for a while. But if any three of them go wrong at the same time? The world political and economic system goes boom.

At that point, DHS counter-intelligence and firms like StratFor and Academe won't do them any good at all. They'll just be more things we indict them for -- or, failing that, that we shoot them for. "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible ..."

#2 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 12:36 AM:

The best historian that I know* of how the production of "not just abstract knowledge, but usable knowledge on an institutional level, knowledge that can be dispersed and acted upon, both officially and unofficially" is done is James C. Scott.** Even better, he is one of those few academics who writes relatively straightforward prose. His book Seeing Like a State argues that "knowing what folks are up to" has proven the single most difficult and enduring questions of statecraft, and that the history of government is largely the history of various rulers coming up with marginally less terrible ways of rendering people legible to state power.

Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft. The premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed "map" of its terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a metric, that would allow it to "translate" what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view. As a result, its interventions were often crude and self-defeating.
It is at this point that the detour began. How did the state gradually get a handle on its subjects and their environment? Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification. In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored.

For all their effort however, Scott doesn't think them overwhelmingly successful. His account of how successfully states can "read" their populace is remarkably pessimistic (for states; optimistic for us populace.) Mostly, states have no idea what is going on, even in the land they ostensibly control. They are fumbling around in the dark.

Scott's more recent book, The Art of Not Being Governed turns from the question of what makes it so hard to render the world legible to an examination of how people--mostly Southeast Asian hill tribes--have resisted and worked to deliberately render themselves as illegible as possible.

Not so very long ago, however, such self-governing peoples were the great majority of humankind. Today, they are seen from the valley kingdoms as “our living ancestors,” “what we were like before we discovered wet-rice cultivation, Buddhism, and civilization.” On the contrary, I argue that hill peoples are best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare.

Swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture, for example, isn't the practice of peoples who just haven't figured sedentary agriculture: it's a deliberate choice to avoid the fixity of address that makes it easy for the tax official or the press gang to show up at your door.***

Scott writes histories. Obviously, the capabilities of states to render people and landscapes legible have expanded by orders of magnitude in the last several centuries, particularly in areas other than the Southeast Asian massif. Still, it isn't a novel project, this collecting of knowledge to control and guide the masses. And even as the power to surveil and control has grown, so too have methods for subverting it. The balance has shifted, but as abi points out, we get to use this "usable knowledge" too.

And also, let us remember that the power of the panopticon isn't that you are always observed--it is that, not knowing whether or not you are observed, you must always act as if you are, and thereby discipline yourself far more intimately and ruthlessly than any taskmaster could. It doesn't take a very long look at the TSA to show that even modern statecraft is still a bumbling failure as often as not. Think of Appalachia, where for all the satellite surveillance and drones, the pot crop is valued at 4 billion dollars. We are not yet so legible as the powers that be would like us to think.

* "But--Foucault!" you say. Foucault's project, to my mind, is a little different: he is interested the same processes of legibility, but from the point of view of the subject who is being rendered legible--or how they are taught to render themselves legible. Scott writes more from the state's perspective.

** The other anarchist anthropologist.

***This perspective is hotly debated. As are all interpretations of history, right or wrong, that suggest that maybe people haven't always done what we expect them to have done.

#3 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 03:04 AM:

Stories get warped. Especially when people only read headlines. And the OWS headlines tended to blame the protestors for all the violence.

So it becomes easier to drop hints such as, "Maybe you don't want to rent an apartment to this guy."

There's an example on Twitter right now, over the Fort Hood shooting. The LA Times reporter put out a series of Tweets about an on-scene reporter being cuffed by Police. The first got re-Tweeted. The next two, which explained the Police at that time had reports of a second suspect, and that the LA Times reporter was driving the same type of car, didn't soread.

That is a distortion in a different direction, and I an not sure how conscious it was. But how much should you distrust a Policeman?

Not at all, some say, and there are plenty of news stories to support that. The world of TV shows such as Dixon of Dock Green and Heartbeat has long gone, but those fictional worlds did show some truth. Yet which came first? The new distrust, or the change in TV depictions.

Here in Britain, we did get a more "gritty" reality in shows such as Z-Cars, with cops shown under strain, but I think the actual "bad" cops hit TV later.

Was the movie Serpico the key? It was based on a real, then very live, story, a 1973 movie following a story that reached a conclusion of sorts in 1972.

At least a film or TV show fixes something. One of the things which gets under reported is how fallible human memory is, and how it can be manipulated. What does the drip-drip of small lies and slanted headlines do to our memory of times?

Do I really remember what a certain pair of SF editors looked like at Yorcon III, or is it a blend of a grainy black-and-white shot from the Seventies, and a set of more recent pictures from a trip to a firing range?

What we know, what they know, what everyone knows, is fiction. Life is an unreliable narrator.

#4 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 10:35 AM:

The old comment about "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing... but who among us is so wise as to be out of danger?" applies here as well.

TPTB grasp at knowledge, but what they really need is wisdom.

#5 ::: Phil Perspective ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 10:45 AM:

Has anyone who knows Graeber IRL been able to verify this?

#6 ::: Phil ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 10:52 AM:

@PhilPerspective: Why would you not believe the man's Twitter feed?

#7 ::: Omri ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 11:00 AM:

He says he was there since 1962. Could just be a greedy landlord wanting to clear out a rent-stabilized tnant.

#8 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 11:10 AM:

Phil Perspective @5:

Bingo! My lucky number today is clearly five.

(me @0: I am sure that there will be people right along to ask how anyone can really know whether he’s being evicted)

#9 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 11:15 AM:

Vast, unaccountable bureaucratic machinery also plays well with social control via (sometimes-correct) knowledge. Sometimes, people just get ground up in the gears of the big, powerful machinery that runs things. Did they piss someone off, and that's why they got audited, evicted, and laid off the same month? Did they just miss their saving throw vs. bureaucratic mangling?

Who can say, really? And that makes the threat (perhaps unstated) that getting the wrong stuff in your file or getting on the wrong list will screw up your life all the more scary. Why did the police turn that minor traffic stop into a two-hour humiliating ordeal? Why do the TSA guys keep making you miss your flights?

Unaccountable powerful people who can screw with you at will, and incomprehensible machinery that can screw with you at random, both encourage a kind of fearful supersitition, a desire not to somehow get on the wrong organization's shit-list. That organization may not really have any power. Or it may have vast power but little ability to focus it on someone like you. But who wants to take the risk, really?

#10 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 11:24 AM:

I guess I diasagree with the post, somewhat. If we are going to have a discusssion of the role of intelligence gathering in society, the first thing we need to know is what is actually happening.

So, if Graeber's lease is expiring, and the police go to his landlord and say, "You ought to think twice about renting to a radical activist like Graeber. Nice building you have here--be a shame if something happened to it."--well, that's a problem, and we ought to start talking about how to solve it.

But, if it's a matter of the landlord saying to himself, "That Graeber's in the news a lot. I don't like his politics. I don't want to rent to him."--well that's a very different sort of problem, and requires a very different solution, if indeed, we want to solve it at all.

And of course, there are a lot of other possibilities. All we know about what happened, really, is what Graeber tweeted, and that's pretty darned uninformative.

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."--S. Holmes

#11 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 01:11 PM:

Rea @10

"that's pretty darned uninformative."

Is it, though? I mean, you're asking questions that are easily answered by reading "what Graeber tweeted." As you say, it's all we know, so it might behoove us to know it. Holmes notwithstanding, I think Columbo would approve of doing the legwork, or in this case mousework.

(And if you aren't trying to concern-troll here, I apologize for my confrontational tone. But, well, it quacks like a duck, it conflates eviction with just not renewing like a duck, it raises specious doubts about easily-answered questions like...)

#12 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 01:34 PM:

Seconding both rea @10 and albatross @9

It would be useful to have enough detail about what's happening to at least start to think about "Is this likely to be activism-related?"

Reasons someone could be evicted range from "the apartment building is being torn down, which has been in the planning stages for 10 years" through "hasn't paid rent" to "maybe if he didn't live here they'd finish working on the sidewalk." And only some of those reasons make me even more worried about the surveillance state. (Graeber's interactions on Crooked Timber didn't leave me with the sense of someone who's a scrupulously dispassionate narrator.)

The sort of "if you do this kind of thing, the world just might fall in on you" incentives are designed to get over-compliance. In the case of most fans of such incentive structures, in most cases, that's a feature, not a bug.

#13 ::: Marja Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 01:43 PM:

SamChevre @12

"It would be useful to have enough detail about what's happening..."

Which brings us back to the original point. If the state knows what we're doing, and what dissidents are doing, and we don't know what the state is doing, there are a lot of ways they can harass dissidents and a lot of ways they can cover themselves and preserve plausible deniability.

#14 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 01:51 PM:

rea @10:
If we are going to have a discussion of the role of intelligence gathering in society, the first thing we need to know is what is actually happening.

But the point of the post is that we don't know what is actually happening. And, quite probably, we can't know.

From what I've read here and there, Graeber can be a difficult man to get along with. It's entirely possible that his landlord simply wanted him out, or that there is another tenant whom the landlord wants in. It's also possible that the landlord wanted him out because of his political views, or because he was concerned that his political views might cause a contagious kind of trouble with TPTB. It's also possible that something more sinister occurred. Likewise, it's possible that the "administrative harassment" of other OWS people that he mentions is mere confirmation bias, or it could be because of something else that they all have in common, or it could be real.

Graeber doesn't know. His fellow OWS people don't know. We don't know.

By contrast, TPTB have almost certainly got a lot of information about Graeber, the OWS people, and many other folks. They know more about some of us than we know about them: about what they know, about whom they know it about, about what they're doing with that data.

This is the imbalance in power that interests me here: not that officials are capable of hassling people they disapprove of, but the ways that different levels of knowledge affect our perceptions and our behavior. I'm not pretending to eliminate doubt and uncertainty, because I don't think they can be eliminated. I'm interested in how we deal with that doubt and uncertainty.

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."--S. Holmes

And what do you do when the data cannot be obtained? When it's hidden, buried, subtle, or indeterminate?

That's really a second line of discussion, equally useful: what should people do?

I do not, in the aggregate, agree with Holmes. If you can't prove that it's harassment, do you have to believe that it isn't? How many instances of unprovable harassment, each individually justifiable, do you have to suffer before you declare it a pattern? Like many women, like people of color and gay people and trans* people, I spend a lot of time looking at collections of individually-justifiable incidents and wondering if the pattern they form is a problem or a coincidence.

#15 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 01:51 PM:

Or, you know, what Marja Erwin @13 said.

#16 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 02:25 PM:

Devin @ 11

I mean, you're asking questions that are easily answered by reading "what Graeber tweeted."

No, not really. He doesn't state the ostensible reason for his eviction. I have been assuming that it is expiration of the lease, because if it's for nonpayment, or serious and continuing health hazard--well, it's hard to see what that could have to do with police intelligence. But also, note that he says both, "police intelligence seems to have played a role," and "almost everyone mentioned in press as involved in early days of OWS," but reading about him the newspaper isn't exactly an invasion of his privacy. And he talked about administrative harrassment, but what did that have to do with him getting evicted?

And yeah, it might behoove us to do mouse work, but I ran Google and Bing searches on "Graeber eviction" and found nothing relevant that was not simply based on his tweets.

But more broadly, I'd like to do what Abi suggests, forget about Graeber, and talk generally about police intelligence gathering--but then, what are we talking about? NYPD has a recent history of behaving atrociously toward Muslims--they shouldn't do that stuff, and the present administration in NYC says they're stopping that. On the other hand, I don't object to them trying to find serial killers, as long as they don't violate the Constitution in the process.

The point is, we need to have rules for intelligence gathering that say, "you can't do X, but you can do Y" and in order to have those rules, we have to define X and Y, and then think carefully about what should and should not be permitted in a civilized society.

#17 ::: quercus ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 02:26 PM:

Re Abi @ 14:
Holmes didn't say don't theorize before one has _proof_, he said don't theorize before one has data. So, even following Holmes, we don't have to throw up our hands at harassment and say 'we can't prove it absolutely'. But we should get data : as much as we can find out in each case whether it is possibly harassment or not, get totals so we can show aggregate bias, etc. Discrimination lawsuits have been won, based on this kind of facts, even though no single case of discrimination could be proved absolutely.

I understand you want to discuss the general issue not the particular, but I do think in this particular it makes sense to folllow Holmes and get more info, before theorizing based on a single tweet.

Though I was reflecting on how this acts much like any other discrimination, in putting an extra mental burden on the victim: there's always a bit of time wondering whether you didn't get the job/apartment/etc only because of your skin color/gender/etc. That's mental energy straight white middle class males don't ever have to spend.

#18 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 02:34 PM:

Brad Hicks @1:
At that point, DHS counter-intelligence and firms like StratFor and Academe won't do them any good at all. They'll just be more things we indict them for -- or, failing that, that we shoot them for. "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible ..."

This circles round kind of neatly to Tony Benn's five questions, doesn't it?

heresiarch @2:
A narrative that ties the Domesday Book to Snowdon is nicely crunchy. I should check that out.

Also, let us remember that the power of the panopticon isn't that you are always observed--it is that, not knowing whether or not you are observed, you must always act as if you are, and thereby discipline yourself far more intimately and ruthlessly than any taskmaster could. Very important piece in the puzzle.

Dave Bell @3:
What we know, what they know, what everyone knows, is fiction. Life is an unreliable narrator.

I am reminded of this short story by Ted Chiang. He's kind of going somewhere else in it, but one aspect of the story is precisely that: we build up these narratives around misrememberings and elisions. What happens when we can't do that any more? What happens when indexed lifelogging makes every fact checkable? Where does that bring us closer to the truth, and where not?

#19 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 02:40 PM:

Abi @ 14: I don't know what we can do, except have rules, and punish those who violate them, and try to put people we trust in charge of the matter.

Complete personal privacy isn't possible--every time you interact with someone, you give up a bit of it. And complete government transparancy both conflicts with our privacy values and is unworkable--I don't want my tax returns available online, if the government suspects you of being a serial killer, that shouldn't be public knowledge unless the government can prove it, and if NATO has broken the Russians' codes, we're probably better off not knowing that.

#20 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 03:04 PM:

rea @16:

There is a little more information in the @-replies of his Twitter stream, but he's clearly not sitting down and telling a connected narrative of the situation, and it sounds like it's quite complicated. And, as you say, this isn't just about Graeber; even if he's completely misinterpreting the situation, this is a problem that we all live with.

quercus @17:
Holmes didn't say don't theorize before one has _proof_, he said don't theorize before one has data.

Well, there's data and there's data. It's possible to acquire a non-representative subset of the available data, and end up with faulty conclusions.

rea @19:
I don't know what we can do, except have rules, and punish those who violate them, and try to put people we trust in charge of the matter.

But how do we know who has violated the rules, and how do we know who is trustworthy to enforce them?

I can't see any way around the need to live with this uncertainty. I can't see any way to know what we would need to know to be at ease.

#21 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 03:07 PM:

The theory of efficiency of markets is based on symmetrical information between the buyer and the seller. Information is a common marketplace. This identifies a serious asymmetry in the information.

#22 ::: dculberson ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 03:58 PM:

Is there something like an Occupancy Agreement in New York in rent-controlled apartments, where only people on the occupancy agreement can live in the apartment? Alternatively, the people on the occupancy agreement must live in the apartment for the lease to be valid. In the limited info in his tweets it seems like he was not listed on the Occupancy Agreement and the Landlord has kicked him out based upon that. Over-simplified: the place was leased to his parents and they have died and he's still living there but the Landlord decided he doesn't want him living there. I could be 100% wrong but that's what I came up with.

#23 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 04:14 PM:

I want to offer some clarity, if I can. Several days ago Graeber tweeted at someone that he hadn't gotten to their email because he was in New York being evicted. And indeed he'd been much less active than normal on twitter for several days.

Reading the full thread of Graeber's tweets, the story is this: his family had been living there for 52 years, and had paid the rent on time every month the whole time. He was evicted on a technicality, which was that he wasn't on the original occupancy agreement, because it was signed before he was born. His mother tried to fix the paperwork while terminally ill, but the stupidity of bureaucracy interfered until she died. He hasn't actually been living there for some amount of time, because he's been in London where he actually works now.

I don't know anything about the general pattern of harassment or the role of police intelligence, but the story as stated above seems thoroughly plausible.

Now I'll actually process the more general parts of the thread...

#24 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 04:32 PM:

estelendur @23:

Thank you. I think at this point we will draw to a close discussions of the facts of Graeber's eviction.

There is, after all, a kind of irony in going into a lot of detail in the comment thread of a post about how too much the facts of people's lives are known by strangers. And it's not a good kind of irony.

(It is true that we have a number of new posters in this thread, because it got linked to on BoingBoing. If new people do continue to discuss the matter, please don't engage them; I'll be by to sort things out myself.)

#25 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 04:37 PM:

albatross @9: I want to suggest there's a kind of alignment unaccounted for by our neat fictional representations, that you have here described, under the principle that naming a thing gives it a handle, by which one may exert power over it: Superstitious-Lawful - to follow the rules not because one believes it is a moral imperative, but because one fears the consequences if caught. This is, of course, the effect of the Panopticon, as heresiarch @2.

abi @14, it seems to me the power imbalance suggests favoring an emotional bias towards those without power, simply because they have much less control over the stories they emit in the long term, and usually less to gain from lying. It's unclear whether or not this is because I'm already emotionally biased towards those without power.

abi @24: *salutes*

#26 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 04:43 PM:

estelendur @25:

Superstitious-Lawful. I like that.

#27 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 04:49 PM:

Hmm, I think obeying the law because of the consequences if you get caught is only "superstitious" if the probability of getting caught is very small. Otherwise it's just plain practical self-preservation. Most people don't pay their taxes because they think it's a moral imperative to do so (I am an exception and I know lots of others, but alas it's not the majority at all)!

Depending on the law in question, it may also be gutless, but not necessarily superstitious.

#28 ::: Larry Brevis ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 05:13 PM:

As a writer, why don't you identify all the OWS people from the press reports and poll them about their experiences afterwards. If the state is running a revenge operation, then ALL Americans need to know this and take action to stop this.

#29 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 05:29 PM:

Larry, you're new here, and probably don't know all the players yet. Not sure who that "as a writer" is aimed at, but abi isn't a professional journalist who could that fairly huge amount of work while on the clock.

#30 ::: Richard York ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 05:49 PM:

Given the possible perversion of Twitter, it's perfectly reasonable to question any given tweet or tweets reliability. But, as Abi said, if we assume the validity of the Graeber tweets, they still leave a lot in question.

While there really is no such thing as "perfect" information, it's still possible to dig a little deeper. The most obvious issues have already been mentioned but, one more occurs to me, is this a pattern?

The potential perversity of any bureaucracy might make it a little hard to answer the question but, there were enough people in the movement whom we could question.

Then, of course, the conspiracy theorists are always with us. And, government surveillance and secrecy are just high value fodder for those folks.

Finally, as I always recommend in these situations, David Brin's Transparent Society speaks to many of these issues. Brin may be a little naive but he's worth reading. Surveillance is almost inevitable given the lowering of barriers but, we can always try to open the veil of secrecy.

Ave Snowden!

#31 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 06:43 PM:

Xopher @ 27... I too am one of those folks who consider it a duty.

#32 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 06:47 PM:

One thing that worries me is what 'they' think they know and the lack of corrective mechanism because they know they could not be wrong about what they know that they know.

Is that known as Know Theatre?

#33 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 07:10 PM:

"It appears, Holmes, that the man was murdered!"

"Shush, Watson! I am counting the tiles of the floor."


A pause.

"May I ask why?"

"How, before ascertaining the number, could I possibly comment on their relevance?"

"Oh dear. My apologies."

Another pause.

"Ah, Holmes, I do believe you might want to look the blood around the body. When you are free."


"Excellent! What have you found?"

"I can now state with certainty, my dear Watson, that the walls of this room are made of--wood!"

"That's...good, then? Cracks the case, does it?"


"The murder."

"There you are again, Watson, theorizing wildly before establishing the facts!"

"Well, the blood-splashed corpse--"

"Could have happened any number of ways!"

"--did incline me to search for a wound. A wound I did not find, suggesting perhaps it is not his blood--"

"Can't be sure it's blood!"

"Well, it seems like a reasonable working theory, doesn't it?"

"Not reasonable in the least! We must examine every detail of the crime scene--if, indeed, any crime has occurred--before undertaking anything so foolish as theorizing what might have taken place! It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."

"Yes, well. I think I'd rather work between the two extremes. While you proceed collection, I shall make inquiries regarding the deceased. Ta."

#34 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 07:13 PM:

Serge @32, Know Theatre is when the authorities act upon their knowledge-power differential. No Theatre is when they're wrong, and stars the person they act upon...

Speaking of David Graeber, his power/ignorance thing comes to mind. TPTB classify a Threat and then deploy their (literal or metaphorical) capacity for violence against it. Having done so, they are free to remain ignorant of the actual reality of the supposed Threat, because hitting someone on the head pretty reliably makes them fall over. Meanwhile the Threat and their friends are trying to figure out what's going on in the collective head of TPTB and how to appease them...

#35 ::: linnen ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 08:05 PM:

David Bell @3
"That is a distortion in a different direction, and I an not sure how conscious it was. But how much should you distrust a Policeman?

Not at all, some say, and there are plenty of news stories to support that. The world of TV shows such as Dixon of Dock Green and Heartbeat has long gone, but those fictional worlds did show some truth. Yet which came first? The new distrust, or the change in TV depictions."

That would depend on where you are sitting.

Driving While Black?
New York's whole 'Stop and Frisk' Program?
SDS during the Democratic convention in 1968?
1965'S Freedom Marchers?
Four Dead in Ohio? (Sorry that was the National Guard.)
There was the Californian "Eco-terrorist" that was put in prison for making bomb after one exploded under her car seat while she was sitting on it. I wish my Google-fu skills were better, but what I remember reading was that the state's prosecution's side had more people with those skills than hers.

The Black Bloc in 1999's WTO protest might have been authentic. The problem is all the agitators wearing riot-police issued boots in more recent protests. All these investigations against "Grannies Against War" and Puppeteers leave a COINTELPRO-taste in the mouth, ya'know?

#36 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 08:30 PM:

The problem with the Panopticon, as pointed out by Mr. Stross and our Esteemed Original Poster among others, is not just now, but forever, that the information is dangerous. And *you* don't know who will be using that information in years to come. And the change can come in the blink of an eye, or in a couple of years that everybody saw coming, but were powerless to prevent, and therefore considered themselves powerless to mitigate.

You wouldn't want to be known as somebody who thinks [this] or did [that], even when it was perfectly legal (if a bit odd), 10 years down the road when it suddenly becomes the defining pattern of the next Muslim Horde (/Latino Gang/1%er/Communist/Dukhobor/LDS/...) So you won't do it *now*. And after things have been shown to have Consequences, even when they wouldn't at the time, a few times, it's easy to self-censor on the whiff of Official Dismay - and for others to run away really really fast from you if you don't; personally, professionally, whatever.

This can be used for good (even though sometimes the sins of too long ago are not forgiven when they should be even in the "good" cases), but it's a Tool, and Tools are neutral.

I do believe that there are parts of the Panopticon that are ignored by the privileged, because the change that will bring the whirlwind is invisible to them. Sometimes it's invisible to everybody; sometimes it's that power becomes blind to itself, and the belief is "this is normal, this is how it always will be". I am reminded of the reaction of Sen. Fienstien (D-MPAA) when she realized that "stretching the boundaries to their squealing point" - which was Just Fine for months - meant she (or at least her staff) were included as well.

#37 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 09:09 PM:

abi #18: What happens when we can't do that any more? What happens when indexed lifelogging makes every fact checkable?

I haven't read the whole story, but reading the first couple of screens (irony intended) suggests that where Ted Chiang was going is roughly to my immediate answer to your questions: It changes not only human society, but human psychology. Basic assumptions shift about what counts as "real", how information acts in the world, what's "fair play" in social interactions. Different cognitive abilities become more or less useful. Social structures and norms shift.

But you know, this has happened before. I did read far enough to see that Chiang brought up the introduction of literacy, when information and stories became permanent beyond their tellers, objects that keep existing even if unread.

And then it happened again: It's the Internet (that is, not just computers, but the widespread communications network) that took "...a secret shared by two people is half a secret..." and turbocharged it into "information wants to be free".

#38 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: April 03, 2014, 10:19 PM:

linnen @ 53

how much should you distrust a Policeman?

I've got to say, having encountered many police officers over the years profesionally and personally, and cross-examined a few, that they are just . . . people, like everyone else. Some are very bad, and some are very good, and most are somewhere in between. How much should we distrust pastry chefs? How much should we distrust architects? How much should we distrust editors?

#39 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2014, 12:31 AM:

Well, here's some data on a topic at least tangentially related. The police in Rialto, CA have been required to wear body cameras while on duty since February of 2012. Since the institution of the cameras, the number of instances of police using "force" has dropped by 60%; perhaps more importantly, the number of citizen complaints against the police has dropped by 88%. Accountability seems to make a significant difference here.

#40 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2014, 12:33 AM:

rea, #38: How much damage can a pastry chef, or an architect, or an editor do to your life as a whole, by comparison with a policeman?

#41 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2014, 01:03 AM:

An architect will frequently do as much damage as a policeman -- either through serious design failure or through making choices that look pretty but are functionally really annoying. They're much less obvious because they're less immediate, in general. More chronic discomfort than acute. As a simple example: think of the problems with getting architects to design for people with mobility problems. (It's important to remember that the majority of policemen, like the majority of architects, seem to cause few problems; and that chronic low-level problems are more common than catastrophic ones, in both cases, AFAICT.)

#42 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2014, 04:14 AM:

Tom Whitmore #41: Yeah, but the architect is way more likely to be called out by his professional peers.

#43 ::: linnen ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2014, 09:10 AM:

rea @ 38;
Well, yes? I guess I made my point too elliptical.

Police are people, with all the quirks and humors associated with humans. In general (and ignoring the rising SWAT responses,) interactions with police are normal enough that the occasional bad cop is considered a caricature. For most people ... a lot of people? ... Um, for people of a social class or higher, perceived as cis-oriented and cis-gendered, perceived as part of dominant religion, social clubs and associated communities.

It depends on where you are sitting.

#44 ::: sgt_doom ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2014, 02:01 PM:

Anyone who is so militantly ignorant as to think this is unusual, must have missed ALL those preemptive arrests of various organizers and activists during the Bush and now Obama administrations.

Also, strongly suggest anyone that militantly ignorant to read A Dream Foreclosed, by Laura Gottesdienr, as well as the FCIC report, paid for with taxpayer monies, ya know?

#45 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2014, 04:17 PM:

Just as a kind of a general note, if your comment shows that you haven't read the original post or the comment thread (if, for instance, it presumes attitudes or statements that have not been expressed in the thread), you're likely to be ignored.

This goes doubly so if you're expressing contempt of either the attitudes that have actually been expressed, or the ones that you think have been expressed. Because contempt makes for pretty crap conversation, and we don't do that round these parts.

#46 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2014, 05:11 PM:

Thanks, abi. I couldn't figure out how to say it that well.

#47 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 04, 2014, 07:58 PM:

There's always one. In the better online communities, there may be only one -- but then you sometimes get others coming in from other places.

#48 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2014, 04:21 AM:

I think I've got a slightly different take on the last couple of lines of the OP.

For those who don't know me - I seem to have lapsed into lurkerdom here in the last couple of years - I live and work in Turkey. (I am, as they say, an economic migrant.) There's been quite a lot of political protest in the last year; and much of it has met with violent - and sometimes fatally violent - responses from the police.

In the past, I'd have found this terrifying - and perhaps I still should: Turkey's got a violent, authoritarian past not so very far behind it, and thirty years or so ago, plenty of people in my learn of work were being locked up, sent to prison and worse. It's conceivable that we'll see the same again in the near future (although it will be different people doing the locking up.) Under the circumstances, the idea that it's relatively easy for the police to find out who I've been talking to should seem like a nightmare. And certainly, it's not something that I'm particularly happy about. But the other side of that is that it's relatively easy for people who aren't the police to find out who I am, and who I've been talking to, and for me to do the same. One of the good sides of this is it means I'm in a position to know more about what's going on than I would otherwise. And, although being an economic migrant puts me in a rather strange position, I get the impression that I'm not the only person in this position. And so, for the time being, I feel it's safe enough to stay. (And I have the feeling that other people, similarly placed, are making similar decisions.)

Which is as much to say: we're sometimes encouraged to think of the curiosity that the Internet allows us to satisfy as 'idle curiosity'; but at least some of the time it's life-enabling, and possibly even life-saving curiosity.

(And for strangers in our midst - I'm fully aware of, and reflective about - the ironies involved in my posting this under a pseudonym. But old habits die hard, and sometimes find themselves new purposes.)

#49 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2014, 04:25 AM:

Lee @47:

We've had several, mostly with no posting history here, probably because we got boingboinged. On the other hand, I would present you Marja Erwin @13 who, though brief, was engaged and had read the entry.

#50 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: April 05, 2014, 08:33 AM:

Indeed, I still hold out hope that Marja, whose one comment was so brilliantly succinct, will come back and contribute more.

#51 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2014, 12:01 PM:

Serge Broom @31: I too am one of those folks who consider it a duty.

For me it's less duty than simple laziness. I find paying taxes to have stuff "just handled" is a lot less effort than fretting about whether it's going to get done and who's going to pay for it when.

#52 ::: Andrew Wells ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2014, 02:04 PM:

heresiarch @33, I am much amused :-)

#53 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: April 12, 2014, 10:47 PM:

My 2c:

1. I pretty much always trust policemen. But then, I'm a white cis-hetero male of the professional class in a country with low rates of endemic corruption. In other words, the police are pretty likely to be on my side in most situations.

2. With regard to the OP, even if David Graeber is wrong about OWS protestors being singled out, in any society where paranoia is indistinguishable from law enforcement strategies is well on the road to becoming a police state.

#55 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2014, 10:02 PM:

John A Arkansawyer @ 54: Police raid over a parody Twitter account? That's scary.

#56 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: April 17, 2014, 10:08 PM:

janetl @ 55: Yep. All those guns and kevlar vests can't make you brav...oh, wait. You meant to the victims.

#57 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2014, 04:21 AM:

Chris Lawson @53: I don't really trust policemen, probably because I've spent so much time reading about activists and marginalized folk who end up on the wrong side of law enforcement, despite being neither an activist nor marginalized.

But I really commented so I could quote this in an agreeing way:
any society where paranoia is indistinguishable from law enforcement strategies is well on the road to becoming a police state

Also, possibly, a society where protecting a politician's public reputation from parody twitter accounts is indistinguishable from law enforcement.

#58 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2014, 09:26 AM:

estelendur @57: I had an acquaintance with an interesting history who once commented:

"What I like about living in a police state is that everyone is polite."


"Everyone is polite because no one knows who the secret police are."

Already a lot of us feel it is only prudent to be careful what one says.

#59 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: April 18, 2014, 03:40 PM:

Rob Rusick @58, my Latin professor once said "the Roman version of the NSA. Which was everyone around you."

#61 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2014, 10:50 AM:

I'd say this is leading back to the saying that "free speech means it's safe to be unpopular". Secret police make it not safe.

#62 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2014, 03:20 PM:

I believe that the policy of excluding evidence that was gathered improperly was a result of there being no other way to punish police.

#63 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: April 19, 2014, 04:18 PM:

More precisely, no other way to discourage the practice. Most DAs wouldn't care if the police were punished if the evidence were still allowed!

#64 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: April 20, 2014, 02:26 AM:

My memories of my high school civics teacher's explanation of the Exclusionary Rule are that "The year before the court made that rule, NYC's police didn't bother getting any search warrants. The year after it was passed, they needed to get them if they wanted to win in court, so they'd get them."

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