Law in the Internet Society
Surveillance, Social Engineering and the Future of Hierarchy

In Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott argues that the worst episodes of state-initiated social engineering are produced by a combination of four elements: (1) administrative simplification of society or nature giving social planners a model of phenomena too complicated to understand from the center, (2) a “high-modernist” ideology that inculcates planners with the idea that nature can be mastered through rationality and that all social problems can be solved through technical solutions (3) an authoritarian state that is willing and able to carry the designs of high-modernist planners and (4) a weak civil society that lacks the ability to resist these plans

The final three elements are what allow the most ambitious social engineering projects to be undertaken, but the first element is the one that spells their doom. When social planners take a schematic view of social life, they inevitably fail when they attempt to alter it. The classic example of this in the United States is urban planning. Critics of high-modernist ideology point to the hubris of architects like Le Corbusier and his followers who designed housing projects and cities on the basis of abstract principles while ignoring all of the subtleties of urban life that make it pleasant. The failure of high-modernist urban planning is symbolized by the demolition of the heralded Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis that conformed to principles of design, but which ignored the desires and perspectives of the people it was meant to house.

In The Art of Not Being Governed, Scott argues that certain natural ecologies—particularly high and rugged terrain—lend themselves to resistance to authority. States form in valleys and resisters flee to the mountains because valleys are easy to understand, navigate and govern from on high, and mountainous areas difficult for the non-local to move through or understand schematically. Relative to peoples pursuing ways of life in the montane forests of Southeast Asia or in the Amazon rainforest, those of us in networked society are eminently governable subjects. Analogously, certain types of technologies lend themselves to hierarchy and centralization of power. The history of the state (and of centralized power generally) is in many ways the history of the imposition of administrative ordering on heterogeneous peoples and environments, and this ordering is limited by the technologies ready to the agents of the state. The patronymic surname, censuses, national languages and urban planning are all prominent examples of analog technologies that have allowed centralized power to comprehend and control varied subjects, and now we are subject not only to these methods of tracking, but to more detailed and accurate digital surveillance and data collection.

What are the implications of digital surveillance for centralized social planning and hierarchy? On the one hand, the net allows for decentralized production and reduces the need for certain types of intermediaries in financial transactions. All other things equal, this should lead to reductions in centralized power as people turn to corporations less and less for work and consumption. On the other hand, the large-scale collection, storage and analysis of data about consumers and citizens by corporations and government bodes ill for the future of freedom from government. Metaphorically, people with devices that track their locations, spending habits and thoughts are valley people compared to the mountain people of the twentieth century who only had their locations tracked if they were of particular interest to power.

However, while the observation that surveillance is good for governments and corporations and bad for those who wish to live uncoerced lives is obvious and shouldn’t be controversial, the implications of mass surveillance and behavioral analysis of stored information are more interesting with respect to the future of social planning. The failure of high-modernist social planning stemmed from its ignorance of the people it sought to govern. Twentieth century social engineers used homogenous models of man and applied them to heterogeneous societies, which inevitably led to failure. Perhaps this failure was due to insufficient data. The present-day country involved in the most centralized social planning is China, which collects, stores and analyzes data about its citizens on a mind-boggling scale as exemplified by the Social Credit System. This information will likely be used for the maximization of revenue and minimization of dissent, but it is also likely to be used to influence large-scale social engineering efforts, which may make these efforts more successful than the efforts than the efforts of twentieth century social engineers, due to the increased level of granularity with which its models consider its subjects. This makes the horrors of Stalinist or Maoist collectivization or even the tiny horrors of high-modernist urban planning less likely to be the result of the policies of the Chinese Communist Party. However, failures of centralized social engineering foretold the doom of the authoritarian states that implemented these plans, so the availability of large amounts of data about the subjects of present-day authoritarian states may allow these states to exist longer than they should, because their policies are less likely to be fundamentally flawed.

It isn't clear why the thinking of James C. Scott is important, or why the addition of your rhetoric to your summaries of his ideas makes him more relevant than he was before, or even to what the relevance was being asserted. Is "social planning" what was performed by Henry II, or by Thomas Cromwell, Napleon Buonaparte or Christopher Wren? Perhaps the Inca Emperors of Peru?

If there was something here that wasn't an attempt to make more rhetoric out of someone else's nonsense, what it was needed explaining first, before all the paraphrase began. The best route to improve the next draft is to lose the mechanism altogether, and write it straight, from a single sentence statement of the theme, through an explication that develops your idea's meanings without reliance on others' meanings about something else, to the point at which the reader could explore some implication or consequence of your idea under her own steam.

-- AlexanderGerten - 01 Feb 2016



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r2 - 13 Feb 2016 - 22:55:02 - EbenMoglen
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