John Hopkins on Wed, 5 Mar 2014 00:41:34 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Rules for the digital world

On 03/Mar/14 04:24, Geert Lovink wrote:

Thanks Cornelia, and Florian for making the translation. I don't mind
the piece but what misses here is a bit of self-reflection of a writer
who has

snip... (U.S.
Postal Service Logging All Mail for Law Enforcement). Geert

Good points, Geert -- I noted this in the last months, when sending out small packages ('normal airmail') to friends outside the US: both addresses, mine and theirs were entered into a database, where, with subsequent mailings, the postal clerk could immediately pull up all my data from that database. Another older example, though, as a long-time participant in the mail-art network, when I lived in Iceland, practically anything in-coming to me there was thoroughly inspected by folks in the postal office.

That said, human manual surveillance isn't cost-effective -- the Stasi state is a good example, in the end its structure (dis)functioned as a sclerosis in the vitals of the social system -- and was a major factor in the system not remaining flexible and innovative (as all systems must do in order to adapt and survive) -- and thus led to the demise (transformation) of that particular social system.

Back in the 1970s, towards the end of his career, my father was with the Office of Technology Assessment at the White House and one of the last big projects he worked on (as a 'systems analyst') was the automation of the US Postal Service. That was when the 'machinery' of comprehensive letter surveillance began to form -- in the interests of increasing speed, decreasing costs, and so on. Five digit "Zip Codes" that are now nine-digit, identify individual postal addresses. You want to post me? Just write 86303-7213 on an envelope (and perhaps USA) and I will receive it. This abstraction of the analog makes surveillance of the data space very possible. (Although it does not immediately suggest surveillance of the analog 'real' space -- that takes a huge amount of energy -- to sift through the data space and then to deploy meat-space observation.)

(This all echoes similar arguments from the Internet of Things community -- it's all for cost savings and convenience, and speed, and pleasing the consumer!). But in the end, the collection of information is the collection of information -- it becomes an available pool of abstracted 'power' as a source of feedback from a wider social system. The energy that is necessary to accomplish such feedback is *not* zero (I was astonished the first time I encountered this at the post office -- the clerk had to manually type in both names and addresses, that definitely took time/energy!), and it is precisely that energy expenditure that becomes a concentration of power to those who control the info/data-base. However, the cost, again, is an energy drain -- from simply dealing with the acquisition and storage of information, and then the subsequent projection of brute power that is necessary to control the system.

Feedback systems sap energy from the wider system that is seeking this information source to optimize/control who/what is being monitored. In the case of social systems seeking to impose increasingly granular control over constituent processes for whatever 'socially-mandated' reasons there is a heavy price to be paid -- this energy is drained from other systems processes (like maintenance of infrastructure, maintenance of health/food delivery systems, etc, etc)

The US (and the West to be sure!) has been seized by an ever more paranoiac mentality whose mantra is 'more feedback = more control = more security' at the same time as an increasing blindness to the real energy costs of such feedback systems. This in stark contrast to the necessity of un-controlled and un-monitored energy flows that are crucial in maintaining a vital social system. Command-and-control reification is the condition of a social system in demise (a footnote from my dissertation follows):

As an example, Václav Havel's well-known essay "The Power of the Powerless" contains a profound exploration of the nature of power in an extremely hierarchically-controlled social system near the end of its existence. It is a system that "for a thousand reasons, can no longer base itself on the unadulterated, brutal, and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expressions of nonconformity. What is more, the system has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures." (1985) It is the application of power via protocol which exerts the control and eliminates (as that exertion becomes more and more intense) any spaces for autonomy to exist. But these systems reach a saturation point where the control (and feedback) system, a necessary structural part of it, begins to absorb all the energy available to the system overall -- effectively destroying it from the 'inside.'
So it goes!

Dr. John Hopkins, BSc, MFA, PhD
photographer, media artist, archivist

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