I stumbled upon this gem in Hannah Arendt‘s book The Origins of Totalitarianism :

“The Okhrana, the Czarist predecessor of the GPU, is reported to have invented a filing system in which every suspect was noted on a large card in the center of which his name was surrounded by a red circle; his political friends were designated by smaller red circles and his nonpolitical acquaintances by green ones; brown circles indicated persons in contact with friends of the suspect but not known to him personally; cross-relationships between the suspect’s friends, political and nonpolitical, and the friends of his friends were indicated by lines between the respective circles. Obviously the limitations of this method are set only by the size of the filing cards, and, theoretically, a gigantic single sheet could show the relations and cross-relationships of the entire population. And this is the utopian goal of the totalitarian secret police: a look at the gigantic map on the office wall should suffice at any given moment to establish, not who is who or who thinks what, but who is related to whom and in what degree or kind of intimacy. The totalitarian ruler knows that it is dangerous to send a person to a concentration camp and leave his family and particular milieu untouched; [It is a common practice in Soviet Russia to arrest whole families; Hitler’s “Health Bill” also foresaw the elimination of all families in which one member was found to be afflicted with a disease.] the map on the wall would enable him to eradicate people without leaving any traces of them-or almost none. Total abolition of legality is safe only under the condition of perfect information, or at least a degree of knowledge of private and intimate details which evokes the illusion of perfection”.

Hannah Arendt‘s nightmare social mapping system was somewhat mitigated by the technological limits of her time – The Origins of Totalitarianism was published in 1951 and in her mind the information processing technology capable of supporting an extensive social graph was still about as far away as it seemed to the Czarist secret police. But today we are all busy building representations of the social graph to support and enrich our interactions. We are busy on social networking tools making the secret police’s work and making their dream come true.

Have we lost our minds and forgotten about the dangers ? Not quite : privacy management remains at the center of most social graph use cases. But this is a superficial defense : if a totalitarian state was to emerge among our society I know I would be as good as dead – or rather disappeared without a trace.

Luckily I am an European and I therefore enjoy the benefits of a life with historically high levels of freedom. But evil is never as far away as we imagine, and the generation of our grandparents who experienced totalitarism will not remain among us much longer to remind us that.

“You must remember, my fellow-citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. It behooves you, therefore, to be watchful in your States as well as in the Federal Government” — Andrew Jackson, Farewell Address, March 4, 1837