The rapid rise of the internet and its associated culture of “disruptive capitalism” have exposed deep vulnerabilities in our democratic institutions. They now seem beset on all sides, whether from infections of “fake news” which spread faster than they can be fact-checked, or the metastasis of online communities networked by shared hatreds, or through the manipulation of personal data to subvert the electoral process directly. Unsurprisingly, for the first time since the 1970s large sections of the American public now see worrying political implications in the mass collection and distribution of personal data. Yet despite growing alarm, much of the conversation remains historically illiterate, viewing such activity through literary metaphors such as George Orwell’s “Big Brother,” instead of through the domestic political traditions of intensely surveilled landscapes like here in Southern California. As happens so often in American politics, the specter of repressive government can obscure the more overt activities of corporate and citizen surveillers.
My dissertation corrects these misplaced emphases by exploring the early 20th century appearance of surveillance organizations that trafficked in a form of personal data that I’m calling suspicious knowledge. Staffed by expert archivists, librarians and filing clerks, the masters of the new information technologies of that era used their skills to collect information on millions of Americans. What uses did such information have in a time of typewriters, index cards, and filing cabinets, and when written knowledge circulated at the relatively glacial pace of the U.S. Post Office?
One of the ways I explore this question is through the story of Los Angeles’ Better America Federation. The BAF sprung from the same fertile soil of xenophobia and exceptionalism as many other WWI-era nativist organizations. Founded to capture the last energies of the war’s voluntarist spirit, the organization became extremely influential across the booming 1920s thanks in part to support from Harry Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who both discreetly funded and publicly endorsed the BAF’s membership drives.
Within several years the BAF had organized major Southern Californian businesses into a federation which shared confidential information on political and labor conditions amongst its members, warning for example of the preparations for a strike or predicted shortages of industrial goods. In exchange for access to BAF information, businesses committed not to hire or negotiate with union labor, a pledge which if broken resulted in the economic ostracism of the offending company. All such efforts were part of a grander vision that BAF leaders held for Southern California, which they pursued through a series of pioneering PR campaigns to promote the BAF’s views of the virtues and duties of republican government and of the danger foreign ideas posed to the nation if left unchallenged.
Here’s a pamphlet from a controversial educational campaign the BAF ran in Los Angeles County schools in the early 1920s, alongside a grateful letter from one member proud to hear “Americanism soap-boxed” on the streets of Los Angeles:
The BAF’s political and public relations efforts were enabled by a information gathering regime which sought to record speech and thought marked as “radical,” to assign it to a specific individual, and to then publicly shame that person for his or her views. A network of informants across California and beyond fed raw information to BAF personnel for entry into a filing system, where it would be indexed, cross-analyzed, summarized, and used to generate “facts” for the organization’s publications. To the BAF this was akin to a social scientific process. Federation writers argued that “the problems of the country should be so clearly defined that reason, born of experience in the light of history, may triumph over the crusade of theory and blind experiment.” Yet that process ultimately produced a triumphalist reading of the American past and present laden with multiple forms of discrimination—against Jews, Catholics, foreigners, the unemployed or impoverished, and in a broader sense, anyone whose difference made them natural opponents of the BAF’s white supremacist vision for the future of Southern California.
When the crises of the 1930s erupted into open conflict, the BAF offered compelling explanations for the unrest that minimized difficult-to-address structural causes. Foregoing economic or social complexity, the BAF instead located the causes of the malady in the individual minds of the unorthodox, the radical, and the foreign. In their view, these contaminated individuals needed to be quarantined from the otherwise healthy body of American political thought, and so the BAF lobbied for efforts to criminalize the speech of those they condemned as subversive. This approach appealed to allies in Congress eager to provide a platform for BAF experts offering sensational evidence of the spread of deviance, decades before McCarthy perfected that style of politicking. Elevated by their appropriation by congressional committees, BAF facts became a part of the public record, while the individuals named therein were singled out in official exhibits documenting conspiracy and treason amongst the American people.
In the 1960s, after more than four decades of operation, the BAF suspended its work. Renamed in 1953 to the banal-sounding American Library of Information, its archival collection had attracted interest from several competing groups of buyers trying to acquire them on behalf of corporate backers. In a series of letters to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, one group sought the director’s endorsement for their efforts to acquire the files of both the BAF and another defunct organization called the American Vigilant Intelligence Federation, a sort of mid-Western equivalent whose Chicago archive had been put up for sale after the death of its founder, Harry Jung.
This group wanted to use the files to establish a public clearinghouse enabling any member of the public to run a “loyalty check” on a fellow citizen by submitting a name to the organization. Staff would then retrieve an exhaustive list of that person’s political associations from the confidential files of the BAF and the AVIF, as well as from published sources. The American Research Foundation, as it would be called, hoped to centralize all such information and make it freely available for the “public good,” in the process positioning itself as the public arbiter of what constituted disloyalty—not by directly condemning those with a history of political associations of one kind or another, but by passing along information that had been collected under a very specific rubric of suspicion by the organizations whose files they were drawing from. The FBI opposed the plan, recognizing that it posed a threat to its own authority, while alarmed civil libertarians warned that the free circulation of this information would pose a major threat to freedoms of speech and association as well as individual privacy.
The American Research Foundation were unsuccessful in their bid for Jung’s files. Instead they were acquired by Robert E. Wood, the Chairman of the Sears-Roebuck corporation, who had supported Jung’s efforts since the 1930s, when the two men shared an enthusiasm for Germany under National Socialism. Wood enlisted a coalition of American businesses (including Motorola, Marshall Fields and Co., General Electric, U.S. Steel) to underwrite the new venture, which planned to limit access to the files to subscribers from the business world and select partners in government. In 1956 the new organization was incorporated as the American Security Council and in 1963 it negotiated the purchase of the archives of the Better America Federation from its remaining guardians in Los Angeles, integrating them with the files they had acquired from Jung. The envisioned super-archive that brought together the two largest collections of such suspicious knowledge in private hands was complete. But if the information was not destined for public release, what did the ASC propose to do with it?
As it turned out, the ASC vision was largely the same one proposed by the American Research Foundation but obscured behind a corporate façade. In its publicity material the ASC displayed photographs of gleaming rows of filing cabinets containing what they claimed was the largest collection of data on American political opinion in private hands, accessed by an index card system summarizing the subversive backgrounds of over 7 million American citizens and organizations. This “arsenal of facts” would broker the partnership of corporate America with military and government allies in mutual defense of private enterprise and the free world.
To finance their vision, ASC leaders founded a for-profit subsidiary named Fidelifacts, which quickly became a dominant force in the booming 1960s market for loyalty and security checks for corporate and government jobs. With over 200 branches nationwide by the end of the 1960s, the company’s rapid growth was enabled by its access to both the suspicious knowledge collected over decades by the BAF and AVIF, and to a client list of major American corporations who committed to only hiring Americans without any political association in their backgrounds deemed suspect by the ASC or its predecessors.
And so across fifty years, a collection of organizations founded by private citizens used paper, filing cabinets, informants, and secretaries to amass a vast collection of personal and political information on millions of Americans who did not consent to either its collection or to the uses to which it would be put. Yet the suspicious knowledge they created did not merely define the country’s problems as the BAF and later the ASC suggested. Instead it proposed to solve them by limiting the boundaries of acceptable political behavior and discourse and by singling out for punishment those who transgressed them. Control over this process conferred a great deal of power on a small collection of political activists whose hostility toward different traditions of American political thought impeded their ability to distinguish between dissent and treason.
Such a history, much of it rooted in California between the 1920s and the rise of Silicon Valley, raises troubling questions about the qualities of the suspicious knowledge we produce in our own age of perfect digital reproduction, infinite storage, and widespread faith in the algorithm’s ability to produce truth on command.
Originally from Wellington, New Zealand, Simon Judkins has long been fascinated with American politics, society, and history. He is currently pursuing a PhD in history at USC. His research focuses on the history of surveillance in the United States, particularly in California. This interest grew out of research completed for his MA thesis, which traces anti-communist and anti-labor surveillance in California during the 1930s. Other interests include film and history, visual studies, environmental history, and labor history.
Unsurprisingly, Simon does not have a social media presence. He is happy, however, to be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.