‘Seeing Like a State,’ the NSA and Big Data

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I’ve long admired James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which describes the history of the modern world as a history of governments collecting more and more information about the people and communities they ruled, and of how they mistake information for understanding, often with disastrous results.

Ancient and medieval kings and emperors collected tribute from the people they ruled, but they often knew little about them.  In order to more efficiently collect taxes, draft people into armies, mobilize economic resources and also carry out reforms, it was necessary for rulers to identify their subjects and collect basic information.

It is for that reason that there is a record of my name and address, my age and birthplace, the size and value of my house, the boundaries of my property, what kind of automobile I own, the amount and sources of my income and much else.  This has advantages in that this knowledge enables governments and corporations to provide me services that could not have been available in an earlier age, and provide them more efficiently.

As Scott pointed out, the problem is that the picture that governments have about their subjects (or, for that matter, corporations have about their employees and customers) represents a simplification of reality, and, when they act on that simplified information, trouble results.

The culminations of this process are the Surveillance State and corporate Big Data.  Government intelligence agencies will have information not only on what I own, where I go, what I earn and how I earn it, but details of my personal life from which inferences can be drawn about my tastes, thoughts and feelings.  Some of these inferences will be drawn by computer algorithms, like the one used select targets for flying killer drones in remote areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

The power of intelligence agencies to gather information about individuals is greater than ever, and yet this information has not prevented the defeat of the U.S. military nor the growing appeal of Al Qaeda.  The date gathered by U.S. corporations about customers and employees is more extensive than ever, and yet this does not (so far as I can see) result in excellent customer service or excellent employee relations.  Misunderstandings about.  People are put on “no fly” lists for no apparent reason.  Banks foreclose on people with paid-up mortgages.

Knowledge is power and power corrupts.  But the worst corruption is the exercise of absolute power based on the illusion of knowledge.  What is needed is to reverse the polarity of surveillance—to make the inner workings of government and corporations at least as legible to the citizens as the other way around.

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One Response to “‘Seeing Like a State,’ the NSA and Big Data”

  1. whungerford Says:

    I like the idea that the public should have more insight into government and corporations. To the extent that corporations are legally people, this should be possible. As for government, we do have much information on our representatives, but seldom act on it. I would much like a law requiring our representatives to release their tax returns (Mitt preferred to lose the election; Tom Reed also has kept his private), but there is little chance of Congress passing such a law.

    Like

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