Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mass Observation

Imagine an organisation that covertly photographs and records the conversations of people across the nation, but it’s not the Stasi.  Imagine people documenting the minutia of their day in great detail and sharing it with strangers, but it’s not Twitter.  Imagine that this is all being run by volunteers on a shoe-string budget in 1930s Britain, and you have Mass Observation, “the anthropology of ourselves”.

Mass Observation was a project started in Britain just after the Depression by the unlikely trio of an anthropologist, a film-maker, and a poet.  All three had an interest in uncovering a British culture other than the one transmitted down from traditional authority.  To do this, they proposed to found a new science of observing people as they were in their day-to-day lives.

The data collected would enable the organizers to plot “weather-maps of public feeling.” As a matter of principle, Mass-Observers did not distinguish themselves from the people they studied. They intended merely to expose facts “in simple terms to all observers, so that their environment may be understood, and thus constantly transformed.”

[Caleb Crain, Surveillance Society, The New Yorker]

Starting with nothing but big (and nebulous) plans and high ideals, and with no funding but the money in their own pockets, the trio managed to build a network of correspondents (or “observers”) who would both keep minutely detailed diaries and respond to questionnaires on all manner of subjects.

[B]etween 1937 and 1945 hundreds of people mailed in regular reports of their daily lives. They came from all backgrounds, though young unmarried clerks and schoolteachers were especially well represented. No detail was too trivial. Mass-Observation studied which end of a cigarette people tap before lighting it (fifty-two per cent tap the end they put in their mouths), the nature of women’s revenge fantasies in wartime (cut Hitler into slices for pie; saw off his ankles, sharpen his shins into stakes, and pound him into the earth with a big saucepan), and the number of outdoor copulations on a typical night in the working-class vacation town of Blackpool (four, including one in which an observer participated).

[Caleb Crain in The New Yorker again]

This mass of observing lead to a series of books published on a variety of unusual topics.  The first, May the Twelfth, documented the day of George VI’s coronation with details ranging from an usher at the service smoking to a prostitute soliciting one of the “observers” at the Euston train station.  During the war, they produce The Pub and the People about the activity in the pubs of the northern industrial city of Bolton: we learn that during “a single Thursday night, pubgoers drink, on average, 3.16 pints of beer; on a Saturday, the average goes up to 3.45 pints”.

These books must make for a terrific resource for playing something like Call of Cthulhu in a 30s British setting.  The other fascinating aspect is this trio of characters who manage to arrange this network of informants and mass of data out of nothing.  Essentially they gathered their informants with their own charisma, convincing people that this was a good idea.  I imagine them as something like a benign version of Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu, or a sane Mr Wilde from Robert Chamber’s The Repairer of Reputations.

And why not have an organisation like this that isn’t the arch nemesis.  Perhaps they are shadowy, gathering information in secret, but actually with good (albeit confused) motives.  Perhaps rather than being Cthulhu cultists, they are stumbling on evidence of the cult and its activities, but haven’t yet put all the pieces together.


  1. "Mass Observation" is begging to be a classified agency or secret society in Paranoia (West End Games). I can imagine the earnest praise followed by accusations of treason landing on the poor player who submits data that implicates a citizen of a higher security clearance.

  2. True, a nice catch-22: a secret society started by the Computer, but still a secret society and therefore illegal.

    The few times I ever played Paranoia it was in a very gonzo style, but I see that the later versions of the game have promoted a more sober, dark humour take - more "Brazil" than "Looney Toons".