In a patriarchy, order is maintained by the threat of hierarchical violence. In a matriarchy, order is maintained by gossip.
-A Radical Faerie

Note: I may edit this over the next day or so

I worry that in writing the last post I may seem to attribute the rise of what Sterling (and others) call “The Surveillance State” to the growth of technology. Nothing could be further from my intent.

I have worked on ambulances and currently with a (volunteer) fire department for much of my adult life. While the local demography may change, the job is essentially standardized nationwide, and has provided me, at least, a decent sense of the inherent variation in organization culture and some of the associations that go with it.

For instance, I can say that I have worked, generally, for two kinds of companies. In one, individuals may participate with varying degrees of attentiveness, or acquire various specific skills, but by and large there is enough slack in the system that people can be recognized for what they do well. For some, this is a certification, such as ACLS Instructor, or a skill, like fluency in Spanish that directly benefits the work. For others, this may be something useful but not directly related to EMS, like grantwriting or fixing truck engines. Some people may be notable for modifying uniforms (sewing in elastic expansion panels for pregnant EMTs is a good skill to have!) or barbecuing in the back parking lot or just being a funny person to hang out with.

In the other, this sort of individual personality, for lack of a better word, isn’t part of the plan- either people are swapped around so often that they never get to know each other, or all possible services are provided from outside the department, or else some other implicit hierarchy excludes the majority of the department from recognition. In these workplaces, look out- people write each other up for virtually any infraction. If people aren’t given the chance to differentiate themselves by achievements, they will differentiate themselves by turning everyone else in.

I live, of course, in an individualist culture, though I don’t necessarily support that as a political goal, and its worth noticing that subcultures, even the most stable ones, where individualism is subsumed (say, the Amish) are also those where stepping out of line is the most policed. The Amish exist as a people precisely because Jacob Amman thought the other Mennonites weren’t shunning dissenters strongly enough. You would think that with everyone already striving to avoid vanity and self-aggrandizement, small things would be less of an issue, but you’d be wrong.

It isn’t just religious pressure or poor management that can turn a group culture to snitching. One tragic observation of the twenty-first century history of environmentalism is that the tendency to call-out/shut-out other activists within and across campaigns happened almost exactly as soon as the Green Scare began curtailing the willingness of individuals and groups to “push the envelope” in terms of radical or effective actions. Earth First! at least has managed to grow from this experience, by making a serious effort to include more people on better terms in their campaigns, but the campaigns themselves have yet to recover.

Two Caveats

First, as implied by the opening quote, mutual surveillance, aka gossip, can provide a stabilizing force in a non-hierarchical culture. A significant distinction between guilt culture and shame culture (other than guilt culture just being shame culture where people don’t get caught as often- sorry, I’ve wanted to say that ever since I first heard the theory) is that when people’s faults are known, but there’s no central control organizing that knowledge (i.e. when everybody knows everything, rather than I know all about you and you know nothing about me) society seems to get along quite well, possibly better than when secrets are hoarded by the powerful.

Secondly, I know I’m going to get crap about the question of individualism. Look, the Amish and the Hutterites are doing fine with almost no individualism at all. Could I hack it in that situation? Maybe, probably not, but that’s my damage and I often wish it were otherwise. I don’t want to be claiming that it is better or worse or innate or atypical or whatever to think primarily of oneself as a knot of goals and desires rather than of obligations and connections. In fact, that’s another post and probably one I’ll never write.

The Zuboff Trap

To get back to the Sterling talk I think this is the trap a surveillance state finds itself in. Reducing the above examples to their commonalities, you have a situation where for whatever reason, due some kind of social or political/economic stagnation, where people can’t find a way to distinguish themselves as critical nodes in their local social networks- can’t develop their social capital, in other words. You have a common experience of alienation or anomie. Without a strong sense of mutual recognition, people begin to mistrust and surveil each other, and use their knowledge of each other’s mistakes and shortcomings in place of social capital, and since the powerful are best able to leverage this sort of thing, they become the core of a surveillance state.

Once this process begins, you have a vicious cycle, because without mutual trust, people within a society are afraid to expose themselves further to getting caught. Less exposure necessitates fewer connections, more alienation, and less positive social capital. The surveillance state becomes a Zuboff trap from which escape seems… poorly documented. As noted in the last post East Germany went straight to hell and only came back when it became completely untenable to continue.

Technology is barely even part of the equation. It is possible to report on one’s neighbors indiscretions ruthlessly, even without facebook, and as Sterling points out, cryptography is no defense against your mom calling the cops on you. I’m fairly convinced that the Dread Pirate Roberts guy got caught not because the NSA can grab server images through Tor, but rather because one of the many people he pissed off over the years sold him out. The crucial tools of a surveillance state are eyes, ears, and determination.

Fear Makes You Snitch; Snitches Make You Afraid

So what does trigger the Zuboff trap and potentiate the surveillance state, if not your addiction to instagram? In the seventies Bob Putnam began charting the connection between the arrival of television in a region and the collapse of social capital- the inability of individuals to recognize each other for their personalities, abilities, and individual narratives. He reasoned that this was because the time people had once spent in clubs, churches and (famously) bowling leagues had been replaced by time sitting on a couch alone. That process has developed further with the arrival of new tech, yes, but it was probably underway throughout the twentieth century due to suburbanization, changes in the workplace, basically the whole industrial package. To an extent, what started the cycle is irrelevant now.

At this point, what enables the surveillance state is you- your sense that other people are impediments, problems, doing it wrong, or otherwise in need of correction. The parent-shaming on twitter, the mockery when “smart” people talk about the election, the sneering about poverty or “greed”- all these are symptoms of a world where individual social capital is precious and vulnerable, and secrets are hoarded instead of friendships.

What gets the Snowdens and the Mannings up in arms is that as with any other large-scale managerial task, there are economies of scale in the marketplace of shameful secrets. The bigger you are, the better you are at it, and the US government is the biggest of all. This should be opposed, yes, but it shouldn’t come as any surprise, and it shouldn’t be expected to disappear with the next lawsuit or public disclosure of improper snoopery. As long as the underlying lack of social capital persists- as long as you can’t Be Somebody without worrying or complaining about the people around you, a surveillance state is inevitable. You may need to join the VFD instead.

2 thoughts on “Snitch

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