Friday, May 12, 2006


The cult of information

Most modern Americans place an extraordinary amount of trust in the executive branch to wield an extraordinary amount of power. And in many cases, I suspect, that trust is predicated on a basic presumption: that the government has more information than civilians do, and is therefore in a better position to make informed decisions about national security.

I suspect that Americans have silenced countless niggling doubts about the Bush administration's policies by appealing to that presumption: "I don't really see what Secretary Powell sees in that picture of trailers, but he probably has more information than he's able to share with the public." "Sure, the UN's inspectors haven't found any WMD in Iraq, but the President would not be pushing for war unless he knew something that we don't." "It makes me nervous that people are being held indefinitely at Gauntanamo Bay, but the government has information that points to their guilt." "I'm not worried about my phone being wiretapped because I have nothing to hide, and the government already knows who it needs to listen to."

To be fair, these arguments are not unreasonable on their face. The government does possess information that is not public, and Americans have long grown accustomed to accepting what our early nineteenth-century forbears could never accept: that it is sometimes a good thing for the government to be opaque, that sometimes decision-makers must act on information that cannot be disclosed to people at large. (Try convincing an antebellum Anti-Mason of that.)

But the problem with the above rationalizations starts to show when we learn more about how the government gets its information, when we start to see the sausages being made. For example, we start to find out about wrongful renditions of terrorist suspects that were based on an intelligence official's "hunch" rather than on indisputable information. Even more unsettling, it starts to become clear that even when a government official puts aside her hunches and chooses to act on the information she has, mistakes can still be made: a person is wrongfully arrested, for instance, because his name matches one on a list of terrorist suspects, or because it looks awfully like a name on the list. (Remember this?)

These kinds of revelations not only reveal that the government's decisions are not always made in a context of information surplus. They also expose the fact that information alone does not make fallible human beings somehow infallible. If my wife sends me to the grocery store with a list that includes a request for a frozen Stauffer's macaroni and cheese meal, because said meals are on sale this week, one could reasonably suppose that I am armed with all the information I need to make the correct purchase. Yet I could still come home with the wrong meal if I reached into the freezer case with the sale sign and picked up the "family size" package, instead of the individually sized meal that my wife wanted to take in her lunch to work. (If this story sounds a little too realistic to be a hypothetical scenario, that's because it isn't.) Was I informed? Yes. I was certainly in a better position to purchase what my wife wanted than you would have been if you were told to go into the store without the list I had. But did that information make me infallible? No. At the risk of making a crude analogy, just because the government has a really long list of information, annotated in incredible detail, does not mean they will always grab the right thing when they reach into the freezer.

There is another reason, however, why the "appeal to information" is a flawed justification for some kinds of government behavior. Even if we were to accept that some government actions can be justified on the basis of better information, we can't appeal to the government's superior information to justify the means it uses to gather information. You can't simply dismiss random data mining like the NSA's phone number database by saying that the people behind the program know more than we do, because the data mining is the process by which they come to know more. The government is casting its nets this wide not because it has more information than we do, but precisely because its information is so incomplete.

Likewise, you can't simply justify the indefinite incarceration of Guantanamo inmates by saying that the government has more information, when at the same time the government's defense for their incarceration is that it needs more information. The NSA's mining of phone records, the alleged secret raids into Iran to scout for evidence of WMDs, the CIA's secret rendition of countless suspects--these kinds of things are uncomfortable reminders of the government's own information deficit. Yet I suspect they are routinely, subconsciously justified by the presumption that the government has more information than we do. The reasoning, stripped to its barest logic, starts to look like a paradox: the government can use any means to get information because of the information it has.

All of this reflection has put me in a speculative mood: Why is the popular faith in the government's better "information" so powerful as to be almost incorrigible? Perhaps some answers can be found by thinking about broader cultural trends. The most-watched dramas on TV--C.S.I., Law and Order, 24, etc.--all reinforce the popular idea that the relevant experts have easy access to staggering amounts of information. Hollywood helps us construct our fantasy of the rooms that exist behind the closed doors: in those rooms, we fantasize, there are banks of gleaming computers whose screens practically radiate data. (They never look exactly like our computers, of course; the computers in those rooms are already a generation ahead of the ones we have.) There are tools that allow medical examiners to solve a murder on the merest of forensic clues. When President Bartlett enters the Situation Room and sits down, he is immediately bombarded by a stream of information, by everything he needs to make a decision.

Before you read further, let me remind you that I'm already in a speculative mood. But as long as I'm speculating, I sometimes wonder what future historians will identify as our generation's "cult." The antebellum period had its "cult of domesticity"; the late nineteenth century its "cult of masculinity." The cultural habits and discourses of earlier generations were shot through, we now understand, with hundreds of unspoken rules and assumptions that their contemporaries only dimly perceived.

I wonder if our age is shaped by a similar "cult of information." I wonder if future historians will be more aware than we are of the blindspots that our faith in the seemingly benign power of information produces. Our forbears waxed poetic about the sublime powers of steel and steam, about the progress ushered in by an industrial age. We can see in retrospect, as some visionaries saw at the time, that the Age of Industry (for all its real advances) had its darker aspects. And perhaps, when future historians are trying to understand the justifications that have been offered for the Bush administration's grasp at executive power, they will see those justifications partly as the detritus of our culture's sanguine hopes in the power of Information Technology.

We rave of the power of the Internet to put information at our fingertips, for example, of the ability of computers and reports and new media to surround us in a protective mantle of information. But is there not a dark side to this Information Age? Isn't there a sense in which the culture itself (and not just the Bush administration in particular) is responsible for making access to information seem like a summum bonum, like an end that justifies any means? For all the good that modern empiricism has brought into the world, this is one of its potentially poisoned fruits: the idea that we can ultimately use information to build an impregnable bulwark against error. And when that false idea is joined with our post-industrial faith in technology, the result is a faith that information technology is the surest path to security.

Perhaps the only way to unsettle the "appeal to information" that justifies all kinds of illicit government behavior is to unsettle, more fundamentally, the "appeal to information" itself, which serves in many ways as the defining appeal of our age. In earlier days, conversations could be settled just by appealing to the divine right of kings, or the separate spheres in which men and women belonged. You mentioned certain values--like obedience to established authority, or to the preservation of feminine virtue--and arguments came to an end, not because those values were logically invincible but because they were taken for granted as the ultimate sources from which certain ethical and moral decisions flowed. It was the very ability of these things to serve as conversation stoppers that makes it reasonable for historians to speak of the cult of absolutism or the cult of domesticity.

Are we living in an age when conversations can be similarly settled, just by appealing to the beneficent ideal of total information awareness? And given the incantatory odes that many of us sing to the all-seeing eyes of Google Earth, or the transformative power of RSS, or the keyword revolution, should we be surprised when those same incantations are mouthed, in slightly different forms, to cover a multitude of sins?

Collective Improvisation:
Your grocery list analogy is pretty close to what data mining does. It would produce many clusters of unusually high traffic, but the government must have additional and more personal information to decide which one to pursue. The cluster may not be a terrorist, but a group of teenagers that have just gotten cell phones. The government has been vague about the legality of the data obtain from the communication companies, but I think what is more serious is that they have overstated what can be done with the data, without violating your privacy. They are counting on the public to be dazzled by the technology.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 5/12/2006 05:34:00 PM : Permalink  

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