Data economy, surveillance, systems of systems, and how datasource population fights back-- pointing the finger at Bill Vollmann (and all of us)
In 1982, writer William T. Vollmann who would go on to write An Afghanistan Picture Show about his experiences a decade later, went to fight with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion.
This is an interesting thing in the context of what would be one of his more famous essays a few years later: FOIA-ing his own file from the FBI, from which he learns he was at one point suspected to be the Unabomber. He spends much of his essay on this experience talking about how own love for America. He sees America as trying to help globally, or at least formerly having tried to do so, and as an American, he feels its his duty to try to help as well; this is why he went to Afghanistan.
My motives for writing this story are conventionally American. I value my freedom to be what others may not wish me to be. I am proud to read whichever book I want, from The Satanic Verses to S&M pictorials to the speeches of Saddam Hussein. Although I sometimes write about politics, I do not consider myself political — or is it in fact political to hold some degree of disrespect for whichever fellow citizens have been set in power over me? In this, if Steinbeck is to be believed, I am very American: “Americans almost without exception have a fear and a hatred of any perpetuation of power — political, religious, or bureaucratic.” Yes, like my father, I am proud to be an American, at least sometimes. (Shortly before he died, in 2009, he told me: “I used to be proud to be an American. Now I’m ashamed.”) I’m proud that when I’m ashamed I can say so without being hauled off to a secret prison. I must love any government that allows me to excoriate it…
This essay is mostly concerned with my FBI file. After a Freedom of Information Act request (the power of which act makes me proud again), an appeal, and a lawsuit, “785 pages were reviewed and 294 pages are being released.” I expect they hoarded more in their vaults, because “potentially responsive records were not in their expected location,” and two attempts to find them “met with unsuccessful results.” Also, “[i]n accordance with standard FBI practice, this response neither confirms nor denies the existence of your subject’s name on any watch list.” Gee whiz…
He also attributed the right to a FOIA request to these freedoms as an American that prove his case. He, somewhat paradoxically in this essay, refers to the intelligence state as The Unamericans, and voices deep concern for the implications of NSA programs like PRISM, which is he correct to do, however, what he’s describing is uniquely, singularly American— not merely Stasi-esque sourcing of leads on the Unabomber (of which he was one of many thousands reported by friends and family— in his case, I suspect he was reported by a fellow novelist who drew a lot of comparisons to Vollmann), but a national security apparatus pointed directly at every datapoint that is possible collect about a person’s quotidian activity on or offline. This isn’t incidental, it’s structural to the United States’ global hegemony, and Vollmann’s assertion that the ability to call it such is the freedom it’s ostensibly there to protect (albeit, agreeing that it’s anti-democratic, and is “Unamerican”), that’s the flaw in his reasoning, and makes him the effective cover for the sort of limited hangout that, absent it, might make someone like Vollmann more an activist. But, as he says of his generation:
These ideas that I have are predicated on the notion, common to my fading generation, that my private life is no one’s business.
In the finest tradition of American post-modernism, when faced with an apparent inconsistently, the reality that it probably didn’t matter all that much to the value of the analysis to the holder to begin with— rationalization is window dressing, and will exist separately from other, more substantive, public commentary. An interesting framing for this issue.
I mentioned this being a limited hangout, and I think Vollmann is saying that he, personally, is satisfied with being biased in this way by accepting it as sufficient, not misreported or curated, if not merely incomplete, truth— his assertion would hold with the majority opinion (a strange overlap for a decidedly non-mainstream guy), money ultimately can solve most problems; yes, there’s suppression, but you ultimately won’t be censored for it by the state; yes, the surveillance state is overreaching and anti-democractic; and yes, these problems can be rationalized away by categorizing it an Unamerican—”The Unamericans do not snoop into our lives for the purpose of awarding us medals.” a statement which professes his position that America is something one can be proud of, if they accept the narrative that these things are atypical of the experiment and not foundational to it, and perhaps there’s an argument there, when you consider the motives of who pursues political power in this country, rather than considering who actually wields it (hint: the very people he spends the entire piece in an adversarial juxtaposition to):
Her case boils my blood. Every now and then I remember the people my government detains at Guantánamo year after year without trial and I try to put myself in their shoes. This is not a thought experiment I enjoy.
My three encounters with the Unamericans would hardly justify this essay were they not, so to speak, the hoofprints of the interesting creatures I seek to track.
This is partly why I find his position as it pertains to his own situation, and that of Americans, so challenging a concept given that he also admits a generational bias to disengage entirely without acknowledging that tthese two desires are incompatible with the professed reality.
I became familiar with Vollmann’s work through his novel Europe Central, a WWII epic that follows some pretty disparate figures from military, to political, to revolutionary, to the state-cultrual (Shostakovich, for example, who also authors the epigraph of the novel), and including these figures from across Europe in various contexts in relation to one another during this time suggests that Vollmann not only believes, but is specifically demonstrating, the geopolitical lens of historiographical analysis— something you cannot write about Europe (or at least not well) without doing. This position has taken fire from those studying everything through a Marxist interpretation, which is a valid position within a very limited set of constraints, because ultimately, class struggle will manifest differently, and ultimately, it will require geopolitical analysis to understand what the class struggle truly was, which is something Vollmann does in this novel very well.
Take the example of the French Revolution: Initial analysis of its history pointed towards a peasant revolt, which is only true if you consider for whom, and what interests, they were fighting— ultimately, the peasants of the Gentry and that of the Monarchy, not for the peasants’ liberation, but that of the Gentry to rule a nation they felt they’d paid, but not fought, for the right. It wasn’t until the third Revolution that this could even be a remotely true analysis and not be excluding crucial detail to have it work. When you consider that the “ruling class” in this 1789 revolution consituted, both, the Gentry and the Monarchy, but also American elite, British elites and its own monarchy, and the fact that the precipitating factor for France’s finances at the time of the revolution were because of foreign war, the discussion must necessarily become about geopolitics, and it becomes clear that it’s not so simple as who literally fought the war, but who instigated it and why.
So, it’s possible, in my mind anyway, that he’s taking a position that this, ultimately, is one part of a much larger system articulating its concern about him, rather than someone of consequence:
I confess that I felt offended when I read New Haven’s account of my colleagues’ deaths in Bosnia in 1994: “[I]mmediately after the attack he drags the bodies of the two dead correspondents onto the ground and takes graphic photographs of the corpses.” In fact I pulled my friends out of the car first hoping that they were alive and could be saved, then thinking that should there ever be an inquiry into their deaths, for the sake of “justice” or perhaps to give their loved ones peace, photographs would be useful. (Later I did publish the least gruesome of those pictures; I was a war correspondent, and what I witnessed was an act of war.) I am proud that in the midst of my shock and grief I kept the presence of mind to do this. If you know combat veterans you may well know that an outsider’s flippant summation of one of their personal calamities will not be appreciated. Indeed, it will be considered an insolent violation of their sorrow. Such was my reaction. After reading this passage, I found myself wanting to buy my New Haven spook a drink and say, “This is how it really was. I’ll let you off this time, but try to be more considerate of your other suspects.” But “spook,” unfortunately, is all too appropriate a word for an Unamerican; he ghosts around, haunting my telephone and mailbox, but never becomes my living equal.
It was an opportunity for him, in being targetted as an individual, to reflect on a systemic truth about armed conflict (something about which he’s written extensively), how this mirrors the internal experience of participation in it on some level, and to dismiss this concern as misguided, flippantly even, deprives this agent of their power over him. The sort of libertarian ideal that might make him a good Unabomber suspect in the first place, something he readily admits.
In one instance, in reviewing his file, he speaks to the limits of the surveillance apparatus as it existed in decades past:
It was mildly interesting to descry the limits of Unamerican knowledge. On one occasion, I had flown to the Canadian Arctic by way of Toronto. As far as the Unamericans could tell, I had stopped at Toronto. Their summary: “VOLLMANN is known to have traveled to Beirut” (where I’ve never been), “Afghanistan and Pakistan during periods of unrest which, at the time, may not have been served by UAL or had suspended service.”
Where, in this case, the heuristics used fail factually, creating false positives for Vollmann; he spends a lot of this essay personifying the “spooks” who tailed him, tasked with learning his history, so it’s easy as a reader to take this as either an assertion of the tools being overbroad for otherwise ineffectual operators tasked with quotidian surveillance of higher-than-normal interest citizens, or that there is simply too much entered into the record to be of any factual use, but used to build a narrative…to do what, exactly?
I think Vollmann introduces a fascinating question about the surveillance state. As he mentions, he’s not only obviously not the Unabomber, he’s not particularly put upon by the surveillance state as a suspected terrorist in any meaningful way beyond this incidental entry onto their radar through another artist’s own entanglement with the law: so, what exactly is this all for, and how does the average person reconcile this, especially if they fundamentally believe, as Vollmann does, that American culture can be so thoroughly dominated by singularly-American “Unamerican” deep state lackeys and still overcome and basically be a decent place with reasonable freedoms? Conventional wisdom of the left is that, well, it can’t, and there’s a lot to support that position, but taking a step back from Vollmann’s commentary specifically, and focusing on the questions, perhaps it takes the rebuke of technologists (Vollmann is a former programmer, but this does not factor heavily into his analysis here) against the tools of surveillance to nullify it.
In 2012, I was tasked with interviewing an acquaintance about their work and work up a profile piece, I guess, as part of an assignment for a non-fiction creating writing course, and I chose a friend from whom many of my early technological-political positions were influenced. This was a very interesting time to be entering the workforce as a technologist, not least because it meant my ethics had to confront the reality of the role of tech companies in complying, or resisting, with the wishes of the surveillance state from my first day as a full-time employed technologist working in an enterprise infrastructure provider.
“How many times have you used a computer and thought about how much control you actually don’t have?” asked Aaron, then-24, a programmer in Houston, Texas. I met Aaron through the local developer scene, he wrote backend Java at a waste management company serving Houston’s south side. By this, he means, how many times in a day do you encounter a computerized process— probably thousands knowingly, and passively or indirectly? Probably millions.- that can, in an instant, change or even ruin your life in an instant, but most of these interactions are pretty straightfoward. Most interactions create a simulation of free will, where the system architecture defines the rules you have to play by. It’s not an artificial intelligence, it’s a cop— authority for its own sake, or else everything from the lights in Houston, TX’s midtown ideally being syncronized to those in Downtown on one side of I-45 and the other, to any one of the ways every move you make in the physical world is tagged in some form or another, leaving impressions.
The big story at the time was emerging news about the National Security Agency’s PRISM program’s end-to-end infiltration into every level of the consumer and enterprise and infrastructural technical stack, but before that, we had this question of metadata— the suggestion being that it wasn’t logging your activity, just data about that activity, which seems like it’s less personalized, but it’s actually just breadcrumbs to develop a narrative around. This is, of course, one of the more nefarious things a digital footprint, a mandatory one at that, is developed to do. There is no off the grid anymore.
Aaron’s theory of change is essentially this: if you assume everything will be used against you and are powerless to meaningfully challenge it and remain secure in the role of a worker in late capitalism, you can response in one of two ways, passive compliance with the rules, or have some fun with it, which in his case, he partly attributes to being autistic; he can not only process massive amounts of data on any topic he’s sufficiently interested in for hours and days on end, he can manufacture it too about things he is not, for the expressed purpose of obscuring said interests.
This is a human applications example of something called deniable encryption: Assuming an encryption key is known by somebody, if it can be accurately extracted (for example, by torture of someone who knows it— a method dubbed rubber-hose cryptanalysis), it is unprovable what decrypted plain-text data is valid or accurate or of use. This comes with its own risks, of course, but for the purposes of finding data about someone, the sheer amount of garbage data makes this an exercise in establishing truth value rather than fact-finding. On the one hand, in the near-term, it puts the subject of said data at risk by all of it being theorhetically case-building against them (Aaron is a Black man in Houston who often is not the most at-ease in social situations— he noted at the time that he was very aware of how this can backfire, something that would prove prescient in many cases of police violence in the next several years), but in sufficient quantities, with sufficient volume in the population, all online people search data would be known to be useless in the extreme majority of cases. This is the plausible deniability that allows users, in Aaron’s estimation, to fight back against the then-exploding scene of Big Data proliferation.
The idea of applying this defensively for users originates with none other than Julian Assange and Suelette Dreyfus— the rubberhose filesystem relies on a similar data model. The goal is to make randomized data indistinguishable from non-random data, when reading the stream of the encrypted data:
We could go on and on about how to implement this as a technical matter, and indeed, the project, itself, was last supported on the Linux kernel in version 2.2 (on today’s date in 2021, Ubuntu’s most recent long-term supported release uses a 5.4 branch kernel)— there are more enhanced ways of protecting data that don’t assume it will eventually be compromised, but are intended to be used that there’s always a vulnerability, no perfect encryption. The proliferation of retail quantum computing (this is largely on a Functions-as-a-Service-style model— you won’t run a quantum node, but you can schedule workloads to a quantum CPU on many major cloud providers) now arriving makes complexity a weaker barrier to cracking a code than ever. This is what remains so compelling to me about Aaron’s idea: If you assume humanity is the weak link in what would otherwise be demonstrable through mathematical proof, then it stands to reason that the answer is solidarity in humanity to passively resist that which weeks to coerce you into passive consumption and mainlining your data through its (literal and political) machinery— if you’re a normal person, the easiest way to do that is, at least in Aaron’s case, filling a blog and many forums and fake news sites with manuscripts about everything from formal logic to fonts for dyslexia to scaffolds for every web project that came to mind; it tells you everything, but it also tells you nothing. You won’t find him on social media, not even in a comments section, no version of himself exists online to turn any of this information into a profile of a real person— these are just things he wrote, not statements of belief, just raw data.
On a long enough graph of activity, it paints an incredibly ineffective portrait of an otherwise very complex person— where he goes? Sure Google Maps will give all that way, any time you pass by a home with open WiFi, within reach of any NFC device, any time you pass another person equipped with the same device, all of the machinery is there, and we find ourselves in 2021 faced with the horrifying spectre of what contact tracing would mean to be implemented in the United States. The problem is that no matter how histrionic commentators want to be about how that would make us no different than China, the reality is that we already do these things, but unlike China, the corporate autocracy holds the data— give it away for the sake of public health? Hardly, at least not when there’s money to be made from it. We’re propagandized to hell and back about what an efficient state-use of this technology in the public interest would be like because if we had a good faith discussion about who wields this power, the horrifying reality is that you’re much more likely to die as a result of Google having this information, and the COVID infection rates and spread speak to this morbid reality that saving lives is simply not a priority for a state that takes its cues from corporate lobbies (directly, as in you can vote for who you want, but their platform will depend on who gives them money and in exchange, if they can’t directly influence policy, they can surely get elected those with amenable politics— this is the entire pretext of something like Citizens United v. FEC, you no longer, and have not for some time, live in a democracy that is decided by voters, but by the money spent in an election).
So, what’s the connection here? Well, saturating that data to near worthlessness disincentivizes a profit motive for “Surveillance Valley” seeking to commoditize personal data for commercial not humanitarian or even sociologically valuable ends, and those tasked with parsing data from the plurality of compromised Internet infrastructure in our homes (everything from routers to personal computers) to the network backbone (during the PRISM disclosures, it was reported that network equipment in datacenters were intercepted, compromised, then delivered to these facilities— even if the vendor didn’t participate willingly, it was made certain that they did). This forces, either, the corporatist nation-state to, either, abandon the project, become responsive to municipalist pressure, or persist in collection with ever diminishing return on the data that is only valuable as long it contains something other than a plurality of garbage data on most people— this changes the perception of trust in that data, even if the interest in buying and selling it does not, which can exist, but doesn’t prosper, absent utility.
In framing of the “Unamericans” as not necessarily incompetent, but susceptible to misconclusion as a result of data collection reassambling a narrative in an unhelpful way used by Vollmann about his own intelligence file, it’s the sort of ineffectual tyrant’s lot to be an object of ridicule in the face of mounting opposition and having its own expectations of conduct used against them, something against which they never become adequate. It’s Orwellian in that way, not a 1984 way, but one of Orwell’s direct experience as a Burmese police officer in the waning British imperial government there:
He’s asked by the locals to intervene, there’s an elephant rampaging in the marketplace, it ultimately kills a man, so he’s now within the law to kill the elephant, something he doesn’t want to do. “I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.” Orwell writes of the experience. His narrative here is that there’s open hostility, open derision of British authority in Burma by this time, his presence there is no longer hegemonic, but performative, and after all, to be a tyrant, one must behave like one:
They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things.
In failing to be resolute, at long last, the British colonial rule loses its illegitimate claim to governance, just as Orwell feels he risks a loss of public standing if he fails to act in accordance with, not the expectations of the Burmese, but those of the colonial government which the Burmese simply, correctly, hold him to— he has to comply desperately, or admit illegitimacy of his power as an officer, with derision just around the corner all the same, his—and that of the Empire’s by the middle of the 20th century- whole purpose in Burma “was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”
Colonial power and contemporary life in the United States are two not totally different things, but the principle applies in a specific way— who empowers those who actually wield power in the United States? It’s certainly not by popular election that the surveillance state manipulates, demonstrably, world politics. There’s the saying that if something’s free, then you are the product, but if that’s so, your market ability to manipulate that product should be self-evident— in Orwell’s case, for example, it took being taken for a joke, laughed out of society for your ineffectiveness as a public servant, finding yourself on the disadvantageous side of your own power dynamic.
“I’ve come to recognize that questions of law and justice are at the same time questions of power.” wrote Vollmann in Europe Central, and in the modern surveillance economy (where you’re the product, etc. etc. etc.), where is power derived from in this context if not the availability and flow of useful information— a preponderance of manufactured histories for everyone in society also, necessarily, manufactures a legitimacy crisis, especially if, like the intelligence state, dossiers aren’t being built to enforce the law, but predict behavior that isn’t criminal just merely undesirable, or in the case of Vollmann, potentially ideological, if you take their interest in him for what it implies about his potential for the criminality of the Unabomber— he was baselessly accused of a crime on circumstantial, and apparently false, information about his life, with no connection with the information on the crime he was being investigated for, and yet this record not only persisted, but grew in significance, as he learned, from a point prior and in the time since.
Yet, by his own admission, it wasn’t an altogether improbable or even incomprehensible (for an innocent man) set of dots to connect, and that’s the danger; is wrong data, coupled with a state content to commit to the record wrong data, and then conduct a manhunt on the basis of that data, tell us that it’s required to saturate the datapool, taint its value— it is factual, but has questionable truth value, and does the volume of this data, intentionally or not presented as reality through an unforced error- to understand the quotidian failures of such a surveillance method even if it is “effective” (for whatever ends a state might want to accomplish, for good or ill) in the near term because (not in the case of Vollmann, of course) proved correct based on premises that were not. What is presented is almost this quantum state of, both, being guilty and innocent, and that’s the metaphysical proposition under our current system because, while the law is that you’re innocent until proven guilty, this rarely bears out, and with a guy like Vollmann (to say nothing of people who are simply profiled irrespective of whether or not the profiler has any knowledge about them whatsoever— racially, etc.) it’s not hard, as he might agree, to suggest he’s up to something and convince 12 members of the public that he’s not only capable, but that preconceived biases about this “type of guy” assert his guilt.
Where this all binds together is that these are systems: Much like a smart traffic grid, where every event triggers a response of some proportionality, society consumes information about its population the same way. You can plant a profile of a person, outline undesireable behavior, imply the two are connected, then find someone who fits that profile— we see this every day in deeply systemic and oppressive ways. Vollmann seemingly believes this to be antithetical to the American system that this is the case that we have enforcers for exactly this, but over and over we can demonstrate that this is not the case; it is a feature of the orderly operations of our country.
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:
Spin: Interview with Brian Eno (1985)