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.

The Will To Control Energy Flows

Physical power and social power are much the same thing because they both derive from energy. That’s the rough thesis of a recent article by Edmund Russell and a rugby team of co-authors (The Nature of Power: Synthesizing the History of Technology and Environmental History). To show it’s not just a cheap academic party trick, they then use it to rewrite the history of the Industrial Revolution in terms of energy flows. 

The social power of mill owners and the physical power of the explosion flowed from a common root: the ability of mill owners to concentrate wheat in one building, which enhanced their control over a high value–added link in the product chain and increased their social power. If all of that wheat had been ground in hand-mills scattered among thousands of homes, the Minneapolis mill owners would have had little power, and any individual explosion would have been relatively weak. Indeed, Karl Marx argued that forcing people to abandon hand-mills and bring their grain to centralized water-mills was one way in which capitalists gained power in Europe.

The basic insight extends a house theme of Technology and Culture, that technological networks require or include institutional social networks. Railways imply drivers, engineers and conductors. (Tootle tells all the young engines to stay on the rails, no matter what.)

So we’re certainly several steps beyond claiming string theory can derive the Peloponnesian War (given a perfectly spherical map of Greece and an unlimited supply of starving grad students). Energy centric analysis can uncover neglected historic and social connections, and is actually pretty cool. The authors go quite a bit further than that, though:

Our thesis is that all power, social as well as physical, derives from energy.

This is plausible enough but seems a little undercooked. The authors are careful to avoid a claim of equivalence for the two types of power, but the weaker claim of derivation still seems to need exploring. In the physical definition, power is a mathematical derivative of energy with respect to time. The nature of the social derivation is left undefined. I am showing my physical science bias here, but without a more precise definition this claim just seems to trade on a metaphorical connections between different meanings of “derive”.

Again, even if this is simple overstretch, energy-centric history is still rather neat. In a spirit of constructive speculation, though, I can think of two ways social power might be a derivative of energy in a quantitative sense.

One option is simple equivalence, the rate if energy delivered over time. It should be quite possible to, say, describe the military power deployed in the hundred hours of the Operation Desert Storm ground campaign in terawatts. This would be an involved accounting exercise based on inputs of fuel, food, ammunition fired, amortized energy capital costs, and so on. Presumably some high level estimate could be made after a few days or weeks effort. Such a stat might be of use to economic or military historians, though the deployment of military energy is notoriously prone to inefficiency and involves specifics of formation and timing. E.g., consider the energy budgets at work in the Indochina War.

Political power as a scalar doesn’t fit well with the intuition that it is something attributable and directed. People and organizations have power due to their relationship to others. This suggests a more radical, speculative definition: social power is energy derived with respect to paths on a social network. This has intuitive appeal, but for now I am throwing it out there without detailed exploration or justification.

Contrariwise, maybe the social network can be considered just another network for energy distribution. We have electricity and food distribution networks after all. Perhaps adding above them is an unnecessary metaphysical duality. The US president can order aircraft carriers into motion, they require lots of petrol, he is therefore powerful. Financiers have money which can be turned into electricity – potential energy.

Either way it seems right that social power should be intertwined with control of flow. 


Even the organization within which, as was previously supposed, the individuals treat each other as equal—it takes place in every healthy aristocracy—must itself, if it be a living and not a dying organization, do all that towards other bodies, which the individuals within it refrain from doing to each other it will have to be the incarnated Will to Power, it will endeavour to grow, to gain ground, attract to itself and acquire ascendancy—not owing to any morality or immorality, but because it LIVES, and because life IS precisely Will to Power
— Nietzsche, Beyond Good And Evil, Zimmern trans.

Flu Seasonally Adjusted

Permutations points out an elegant paper from Christakis and Fowler (gloriously open access). They exploit a clever result from social network theory called the friends paradox. This is the phenomenon that your friends have more friends than you do – because social networks typically have a few very connected spoke nodes. They use this to track flu within a university student population. By separately tracking the friend cohort they were able to note the evolution of a flu epidemic several weeks before its full arrival in the general population as represented by the random cohort.

Current surveillance methods for the flu, such as those implemented by the CDC that require collection of data from subjects seeking outpatient care or having lab tests, are typically lagging indicators about the timing of the epidemic (information is typically one to two weeks behind the actual course of the epidemic). […] [W]hile potentially instantaneous, the Google Trends and prediction market methods would only, at best, give contemporaneous information about rates of infection. In contrast, we show that the sensor method described here can detect an outbreak of flu two weeks in advance. That is, the sensor network method provides early detection rather than just rapid warning.

Wiring up a distributed computer of neighbourhood gossips to see into the future is presumably a trick with wider applications. For instance, economic data is not only notoriously bad, but notoriously slow. It’s a field where price data from three month old lagging indicators are siezed on with delight at their timeliness, and GDP figures have to be seasonally adjusted a year after the period they apply to. Economic actors also behave as a network for the flow of information and beer.

So, you should be able to systematically exploit this effect in economic surveys to get both more timely results, and information on the velocity of effects throughout an economy. Eg, if you are surveying businesses, get those businesses to also nominate their suppliers and customers, and track that group as well. It’s possible this technique is already used, and I’d be interested to hear about it. I suspect that its main use is though data collection folk wisdom rather than systematically. So it’s well known that health workers are vulnerable, highly connected nodes for disease spread / containment, and that banks and large retailers are hubs of economic activity, but that knowledge is not generalisable in the same way as the friend cohort in the paper. Perhaps you could even use techniques like this to build a network model of critical financial institutions, from the perspective of vulnerability to systemic failure under a catastrophic crisis.