Friday links! Total information awareness edition


Who wouldn’t want to know everything? If we could make sure we knew absolutely everything, nothing unfair would ever happen to us again. We would know, for example, whether the federal government’s secret reason why it’s authorized to collect the phone records of every Verizon customer is an airtight legal argument or a drawing of Mayor McCheese having his way with the Hamburglar. If we knew who all the terrorists were and whom they called, and who all those people called, we would have a sort of terrorist social network. I call it Friendsterrorist. It’s a list of everyone who is bad, and once we have it we need only shut those people down and live forever, like Myspace. Today is Friday, and what you don’t know could fill a book you aren’t allowed to read. Won’t you speculate on the contents with me?

So yeah—now that leaks have made the public aware of it, President Obama has acknowledged the NSA domestic surveillance program that is legal for reasons that are also secret. Don’t worry—sooner or later, that will leak, too. “Leaked Explanation Totally Convincing,” the headlines will read. You can decide which is news: the government keeps track of everybody’s phone records, or the government will not be stopping now that we know about it. The important thing is that the only people they’re using this information against are terrorists. I mean, by definition.

Of course, stopping terrorism by more effectively knowing whom to accuse of terrorism is just one of the benefits of total information awareness. You can also do a lot of work with correlation. For example, what other things do people who tweet “bitch, make me a sandwich” also tweet? It turns out a lot of them live with their mothers. Also, you’ve never seen so many variant spellings of sandwich. Spelling doesn’t matter, though,as long as Twitter gets the message that you want a sandwich and a woman you disdain should make it for you.

You have to account for regional variations. Otherwise you’ll be in Topeka like, “Quick! Bring me a crawfish,” and people will think you’re an idiot. Instead, how about you check out this sweet series of maps of variations in American English?. My favorite parts are the “not applicable” responses, by which I now know that they have no word for traffic circles in North Dakota.  They continue to have 40 words for snow, plus over 70 types of casserole.

It’s a hereditary culture up there. We cannot say that there is a hereditary culture in Washington, but we do know that John Dingell (D-MI) is about to become the longest-serving congressional representative in history, and that his dad was also a congressman. We know that the setting of this particular record has occurred in our lifetimes within our particular government. But correlation is not causation. The political conditions of our era did not make us set the record for the longest-serving congressman any more than they made the federal government collect millions of people’s phone records. That’s just a bunch of stuff that happened lately. You can’t know how they all go together.


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  1. Why do you know about that tiny sandwich tumblr, and why did so many people tweet about sandwiches recently?

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