Tom Owad’s map of subversive books

Not Tom Owad but an owl

Not Tom Owad but an owl

Remember back when the United States was an ever-richening homeland departmentally securing itself against all threats, foreign and domestic, real and perceived? It was 2006. The Patriot Act had finally established as law the relation between patriotism and the executive branch, Crank had captured America’s hearts, and George W. Bush was calmly gathering library borrowing records. Had you forgotten that last part, as I sort of did? Yes, because the library is for bums and very old people—but theoretically I was against it, if only in preparation for being a very old bum. The US government should not subject its people to data-mining. That’s the term for describing patterns in very large amounts of data, a process presumably done by vast, semi-aware supercomputers in Virgina basements. Or, as Tom Owad demonstrated, by a dude with two Powerbooks and DSL.

Oh, 2006 webpage design. You know Tom Owad is for real, because he can build an Apple I out of sand yet his website looks like a resume template from Microsoft Word. He has better things to do than bookmark hexidecimal color palettes. For example: use publicly-available Amazon wish lists to create interactive maps of people who read certain books.

Owad’s narrative of how he did this is long, technical and gripping, like a handjob from a masseuse Tom Clancy novel. Suffice to say he used only information publicly available on popular websites, and that his map pinpoints cities when he could have pinpointed houses. In two days, using equipment you could purchase at Best Buy if your friend with the time machine would get off his ass and take you there,* Owad made a list of ten books and found a few hundred Americans who either bought them or wanted to.

Whether, say, the FBI also has done so is a matter of pure conjecture. Owad displays what I would call an appropriate level of paranoia for a man of his intelligence when he cites help wanted ads and legislative maneuvers suggesting the agency has undertaken such a project. It’s not entirely convincing, but the procedural sure is. If Uncle Sam isn’t doing this, he easily could. So could any kid with a command-line interface and a week ban from World of Warcraft, or some very religious Yemeni dudes looking for who bought the Torah or whatever.

The salient question, then: Is this a problem? I think we can pretty quickly agree that it is if the government does it. I did not enter into a social contract so my betters would keep track of what people are reading. Many would call that a violation of privacy. Consider, though, how you might feel if Random House did the same thing in order to decide where to put billboards advertising new editions. That would seem benign, if not a marvel of Our Modern Age.

It seems that the offense here lies not in the invasion, in the data mining, but in either who does it or why. Initially I thought it was the former. We don’t want the government to know about our ideas because the government exercises a monopoly on violence, and a free society does not like to open a conduit between violence and books. Then I thought about how I’d feel if Banana Republic mapped readers of Mikhail Bakunin to decide which stores needed more measures against shoplifting, and I was still pissed.

It seems that the question lies with motive, then: if some entity tracks our reading to sell us things or otherwise serve us, that’s cool. If it tracks our reading to protect itself from us, that sucks. This empirical observation of our own behavior suggests two potential hypotheses:

1) America is the place where books are not considered dangerous.

2) We might decide to smash the apparatus of society later, and please don’t try to figure out how to stop us.

I submit that both of these are crucial to the democratic experiment.

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  1. I would submit that the question always lies with motive. There’s always a difference between any tool and its motivated use.

    All technologies are ideologically neutral, no matter how utopian-sounding or depressing they might sound. I’d propose that we lose sight of this amid all the chatter about social media as some new Gift To Mankind. Utter self-congratulating nonsense.

    E.g.: the Twitter Revolution in Iran just took the usual machinations of such ordeals and put them all online. Those Twitter pages became virtual rosters of democratic activists and extremely public hit lists for the Iranian secret police. We might call this “cybernetic totalism” or, more recently, “the net delusion.”

    Or, as the social theorist Charlton Heston once opined, “Guns don’t kill people, Ben-Hur kills people.”

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