The prism house

The nature of Rusanov’s work had been for many years, by now almost twenty, that of personnel records administration. It was a job that went by different names in different institutions, but the substance of it was always the same. Only ignoramuses and uninformed outsiders were unaware what subtle, meticulous work it was, what talent it required. It was a form of poetry not yet mastered by the poets themselves. As every man goes through life he fills in a number of forms for the record, each containing a number of questions. A man’s answer to one question on one form becomes a little thread, permanently connecting him to the local center of personnel records administration. There are thus hundreds of little threads radiating from every man, millions of threads in all. If these threads were suddenly to become visible, the whole sky would look like a spider’s web, and if they materialized as elastic bands, buses, trams and even people would all lose the ability to move, and the wind would be unable to carry torn-up newspapers or autumn leaves along the streets of the city. They are not visible, they are not material, but every man is constantly aware of their existence. The point is that a so-called completely clean record was almost unattainable, an ideal, like absolute truth. Something negative or suspicious can always be noted down against any man alive. Everyone is guilty of something or has something to conceal. All one has to do is look hard enough to find out what it is.

Each man, permanently aware of his own invisible threads, naturally develops a respect for the people who manipulate the threads, who manage personnel records administration, that most complicated science, and for these people’s authority.

— From Cancer Ward by Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, published in 1967.

5 thoughts on “The prism house

  1. Adam

    “[man]….naturally develops a respect for the people who manipulate the threads, who manage personnel records administration”

    We are all guilty of being “fans” of the CIA and holding them in a certain child-like awe. What they do is not awesome. As a matter of fact, people don’t realize that part of how they work is to project a veneer of competence. They are just lazy, bungling, ineffective bureaucrats with enormous power to ruin your life.

  2. Samir

    And today:

    A while back I had a conversation about this with a longtime digital-freedom hacktivist who had initially been a senior advisor in the WikiLeaks project. I asked him what he thought were the most important political projects to protect online privacy and organisational openness. He said that ship had sailed; it was too late to carve out a zone of electronic freedom. The architecture had already been defined; the telecoms corporations and the government can learn whatever they want about you, and there was no way to undo what had been built. So, I asked, how did he plan on protecting himself against America’s crusade against WikiLeaks? He didn’t, he said. He had a family to consider. He’d dropped out.

    Democracy in America, Jun 6th 2013.

  3. Tim

    I had not thought of Solzhenitsyn in many, many years. I thank you for reminding me of him, and of how this so greatly relates to the revelations of the last week. Knowing of Solzhenitsyn, I believe, always meant one was aware of the similarity of power regardless of ideology. The revelations of this week do not seem surprising. Sadly, they are too real, so tangible and frightening, yet so mundanely acceptable to most company. Where is the uprising and protest that were the hallmarks of the late 60’s? Has the internet made us into a brain that is capable of understanding and empathy, yet incapable of ethical action?

  4. John Schoettler

    The PC and the internet that connects them is intrinsically in a civil war between the printed word and the video image. At the PC’s onset it was a typewriter that was bestowed a microprocessor (an artificial brain) and then connected to a TV monitor to display its thoughts. That very fusion of these two different media forms (driven by an artificial brain) is at the root of the conflict between those who use the internet to read and those who use it to watch videos.

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