A Thought about How Power Works in Society

Like Martin Gräßlin (see here), I have a lot to hide. I’m not a particularly secretive person, I never consciously do anything for the negative or destructive consequences, and I have no reason to hide anything in particular, yet I still have a lot to hide. There are lots of reasons for this, but here are two obvious ones: (1) I know I sometimes do, say, and think stupid things that I later wish I hadn’t done, said, or thought; and (2) that saying things for an unknown audience requires much more thought than saying things to a specific person or group of people.

Imagine this situation. One day, in person, I discuss a social issue with a friend. The next day, I see a related article on a website, and decide to send a link to my friend, along with a sarcastic message that appears to mean the opposite of what I actually think. I can rely on my friend correctly interpreting my sarcastic message, because we know the context of the email. If some entity (say, “The Government”) saves my email for 20 years, then wishes to imprison everybody who thought a certain way about this social issue, can I rely on by email being interpreted in the right context? Not likely. In fact, 20 years later, perhaps neither my friend nor I will remember the email was sarcastic. As an especially sarcastic person, I’m a little worried about this possible future situation.

So I’m encouraged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF’s) push for more transparent surveillance. If “they” are watching “us,” then “we” should be watching “them.” But I have my reservations too.

You see, I’ve been reading a lot of Foucault work recently, which is about how power works in society. One of the most striking things is the extent to which you can encourage people to do what you want by creating the right sort of hierarchic supervision. The thing about hierarchies is that there are always more people at lower levels, so they could potentially organize themselves out of the hierarchy (this is part of how labour unions work, for example). But the hierarchy only works if people at lower levels know they’re being supervised.

This raises some interesting questions. For the supervisors we’ve been hearing about recently, are they actually so stupid that they forgot to tell us we were being supervised? I don’t think so, and I think the EFF and others are helping the supervisors do their job. The EFF will spend a lot of time and effort trying to fight for transparency, when ultimately “telling people how they’re being surveilled” is exactly what the supervisors need.

I don’t expect you will accept this at face value, since they’re not necessarily obvious. I also don’t know what this means about “what we should do.” As the title of this post says, it’s just a thought.


About a Boring Feature of KWin

I spend a lot of time with my face directed at my computer screen. Most of the time, I’m even looking at the screen and actively typing or reading. To help me stay focussed, I took a lesson from GNOME 3 book, then turbocharged it for own KDE setup: there is nothing on my desktop, my panel hides itself automatically, and I use the dashboard extensively. This way, most things won’t distract me unless I was already thinking about them.

Sometimes, when I’m really trying to concentrate on something (which happens quite often recently), I just sit and stare for minutes on end. When I do this, I get to use one of KWin’s least exciting features: the panel eventually pops up, as if to mock me for taking such a long time to think. It doesn’t really bother me, but I had a hard time thinking why anybody would need this feature, since “auto-hide the panel” is not enabled by default. Then it hit me.

Months ago, a friend of mine wanted to use my computer for something trivial. I logged in, then walked away. A short while later, she said something like “what’s wrong with this thing? Why is it taking so long?” As a Windows user, she’s been trained to wait for some icons on the desktop or the panel with the “Start menu” on it, so when my computer just showed the desktop background, she continued to sit and wait for it to finish loading. She called me over before the auto-un-hide feature had a chance to prove its worth, but now I know, it’s in there for her.