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Re: lack of bullets

September 23, 2011

In response to this question, reader Matt writes in by email:

Right. Some technologies are intended to provide synoptic vision, and those technologies are where the money is because money follows scale. So while it’s useful for the individual to know what’s being done to him – how he’s being measured, recorded, and aggregated – the instruments of synoptic vision simply have far less application to his life. Choosing a mutual fund? Maybe. Choosing a school or a doctor? Not really, despite the hype.

The “quantified self” crowd has high hopes for synoptic assessment of one’s own well-being, which might actually be a viable use case. After all, there are so many heterogeneous processes and feedback systems operating in one’s own body and mind that it might as well be a conquered population in need of some legibility.

But as for humane resistance to dehumanizing forces? I think those tools must necessarily be qualitatively different. Instead of trying to reproduce synoptic tools at DIY scale (what would my family do with its own drone, anyway?), the real skunkworks of resistance will be about the analog, the stochastic, and the archaic.

From Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer’s Manifesto (quoted in the closing post at the now-defunct and SEO-squatted New Pantagruel):

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction…

The entire poem is good in that it doesn’t make illegibility an end in itself. The good life – or salvation – has to be pursued, and illegibility is useful insofar as it prevents interference from controlling forces and fosters independence.

I broadly agree, but do think there might be beneficial second-order effects from efforts to “reproduce synoptic tools at DIY scale”. If nothing else, anything that destabilizes the current systems and shifts us towards a more polycentric collection of power loci will hopefully make the gear-teeth fit less well together, thus making it easier to subsist within the cracks and crevasses between them.


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