Now, this is a story about King Samid of the many names: Master of Knowledge, Ruler of Electrons, Maker of Worlds, and so on. For the sake of the truth, however, it must be said that Samid was not his right name but only a nickname, a kind of witty saying around the office. In sooth, he was born Samuel I.D. Knowytall (of the Knowytalls of Somerset and Kent, who still pronounced the K well into the 18th century), his middle names being ‘Ipse’ and ‘Dixit.’ Anyway, by the time we take up his life, he had become Supreme Director of the VNA, the Very Nosy Agency, which was also very secret.
Long ago, the agency had started out doing piecework on signal intelligence and had since grown into the biggest consumer of raw ‘facts’ and ‘data’ that’s ever been. It had also grown very arrogant and very confident along the way. It could encode and decode anything, from a fried burrito to a Russian icon. It had, for example, decoded the inner meaning of the word ‘transparency’ as used in official U.S. diplomatic harangues for four or so decades: it meant that every person, animal, tree, rock, or substantial form, foreign or domestic, was morally bound to reveal its ‘data’ to the American Empire, which only has their best interests at heart. (This rule did not apply to the U.S. ruling classes. Their ‘data’ was EX-LOOP, or special.)
Eventually, the agency noticed that it had not put quite the same burden, in the same degree, on every person, animal, tree, rock, etc. at home. Those objects had sat too long under the imperfect but high-sounding protections of the ‘law.’ The most famous of these legal ‘protections’ were warehoused in some 18th-century Grocery List called the Bill of Rights. These feckless abstractions would have to go.
Now, all ‘U.S. persons, U.S. quartz, U.S. cowpeas, and U.S. Everything’ (as one memo put it) were fair game. Everyone and everything, everywhere in the world, were on an equal footing. This victory for universal and egalitarian subjection to Sam, Uncle, fulfilled some ancient rhetoric of FDR, in a way. But it was not well liked, ‘everywhere in the world.’
In pursuit of its supra-legal, supra-moral, and supra-sensible mission the agency’s operatives had undertaken the great project of assembling every ‘fact’ or ‘datum’ they could find and were putting the lot into storage facilities for present, future, and (possibly) past evaluation. Coded-named TOWEROFBABBLE, the program was very well funded and seemed to be yielding results. ‘Just look at the size of the storage,’ Samid gloated. ‘If it were on paper, we could fill the Grand Canyon and still need more space.’
So as to have this ‘data’ directly available – all of it – in ‘real time,’ the Agency invented its very own seer stones (as they wittily called them), or Glasses of All Knowledge (GAK). These were a lot like an ‘application’ loudly hawked a few years ago in the public market, whereby the ‘user’ would have the Whole Bloody Internet available in a little device suspended before his eyeballs. This commercial ‘app’ fell somewhat short on sales, but the VNA, from the Director on down, thought it was just the thing. The Agency’s version was even better and could shoe-horn all the data in the world, serially, onto the little screen.
The Director got the first one – the prototype device -- and seldom removed it. And here is where things started going wrong. Let us look in on his unforeseen hardships. On a given day, which is classified, the physically embodied Director felt the need for a shower. Still wearing his special glasses, he was idly singing something when, as if cued, his glasses began showing him hundreds of books on music history and music theory. ‘What?’ he cried. ‘I’m in the shower. Can’t they leave some of this stuff in that place where we stow everything – ah, um’ – he was losing more and more words under the cumulative weight of information. ‘Oh! Utah!’ he shouted. His glasses instantly displayed the full set of Bureau of Land Management maps of Utah, followed by three full histories of the Utah (or Mormon) War (1857-1858).
Alas, in the middle of all this useful information, the embodied Director registered that the water was more than warm. ‘Hot!’ he bellowed, and another device – an artificially unintelligent thermo-apparatus -- increased the heat. ‘Bless my soul!’ he yelled (forgetting he was a materialist), ‘too much heat!’ And the physical Director threw himself through the shower curtain, crashing onto the hard tile floor. Shaken but unbowed, he dried off and retrieved the glasses which had fallen off in the struggle. Now they were showing him the names, addresses, and likely political affiliations of every heating-and-cooling firm from Baghdad to Benghazi and beyond. They had already covered the letter ‘D’ by the time he recovered his wits. The overseas contractors listed seemed very wily cowboys indeed, as anyone who has dealt with a heating contractor would know.
Now dressed, the material Director felt hungry and padded to the kitchen. His glasses of all knowledge were still pursuing the theme of ‘heat’ and had moved on to thermodynamics. ‘I think I’ll make a burger,’ he said to himself, and the glasses began displaying the details of every human life-form named ‘Burger’ in full detail. There were thousands in Germany, tagged as ‘Sour Krauts,’ and a comparable number in the American Midwest, helpfully marked as ‘U.S. Persons’; there were others in South Australia and South Africa, flagged as ‘FORN GNATS.’ Transfixed by all this usable-knowledge-on-parade, the Director lost track of time as hours and hours passed – thirty-six of them in all. Words and images streamed in: ‘Burghers (Netherlands),’ ‘Burgesses (House of),’ ‘Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch,’ ‘Bürgerrecht,’ and so forth. By the time the director awoke, so to speak, his magic glasses were going on about ‘borough franchises,’ ‘bourgeoisie,’ ‘bourgeois revolution as seen by State Department socialists,’ ‘bourgeois revolutions in formerly unfriendly states,’ and much more. He hadn’t eaten and felt very weak: an odd outcome, indeed, considering that knowledge is power, as Bacon saith.
The Director tottered on the brink of learning a rather simple thing. He stared into the abyss, and the Abgrund (having rudely switched languages on him) stared zurück. A frightening thought tugged at his waking-awareness: Could it be that ‘data’ are not exactly ‘facts’ and that -- in any case -- data and facts (whatever they are) do not straightforwardly yield ‘information’? And -- much worse – information may not be the same thing as knowledge, much less wisdom or truth. “Oh, the pain!” he cried, and his headset immediately took him through scores of medical treatises, Torture Memos written for George the Second Bush, ‘organ failure,’ and the rest of it.
They found him the next day (also classified), floating in a foul pool of raw data. A fact-eating grin marked the last moment of his union with the electrons. His gravestone reads: ‘Samuel I.D. Knowytall, 1945-2022, Servant of Sam, Master of the Urim and Thummim, First Lord of All Data. Requiescat in ephemeris.’
It would be nice to be able to say, ‘nothing beside remains,’ but that would not be strictly true – and just our luck.
Hic explicunt res gestae Samuel I.D. Omniscientis.
 His hired genealogists assert his direct relation to John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.
 Depending on the feasibility of time travel.
 Why can these people not use the English language Englishly?
 For another view of the issues treated here, see Joseph R. Stromberg, “Power and Knowledge: Socialist and Militarist Calculation problems,” Future of Freedom, February 2015, 19-25, http://fff.org/explore-freedom/article/power-knowledge-socialist-militarist-calculation-problems/ .
 Americans have long confused electricity with spirit and Sam I.D. Knowytall was no exception.
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Joseph R. Stromberg is a prolific independent historian with libertarian, anti-war, and Southern sympathies. He writes from Georgia.