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LifeLog and Totalitarianism

by Ethan Wells Thursday, May. 22, 2003 at 8:13 AM

The Pentagon's new project "LifeLog" is the latest installment in a very old story -- one that echoes especially strongly with the not so distant past, in the dreams and the desires of the totalitarian regimes

It has been reported that the Pentagon is intrigued by a new program, Lifelog, that would collect, as its name suggest, information on every facet of every citizen's life, ranging from the newspapers they read, to the purchases they make, the e-mails they send/receive, the television shows they watch, the pictures they take, etc. Eventually, it wants to be able to keep tabs on every person via "biomedical monitors" and GPS tracking devices. In short, the desire and the dream of Lifelog would be to log every recordable aspect of every citizen's life activity, and, in its ultimate form, to keep them under absolute surveillance at all times.

(For more information, see

and the links at these sites)

This project and dream (dream because, ultimately unrealizable -- but still realizable to a massive extent) is hardly new. Indeed, its an old story that has been often remarked, for instance, in Foucault's > (>). And if the dream is for the government to be everywhere present, looking down from above on all its citizens, is it not because today (and tomorrow too) the government's reach is all too limited, that it is not everywhere present -- and in its absence, in the places it does not and cannot reach, its mortality is not only prefigured, but already realized? In short, isn't the dream and project of this program to create a "mortal God," as Hobbes has it -- a God whose "mortality," however, would be infinite, lasting not only to the last day, but even to the day after the last day (as is the case, ultimately, in Hobbes's >)?

The logic of this impossible dream, this already thwarted desire, leads precisely to that phenomenon, still so poorly understood, called "totalitarianism." Hence in the Pentagon's desire, we hear the echoes of a not so distant past which we still do not know how to face. "The Okhrana," Hannah Arendt writes in > (New York, 1966/76),

the Czarist predecessor of the GPU [the Russian secret police --ew], 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 giant single sheet could show the relations and cross-relationships of an entire population. And this is the utopian goal of the totalitarian secret police. It has given up the traditional old police dream which the lie detector is supposed to realize, and no longer tries to find out who is who, or who thinks what [here, I think Arendt has spoken too quickly -- is this not still the dream today? and especially to figure out who is who (eg. who is a terrorist?), which is to say, finally, to figure out who any of us are? -- ew] (The lie detector is perhaps the most graphic example of the fascination that this dream apparently exerts over the mentality of policemen [not just policemen; not even Arendt is immune...why after all does she write this book? --ew]; for obviously the complicated measuring equipment can hardly establish anything except the cold-blooded or nervous temperament of its victims. Actually, the feeble-minded reasoning underlying the use of this mechanism can only be explained by the irrational wish that some form of mind reading were possible after all). This old dream [as old as the hills, if not older --ew] was terrible enough, and since time immemorial has invariably led to torture and the most abominable cruelties [look around you folks --ew]. There was only one thing in its favor: it asked for the impossible. The modern dream of the totalitarian police, with its modern techniques, is incomparably more terrible. Now the police dreams that one look at the gigantic map on the office wall should suffice at any given moment to establish who is related to whom and in what degree of intimacy; and, theoretically, this dream is not unrealizable although its technical execution is bound to be difficult [here Arendt is wrong; Absolute Knowledge is unrealizable as much tomorrow as it was for Hegel; but this is, alas, still small comfort, for all it indicates is that the means of acquiring more and more knowledge can only endlessly perfect themselves, grow stronger even if never strong enough --ew]. If this map really did exist, not even memory would stand in the way of the totalitarian claim to domination [but what would the difference be between this map and memory? --ew]; such a map might make it possible to obliterate people without any traces, as if they had never existed at all [or is it because it is already possible for entire nations to be obliterated, for worlds to come and go, leaving traces that erode to the point of illegibility, such that they no longer recall what has now been rendered anonymous by an irreversible forgetting or oblivion, that these maps are desired in the first place, that they are drawn and constantly perfected -- but never perfected enough (which announces already both the conditions of possibility and of impossibility of LifeLog, and all that will follow it)? --ew] (433-34).

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