Seeing Like A Facebook

The insistence on a single, unique, legal identity by Facebook and Google continues a historical pattern of expansion of power through control of the information environment. Consider the historical introduction of surnames:

Customary naming practices are enormously rich. Among some peoples, it is not uncommon to have different names during different stages of life (infancy, childhood, adulthood) and in some cases after death; added to those are names used for joking, rituals, and mourning and names used for interactions with same-sex friends or with in-laws. […]  To the question “What is your name?” which has a more unambiguous answer in the contemporary West, the only plausible answer is “It depends”.
For the insider who grows up using these naming practices, they are both legible and clarifying.
 — James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State

It’s all rather reminiscent of the namespace of open internets since they emerged in the 80s, including BBS, blogs, IRC, message boards, slashcode, newsgroups and even extending the lineage to the pseudonym-friendly Twitter. You can tell Twitter has this heredity by the joke and impersonating accounts, sometimes created in ill-spirit, but mostly in a slyly mocking one. CheeseburgerBrown’s autobiography of his pseudonyms captures the spirit of it.

Practically any structured scheme you might use to capture this richness of possible real world names will fail, as  Patrick McKenzie amusingly demonstrates in his list of falsehoods programmers believe about names.

Scott goes on to show how the consistent surnames made information on people much easier to access and organize for the state – more legible. This in turn made efficient taxation, conscription and corvee labour possible for the feudal state, as well as fine grained legal title to land. It establishes an information environment on which later institutions such as the stock market, income tax and the welfare state (medical, unemployment cover, universal education) rely. Indeed the idea of a uniquely identifiable citizen, who votes once, is relied on by mass democracy. Exceptions,  where they exist, are limited in their design impact due to their rarity. Even then, the introduction of national ID cards and car registration plates is part of that same legibility project, by enforcing unique identifiers. For more commercial reasons but with much the same effect, public transport smartcards, mobile phones  and number plates, when combined with modern computing, make mass surveillance within technical reach. 

The transition to simplified names was not self-emerging or gentle but was aggressively pursued by premodern and colonial states. In the course of a wide survey Scott gives a striking example from the Philippines:

Filipinos were instructed by the decree of November 21, 1849, to take on permanent Hispanic surnames. The author of the decree was Governor (and Lieutenant General) Narciso Claveria y Zaldua, a meticulous administrator as determined to rationalise names as he had been determined to rationalise existing law, provincial boundaries, and the calendar. He had observed, as his decree states, that Filipinos generally lacked individual surnames, which might “distinguish them by families,” and that their practice of adopting baptismal names from a small group of saints’ names resulted in great “confusion”. The remedy was the catalogo, a compendium not only of personal names but also of nouns and adjectives drawn from flora, fauna, minerals, geography and the arts and intended to be used by the authorities in assigning permanent, inherited surnames. […] In practice, each town was given a number of pages from an alphabetized catalogo, producing whole towns with surnames of the same letter. In situations where there has been little in-migration in the past 150 years, the traces of this administrative exercise are still perfectly visible across the landscape.
For a utilitarian state builder of Claveria’s temper, however, the ultimate goal was a complete and legible list of subjects and taxpayers. […] Schoolteachers were ordered to forbid thier students to address or even know one another by any other name except the officially inscribed family name. More efficacious, perhaps, given the minuscule school enrolment, was the proviso that forbade priests and military and civil officials from accepting any document, application, petition or deed that did not use the official surnames.

The ultimate consequences of these simplification projects can be good or bad, but they are all expansions of centralized power, often unnecessary, and dangerous without counterbalancing elements. Mass democracy could eventually use the mechanism of citizen registration to empower individuals and restrain the government, but this was in some sense historically reactive: it came after the expansion of the state at the expense of more local interests.

The existence of Farmville aside, Google and Facebook probably don’t intend to press people into involuntary labour. People are still choosing to click that cow no matter how much gamification gets them there. The interest in unique identities is for selling a maximally valued demographic bundle to advertisers. Even with multitudes of names and identities, we usually funnel back to one shared income and set of assets backed by a legal name.

Any power grab of this nature will encounter resistance. This might be placing oneself outside the system of control (deleting accounts), or it might be finding ways to use the system without ceding everything it asks for, like Jamais Cascio lying to Facebook.

The great target of Scott’s book is not historical states so much as the high modernist mega-projects so characteristic of the twentieth century, and their ongoing intellectual temptations today. He is particularly devastating when describing the comprehensive miseries possible when high modernist central planning combines with the unconstrained political power in a totalitarian state.

Again, it would be incorrect and unfair to describe any of the big software players today as being high modernist, let alone totalitarian. IBM in its mainframe and KLOC heyday was part of that high modernist moment, but today even the restrictive and aesthetically austere Apple has succeeded mainly by fostering creative uses of its platform by its users. The pressures of consumer capitalism being what they are, though, the motivation to forcibly simplify identity to a single point is hard for a state or a corporation to resist. Centralization has a self-perpetuating momentum to it, which good technocratic intentions tend to reinforce, even when these firms have a philosophical background in open systems. With the combined marvels of smartphones, clouds, electronic billing and social networks, I am reminded of Le Corbusier’s words. These software platforms are becoming machines for living.


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