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.

Making A Few Enemies

That idea of the state as a ship and its ruler as the helmsman or captain is a very old one in European culture. It is frequently used by Cicero, and indeed our word ‘governor’ comes from the Latin for ‘helmsman’ – gubernator. Even more enticingly, the root of gubernator is the Greek kubernetes, which is also the origin of our word ‘cybernetics’; so the notions of ruling, steering and robotics all coincide in our language – and in this galleon.
Observers repeatedly stressed the precision, the orderliness, the grace of mechanisms like this one, which embodied the ideal of the early modern European state as it ought to have been and rarely was, with everything working together harmoniously under the control of one guiding idea and one beneficent sovereign. Its appeal went far beyond Europe: automata like our galleon were presented as gifts to the emperor of China and the Ottoman sultan and were greatly prized. What ruler, from Dresden to Kyoto, would not gaze in delight as figures moved to his command in strict and unswerving order? So unlike the messiness of the real world.
— Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects; corresponding entry at the BBC

Attractive as it is, it’s not really a great metaphor for a state, or even politics at all, is it? There’s no divergent interests, no arguing or lobbying, no betrayal, assassination and backstabbing, and as a result, no trust, no faith no opinion: just harmonious movement. And if it seems naive, now that we carry more sophisticated automata around in our pockets, I don’t think it’s any less seductive. This is essentially how Sid Meier’s Civilization and all its throwoffs work – you have absolute power to push the buttons and pull the levers of not just a state, but an entire Samuel Huntingdon-grade civilization.

The Crusader Kings series shows one way to turn that on its side, with the key mechanic beng to have the player control a dynasty, rather than a state. (Entertaining Rock, Paper, Shotgun review and interview.) The offices and trappings of the state are then resources to be fought over, prestige is a currency like money, and organizing weddings and sending gifts become important game tokens rather than flavour. This is not to discount the wealth of historical detail the makers then hang on that frame; the mechanic makes the game compelling, the detail is what makes it feel right. In a way, the makers have made all the state diplomacy an extension of domestic political squabbling, and that dissolving of the facade of corporate consensus seems bang on, especially for the European middle ages. Its easier to understand Richard the Lionheart if you see him as pursuing dynastic interests on both sides of the English channel than as chief executive of the Eternal Albion. (Echoes of Coase’s The Nature of the Firm here too: companies aren’t monolothic either.)

The original Crusader Kings was released the same year as Facebook launched, in 2004, and the chosen model for the dynastic game mechanic is a social network between thousands of European aristocrats. As much as possible, the developers use historical figures, and even link to their biography on wikipedia. The CKII user interface is definitely influenced by social networks as well, with it being simple to navigate between photos of related individuals. I almost wish they’d taken it further. A history of viewable actions by a character would look rather like the stream of activity on a facebook wall, after all.

Now we have orderly (and brittle) automata as routine tools in our lives, we use them to simulate the messiness of the Holy Roman Empire for kicks. So keeping in mind that The Social Graph Is Neither, a messy network of individuals and competing dynastic interests is a rather more satisfying model of a state to my twenty-first century sensibility. Rather than a ship, perhaps a fleet of nautical automata, all with different captains, would be more suitable: that’s what the Internet is, after all.

Etiquette, Transparency and Defaults

I’ve been having a retro-private, offline discussion with John on Girls Around Me, which has now erupted into the blogosphere. John summarizes the setup and pushes public data. 

These sorts of apps are part of the future, and it’s not all bad. Stross is also right, but he’s right in a science-fictional way – no doubt a professional hazard. Public data can be a good but I can’t get away from an ethical intuition that this data is the wrong shape. It’s a glass building that bakes its occupants at midday.

I’m really glad that at least some people using this are making a deliberate, empowered choice to make their data public because they like the benefits and are comfortable with the risks. That’s tops. You go, young gendered person.

One aspect bugging me is the discounting of defaults that has gone with the transparent school of responses. As we know, pretty much everyone follows the defaults except a few unusually committed users. This is what libertarian paternalism is all about. It’s a well recognized phenomenon in usability.

Facebook and foursquare certainly have ethical obligations around their default settings, and they are systematically failing to think through them. Their model is too crude and it invites blowback. If it really is generational, as John suggests, they should cue based on age. If it’s geographic, by place. That doesn’t even start to address the one identity aspect. Walt Whitman wouldn’t have been welcome on Facebook. He contained multitudes.

Lastly, the app itself is a problem. The transparent society is well and good but the Girls Around Me app violated a key part of it. Its asymmetry was rude. The etiquette of a transparent society as Brin envisages it is tilted against the voyeur. It’s far more embarrassing to be spying on your neighbour’s bedroom than anything he may be doing in there. The crassness of this app is its fatal flaw, precisely because the social norms are new and not well established. It’s the loser at the topless beach ogling breasts with his tongue hanging out. If the app had required you to be signed in and broadcasting your identity on Facebook and foursquare – and perhaps had more variety in its objectification of women – it would rightly not have been seen as so threatening. ((All avatars are objectifications.)) 

Even by new, transparent, social conventions, Facebook, Foursquare and especially the app are cads, sir. Cads.

Alexander Hamilton likes this

Iceland is using Facebook as a town hall medium in rewriting its constitution. This – mass collaboration a common draft – is much closer to wiki-constitutionalism than the original example of successive strongmen rewriting from scratch. Facebook does lack the ability to propagate rapid minor version updates. On the other hand it plugs into the social fabric with an almost disturbing ease, making the political discussion a natural outgrowth of relationships in the polity.

Rewriting from scratch, with a mass referenda signoff, is if anything analogous to broadcast media. It’s the end of season cliffhanger where all the characters wake up to discover it was all a dream.  (Noticed by John.)