A VERY BIG PIECE OF PAPER

“The Okhrana, the secret police of the GPU, is reported to have invented a filing system in which every suspect was noted on a large card in the center of which his name was surrounded by a red circle; his political friends were designated by smaller red circles and his nonpolitical acquaintances by green ones; brown circles indicated persons in contact with friends of the suspect but not known to him personally; cross-relationships between the suspect’s friends, political and nonpolitical, and the friends of his friends were indicated by lines between the respective circles. Obviously the limitations of this method are set only by the size of the filing cards, and, theoretically, a gigantic single sheet could show the relations and cross-relationships of the entire population. And this is the utopian goal of the totalitarian secret police.”

— Hannah Arendt, the Origins of Totalitarianism (1958)

The Okhrana was the ultimate evolution of the Tsarist secret police in pre-revolutionary Russia, monitoring potential revolutionary activity in the Empire and abroad. The thing that caught my eye about this wry little paragraph in The Origins of Totalitarianism is the way it echoes in real life precisely the fictional absurdity J G Borges created when he wrote his one-page parable of the hubris of science, in which cartographers create ‘a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.’ Subsequent generations realise the uselessness of the map and ‘deliver it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.’

Borges could have called his story ‘The Perfection of Cartography,’ but the title he chose — ‘On Exactitude in Science’ — widens the context. He is mocking the human drive to map and measure everything in existence; our physics, our astrophysics, our chemistry and mathematics and so on can never completely encompass reality. Borges exemplifies the artist’s more sacramental attitude to representation: that it can never rival the real, nor should it try to; the results would merely be ridiculous. Arendt’s subtle ridicule of the Okhrana’s utopian goal is identical to Borges’: the image of a ‘gigantic single sheet’, big enough to diagram all social relationships. The idea is as absurd as a map the size of an empire. 

In time, however, that absurdity has become void. The map, of course, exists; the gigantic sheet of paper scrolls endlessly. 

Borges’ short story became the starting point of Jean Baudrillard’s seminal teatise Simulacra and Simulation (1981); but his bold theory of simulation inverts Borges’ parable; rather than being cast away to rot in the Western deserts, instead the map becomes the territory; it replaces it in human experience; we live in the map. 

By the same logic, Baudrillard would presumably argue that the Okhrana’s map of relationships and affiliations would eventually replace society itself; we would live inside the filing system, meeting each other and conducting relationships through that medium. We would live in the gigantic sheet of paper.

Sometime around 2013 or 14 I had an interesting conversation with a software developer who told me about a meeting he had attended more than a decade earlier, at which he learned about a project to create a detailed biography of every living person on the planet. He thought it was rather a wonderful idea, if people were allowed to see and collaborate on their own biographies. But he was told that this would not happen, and that no one would get to see the log of their own life.

I don’t know how much that man understood; that they were talking about surveillance, about social mapping, about a project growing directly out of the Okhrana’s utopian goal; a DARPA/Pentagon civilian spying project that sought to make Arendt’s gigantic single sheet a reality. War turbo-charges technological creativity. What neither Borges nor Arendt could know in the years immediately following the second world war was that a radical new technology would grow from the demands of that conflict and create a new space in which the gigantic sheet of paper or the Empire’s Unconscionable Maps were no longer an absurdity — or at least, no longer an impossibility. The new technology had created a new dimension, orthogonal to every physical direction; a cloud of knowing; cyberspace. 

The DARPA project was called ‘Lifelog’, described as ‘an ontology-based (sub)system that captures, stores, and makes accessible the flow of one person’s experience in and interactions with the world in order to support a broad spectrum of associates/assistants and other system capabilities.’ Rather surprisingly it was discontinued early in 2004.

According to a contemporary article in Wired Magazine, ‘LifeLog aimed to gather in a single place just about everything an individual says, sees or does: the phone calls made, the TV shows watched, the magazines read, the plane tickets bought, the e-mail sent and received. Out of this seemingly endless ocean of information, computer scientists would plot distinctive routes in the data, mapping relationships, memories, events and experiences.’

About three weeks later, on the 4th February 2004, Facebook was launched, and we all started collaborating on the secret life-logs we would never be allowed to see.

To a degree, then, we’re already living through the map, some more than others. But at some point we may really find ourselves living inside the map. Our doppelgängers already are.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s