Archive for June, 2013

Usable Pasts

June 21, 2013

Much of history—emphasis on story and, yes, too often it does still belong to a him—is not about what actually happened, but what it is useful to tell ourselves happened. Here is an exemplary and well-told NYT story about the collapse of a “usable past” which had held in place in postwar Italy for decades. What held it in place was the degree to which it served the myth that, during WWII, most of Italy—its institutions and its mostly heroic individuals—resisted the worst encroachments of the Nazis.

Once you start seeing much of official/national/textbook history as driven at least in part by this search for a usable past—think: World War Two was fought to save the Jews; Rosa Parks was just a tired black woman looking for a place to sit down; Reagan ended the Cold War—it can function in the manner of a key to unlock what’s most fascinating about the unknowable past: the role it plays in our present.

Image below: the bed of Procrustes. Should the legs of the bed’s proposed occupant prove too long, they would be rudely shortened in order to fit the fixed dimensions.

What if we needed the seams? Thoughts on the portentous Facebook-NSA nexus…

June 20, 2013

It’s not my nature to be paranoid or apocalyptic, but I’m starting to feel an alarming tug in both directions. Consider for a moment, as this NYT article on the Facebook-NSA nexus does, the current array of public and private incentives to monitor and mine our activities. Then combine those incentives with the ever-improving technology allowing both public and private actors to give freer rein to their darkest impulses whilst spurring each other on to greater heights in pursuit of their converging goals.

On the “public” side—if such a reassuring adjective still applies—the government collects and stores our data the better to police and discipline us. If need be, we’ve been told it can even go “back in time” in search of deviant behaviour. Initially, the policing is carried out by algorithms but gradually—”it is not easy to become sane,” as O’Brien tells Winston Smith at the end of 1984—through a combination of fear and the desire to conform, we learn to do this work ourselves before the algorithms even need to flag us. Data mining, as someone has remarked, is not about finding a needle in a haystack, it’s about incrementally moving the haystack.

On the private side, the incentives are obvious: harvest and process our data in the name of monetizing our activities; in a twist on the just-in-time production model, provide us with products before we’ve even become aware we want them.

In both domains—of citizen or consumer—the functioning is seamless: we become equally scrutable, equally benign. But what if we needed the seams? I’m imagining a world like WALL-E where the only things left roaming the earth aren’t genial robots, but algorithms trolling for data, programming Pandora™ stations with no one left to hear the music…