Two Lessons From a Rogue Ex-Cop

Barry Cooper, a former narcotics officer–and by his own admission a dirty one–has turned on his former employers and comrades to expose the Drug Warriors’ dirty linen.

In so doing he illustrates, in two different ways, the beauty of stigmergic organization.

First, Cooper has produced a DVD series called “Never Get Busted Again.”  He tells viewers–using, among other things, some old footage from his own patrol car camera–how to thwart the narcotics cops and their drug-sniffing dogs.  Cooper, using freeze-frames from his video footage as a prop, gives such advice as “Don’t ever touch your face when you are talking to a cop. It’s a sign that you’re lying.”

This illustrates a central advantage of stigmergic organization. Critics of network culture like Jaron Lanier and Andrew Keen sometimes call it “collectivist.”  But this misses the point.  The beauty of stigmergy is that it synthesizes the highest levels of both individualism and collectivism, without impairing either in the slightest.  Stigmergy is “collectivist” in the sense that it makes collective action more effective than ever before.  But it does so entirely through the self-directed actions of individuals.  The old model of “collectivism” was the committee (as in “horse built by a”), with its dumbed-down, least common denominator approach to solving problems.  The committee was frequently about as smart as its dumbest member.  With stigmergy, on the other hand, the collective is as smart as the smartest individual participating in it; the transaction costs involved in universal adoption of the best ideas and the best approach are near zero.

Cory Doctorow described what this meant in practical terms.  The record companies originally thought their DRM only had to be good enough to thwart the average grandma out there, because the geeks smart enough to crack it were so few as to result in no significant economic loss.  What they failed to anticipate was that, thanks to stigmergic organization, what the geeks figure out this week is part of the common pool of knowledge next week.  The geeks crack the DRM on a song this week, and next week it’s avaialable for free download by the grannies.

In Cooper’s case, this was the Drug War equivalent of the Winter Palace guards not only turning on the Tsar–but then creating a wiki on how to beat the Winter Palace security system.

Second, Cooper tells all he knows about the dirty stuff involved in police culture.  And he knows a lot.  He ought to–his resume includes civil forfeiture abuse,  false alerts from drug dogs, perjury swearing out warrants, and threatening to plant drugs to in order to blackmail reluctant witnesses into perjuring themselves.

One of Cooper’s best stunts is setting the cops up to make fools of themselves:  setting bait that the most stupid and venal cops couldn’t possibly resist, and then capturing their illegal actions on video.  For example, he called in an anonymous tip regarding an especially lucrative (a house full of pot plants and $19,000 cash) potential drug bust.  Of course the cops aren’t supposed to be able to get warrants for no-knock raids based on a single anonymous tip.  But when there’s that much cash for the taking, the law isn’t much of a barrier.  So when the jackbooted SWAT thugs kicked in the back door, they were met with a large poster informing them that they were on Kopbusters.  The video footage was the subject of an extensive discussion on the local news about whether the cops had exceeded their legal authority in conducting such a raid based on just one tip.

Cooper also left duffel bags containing drug paraphernalia and large amounts of cash lying around to record what the cops did with them when no one was looking.  One such sting, which showed a cop pocketing the cash and tossing the bag, went viral on the Internet.

This illustrates another principle of stigmergy:  the importance of viral replication in the ideological realm.  As I’ve argued before, when it comes to agitating for the repeal of oppressive laws, the most cost-effective thing libertarians can do is simply put information out there and influence the public’s consciousness, and then let the public leverage the resulting outrage into political activism.  Woodward and Bernstein didn’t need to organize a political movement; just reporting the facts was enough to create a political firestorm.

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