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Pages Blog What is Roleplaying? Creating a World Downloads About Contact. Friday, December 30, Adventures: Age of Steel. Labels: Adventure , Age of Steel. Friday, November 25, Kragor the Merc: Showdown. Friday, October 21, Kragor the Merc: Rerun. Friday, September 23, Damage Calculator.

For your convenience the generator app has been enhanced with a Damage Calculator. You'll find it along with other links in the resource bar on this page! Labels: Generator. Kragor the Merc: Water and Electricity. You'll now find an updated Core Rule book available for download. What is new: Added conditions:. Labels: Age of Steel , Rulebook. The mission was done; the camp had been cleaned, though the odd shot from Juron could still be heard through the nightly mists of poison gas.

As it was over the damn pain started to creep up on me - all I wanted to was to get back to town and get it sorted out. Unfortunately Silence let know it was 8h until our relieve would arrive. Ed took one look at the wound and said I shouldn't wait But as always, field operations are never easy.

Don't know what he actually did apart from cut me up and then put a bandage on it all so for the rest of the wait I had Angeline pile up a bunch of mattresses for a confy seat and I took guard duty. It was one of the longest waits in my damn life - and that's saying a lot. After the relief force arrived and gave us a pat on the back figuratively of course - I would have shot anyone who tried that on me at this point we headed back home.

Tried to ease the pain with some mort but the body said no to that, so fuck it. When we finally hit town and some better roads at last it felt like I could think again. Perfect timing for Erza to declare she had to go help her brother - who had managed to get himself into trouble. Is it something all orc women do, rush to the rescue like that? Didn't want to dwell on that thought though In the next sentence Erza gave me command until her return. Oh, lovely day. Silence dumped the gang off at Freelance and me at the medbay.

There was also an inquiry of the sort "didn't you have a medic with you? It was later that day when I crawled myself back to base. Ok, I walked but I felt like crawling. Had taken the bullet Rosina removed with me - as a souvenir for Ed to give him something to think about. He didn't get time for that though as it was off to collect our money and as it was the first big job we'd done we spent some time talking about a team name. It landed on Apex Predators. I can't really recall who came up with the idea, but as far as names go I can live with that one.

At least it means something. They seemed fairly impressed about our work at the camp so there might be more business coming our way - but then they also suggested we'd let them know if we were running escort business to avoid any trouble. I'll leave such fine nuances to Erza to decide about and her response I dare say I can figure out on my own. Back att Freelance it was posting the money taking us past the Demon's Head and off the Dukkha job and then to get some sleep.

There is simply no way to tell. Boards spring up, flourish, and disappear in large numbers, in most every corner of the developed world. Even apparently innocuous public boards can, and sometimes do, harbor secret areas known only to a few. And even on the vast, public, commercial services, private mail is very private -- and quite possibly criminal.

Boards cover most every topic imaginable and some that are hard to imagine. They cover a vast spectrum of social activity. However, all board users do have something in common: their possession of computers and phones. Naturally, computers and phones are primary topics of conversation on almost every board. And hackers and phone phreaks, those utter devotees of computers and phones, live by boards. They swarm by boards. They are bred by boards. By the late s, phone-phreak groups and hacker groups, united by boards, had proliferated fantastically. As evidence, here is a list of hacker groups compiled by the editors of Phrack on August 8, Contemplating this list is an impressive, almost humbling business.

As a cultural artifact, the thing approaches poetry. Underground groups -- subcultures -- can be distinguished from independent cultures by their habit of referring constantly to the parent society. Undergrounds by their nature constantly must maintain a membrane of differentiation. The digital underground, which specializes in information, relies very heavily on language to distinguish itself. As can be seen from this list, they make heavy use of parody and mockery.

It's revealing to see who they choose to mock. First, large corporations.

MODERATORS

The common use of "Inc. Second, governments and police. Third, criminals. Using stigmatizing pejoratives as a perverse badge of honor is a time-honored tactic for subcultures: punks, gangs, delinquents, mafias, pirates, bandits, racketeers. Specialized orthography, especially the use of "ph" for "f" and "z" for the plural "s," are instant recognition symbols. So is the use of the numeral "0" for the letter "O" -- computer-software orthography generally features a slash through the zero, making the distinction obvious. Others are simple bravado and vainglorious puffery.

Note the insistent use of the terms "elite" and "master. It should be further recognized that the members of these groups are themselves pseudonymous. It's quite possible that this entire list refers to as few as a thousand people. It is not a complete list of underground groups -- there has never been such a list, and there never will be. Groups rise, flourish, decline, share membership, maintain a cloud of wannabes and casual hangers-on.

People pass in and out, are ostracized, get bored, are busted by police, or are cornered by telco security and presented with huge bills. Many "underground groups" are software pirates, "warez d00dz," who might break copy protection and pirate programs, but likely wouldn't dare to intrude on a computer-system.

It is hard to estimate the true population of the digital underground. There is constant turnover. Most hackers start young, come and go, then drop out at age 22 -- the age of college graduation. And a large majority of "hackers" access pirate boards, adopt a handle, swipe software and perhaps abuse a phone-code or two, while never actually joining the elite. Some professional informants, who make it their business to retail knowledge of the underground to paymasters in private corporate security, have estimated the hacker population at as high as fifty thousand.

This is likely highly inflated, unless one counts every single teenage software pirate and petty phone-booth thief. My best guess is about 5, people. Of these, I would guess that as few as a hundred are truly "elite" -- active computer intruders, skilled enough to penetrate sophisticated systems and truly to worry corporate security and law enforcement.

Another interesting speculation is whether this group is growing or not.

Want to add to the discussion?

Young teenage hackers are often convinced that hackers exist in vast swarms and will soon dominate the cybernetic universe. Older and wiser veterans, perhaps as wizened as 24 or 25 years old, are convinced that the glory days are long gone, that the cops have the underground's number now, and that kids these days are dirt-stupid and just want to play Nintendo. My own assessment is that computer intrusion, as a non-profit act of intellectual exploration and mastery, is in slow decline, at least in the United States; but that electronic fraud, especially telecommunication crime, is growing by leaps and bounds.

One might find a useful parallel to the digital underground in the drug underground. There was a time, now much-obscured by historical revisionism, when Bohemians freely shared joints at concerts, and hip, smallscale marijuana dealers might turn people on just for the sake of enjoying a long stoned conversation about the Doors and Allen Ginsberg. Now drugs are increasingly verboten, except in a high-stakes, highly- criminal world of highly addictive drugs.

Over years of disenchantment and police harassment, a vaguely ideological, free-wheeling drug underground has relinquished the business of drugdealing to a far more savage criminal hard-core.


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This is not a pleasant prospect to contemplate, but the analogy is fairly compelling. What does an underground board look like? What distinguishes it from a standard board? It isn't necessarily the conversation -- hackers often talk about common board topics, such as hardware, software, sex, science fiction, current events, politics, movies, personal gossip.

Underground boards can best be distinguished by their files, or "philes," pre-composed texts which teach the techniques and ethos of the underground. These are prized reservoirs of forbidden knowledge. Some are anonymous, but most proudly bear the handle of the "hacker" who has created them, and his group affiliation, if he has one. Here is a partial table-of-contents of philes from an underground board, somewhere in the heart of middle America, circa The descriptions are mostly self- explanatory.

ZIP Technical Hacking. The files above are do-it- yourself manuals about computer intrusion. The above is only a small section of a much larger library of hacking and phreaking techniques and history. We now move into a different and perhaps surprising area. First, it should be acknowledged that spreading knowledge about demolitions to teenagers is a highly and deliberately antisocial act.

Second, it should be recognized that most of these philes were in fact written by teenagers. Most adult American males who can remember their teenage years will recognize that the notion of building a flamethrower in your garage is an incredibly neat-o idea. Actually building a flamethrower in your garage, however, is fraught with discouraging difficulty. Stuffing gunpowder into a booby-trapped flashlight, so as to blow the arm off your high-school vice-principal, can be a thing of dark beauty to contemplate.

Actually committing assault by explosives will earn you the sustained attention of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Some people, however, will actually try these plans. A determinedly murderous American teenager can probably buy or steal a handgun far more easily than he can brew fake "napalm" in the kitchen sink. Nevertheless, if temptation is spread before people a certain number will succumb, and a small minority will actually attempt these stunts.

A large minority of that small minority will either fail or, quite likely, maim themselves, since these "philes" have not been checked for accuracy, are not the product of professional experience, and are often highly fanciful. But the gloating menace of these philes is not to be entirely dismissed. Hackers may not be "serious" about bombing; if they were, we would hear far more about exploding flashlights, homemade bazookas, and gym teachers poisoned by chlorine and potassium. However, hackers are very serious about forbidden knowledge. They are possessed not merely by curiosity, but by a positive lust to know.

The desire to know what others don't is scarcely new. But the intensity of this desire, as manifested by these young technophilic denizens of the Information Age, may in fact be new, and may represent some basic shift in social values -- a harbinger of what the world may come to, as society lays more and more value on the possession, assimilation and retailing of information as a basic commodity of daily life. There have always been young men with obsessive interests in these topics. Never before, however, have they been able to network so extensively and easily, and to propagandize their interests with impunity to random passers-by.

High-school teachers will recognize that there's always one in a crowd, but when the one in a crowd escapes control by jumping into the phone-lines, and becomes a hundred such kids all together on a board, then trouble is brewing visibly. The urge of authority to do something, even something drastic, is hard to resist. And in , authority did something. In fact authority did a great deal. The process by which boards create hackers goes something like this. A youngster becomes interested in computers -- usually, computer games.

He hears from friends that "bulletin boards" exist where games can be obtained for free. Many computer games are "freeware," not copyrighted -- invented simply for the love of it and given away to the public; some of these games are quite good. He bugs his parents for a modem, or quite often, uses his parents' modem.

The world of boards suddenly opens up. Computer games can be quite expensive, real budget-breakers for a kid, but pirated games, stripped of copy protection, are cheap or free. They are also illegal, but it is very rare, almost unheard of, for a small-scale software pirate to be prosecuted. Once "cracked" of its copy protection, the program, being digital data, becomes infinitely reproducible.

Even the instructions to the game, any manuals that accompany it, can be reproduced as text files, or photocopied from legitimate sets. Other users on boards can give many useful hints in game-playing tactics. And a youngster with an infinite supply of free computer games can certainly cut quite a swath among his modemless friends.

And boards are pseudonymous. No one need know that you're fourteen years old -- with a little practice at subterfuge, you can talk to adults about adult things, and be accepted and taken seriously! You can even pretend to be a girl, or an old man, or anybody you can imagine. If you find this kind of deception gratifying, there is ample opportunity to hone your ability on boards. But local boards can grow stale.

And almost every board maintains a list of phone-numbers to other boards, some in distant, tempting, exotic locales. Who knows what they're up to, in Oregon or Alaska or Florida or California? It's very easy to find out -- just order the modem to call through its software -- nothing to this, just typing on a keyboard, the same thing you would do for most any computer game.

The machine reacts swiftly and in a few seconds you are talking to a bunch of interesting people on another seaboard. And yet the bills for this trivial action can be staggering! Just by going tippety-tap with your fingers, you may have saddled your parents with four hundred bucks in long-distance charges, and gotten chewed out but good. That hardly seems fair. How horrifying to have made friends in another state and to be deprived of their company -- and their software - just because telephone companies demand absurd amounts of money! How painful, to be restricted to boards in one's own area code -- what the heck is an "area code" anyway, and what makes it so special?

A few grumbles, complaints, and innocent questions of this sort will often elicit a sympathetic reply from another board user -- someone with some stolen codes to hand. You dither a while, knowing this isn't quite right, then you make up your mind to try them anyhow -- and they work! Suddenly you're doing something even your parents can't do. Six months ago you were just some kid -- now, you're the Crimson Flash of Area Code ! You're bad -- you're nationwide! Maybe you'll stop at a few abused codes. Maybe you'll decide that boards aren't all that interesting after all, that it's wrong, not worth the risk -- but maybe you won't.

The next step is to pick up your own repeat-dialling program -- to learn to generate your own stolen codes. This was dead easy five years ago, much harder to get away with nowadays, but not yet impossible. And these dialling programs are not complex or intimidating -- some are as small as twenty lines of software. Now, you too can share codes.

You can trade codes to learn other techniques. If you're smart enough to catch on, and obsessive enough to want to bother, and ruthless enough to start seriously bending rules, then you'll get better, fast. You start to develop a rep. You move up to a heavier class of board -- a board with a bad attitude, the kind of board that naive dopes like your classmates and your former self have never even heard of!

You pick up the jargon of phreaking and hacking from the board.


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You read a few of those anarchy philes -- and man, you never realized you could be a real outlaw without ever leaving your bedroom. You still play other computer games, but now you have a new and bigger game. This one will bring you a different kind of status than destroying even eight zillion lousy space invaders. Hacking is perceived by hackers as a "game. You can win or lose at hacking, succeed or fail, but it never feels "real. Hacking takes place on a screen.

Words aren't physical, numbers even telephone numbers and credit card numbers aren't physical. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but data will never hurt me. Computers simulate reality, like computer games that simulate tank battles or dogfights or spaceships. Simulations are just makebelieve, and the stuff in computers is not real. Consider this: if "hacking" is supposed to be so serious and real- life and dangerous, then how come nine-year-old kids have computers and modems?

You wouldn't give a nine year old his own car, or his own rifle, or his own chainsaw -- those things are "real. People underground are perfectly aware that the "game" is frowned upon by the powers that be. Word gets around about busts in the underground. Publicizing busts is one of the primary functions of pirate boards, but they also promulgate an attitude about them, and their own idiosyncratic ideas of justice. The users of underground boards won't complain if some guy is busted for crashing systems, spreading viruses, or stealing money by wirefraud.

They may shake their heads with a sneaky grin, but they won't openly defend these practices. It's as if big companies and their suck-up lawyers think that computing belongs to them, and they can retail it with price stickers, as if it were boxes of laundry soap! But pricing "information" is like trying to price air or price dreams. Well, anybody on a pirate board knows that computing can be, and ought to be, free. Pirate boards are little independent worlds in cyberspace, and they don't belong to anybody but the underground. To log on to an underground board can mean to experience liberation, to enter a world where, for once, money isn't everything and adults don't have all the answers.

Let's sample another vivid hacker manifesto. I found a computer. Wait a second, this is cool. It does what I want it to. If it makes a mistake, it's because I screwed it up. Not because it doesn't like me. I know you all We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore We seek after knowledge We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat and lie to us and try to make us believe that it's for our own good, yet we're the criminals.

My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for. There have been underground boards almost as long as there have been boards. Angry underground associates, fed up with Condor's peevish behavior, turned him in to police, along with a heaping double-helping of outrageous hacker legendry.

As a result, Condor was kept in solitary confinement for seven months, for fear that he might start World War Three by triggering missile silos from the prison payphone. The sysop of 8BBS was an ardent free-speech enthusiast who simply felt that any attempt to restrict the expression of his users was unconstitutional and immoral.

Swarms of the technically curious entered 8BBS and emerged as phreaks and hackers, until, in , a friendly 8BBS alumnus passed the sysop a new modem which had been purchased by credit-card fraud. Police took this opportunity to seize the entire board and remove what they considered an attractive nuisance. Owned and operated by teenage hacker "Quasi Moto," Plovernet attracted five hundred eager users in Plovernet bore the signal honor of being the original home of the "Legion of Doom," about which the reader will be hearing a great deal, soon.

P flourished so flagrantly that even its most hardened users became nervous, and some slanderously speculated that "Scan Man" must have ties to corporate security, a charge he vigorously denied. At about this time, the first software piracy boards began to open up, trading cracked games for the Atari and the Commodore C Naturally these boards were heavily frequented by teenagers. And with the release of the hacker-thriller movie War Games, the scene exploded.

It seemed that every kid in America had demanded and gotten a modem for Christmas. Most of these dabbler wannabes put their modems in the attic after a few weeks, and most of the remainder minded their P's and Q's and stayed well out of hot water. But some stubborn and talented diehards had this hacker kid in War Games figured for a happening dude. They simply could not rest until they had contacted the underground -or, failing that, created their own. In the mids, underground boards sprang up like digital fungi.

ShadowSpawn Elite. Digital Logic Data Service in Florida, sysoped by no less a man than "Digital Logic" himself; Lex Luthor of the Legion of Doom was prominent on this board, since it was in his area code. Lex's own board, "Legion of Doom," started in Ripco in Chicago, an anything-goes anarchist board with an extensive and raucous history, was seized by Secret Service agents in on Sundevil day, but up again almost immediately, with new machines and scarcely diminished vigor.

The St. Louis scene was not to rank with major centers of American hacking such as New York and L. But St. Louis did rejoice in possession of "Knight Lightning" and "Taran King," two of the foremost journalists native to the underground. But they became boards where hackers could exchange social gossip and try to figure out what the heck was going on nationally -- and internationally.

Gossip from Metal Shop was put into the form of news files, then assembled into a general electronic publication, Phrack, a portmanteau title coined from "phreak" and "hack. Phrack, being free of charge and lively reading, began to circulate throughout the underground.

The "Internet Worm" of November ,, created by Cornell grad student Robert Morris, was to be the largest and bestpublicized computer-intrusion scandal to date. Morris claimed that his ingenious "worm" program was meant to harmlessly explore the Internet, but due to bad programming, the Worm replicated out of control and crashed some six thousand Internet computers. Smallerscale and less ambitious Internet hacking was a standard for the underground elite.

Possession of Phrack on one's board was prima facie evidence of a bad attitude. Phrack was seemingly everywhere, aiding, abetting, and spreading the underground ethos. And this did not escape the attention of corporate security or the police. We now come to the touchy subject of police and boards.

Police, do, in fact, own boards. Police boards have often proved helpful in community relations. Sometimes crimes are reported on police boards. Sometimes crimes are committed on police boards. This has sometimes happened by accident, as naive hackers blunder onto police boards and blithely begin offering telephone codes. Far more often, however, it occurs through the now almost-traditional use of "sting boards.

Dan Pasquale's board in Fremont, California. Sysops posed as hackers, and swiftly garnered coteries of ardent users, who posted codes and loaded pirate software with abandon, and came to a sticky end. Sting boards, like other boards, are cheap to operate, very cheap by the standards of undercover police operations. Once accepted by the local underground, sysops will likely be invited into other pirate boards, where they can compile more dossiers. And when the sting is announced and the worst offenders arrested, the publicity is generally gratifying.

The resultant paranoia in the underground -- perhaps more justly described as a "deterrence effect" -- tends to quell local lawbreaking for quite a while. Obviously police do not have to beat the underbrush for hackers. On the contrary, they can go trolling for them. Those caught can be grilled. Some become useful informants. They can lead the way to pirate boards all across the country. And boards all across the country showed the sticky fingerprints of Phrack, and of that loudest and most flagrant of all underground groups, the "Legion of Doom.

The term "Legion of Doom" came from comic books. The Legion of Doom, a conspiracy of costumed supervillains headed by the chrome- domed criminal ultramastermind Lex Luthor, gave Superman a lot of four- color graphic trouble for a number of decades. Of course, Superman, that exemplar of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, always won in the long run.

This didn't matter to the hacker Doomsters -- "Legion of Doom" was not some thunderous and evil Satanic reference, it was not meant to be taken seriously. It sounded really cool. Other groups, such as the "Farmers of Doom," closely allied to LoD, recognized this grandiloquent quality, and made fun of it. There was even a hacker group called "Justice League of America," named after Superman's club of true-blue crimefighting superheros. But they didn't last; the Legion did.

They weren't much into computers. Lex would eventually become quite a dab hand at breaking into IBM mainframes, but although everyone liked Lex and admired his attitude, he was not considered a truly accomplished computer intruder. Nor was he the "mastermind" of the Legion of Doom -- LoD were never big on formal leadership. Legion of Doom began on the ruins of an earlier phreak group, The Knights of Shadow. Later, LoD was to subsume the personnel of the hacker group "Tribunal of Knowledge. Early on, the LoD phreaks befriended a few computer-intrusion enthusiasts, who became the associated "Legion of Hackers.

When the original "hacker" wing, Messrs. LoD members seemed to have an instinctive understanding that the way to real power in the underground lay through covert publicity. LoD were flagrant. Not only was it one of the earliest groups, but the members took pains to widely distribute their illicit knowledge. Some LoD members, like "The Mentor," were close to evangelical about it. Legion of Doom Technical Journal began to show up on boards throughout the underground. The material in these two publications was quite similar -much of it, adopted from public journals and discussions in the telco community.

And yet, the predatory attitude of LoD made even its most innocuous data seem deeply sinister; an outrage; a clear and present danger. To see why this should be, let's consider the following invented paragraphs, as a kind of thought experiment. GARDEN Generalized Automatic Remote Distributed Electronic Network is a telephone-switch programming tool that makes it possible to develop new telecom services, including hold-on-hold and customized message transfers, from any keypad terminal, within seconds. Now you don't even need a lousy Commodore to reprogram a switch -- just log on to GARDEN as a technician, and you can reprogram switches right off the keypad in any public phone booth!

You can give yourself hold-on-hold and customized message transfers, and best of all, the thing is run off notoriously insecure centrex lines using -- get this -standard UNIX software! Ha ha ha ha! Message A , couched in typical technobureaucratese, appears tedious and almost unreadable. A scarcely seems threatening or menacing. Message B , on the other hand, is a dreadful thing, prima facie evidence of a dire conspiracy, definitely not the kind of thing you want your teenager reading. The information, however, is identical.

It is public information, presented before the federal government in an open hearing. It is not "secret. However, when Bellcore publicly announces a project of this kind, it expects a certain attitude from the public -- something along the lines of gosh wow, you guys are great, keep that up, whatever it is -- certainly not cruel mimickry, one-upmanship and outrageous speculations about possible security holes. Now put yourself in the place of a policeman confronted by an outraged parent, or telco official, with a copy of Version B.

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This well- meaning citizen, to his horror, has discovered a local bulletin-board carrying outrageous stuff like B , which his son is examining with a deep and unhealthy interest. If B were printed in a book or magazine, you, as an American law enforcement officer, would know that it would take a hell of a lot of trouble to do anything about it; but it doesn't take technical genius to recognize that if there's a computer in your area harboring stuff like B , there's going to be trouble. In fact, if you ask around, any computer-literate cop will tell you straight out that boards with stuff like B are the source of trouble.

And the worst source of trouble on boards are the ringleaders inventing and spreading stuff like B. If it weren't for these jokers, there wouldn't be any trouble. And Legion of Doom were on boards like nobody else. The Legion of Doom Board. The Farmers of Doom Board. Metal Shop. Private Sector. Digital Logic. Hell Phrozen Over. LoD members also ran their own boards. So did "Mentor," with his "Phoenix Project. And where they themselves didn't go, their philes went, carrying evil knowledge and an even more evil attitude.

As early as , the police were under the vague impression that everyone in the underground was Legion of Doom. LoD was never that large -considerably smaller than either "Metal Communications" or "The Administration," for instance -- but LoD got tremendous press. Especially in Phrack, which at times read like an LoD fan magazine; and Phrack was everywhere, especially in the offices of telco security. You couldn't get busted as a phone phreak, a hacker, or even a lousy codes kid or warez dood, without the cops asking if you were LoD.

This was a difficult charge to deny, as LoD never distributed membership badges or laminated ID cards. If they had, they would likely have died out quickly, for turnover in their membership was considerable. LoD was less a high-tech street-gang than an ongoing state-ofmind. By , LoD had ruled for ten years, and it seemed weird to police that they were continually busting people who were only sixteen years old. All these teenage small-timers were pleading the tiresome hacker litany of "just curious, no criminal intent.

There was no question that most any American hacker arrested would "know" LoD. But they'd never met anyone from LoD. Even some of the rotating cadre who were actually and formally "in LoD" knew one another only by board-mail and pseudonyms. This was a highly unconventional profile for a criminal conspiracy.

1. Understand that sex happens very quickly these days

Computer networking, and the rapid evolution of the digital underground, made the situation very diffuse and confusing. Furthermore, a big reputation in the digital underground did not coincide with one's willingness to commit "crimes. As a result, it often seemed that the heavier the hackers were, the less likely they were to have committed any kind of common, easily prosecutable crime.

There were some hackers who could really steal. And there were hackers who could really hack. But the two groups didn't seem to overlap much, if at all. For instance, most people in the underground looked up to "Emmanuel Goldstein" of as a hacker demigod. But Goldstein's publishing activities were entirely legal -- Goldstein just printed dodgy stuff and talked about politics, he didn't even hack. When you came right down to it, Goldstein spent half his time complaining that computer security wasn't strong enough and ought to be drastically improved across the board!

Truly heavy-duty hackers, those with serious technical skills who had earned the respect of the underground, never stole money or abused credit cards. Sometimes they might abuse phone-codes -- but often, they seemed to get all the free phone-time they wanted without leaving a trace of any kind.

The best hackers, the most powerful and technically accomplished, were not professional fraudsters. They raided computers habitually, but wouldn't alter anything, or damage anything. They didn't even steal computer equipment -- most had day-jobs messing with hardware, and could get all the cheap secondhand equipment they wanted. The hottest hackers, unlike the teenage wannabes, weren't snobs about fancy or expensive hardware. Their machines tended to be raw second-hand digital hot-rods full of custom add-ons that they'd cobbled together out of chickenwire, memory chips and spit.

Some were adults, computer software writers and consultants by trade, and making quite good livings at it. Some of them actually worked for the phone company -- and for those, the "hackers" actually found under the skirts of Ma Bell, there would be little mercy in It has long been an article of faith in the underground that the "best" hackers never get caught. They're far too smart, supposedly. They never get caught because they never boast, brag, or strut. It fills our days with paperwork. Application forms get longer and more elaborate. Ordinary documents like bills or tickets or memberships in sports or book clubs come to be buttressed by pages of legalistic fine print.

It had its first stirrings, one might say, just at the point where public discussion of bureaucracy began to fall off in the late seventies, and it began to get seriously under way in the eighties. But it truly took off in the nineties. In an earlier book, I suggested that the fundamental historical break that ushered in our current economic regime occurred in , the date that the U. This is what paved the way first for the financialization of capitalism, but ultimately, for much more profound long-term changes that I suspect will ultimately spell the end of capitalism entirely.

I still think that. But here we are speaking of much more short-term effects. What did financialization mean for the deeply bureaucratized society that was postwar America? As John Kenneth Galbraith long ago pointed out, if you create an organization geared to produce perfumes, dairy products, or aircraft fuselages, those who make it up will, if left to their own devices, tend to concentrate their efforts on producing more and better perfumes, dairy products, or aircraft fuselages, rather than thinking primarily of what will make the most money for the shareholders.

It was among other things the philosophical basis of fascism. Indeed, one could well argue that fascism simply took the idea that workers and managers had common interests, that organizations like corporations or communities formed organic wholes, and that financiers were an alien, parasitical force, and drove them to their ultimate, murderous extreme. Even in its more benign social democratic versions, in Europe or America, the attendant politics often came tinged with chauvinism18—but they also ensured that the investor class was always seen as to some extent outsiders, against whom white-collar and blue-collar workers could be considered, at least to some degree, to be united in a common front.

From the perspective of sixties radicals, who regularly watched antiwar demonstrations attacked by nationalist teamsters and construction workers, the reactionary implications of corporatism appeared self-evident. The corporate suits and the well-paid, Archie Bunker elements of the industrial proletariat were clearly on the same side. Unsurprising then that the left-wing critique of bureaucracy at the time focused on the ways that social democracy had more in common with fascism than its proponents cared to admit.

Unsurprising, too, that this critique seems utterly irrelevant today. The mergers and acquisitions, corporate raiding, junk bonds, and asset stripping that began under Reagan and Thatcher and culminated in the rise of private equity firms were merely some of the more dramatic early mechanisms through which this shift of allegiance worked itself out.

In fact, there was a double movement: corporate management became more financialized, but at the same time, the financial sector became corporatized, with investment banks, hedge funds, and the like largely replacing individual investors. As a result the investor class and the executive class became almost indistinguishable. Before long, heroic CEOs were being lionized in the media, their success largely measured by the number of employees they could fire.

By the nineties, lifetime employment, even for white-collar workers, had become a thing of the past. When corporations wished to win loyalty, they increasingly did it by paying their employees in stock options. The common cant was that through participation in personal retirement funds and investment funds of one sort or another, everyone would come to own a piece of capitalism.

In reality, the magic circle was only really widened to include the higher paid professionals and the corporate bureaucrats themselves. Still, that extension was extremely important. No political revolution can succeed without allies, and bringing along a certain portion of the middle class—and, even more crucially, convincing the bulk of the middle classes that they had some kind of stake in finance-driven capitalism—was critical.

Hence, the U. Democratic Party, or New Labour in Great Britain, whose leaders engage in regular ritual acts of public abjuration of the very unions that have historically formed their strongest base of support. These were of course people who already tended to work in thoroughly bureaucratized environments, whether schools, hospitals, or corporate law firms.

The actual working class, who bore a traditional loathing for such characters, either dropped out of politics entirely, or were increasingly reduced to casting protest votes for the radical Right. It was a cultural transformation. And it set the stage for the process whereby the bureaucratic techniques performance reviews, focus groups, time allocation surveys … developed in financial and corporate circles came to invade the rest of society—education, science, government—and eventually, to pervade almost every aspect of everyday life.

One can best trace the process, perhaps, by following its language. There is a peculiar idiom that first emerged in such circles, full of bright, empty terms like vision, quality, stakeholder, leadership, excellence, innovation, strategic goals, or best practices. Now, imagine it would be possible to create a map of some major city, and then place one tiny blue dot on the location of every document that uses at least three of these words.

Then imagine that we could watch it change over time. We would be able to observe this new corporate bureaucratic culture spread like blue stains in a petri dish, starting in the financial districts, on to boardrooms, then government offices and universities, then, finally, engulfing any location where any number of people gather to discuss the allocation of resources of any kind at all.

For all its celebration of markets and individual initiative, this alliance of government and finance often produces results that bear a striking resemblance to the worst excesses of bureaucratization in the former Soviet Union or former colonial backwaters of the Global South. There is a rich anthropological literature, for instance, on the cult of certificates, licenses, and diplomas in the former colonial world.

In , 58 percent of journalists had a college degree. Today, 92 percent do, and at many publications, a graduate degree in journalism is required—despite the fact that most renowned journalists have never studied journalism. Ability is discounted without credentials, but the ability to purchase credentials rests, more often than not, on family wealth. Almost every endeavor that used to be considered an art best learned through doing now requires formal professional training and a certificate of completion, and this seems to be happening, equally, in both the private and public sectors, since, as already noted, in matters bureaucratic, such distinctions are becoming effectively meaningless.

While these measures are touted—as are all bureaucratic measures—as a way of creating fair, impersonal mechanisms in fields previously dominated by insider knowledge and social connections, the effect is often the opposite. In some cases, these new training requirements can only be described as outright scams, as when lenders, and those prepared to set up the training programs, jointly lobby the government to insist that, say, all pharmacists be henceforth required to pass some additional qualifying examination, forcing thousands already practicing the profession into night school, which these pharmacists know many will only be able to afford with the help of high-interest student loans.

These debts do not just happen by accident. To a large degree, they are engineered—and by precisely this kind of fusion of public and private power. The corporatization of education; the resulting ballooning of tuitions as students are expected to pay for giant football stadiums and similar pet projects of executive trustees, or to contribute to the burgeoning salaries of ever-multiplying university officials; the increasing demands for degrees as certificates of entry into any job that promises access to anything like a middle-class standard of living; resulting rising levels of indebtedness—all these form a single web.

One result of all this debt is to render the government itself the main mechanism for the extraction of corporate profits. Another is to force the debtors themselves to bureaucratize ever-increasing dimensions of their own lives, which have to be managed as if they were themselves a tiny corporation measuring inputs and outputs and constantly struggling to balance its accounts. Rather, the legal system has itself become the means for a system of increasingly arbitrary extractions.

I once attended a conference on the crisis in the banking system where I was able to have a brief, informal chat with an economist for one of the Bretton Woods institutions probably best I not say which. I asked him why everyone was still waiting for even one bank official to be brought to trial for any act of fraud leading up to the crash of ME: So in that case … okay, I guess the real question is this: has there ever been a case where the amount the firm had to pay was more than the amount of money they made from the fraud itself?

ME: So what are we talking here, 50 percent? But it varies considerably case by case. Now, on one level, this might just seem like another example of a familiar story: the rich always play by a different set of rules. If the children of bankers can regularly get off the hook for carrying quantities of cocaine that would almost certainly have earned them decades in a federal penitentiary if they happened to be poor or Black, why should things be any different when they grow up to become bankers themselves?

But I think there is something deeper going on here, and it turns on the very nature of bureaucratic systems. Such institutions always create a culture of complicity. And insofar as bureaucratic logic is extended to the society as a whole, all of us start playing along. This point is worth expanding on.

What I am saying is that we are not just looking at a double standard, but a particular kind of double standard typical of bureaucratic systems everywhere. All bureaucracies are to a certain degree utopian, in the sense that they propose an abstract ideal that real human beings can never live up to. Take the initial point about credentialism. Sociologists since Weber always note that it is one of the defining features of any bureaucracy that those who staff it are selected by formal, impersonal criteria—most often, some kind of written test.

In theory they are meritocracies. In fact everyone knows the system is compromised in a thousand different ways. The first criterion of loyalty to the organization becomes complicity. This is how bureaucracies have always tended to work. But for most of history, this fact has only been important for those who actually operated within administrative systems: say, aspiring Confucian scholars in Medieval China.

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As a result, this culture of complicity has come to spread as well. Many of us actually act as if we believe that the courts really are treating the financial establishment as it should be treated, that they are even dealing with them too harshly; and that ordinary citizens really do deserve to be penalized a hundred times more harshly for an overdraft. As whole societies have come to represent themselves as giant credentialized meritocracies, rather than systems of arbitrary extraction, everyone duly scurries about trying to curry favor by pretending they actually believe this is to be true.

So: what would a left-wing critique of total, or predatory, bureaucratization look like? I think the story of the Global Justice Movement provides a hint—because it was a movement that, rather to its own surprise, discovered this was what it was about. I remember this quite well because I was deeply involved in the movement at the time. Technological advances—particularly the Internet—were knitting the world together as never before, increased communication was leading to increased trade, and national borders were rapidly becoming irrelevant as free trade treaties united the globe into a single world market.

In political debates of the time in the mainstream media, all of this was discussed as such a self-evident reality that anyone who objected to the process could be treated as if they were objecting to basic laws of nature—they were flat-earthers, buffoons, the left-wing equivalents of Biblical fundamentalists who thought evolution was a hoax.

Thus when the Global Justice Movement started, the media spin was that it was a rearguard action of hoary, carbuncular leftists who wished to restore protectionism, national sovereignty, barriers to trade and communication, and, generally, to vainly stand against the Inevitable Tide of History. The problem with this was that it was obviously untrue. Against it, they proposed a genuinely borderless world. Such arguments were, effectively, taboo. But we discovered that there was something we could do that worked almost as well.

We could besiege the summits where the trade pacts were negotiated and the annual meetings of the institutions through which the terms of what was called globalization were actually concocted, encoded, and enforced. The actions operated like a magic charm that exposed everything that was supposed to be hidden: all we had to do was show up and try to block access to the venue, and instantly we revealed the existence of a vast global bureaucracy of interlocking organizations that nobody was supposed to really think about.

And of course, at the same time, we would magically whisk into existence thousands of heavily armed riot police ready to reveal just what those bureaucrats were willing to unleash against anyone—no matter how nonviolent—who tried to stand in their way. It was a surprisingly effective strategy. This was not some natural process of peaceful trade, made possible by new technologies. The foundations for the system had been laid in the s, but it was only with the waning of the Cold War that they became truly effective.

In the process, they came to be made up—like most other bureaucratic systems being created on a smaller scale at the same time—of such a thorough entanglement of public and private elements that it was often quite impossible to pull them apart—even conceptually. These actually developed the economic—and even social—policies followed by supposedly democratic governments in the global south. Below that came the transnational mega-corporations. Finally, one has to include the NGOs, which in many parts of the world come to provide many of the social services previously provided by government, with the result that urban planning in a city in Nepal, or health policy in a town in Nigeria, might well have been developed in offices in Zurich or Chicago.

We often came close. But we rarely quite out and said it.

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In retrospect, I think this is exactly what we should have emphasized. Even the emphasis on inventing new forms of democratic processes that was at the core of the movement—the assemblies, the spokescouncils, and so on—was, more than anything else, a way to show that people could indeed get on with one another—and even make important decisions and carry out complex collective projects—without anyone ever having to fill out a form, appeal a judgment, or threaten to phone security or the police.

The Global Justice Movement was, in its own way, the first major leftist antibureaucratic movement of the era of total bureaucratization. As such, I think it offers important lessons for anyone trying to develop a similar critique. Let me end by outlining three of them: 1. Do not underestimate the importance of sheer physical violence. Free-market liberalism of the nineteenth century corresponded with the invention of the modern police and private detective agencies,30 and gradually, with the notion that those police had at least ultimate jurisdiction over virtually every aspect of urban life, from the regulation of street peddlers to noise levels at private parties, or even to the resolution of bitter fights with crazy uncles or college roommates.

We are now so used to the idea that we at least could call the police to resolve virtually any difficult circumstance that many of us find it difficult to even imagine what people would have done before this was possible. Or, at least, no impersonal bureaucratic ones who were, like the modern police, empowered to impose arbitrary resolutions backed by the threat of force. Here I think it is possible to add a kind of corollary to the Iron Law of Liberalism.

The bureaucratization of daily life means the imposition of impersonal rules and regulations; impersonal rules and regulations, in turn, can only operate if they are backed up by the threat of force. All this takes place as social theorists continue to insist that the direct appeal to force plays less and less of a factor in maintaining structures of social control. It begins to sound more and more like a desperate refusal to accept that the workings of power could really be so crude and simplistic as what daily evidence proves them to be.

In my own native New York, I have observed the endless multiplication of bank branches. When I was growing up, most bank offices were large, freestanding buildings, usually designed to look like Greek or Roman temples. Over the last thirty years, storefront branches of the same three or four megabanks have opened, it seems, on every third block in the more prosperous parts of Manhattan.

In the greater New York area there are now literally thousands of them, each one having replaced some earlier shop that once provided material goods and services of one sort or another. In a way these are the perfect symbols of our age: stores selling pure abstraction—immaculate boxes containing little but glass and steel dividers, computer screens, and armed security. And that conjuncture has come to provide the framework for almost every other aspect of our lives. When we think about such matters at all, we generally act as if this is all simply an effect of technology: this is a world whisked into being by computers.

It even looks like one. And indeed, all these new bank lobbies do bear a striking resemblance to the stripped-down virtual reality one often found in s video games. Since, in such video games, nothing is actually produced, it just kind of springs into being, and we really do spend our lives earning points and dodging people carrying weapons. But this sense that we are living in a world created by computers is itself an illusion.

To conclude that this was all an inevitable effect of technological development, rather than of social and political forces, would be making a terrible mistake. Do not overestimate the importance of technology as a causative factor. Technological change is simply not an independent variable.

Technology will advance, and often in surprising and unexpected ways. But the overall direction it takes depends on social factors. This is easy to forget because our immediate experience of everyday bureaucratization is entirely caught up in new information technologies: Facebook, smartphone banking, Amazon, PayPal, endless handheld devices that reduce the world around us to maps, forms, codes, and graphs. Still, the key alignments that made all this possible are precisely those that I have been describing in this essay, that first took place in the seventies and eighties, with the alliance of finance and corporate bureaucrats, the new corporate culture that emerged from it, and its ability to invade educational, scientific, and government circles in such a way that public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth.

This was not a product of new technologies. To the contrary, the appropriate technologies took decades to emerge. In the seventies, computers were still something of a joke. Consider the ATM machine. Nor have I been able to find anyone I know who can. This is so true that in the wake of the U.

What does this say about what really matters to Americans as a nation? Financial technology then has gone from a running gag to something so reliable that it can form the assumed backbone of our social reality. You never have to think about whether the cash machine will dispense the correct amount of cash. Meanwhile physical infrastructure like roads, escalators, bridges, and underground railways crumbles around us, and the landscape surrounding major cities is peppered with the futuristic visions of past generations now lying smelly, dirty, or abandoned.

None of this just happened. It is, precisely, a matter of national priorities: the result of policy decisions that allocate funding for everything from landmark preservation to certain kinds of scientific research. Rather than causing our current situation, the direction that technological change has taken is itself largely a function of the power of finance. This is a kind of individualistic fascism.

In the north Atlantic countries, all this is the culmination of a very long effort to transform popular ideas about the origins of value. Most Americans, for instance, used to subscribe to a rough-and-ready version of the labor theory of value. It made intuitive sense in a world where most people were farmers, mechanics, or shopkeepers: the good things in life were assumed to exist because people took the trouble to produce them; doing so was seen as involving both brain and muscle, usually, in roughly equal proportions.

In the mid- nineteenth century even mainstream politicians would often use language that might seem to have been taken straight from Karl Marx. So Abraham Lincoln: Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

Carnegie and his allies embarked on a well-funded campaign of promoting the new gospel, not just in Rotary Clubs and Chambers of Commerce across the nation, but also in schools, churches, and civic associations. In this view, value was ultimately a product of the very bureaucratic organization of the new conglomerates. One thing that the global justice movement taught us is that politics is, indeed, ultimately about value; but also, that those creating vast bureaucratic systems will almost never admit what their values really are.

This was as true of the Carnegies as it is today. Anyone who claims to base their politics on rationality—and this is true on the left as well as on the right—is claiming that anyone who disagrees with them might as well be insane, which is about as arrogant a position as one could possibly take. Neoclassical economics is notorious for making this kind of move. In other words, talking about rational efficiency becomes a way of avoiding talking about what the efficiency is actually for; that is, the ultimately irrational aims that are assumed to be the ultimate ends of human behavior.

Here is another place where markets and bureaucracies ultimately speak the same language. Both claim to be acting largely in the name of individual freedom, and individual self-realization through consumption. Even supporters of the old Prussian bureaucratic state in the nineteenth century, like Hegel or Goethe, insisted that its authoritarian measures could be justified by the fact they allowed citizens to be absolutely secure in their property, and therefore, free to do absolutely anything they pleased in their own homes—whether that meant pursuing the arts, religion, romance, or philosophical speculation, or simply a matter of deciding for themselves what sort of beer they chose to drink, music they chose to listen to, or clothes they chose to wear.

Bureaucratic capitalism, when it appeared in the United States, similarly justified itself on consumerist grounds: one could justify demanding that workers abandon any control over the conditions under which they worked if one could thus guarantee them a wider and cheaper range of products for them to use at home. At first, of course, this freedom was limited to male heads of household; over time, it was at least in principle extended to everyone.

The most profound legacy of the dominance of bureaucratic forms of organization over the last two hundred years is that it has made this intuitive division between rational, technical means and the ultimately irrational ends to which they are put seem like common sense.

In most times and places, the way one goes about doing something is assumed to be the ultimate expression of who one is. Others will insist that life should become art; or else, religion. But all such movements are premised on the very division they profess to overcome. In the big picture it hardly matters, then, whether one seeks to reorganize the world around bureaucratic efficiency or market rationality: all the fundamental assumptions remain the same. But this is the way it looks from the top.

In fact, from inside the system, the algorithms and mathematical formulae by which the world comes to be assessed become, ultimately, not just measures of value, but the source of value itself. They are continually assessing, auditing, measuring, weighing the relative merits of different plans, proposals, applications, courses of action, or candidates for promotion. Market reforms only reinforce this tendency. This happens on every level. It is felt most cruelly by the poor, who are constantly monitored by an intrusive army of moralistic box-tickers assessing their child-rearing skills, inspecting their food cabinets to see if they are really cohabiting with their partners, determining whether they have been trying hard enough to find a job, or whether their medical conditions are really sufficiently severe to disqualify them from physical labor.

All rich countries now employ legions of functionaries whose primary function is to make poor people feel bad about themselves. But the culture of evaluation is if anything even more pervasive in the hypercredentialized world of the professional classes, where audit culture reigns, and nothing is real that cannot be quantified, tabulated, or entered into some interface or quarterly report. A critique of bureaucracy fit for the times would have to show how all these threads— financialization, violence, technology, the fusion of public and private—knit together into a single, self-sustaining web.

The process of financialization has meant that an ever- increasing proportion of corporate profits come in the form of rent extraction of one sort or another. Since this is ultimately little more than legalized extortion, it is accompanied by ever-increasing accumulation of rules and regulations, and ever-more sophisticated, and omnipresent, threats of physical force to enforce them. At the same time, some of the profits from rent extraction are recycled to select portions of the professional classes, or to create new cadres of paper-pushing corporate bureaucrats.

In the end, this is just an extension of the basic logic of class realignment that began in the seventies and eighties as corporate bureaucracies become extensions of the financial system. Every now and then you chance on a particular example that brings everything together. In September , I visited a tea factory outside Marseille that was currently being occupied by its workers. There had been a standoff with local police for over a year.

What had brought things to such a pass? A middle-aged factory worker, who took me on a tour of the plant, explained that while ostensibly the issue was a decision to move the plant to Poland to take advantage of cheaper labor, the ultimate issue had to do with the allocation of profits. The oldest and most experienced of the hundred-odd workers there had spent years tinkering with, and improving, the efficiency of the giant machines used to package teabags.

Output had increased and with them profits. Yet what did the owners do with the extra money? Did they give the workers a raise to reward them for increased productivity? In the old Keynesian days of the fifties and sixties they almost certainly would have. No longer. Did they hire more workers and expand production? No again. All they did was hire middle managers. For years, he explained, there had only been two executives in the factory: the boss, and a human resources officer.

As profits rose, more and more men in suits appeared, until there were almost a dozen of them. The suits all had elaborate titles but there was almost nothing for them to do, so they spent a lot of time walking the catwalks staring at the workers, setting up metrics to measure and evaluate them, writing plans and reports. Before long, the workers had seized the building, and the perimeter was swarming with riot cops. A left critique of bureaucracy, therefore, is sorely lacking.

This book is not, precisely, an outline for such a critique. Neither is it in any sense an attempt to develop a general theory of bureaucracy, a history of bureaucracy, or even of the current age of total bureaucracy. It is a collection of essays, each of which points at some directions a left-wing critique of bureaucracy might take. The first focuses on violence; the second, on technology; the third, on rationality and value.

The chapters do not form a single argument. Perhaps they could be said to circle around one, but mainly, they are an attempt to begin a conversation—one long overdue. We are all faced with a problem. Bureaucratic practices, habits, and sensibilities engulf us. Our lives have come to be organized around the filling out of forms. Yet the language we have to talk about these things is not just woefully inadequate—it might as well have been designed to make the problem worse.

We need to find a way to talk about what it is we actually object to in this process, to speak honestly about the violence it entails, but at the same time, to understand what is appealing about it, what sustains it, which elements carry within them some potential for redemption in a truly free society, which are best considered the inevitable price to pay for living in any complex society, which can and should be entirely eliminated entirely.

If this book plays even a modest role in sparking such a conversation, it will have made a genuine contribution to contemporary political life. Let me begin with a story about bureaucracy. In , my mother had a series of strokes. It soon became obvious that she would eventually be incapable of living at home without assistance.

Since her insurance would not cover home care, a series of social workers advised us to put in for Medicaid. When she emerged from that, she was definitely going to need home care, but there was a problem: her social security check was being deposited directly, and she was barely able to sign her name, so unless I acquired power of attorney over her account and was thus able to pay her monthly rent bills for her, the money would immediately build up and disqualify her, even after I filled out the enormous raft of Medicaid documents I needed to file to qualify her for pending status.

I went to her bank, picked up the requisite forms, and brought them to the nursing home. The documents needed to be notarized. The nurse on the floor informed me there was an in- house notary, but I needed to make an appointment; she picked up the phone and put me through to a disembodied voice, who then transferred me to the notary. The notary proceeded to inform me I first had to get authorization from the head of social work, and hung up. So I acquired his name and room number and duly took the elevator downstairs and appeared at his office—only to discover that the head of social work was, in fact, the disembodied voice that had referred me to the notary in the first place.

It seemed that the notary indeed had no idea what she was doing. So I got new set of forms, duly filled out my side of each, and made a new appointment. On the appointed day the notary appeared, and after a few awkward remarks about how difficult these banks are why does each bank insist on having its own, completely different power of attorney form? I signed, my mother signed—with some difficulty, she was finding it hard at this point even to prop herself up—and the next day I returned to the bank.

Another woman at a different desk examined the forms and asked why I had signed the line where it said to write my name and printed my name on the line where it said to sign. Well, I just did exactly what the notary told me to do. I guess she told me wrong. So is that really a problem? I pointed out that no one had mentioned any such letter previously. As it happened, the whole problem soon became academic: my mother did indeed die a few weeks later. At the time, I found this experience extremely disconcerting. Having spent much of my life leading a fairly bohemian student existence comparatively insulated from this sort of thing, I found myself asking my friends: is this what ordinary life, for most people, is really like?

Running around feeling like an idiot all day? Being somehow put in a position where one actually does end up acting like an idiot? Most were inclined to suspect that this was indeed what life is mostly like. Obviously, the notary was unusually incompetent. Which is, are we not also told, what leads them to set impossible standards and then blame the individuals for not living up to them?

On a purely personal level, probably the most disturbing thing was how dealing with these forms somehow rendered me stupid, too. It was written right there! I like to think that I am not, ordinarily, a particularly stupid person. The problem, I realized, was not with the energy spent, but with the fact that most of this energy was being sunk into attempts to try to understand and influence whoever, at any moment, seemed to have some kind of bureaucratic power over me—when, in fact, all that was required was the accurate interpretation of one or two Latin words, and correct performance of certain purely mechanical functions.

It was an obviously misplaced strategy, since insofar as anyone had the power to bend the rules they were usually not the people I was talking to; moreover, if I did encounter someone who did have such power, they would invariably inform me directly or indirectly that if I did complain in any way, even about a purely structural absurdity, the only possible result would be to get some junior functionary in trouble. As an anthropologist, all this struck me as strangely familiar. We anthropologists have made something of a specialty out of dealing with the ritual surrounding birth, marriage, death, and similar rites of passage.

We are particularly concerned with ritual gestures that are socially efficacious: where the mere act of saying or doing something makes it socially true.