Sunday, July 4, 2010

My Name is Legion

My Name is Legion is a 1976 collection of three longer stories or novellas by Roger Zelazny that all revolve around the same central character.

I started looking for this book a while ago because it was mentioned in a footnote in Hardt and Negri's Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. In a discussion of the threatening specter of the multitude in Dostoyevsky's The Devils, Hardt and Negri contrast the liberating multiplicity of identity that is central to My Name is Legion.
"[...] in a future world where the vital statistics of Earth's inhabitants are maintained on a central computer, Zelazny's hero manages to gain access to his files and change his identity repeatedly, thereby escaping control. Being legion for him functions as an exodus from the oppression of identity." (Hardt and Negri p 383)
The main character - we never learn his name - had been a programmer working at the government agency that created the data tracking system.
"Ever go looking for a job and get an intelligenct test or an aptitude test or a personality inventory for your pains? Sure. Everybody has by now, and they're all on file in Central. You get used to taking them after a time." (Zelazny p 38)
Before the system goes live he destroys his own data and drops out, hacking into the system and assigning himself other people's identities as necessary.

What does he do with this freedom? He hooks up with a shadowy secret agent person and carries out dubious undercover missions for money. Wait - that's the meaning of freedom?

Having someone else's identity means that he gains power by acting outside of what others expect of him. He surprises some would-be saboteurs by not conforming to what they think they know about his "Personality Profile."

I was not wild about the writing and the hardboiled main character seemed to have no real motivation. But it was interesting to compare how the vision here of data tracking is rooted in the idea of centralized control. But today we live in a world where we exist in many databases. A ton of data on each of us is out there, and while it's incomplete in each it's also diffuse. There are driving records, health records, what Google knows about us (Google owns Blogger, YouTube and DoubleClick by the way), what Facebook knows about us, browser fingerprinting by individual sites, etc. The massive system is in place because the different datasets can be correlated and combined, but it's not entirely centralized. The stories in My Name is Legion respond to a fear of centralized authoritarian control, but we're already in an age where you can't wipe out your data trails or just hack into one place and update your identity.

The title - My Name is Legion - is a reference to a passage in the new testament where Jesus meets a man possessed by many demons. It is used to references the uncanny state of being both one and many at the same time.

Whereas Zelazny's protagonist is an individual who eludes control by appropriating different identities, cultural critic Brian Holmes theorizes "collective phantoms" the practice of multiple individuals eluding control by appropriating a common identity. For instance the pseudonym
"Luther Blissett" was taken up by many activists. In the words of (a) Luther Blissett, "the multiple name is a shield against the established power's attempt to identify and individualize the enemy." (from Mind Invaders qtd. in Holmes)

Facebook's privacy policies have people talking about leaving the site, or continuing to use the site but overloading their accounts with junk information. Collective, shared accounts might also allow people to use and misuse the site at the same time.

Here's a link to the Brian Holmes essay, "Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Flexible Personality, Networked Resistance" (I feel like I've read a longer, more developed version elsewhere with more examples, but I can't find it online. Maybe it's in this book.)