While talking with GKH about writing today, I figured out what was wrong with a draft of an institutional report I read yesterday: it was packed with tag-alongs: words and phrases not invited to the sentences and paragraphs I was trying to read. Their presence unnecessary and their company unwelcome, but all such familiar rhetorical faces that authors forget to play the doorman, ticket taker, bouncer, or maître d’hôtel and so all comers were admitted and seated. Too polite to thin their own ranks, some sentences meander from initial cap to final period like an oversubscribed progressive dinner. Some paragraphs careen down the page like overstacked, overstuffed pickup trucks you hate to drive behind for fear they’ll tip over and spill their load. And things that need saying and arguments worth making are left to fend for themselves, like a shy guy trying in vain to get a bartender’s attention in a crowded, noisy pub.
This phenomenon is a variation on what Orwell had in mind when he wrote that “modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug” (1946). He was advocating for elevated political discourse, but his characterization of it as “language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought” works for institutional uses of language too, which are too often, as Orwell says of political language, as if “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
When it comes to reports, perhaps we’d do better to charge by the word instead of paying by the hour.
The 9/11 anniversary reminds us, among all the other things, of the questions of government surveillance that have arisen in the last decade, some related to terrorism, some reflecting challenges raised by new technologies, and many at the intersection of these.
This fall, the US Supreme Court will consider whether law enforcement should be able to attach a GPS tracking device on a vehicle without a warrant. Adam Liptak reports on the issue in “Court Case Asks if ‘Big Brother’ Is Spelled GPS” in today’s New York Times. Lower courts have ruled in different directions on the question.
One way to think about it is in terms of aggregating information and whether there’s an emergent property that changes how we would classify obtaining, possessing, or using information. Consider, for example, one’s daily round. Leave the house at 7:30, stop for coffee, pick up the dry-cleaning, get stuck in traffic, arrive at work, park in the lot over behind the pine trees, etc. All of these are done in public with no expectation of privacy. And then it all happens again tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow. Except the dry cleaning stop is only made on Mondays and every other Friday there’s a stop at a bar on the edge of downtown. If there is a GPS attached to your car, the separate public facts of any given daily round — the sequence and full set of which perhaps only you know — are assembled as a unit of information. And, if the GPS is there for a month, both the overall, boring, day-in-day-out pattern and the regular exceptions and the truly unique exceptions are all a part of the information bundle available “out there.”
Even if all of the component information is about mundane, innocent, non-embarrassing activities, indeed has all the properties that would exclude it from your understanding of “private” information, does your willingness to do these things in public view aggregate to willingness for information about them to be aggregated into a tracking record?
UNITED STATES v. GARCIA No. 06-2741.
New York Times. Articles on Surveillance of Citizens by Government
New York Times. Articles on Global Positioning System