Posted by Big Gav
A while ago I included a review of a couple of John Brunner books ("Stand on Zanzibar" and "The Sheep Look Up") that aligned closely with some of the issues that the peak oil world tends to obsess about (primarily population growth and environmental degradation for those books). During my February reading break I found myself re-reading his other classic work "The Shockwave Rider" as a way of further procrastinating the reading of various (unread) heavyweight tomes I have sullenly eyeing me from the bookshelves.
This book took a lot of Alvin Toffler's ideas from "Future Shock" and extrapolated them forward a few decades, most famously predicting the arrival of both the internet and parasites that infest it such as computer virus' and worms. While the book is probably only known today in hardcore geek circles, it also covered a range of other interesting ideas, such as:
- "ecofast" (energy efficient / sustainable) housing
- the destruction of an american city by a natural disaster and the inhabitants being left to fend for themselves by the government in "paid avoidance zones"
- a post oil world - public and electric transport rather than fossil fueled cars
- "the plug in lifestyle" - a highly mobile population (at least amongst the professional classes) that frequently moves houses and jobs
- alienation leading to widespread use of tranquillizers and other mood altering drugs
- the value of slowing down in order to make more progress
- the emergence of complete information transparency (for government and some corporate data)
- the breakdown of societal cohesiveness and the division of society into tribes
- the replacement of the "arms race" with the "brain race"
- the value of wisdom vs the combination of knowledge and greed
- delphi pools - using the "wisdom of crowds" by allowing the population to bet on a large range of important issues and the government then adjusting policy based on the results (well sometimes - the other tactic is to rig the market to adjust public perceptions)
- corporations which are favoured by the government (particularly in terms of access to information) based on their contribution to "national advantage"
- widespread paranoia caused by people knowing that others have access to more information than they do
- government being taken over by organised crime
I'll quote a few other reviews of the book from around the net and then launch into a rather long winded survey of recent news relevant to some of the ideas Brunner explored as well as indulging in some 1980's cyberpunk and cypherpunk era nostalgia (while science fiction isn't meant to be predictive of the future, its interesting to see just how well the book did as futurism rather than an extrapolation of existing trends).
"What the hell does this have to do with energy and the environment ?" some of you (those who aren't resigned to my not infrequent diversions from the topic at hand) might be asking ? As I'm prone to rant from time to time, peak oil, global warming, resource wars and my other topics of interest are all be-devilled by the problem of data quality. Oil data is incomplete, frequently held secret and manipulated at every level, which is why I don't bother with the day to day haggling over when the peak date is. Our resource wars over oil are clouded with endless disinformation and propaganda campaigns, some that have been going on for decades. Global warming science is also afflicted, with the best source of much of the information (various US government funded institutions) suffering from censorship and political interference, exacerbated by the fossil fuel industry's FUD campaign against the scientists. So Brunner's musings on the concept of freedom of information and related topics seem relevant to me - but if you just want energy news, the time to stop reading is now - come back again tomorrow. I will mention energy and global warming a few times along the way though.
First up, from Mac Tonnies "Utopian / Dystopian book reviews" :
John Brunner's "The Shockwave Rider," published in 1976, is a fast-forward glimpse of a 21st century that -- unlike the vast majority of SF written in that distant era -- predicts some of our worst fears and reasons for hope. "The Shockwave Rider" is perhaps best known for its eerily prescient rendering of a government-controlled Internet alive with "tapeworms": Brunner's equivalent to computer viruses. With its mechanized ambience and hacker protaganist, "The Shockwave Rider" is one of the principal "protocyberpunk" novels, predating Bruce Sterling's "Islands in the Net" by a decade. But computers are merely the surface of this book. Beneath the veneer of techno and inventive slang is a challenging utopian discourse as engaging as B.F. Skinner's "Walden Two."
Like "The Sheep Look Up," "The Shockwave Rider" deals unflinchingly with where we're headed as a species -- and how to know when to apply the temporal brakes. Directly inspired by Alvin Toffler's classic "Future Shock," Brunner's novel is a serious -- but spirited -- examination of transcience on daily life. In a world lacking nothing, Brunner laments our lack of purpose; he proposes that Western civilization, while saturated with intelligence, has forsaken actual wisdom, setting the stage for collective psychosis and a depersonalized ruling elite. Prefiguring the online free speech movement, Brunner shows how a technocratic society can use information for good or ill and, moreover, suggests ways individuals can make the future more user-friendly.
"The Shockwave Rider," lamentably not as well-known as "1984" or "Brave New World," is one of the central social thought experiments of the 20th century -- and an effective rallying call for sanity in a world that, now more than ever, often seems like so much digital putty.
Another review from SciFi.com:
If The Shockwave Rider had been published a decade after its 1975 copyright date, there is no doubt it would have been lumped into that shifting, slippery, semi-solid body of work now called cyberpunk. But since it appeared in a time before the term "cyberpunk" had been coined, this novel was merely seen as a one-off about a future subsumed by data, corporations and the government. While it was not a commercial success, it did receive some critical note and it also became an underground hit in the high-tech community then evolving around computers.Historical Note: In the 1980s, researchers at Xerox PARC dubbed the first self-replicating, self-propagating computer program a "worm" after the "tapeworms" Nickie uses to erase his previous identities.
But while The Shockwave Rider missed cashing in on the cyberpunk cachet, it nevertheless remains an important work. Brunner's hard-luck, gritty street-kid-cum-data-jockey foreshadowed the dozens of such anti-heroes that would appear in the 1980s. And his portrayal of a society enmeshed in data overload could, as the saying goes, be taken out of today's headlines. More than that, The Shockwave Rider is also a good tale, artfully told. Although it's slow (and perhaps a bit confusing) to start, the book quickly hits its pace and continues marching unrelentingly until the end, drawing readers along with it.
By the end of the book readers will have a keen sense of, if not the future at least a future, and what the role of both humanity as a whole and the individual as a piece might be in that future. It's a story as enjoyable and profound today as it was 22 years ago, and it's absolutely a must read for cyberpunk aficionados.
A review by Charles Gimon on "Heroes of Cyberspace: John Brunner":
"For all the claims one hears about the liberating impact of the data-net, the truth is that it's wished on most of us a brand-new reason for paranoia." --John Brunner, "The Shockwave Rider", 1975. ...
To Brunner, control is control of information; either digital data or genetic code. Governments may use information to keep a lock on society, but individuals may take find power for themselves as well by controlling and manipulating information. The powers that be have access to the data-net, but "in theory everyone does, given a dollar to drop into a pay phone". Brunner identified himself with the political left (including anti-war actions in Britain during the sixties) but when he's read today, his outlook seems so much more concerned with the rights and dignity of the individual, rather than trying to social-engineer whole societies. This spirit is very much the "Internet ethos" we see today. ...
A review from Amazon:
This book has always been popular with the techy-geeky crowd, but, since it was first published in the '70s, it missed out on the cyberpunk revolution of the '80s. It's too bad, because this is a compelling story of a future world tied together by a universal data network, a world that could be our tomorrow. It's a tense place filled with information overload and corporate domination, and nearly everything is known about everybody. Except Nickie Haflinger, a prodigy whose talents allow him to switch identities with a phone call. Nickie plans to change the world, if only he can keep from getting caught.
Plus a tinfoil edged one from another Amazon reader:
This 28-year old book not only decribed the internet as it will become very soon long before its inception, but computer viruses (called "worms" by Brunner) before the first PC too, plus a few other things and issues not even mentioned yet. Since a friend gave it to me to read many years ago, I've bought every copy of it I could find. I have kept one German and one English version and as I will not let them out of my bookshelf under no circumstances I gave all others away as gifts, still looking for more copies to give away. It has been sold out so often and for such a long time, each time and in each of those two languages available to me, that if one were to be a follower of conspiracy theories, well, the fact that this book is not reprinted as often as some other books of Brunner are would be reason for suspicion.
I won't go on about green buildings or cities destroyed by natural disasters and the inhabitants left to fend for themselves after my effort back in April on "Bright Green And Dark Green Buildings", which the Pope Emperor himself was kind enough to acknowledge (does this mean I'm now an official member of the Viridian tribe ?) thus sending a few Wired readers my way. JCWinnie also followed through with a post on buildings and climate change and Energy Bulletin included it in a roundup of urban design news, along with Free Market News Network, Grist, WorldChanging and a Kiwi dude who dubbed my bright green buildings "hippy skyscrapers". Nor will I look at oil depletion and the electric transport system that will arise in response to it, as I think they get plenty of coverage here and I've got too much material on the other points as it is.
Mr Sterling had a book at the tail end of the cyberpunk period called "Heavy Weather" which was the first science fiction book (at least that I'm aware of) to look forward into a globally warmed future. If I recall correctly it also featured some futuristic building construction ideas featuring annotechnology - something Bruce still seems to be keen on. "Strange Words" has a review of the book.
As the 20th century draws to a close, the "global warming; fact or fiction?" debate, and the international political paralysis over appropriate action, continues. Skeptics (some legitimate, some hired guns of fossil fuel-dependant industries) insist that the available data is insufficient to conclude that humans are affecting the climate. Meanwhile, the ten warmest years on record have occurred in the past fifteen years and the 1990s have already been warmer than the 1980s--the warmest decade on record--by almost 0.2F (0.1C). On the storm front, NOAA reports that the period from 1995-1998 had a total of 33 hurricanes--an all-time record, with 1998 being one of the deadliest storm seasons in history and 1999 predicted to be its equal. El nino, la nina, 500 year floods, record droughts, and the litany continues. Whether or not humans are the cause, it is difficult to deny that climate and weather are becoming increasingly tumultuous. And what about the long-range forecast?
Bruce Sterling provides a slice of future, thirty years down the line, in Heavy Weather. The low-lying coastal expanses, once the world's most populous and productive areas, are largely underwater. Heat, drought, and extreme storms make other regions, including the United States Midwest, virtually uninhabitable. Government relief agencies, powerless to do anything else, supply weather refuges with disposable paper coveralls, government-issue granola, and "happy talk news" of lottery winners and starlet weddings. ...
Bruce Sterling's Heavy Weather is a engaging yarn about storm chasers of the future living outlaw-esque lives of high tech nomadic freedom on the Texas plains. The great tornado pursuit plot, spiced with international conspiracy, showcases a landscape decimated by climatic change and decades of land mismanagement. By narrating alternately through Janey's insider passion and Alex's fish-out-of-water viewpoint, Sterling creates an evocative picture of weather and life in the 2030s, liberally laced with geo-political insights and ecological object lessons. Heavy Weather is a snap-shot of a possible near future, and a warning that we are shaping tomorrow's weather, and world, today. Thoroughly enjoyable, Heavy Weather is consummate Bruce Sterling.
Jon Lebkowsky speculates that doing the research for Heavy Weather was what prompted Bruce to start the Viridian Design movement with its focus on prompting massive change to deal with global warming.
The environmental movement can be boring, strident, depressing; this is why I never quite became an environmental activist despite my initial interest and commitment in the sixties. It struck me as too burlap and granola. It felt reactionary (despite the great calendars). I think Bruce Sterling found himself in a similar quandary when, after researching Heavy Weather, he realized there was a significant climate problem. Who was going to take it on? Certainly not the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the Wilderness Conservancy, organizations cycling cash and promoting the great outdoors but not equipped to generate real soltuions to a problem like global warming. And certainly not the U.S. and other governments, whose attitudes are reflected by the Murray Hamilton character in the movie "Jaws." Lifesaving solutions are fine, but they have to wait til the tourist season is past.
Sterling figured design movements like futurism and dadaism had been effective in disrupting the lazier aspects of our consciousness and perception and driving new ways of thinking about the world and its problems, so he started the Viridian Design movement, beginning with the Manifesto of January 3, 2000We have a worldwide environmental problem. This is a truism. But the unprecedentedly severe and peculiar weather of the late 1990s makes it clear that this problem is growing acute. Global warming has been a lively part of scientific discussion since at least the 1960s, but global warming is a quotidian reality now. Climate change is shrouding the globe in clouds of burning rain forest and knocking points off the GNP of China. Everyone can offer a weird weather anecdote now; for instance, I spent a week this summer watching the sky turn gray with fumes from the blazing forests of Chiapas. The situation has been visibly worsening, and will get worse yet, possibly very much worse.
Society has simply been unable to summon the political or economic will to deal successfully with this problem by using 20th century methods. That is because CO2 emission is not centrally a political or economic problem. It is a design and engineering problem. It is a cultural problem and a problem of artistic sensibility.
New and radical approaches are in order. These approaches should be originated, gathered, martialled into an across-the-board cultural program, and publicly declared -- on January 3rd
WorldChanging is one spinoff from the Viridian work, which continues apace at http://www.viridiandesign.org/.
It's worthwhile to reread the Viridian agenda at the end of the manifesto... which I duplicate here, encouraging comments and suggestion from today's perspective - six years later, post 9/11, post Katrina.
Today. Publishing and broadcasting cartels surrounded by a haze of poorly financed subcultural microchannels.
What We Want. More bandwidth for civil society, multicultural variety, and better-designed systems of popular many-to-many communication, in multiple languages through multiple channels.
The Trend. A spy-heavy, commercial Internet. A Yankee entertainment complex that entirely obliterates many non-Anglophone cultures.
Today. G-7 Hegemony backed by the American military.
What We Want. A wider and deeper majority hegemony with a military that can deter adventurism, but specializes in meeting the immediate crises through civil engineering, public health and disaster relief.
The Trend. Nuclear and biological proliferation among minor powers.
Today. Currency traders rule banking system by fiat; extreme instability in markets; capital flight but no labor mobility; unsustainable energy base
What We Want. Nonmaterial industries; vastly increased leisure; vastly increased labor mobility; sustainable energy and resources
The Trend. commodity totalitarianism, crony capitalism, criminalized banking systems, sweatshops
Today. very rapid model obsolescence, intense effort in packaging; CAD/CAM
What We Want: intensely glamourous environmentally sound products; entirely new objects of entirely new materials; replacing material substance with information; a new relationship between the cybernetic and the material
The Trend: two design worlds for rich and poor comsumers; a varnish on barbarism
Today: more commercial work required of women; social problems exported into family life as invisible costs
What We Want: declining birth rates, declining birth defects, less work for anyone, lavish support for anyone willing to drop out of industry and consume less
The Trend: more women in prison; fundamentalist and ethnic-separatist ideologies that target women specifically.
Today: large-scale American special-effects spectacle supported by huge casts and multi-million-dollar tie-in enterprises
What We Want: glamour and drama; avant-garde adventurism; a borderless culture industry bent on Green social engineering
The Trend: annihilation of serious culture except in a few non-Anglophone societies
Today: dysfunctional but gamely persistent War Crimes tribunals
What We Want: Environmental Crime tribunals
The Trend: justice for sale; intensified drug war
Today: MacJobs, burn-out track, massive structural unemployment in Europe
What We Want: Less work with no stigma; radically expanded leisure; compulsory leisure for workaholics; guaranteed support for people consuming less resources; new forms of survival entirely outside the conventional economy
The Trend: increased class division; massive income disparity; surplus flesh and virtual class
Today: failing public-supported schools
What We Want: intellectual freedom, instant cheap access to information, better taste, a more advanced aesthetic, autonomous research collectives, lifelong education, and dignity and pleasure for the very large segment of the human population who are and will forever be basically illiterate and innumerate
The trend: children are raw blobs of potential revenue-generating machinery; universities exist to supply middle-management
Today: general success; worrying chronic trends in AIDS, tuberculosis, antibiotic resistance; massive mortality in nonindustrial world
What We Want: unprecedently healthy old people; plagues exterminated worldwide; sophisticated treatment of microbes; artificial food
The Trend: Massive dieback in Third World, septic poor quarantined from nervous rich in G-7 countries, return of 19th century sepsis, world's fattest and most substance-dependent populations
Today: basic science sacrificed for immediate commercial gain; malaise in academe; bureaucratic overhead in government support
What We Want: procedural rigor, intellectual honesty, reproducible results; peer review, block grants, massively increased research funding, massively reduced procedural overhead; genius grants; single-author papers; abandonment of passive construction and the third person plural; "Science" reformed so as to lose its Platonic and crypto-Christian elements as the "pure" pursuit of disembodied male minds; armistice in Science wars
The Trend: "Big Science" dwindles into short-term industrial research or military applications; "scientists" as a class forced to share imperilled, marginal condition of English professors and French deconstructionists. I would like to conclude by suggesting some specific areas for immediate artistic work. I see these as crying public needs that should be met by bravura displays of raw ingenuity.
One of the bridges between John Brunner's era and the cyberpunks like Bruce who followed in his footsteps in the 1980s was Vernor Vinge, whose 1981 novella "True Names" took the idea of the internet / cyberspace (which Vinge called "The Other Plane") and combined it with cryptography and artifical intelligence (and paranoia about revealing your true identity).
This remarkable anthology reprints Hugo winner Vinge's (The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge) "True Names" (1981), the story that began SF's cyberpunk revolution, with 11 essays showing its effect on science as well as fiction. The best are the testimonials by pioneers in virtual reality, cryptography and artificial intelligence. The most famous contributors, Marvin Minsky and Danny Hillis, also show the deepest understanding of Vinge's vision. The weakest pieces are science-fictional, appearing pale in the shadow of Vinge's story. The overall problem with the collection is its wildly unbalanced political stance. A quarter of the essayists are "crypto-anarchists," who see the ability of individuals to act secretly as the only defense against a totalitarian surveillance state.
Reason recently had an interview with Vinge on "Science fiction, the Singularity, and the State".
Vinge, who was one of the first science fiction writers to conceive of cyberspace, formalized these ideas in an essay written for NASA in 1993 and published later that year in the Whole Earth Review. The article noted several trends that together or separately might lead to the Singularity: artificial intelligence, which could lead to "computers that are "awake' and superhumanly intelligent"; computer networks that achieve such intelligence; human-computer interfaces that "become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent"; and biological improvements to the human intellect. "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence," Vinge predicted, adding somewhat ominously that "shortly after, the human era will be ended."
A number of Vinge's novels, including Marooned in Realtime (1986) and A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), have dealt obliquely with the concept, typically by telling the stories of human beings who have escaped, one way or another, the Singularity's explosive transformations. But in his most recent book, last year's Rainbows End (just out in paperback from Tor), Vinge comes toe to toe with imminent change. Humanity, within a couple of decades of the present day, is on the brink of something transformational - or else on the brink of destruction - in large part because almost everyone is connected, usually via wearable computers, to tomorrow's In- ternet. The result is a struggle between those who would hobble our independence to make us safer and those who are willing to risk skirting the edge of destruction to see where the Singularity takes us. It's just the quality of speculation you'd expect from an author whose previous novel, A Deepness in the Sky (1999), won not only a Hugo Award but also a Prometheus Award for the best libertarian novel of the year.
Vinge is a mathematician and computer scientist as well as a novelist; he is now retired from his faculty position at San Diego State University to a life of writing, lecturing, and consulting. Contributing Editor Mike Godwin interviewed him, in part via email, in the weeks following his appearance last year as a guest of honor at the 16th annual Computers, Freedom & Privacy conference in Washington, D.C. At that conference Vinge spoke about both the Singularity and a "convergence" of technological trends that threaten to drastically limit individual freedom.
Reason: In your speech you foresaw efforts to build ubiquitous monitoring or government controls into our information technology. What's more, you suggested that this wasn't deliberate - that the trend is happening regardless of, or in spite of, the conscious choices we're making about our information technology.
Vernor Vinge: I see an implacable government interest here, and also the convergence of diverse nongovernmental interests - writers unions, Hollywood, "temperance" organizations of all flavors, all with their own stake in exploiting technology to make people "do the right thing."
Reason: Do you believe this pervasive monitoring and/or control might stall the Singularity?
Vinge: I think that if the Singularity can happen, it will. There are lots of very bad things that could happen in this century. The Technological Singularity may be the most likely of the noncatastrophes. Except for their power to blow up the world, I think governments would have a very hard time blocking the Singularity. The possibility of governments perverting the Singularity is somewhat more plausible to me. (Who wrote the story with the newspaper headline "Today Parliament Met and Abolished the People"?) In A Deepness in the Sky the Singularity didn't happen, but not because of governments. On the other hand, A Deepness in the Sky showed how government could use technology to create a whole new level of tyranny.
But in my speech, I also wanted to raise the possibility that these abuses may turn out to be irrelevant. There is a national interest, and not just in America, in providing the illusion of freedom for the millions of people who need to be happy and creative to make the economy go. Those people are more diverse and distributed and resourceful and even coordinated than any government.
Thats a power we already have in free markets. Computer networks, supporting data and social networks, give this trend an enormous boost. In the end that illusion of freedom may have to be more like the real thing than any society has ever achieved in the past, something that could satisfy a new kind of populism, a populism powered by deep knowledge, self-interest so broad as to reasonably be called tolerance, and an automatic, preternatural vigilance. ...
Vinge also invented the idea of the Singularity, which Bruce Sterling discussed in a "The Long Now" talk a little while back. More recently Vinge himself did another "Long Now" talk on "What if the Singularity Does NOT happen ?", which prompted RU Sirius to note that 90% of the population have never even heard of the singularity and 5% of scientists think it is nonsense, so talking about what happens if it doesn't occur seems a bit strange. I include the quote below just because I like Bruce's catalog of different reactions to the Singularity idea - number 4 seemed kind of familiar...
Sterling noted that the first stating of the Singularity metaphor and threat came from John Von Neuman in the 1950s in conversation with Stan Ulam---"the rate of change in technology accelerates until it is mind-boggling and beyond social control or even comprehension." But it was science fiction writer Vernor Vinge who first published the idea, in novels and a lecture in the early 1980s, and it was based on the expectation of artificial intelligence surpassing human intelligence. Vinge wrote: "I believe that the creation of greater than human intelligence will occur during the next thirty years. I'll be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030." Vinge was not thrilled at the prospect.
The world-changing event would happen relatively soon, it would be sudden, and it would be irrevocable.
"It's an end-of-history notion," Sterling drawled, "and like most end-of-history notions, it is showing its age." It's almost 2005, and the world is still intelligible. Computer networks have accelerated wildly, but water networks haven't---in fact we're facing a shortage of water.
The Singularity feels like a 90s dot-com bubble idea now---it has no business model. "Like most paradoxes it is a problem of definitional systems involving sci-fi handwaving around this magic term 'intelligence.' If you fail to define your terms, it is very easy to divide by zero and reach infinite exponential speed." It was catnip for the intelligentsia: "Wow, if we smart guys were more like we already are, we'd be godlike."
Can we find any previous Singularity-like events in history? Sterling identified three---the atomic bomb, LSD, and computer viruses. The bomb was sudden and world changing and hopeful---a new era! LSD does FEEL like it's world changing. Viruses proliferate exponentially on the net. LSD is pretty much gone now. Mr. Atom turned out to be not our friend and has blended in with other tools and problems.
Singularity proponents, Sterling observed, are organized pretty much like virus writers---loose association, passionate focus, but basically gentle. (They'd be easily rounded up.) "They don't have to work very hard because they are mesmerized by the autocatalyzing cascade effect. 'Never mind motivating voters, raising funds,or persuading the press; we've got a mathematician's smooth line on a 2D graph! Why bother, since pretty soon we'll be SUPERHUMAN. It's bound to happen to us because we are EARLY ADAPTERS.'"
Vernor Vinge wrote: "For me, superhumanity is the essence of the Singularity. Without that we would get a glut of technical riches, never properly absorbed." Said Sterling, "A glut of technical riches never properly absorbed sounds like a great description of the current historical epoch."
Sterling listed five kinds of kinds of reactions to the Singularity. 1) Don't know and don't care (most people). 2) The superbian transhumanists. 3) The passive singularitatians---the Rapture of the Nerds. 4) The terrified handflapping apocalypse millennialists (a dwindling group, too modish to stay scared of the same apocalypse for long). 5) The Singularity resistance---Bill Joy killjoys who favor selective relinquishment. Sterling turned out to be a fellow traveler of the Resistance: "Human cognition becoming industrialized is something I actually worry about."
Vinge did a great thing, said Sterling. The Singularity has proved to be a rich idea. "In the genre of science fiction it is more important to be fruitfully mistaken than dully accurate. That's why we are science fiction writers, not scientists."
The other major writer in the cyberpunk era besides Bruce was William Gibson, whom I also like to quote from time to time, although by and large he has stayed a lot closer to the genre than Bruce has with his transformation to general futurist and pundit. There is a new Gibson book coming soon called "Spook Country" (I vaguely recall writing a review of his last book "Pattern Recognition" which I can no longer find - but I might note here that this whole post could be considered an exercise in recreational apophenia if you look at it the right way).
Jack Womack, one of the people who's been privy to the material and process throughout, offers the following take on it:
Spook: as spectre, ghost, revenant, remnant of death, the madness lingering after the corpse is sloughed off. Slang for intelligence agent; agent of uncertainty, agent of fear, agent of fright.
Country: in the mind or in reality. The World. The United States of America, New Improved Edition. What lies before you. What lies behind. Where your bed is made.
Spook Country: the place where we have all landed, few by choice, and where we are learning to live. The country inside and outside of the skull. The soul, haunted by the past, of what was, of what might have been. The realization that not all forking paths are equal -- some go down in value.
The ground of being, pervaded with spectres. The ground of actuality, similarly teeming.
In traversing spook country, we ourselves have been transformed, and we will not fully understand how until we are no longer what we were.
There have been new rumours circulating that a movie will soon be made of Neuromancer and/or Pattern Recognition, but it seems that these are no truer than any previous instances of this (Gibson also notes that books, by and large, don't make very good movies).
Word from the Croisette has some of our posters gnashing their teeth at the possibility that someone who's made Britney vids might attempt a feature film of Neuromancer.
Discussing said possibility, earlier today, with Cory Doctorow, he said:
"I've noticed that everything in Hollywood always appears to be in a liminal state of nearly there, with enormous, gallumphing enthusiasm all around, then long periods of indifference. I get almost weekly calls about the amazing things that are just about to happen for me. I go to studio meetings with people who tell me about the amazing things we'll do together. Somehow, nothing much comes of it... It reminds me a little of bubble-era tech entrepreneurs, especially the business development people who always seemed about to close a GIANT DEAL."
If you're a novelist, or hope one day to be, and haven't yet had a film option, I suggest you remember that. It's as concise and accurate a description of this very liminal business as you're ever likely to run across. Myself, I'll be willing to entertain the idea that Neuromancer is really "headed for the big screen" when I'm watching it being shot. As the old saying goes, I'll believe it when I see it.
I *do* believe, though, that Peter Weir will not be going forward with Pattern Recognition. That is one utterly solid little factoid of film news, alas.
I no longer get very wrought up over the liminals, myself, except to be annoyed by people who seem to assume that feature films are the ultimate stage of novelistic creation, thereby relegating the book to the status of dull gray chrysalis.
Both Gibson and Sterling have short stories in a new anthology coming out called "Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology".
Tachyon Publications has posted the Table of Contents for their "Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology" (edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel), and it's a killer line-up:
* Introduction: Hacking Cyberpunk by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
* Introduction: Kessel-Sterling Correspondence by John Kessel
* Bruce Sterling "Bicycle Repairman"
* Gwyneth Jones "Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland"
* Jonathan Lethem "How We Got Into Town and Out Again"
* Greg Egan "Yeyuka"
* Pat Cadigan "The Final Remake of The Return of Little Latin Larry"
* William Gibson "Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City"
* David Marusek "The Wedding Album"
* Walter Jon Williams "Daddy's World"
* Michael Swanwick "The Dog Said Bow-Wow"
* Charles Stross "Lobsters"
* Paul Di Filippo "What's Up, Tiger Lily"
* Christopher Rowe "The Voluntary State"
* Elizabeth Bear "Two Dreams on Trains"
* Paolo Bacigalupi "The Calorie Man"
* Mary Rosenblum "Search Engine"
* Cory Doctorow "When SysAdmins Ruled the Earth"
That second "introduction" is actually a series of letters between Bruce Sterling and John Kessel starting in 1985, which sounds like it's about the heart of the cyberpunk-humanist split. I hadn't even suspected such a thing existed, and I can't wait to read it myself.
One staple character of the cyberpunk era was the bike courier, so I might throw in this piece from the New York Times I saw recently on "anarchy in motion".
WHEN is a bicycle not like other bicycles? To begin with, when it has no brakes, or at least no visible brakes, or possibly just a front brake. That means you can't ride this bike very well on your first try, and certainly not very gracefully, easily or safely.
The rear cog is bolted directly to the hub, so that whenever the vehicle is in motion, the pedals go around, making coasting impossible. This bike doesn't have a shift lever or extra sprockets, and the chain is shorter and wider than on traditional bikes.
There are no fenders, and the rear wheels are probably bolted onto the frame to deter theft. You slow down by reversing the pedals, or skidding, or doing a skip stop. And that's just the beginning of the differences between your run-of-the-mill 10-speed and a track bike, or fixed-gear bike (fixie for short) as it is also known.
Many fixed-gear adherents contend that their bikes are the ultimate and all others are pretenders. And these fixed-gear zealots are a growing presence on the streets of New York. Perceived by some as nuisances, or as troublesome, anarchist Dumpster-diving punks who happen to ride bikes, they are occasionally reviled, but they are also the subject of curiosity and interest. Just as die-hard skateboarders 15 years ago stood on the cusp of providing a new lifestyle, so the fixed-gear bike culture could be the tip of something that nobody can accurately predict but something that is huge.
Riders of fixed-gear bikes are as diverse as bike riders in general. Messengers are big fixie aficionados, but more and more fixed-gear bikes are being ridden by nonmessengers, most conspicuously the kind of younger people to whom the term 'hipster' applies and who emanate from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn. You see these riders weaving in and out of traffic without stopping, balancing on the pedals at a stoplight and in the process infuriating pedestrians and drivers alike. ...
RU Sirius likes to interview various cyberpunk writers from time to time, with some recent chats featuring the likes of Rudy Rucker, Richard Kadrey and Jon Shirley (the last of which even touched on the topic of Iraq, with Jeff Diehl eventually howling "its about the 14 permanent bases and controlling the oil", which is a pretty good one sentence summary).
Rudy Rucker also has an interview of RU in his online magazine Flurb which features an interesting picture of a red and white mushroom. Judging by a photo in one of my "Wildlife Photographer of the Year" books (and the description below) I'd guess this is a fly agaric, which will allow me to segue through to the Brunner's drugs predictions via a very strange explanation of the origin of the Santa Claus myth outlined in Daniel Pinchbeck's book "Breaking Open The Head".
Fly Agarics are the famous red-capped, white-spotted (yellow spotted in North America) mushrooms of Siberian shamanism.Often characterised as deadly poisonous in mycology guides, the mushrooms are known to cause a range of distortions. They can make objects in the world seem much bigger or smaller, an effect lewis Carroll had incorporated into Alice In Wonderland (it is unknown whether Carroll had personal knowledge of the "bemushroomed" state). Gordon Wasson argued that Amanita was the Soma of the Rig Veda.
Here is how Fly Agarics inspired the Santa Claus legend: In Siberia, the mushrooms were rare and extremely valuable - apparently one mushroom could cost the same as a reindeer. Ibotenic acid and the other active ingredients of the mushroom concentrate in urine, and up to seven or eight people can share the intoxication by passing along their piss. Many Siberian tribesmen even preferred ingesting the piss as it caused less gastric distress. Reindeer also loved to drink the mushroom scented-piss. All a Siberian nomad had to do wa pour a bit of his piss on the ground and reindeer would come galloping over from miles around. This archaic, symbiotic relationship - reindeer, red and white capped beings bringing gifts from the other world, the frozen tundra - was incorporated, consciously or not, into the story of Santa Claus.
Well - I'm not sure if any of that is true, but its more entertaining than the story that Santa Claus was invented by the Coca Cola company as a way of marketing coke.
Pinchbeck continues the story with the tale of Robert, who one day in the Sixties consumed three Fly Agarics with some friends. To their disappointment, nothing seemed to happen. Until he went to the kitchen to grab a beer.
I took out the beer, turned around, and across the kitchen there were three huge mushrooms staring at me - a five foot tall, a four foot tall, and a three foot tall mushroom. The mushrooms were red and yellow and they had little eyes and little mouths. They looked just as solid and real as me or you.
Robert and the mushrooms stared at each other, until the largest asked, "Why did you eat us?" Robert thought, and then replied, "I was just following my dream."
The mushrooms conferred with each other. Finally they seemed satisfied by his answer. "But are you prepared to follow this path?" the tallest Fly Agaric asked. Robert answered, intuitively and without hesitation, "Yes I am." Whereupon the mushrooms vanished. Fifteen years passed before Robert realized that the path he had agreed to follow was plant shamanism.
A friend of Robert's who also ate Fly Agarics received a similar visitation, and was also asked "Why did you eat us?" But he answered, "I was trying to get high." The mushrooms told him, "Well, if you ever do this again, we're going to kill you."
Now Brunner's tale didn't have anything to do with hippies munching on mushrooms (or Siberian nomads drinking one another's urine), nor did it have anything to do with later science fiction meditations on the "war on drugs" - as this review at Slashdot noted, the drugs in Shockwave Rider are there to cushion people from the overload of Future Shock they were experiencing (or maybe reverese culture shock, in some rare cases.
The Shockwave Rider is the culmination of Brunner's near future prescience. Written in the early seventies, he explicitly acknowledges Alvin Toffler's Future Shock - an influential discussion of the change brought on by technology - though Brunner had already published a number of novels on the catastrophic effects of humanity's approach to the world and each other. The difference with this work is the far closer focus on North America and the decision to drive the plot through a single central character. The book continues to use the cut-up style Brunner had developed, with a variety of techniques used to offer other viewpoints, but this is essentially the story of Nicky Haflinger, a brilliant individual attempting to transform the "plug-in society".
The social etiquette of American society in this book expects everyone to move from one job to another and across the country once or twice a year.The rapid, repeated changes result in disconnection from any sense of genuine community and a tendency to make belongings and relationships interchangeable - a plug-in society. The inability of the average person to cope with this rate of change and the resulting loss of loyalty, commitment and real relation is solved by the use of drugs - primarily prescription tranquillisers which ameliorate the continual shocks of life. A comprehensive communications network, which started as a corollary to this mobile society has become central to its continuance, storing vast detail of each individual in the databanks. Such use of and reliance on computer data leads to the central paranoia of this world - a fear of what the records might contain and what might be used to your detriment by someone who has better access to data. In a world where no one is more than the sum of their computer records, Haflinger's ability to re-engineer his persona through reprogramming the data banks allows him to escape the government agencies and sample lifestyles at many levels of society. However, much of the story is framed as an interrogation so it is clear that his capture is inevitable. The extant powers fear his skill and the potential it has to give him great power. Yet, Haflinger's journey is not a search for power but for wisdom. ...
Hopefully the parallel in the modern world is clear - Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil and Ritalin now seem to be widespread in the community and presumably the alienation and paranoia Brunner talks about are at least partly responsible (I only know one person who has taken Prozac and no one has taken any of the others, so I'm relying on the media here - presumably pharmaceutical company profits don't lie though). Apparently there are now even traces of Prozac in our drinking water. From the AdBusters article on "Toxic Culture":
If moving to the US tends to put people at risk for psychological afflictions, clearly a strange cultural malaise is at work. And the problem appears to be getting worse.
Social epidemiologist Myrna Weissman at Columbia University, along with a lengthy list of collaborators, has explored this question in detail, looking at the US as well as other countries. Reporting in 1992 and 1996 in JAMA - the Journal of the American Medical Association - Weissman and colleagues found that more and more Americans are becoming depressed, they are getting depressed at a younger age, and the severity and frequency of depression is rising.
These results are neither small nor spurious. Each generation born in the twentieth century has suffered more depression than the previous one and since WWII, the overall rate of depression has more than doubled. A more recent study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2000 and conducted by another team of researchers, showed more than a doubling of depression in women from 1970 to 1992. Psychiatric drug use has skyrocketed as a result. American schoolchildren today are taking four times as many psychiatric meds as all of the rest of the world combined.
What's going on? The commonly sold narrative is that every instance of the blues, and certainly every case of clinical depression, is the result of some in-born biochemical imbalance - treatable only by serotonin drugs like Prozac. Yet these studies make it clear that something larger is at play. If your brain is indeed out of balance, the source of the trouble may very well reside in your cultural environment, not in your genes.
Heading back to the cyberpunks, Rudy Rucker recently made an appearance with Cory Doctorow at SF In SF to read from some of their works- podcast here.
Last night was our inaugural reading at the Variety Preview Room, with Cory Doctorow and Rudy Rucker each reading, followed by a panel discussion and a signing. Cory Doctorow read a chapter from his upcoming hacker-vs-the-DHS novel Little Brother, which will be coming out next May. Rudy Rucker read from his short story regarding how Alan Turing, after eluding MI5 in order to have a tryst with his male lover, really died.
I'll mention Cory a few times further on in the post, but I'll also point to this interview with RU Sirius where RU asks him "how does it feel to be called this generation's William Gibson", getting the confused reply "isn't William Gibson this generation's William Gibson ?". [Hmmm - actually, the transcript is here and it says no such thing (that will teach me for checking up on my memory, and for taking several months to finish a single blog post), so I must have heard that in some other interview - at least Amazon has the original quote...]
Interviewing Cory Doctorow is easy. You just flip the on switch by asking the first question, and he emits a constant stream of brilliant, insightful stuff. Editing interviews with Doctorow is easy as well. He generally speaks in coherent, whole sentences and frequently expresses complex ideas for some length that don't get lost mid-paragraph.
So it's a pleasure to present this conversation. For those of you have been living in a non-digital cave (actually, I rather respect that type of non-conformism), Doctorow is a science fiction writer, Boing Boing contributor, and the former European Affairs Director for the EFF from 2001 - 2006. His novels include Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Eastern Standard Tribe, and Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.
Jeff Diehl joined me in this conversation with Doctorow about Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present - his new collection of short stories.
RU SIRIUS: You make quite a prominent point about the fact that Over-Clocked is available for free under a Creative Commons license. You also write about the good experience you've had with this, as a writer who does want to get paid for his work. Do you think this good experience is universal? Do you know if this has been studied at all?
CORY DOCTOROW: Well, I don't know that anyone's done any kind of systematic study. But my anecdotal study finds that everyone I know who's tried giving away free books as a way of selling printed books has done it again with their next book. So, I think that's a pretty good sign, right? It worked well enough for people to do it a second time. I guess the definition of insanity is doing something twice and expecting a different outcome. Presumably people were happy with that first outcome. ...
RU: Let's move on to this collection. My favorite piece in there, and it's deservedly the longest piece, is called "After the Siege." Talk a bit about the theme of that piece.
CD: Well, I went to a little family reunion in St. Petersburg, Russia. My grandmother was born there, and her family still lives there. When I was growing up, she always used to tell me about the war, and about being a kid living through the Siege of Leningrad. And she would tell me how I would never understand the terrible horrors she'd faced. I didn't know much about the Siege of Leningrad, but my understanding was‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë¬¨‚àÇ it wasn't anything like Auschwitz, right? Like, "Boy, how bad could it have been? You were a civil defense worker. You weren't in a death camp." And a couple of years ago, on one of those long St. Petersburg days, my grandmother walked us through the streets of St. Petersburg and told us about what she saw and did during that period. It really changed my perception of it. I went out and read some books, most notably The 900 Days about the Siege of Leningrad. The privation and terrors of the Siege of Leningrad can't be overstated. It was a nine hundred day siege. And Stalin bungled it so badly that people in Petersberg were also in bad shape. There was starvation and cannibalism and lots of people freezing to death. And my grandmother - this 12-year-old girl - was digging civil defense trenches in the frozen ground; and hauling bodies and throwing them out of fifteen story windows because they were too weak to haul them down the stairs. She was going to apartments where people had died and throwing them down, and then scraping them up off the ground. And she was seeing people who'd been rendered by cannibal black marketeers - who had parts of their body sliced off to sell on the black market.
They were the most amazing, incredible stories. And it got me thinking about writing about this as an allegory. At the same time, I've been doing all this work on copyright and related rights with developing nations, and with what they call emerging economies like the former Soviet territories. And these countries are getting really shafted in international copyright negotiations. They're being forced to sign on to these regimes that are totally out of step with what they need.
America became an industrial power by being a pirate nation. After the American revolution, America didn't honor the copyrights or patents of anyone except Americans. If you were a European or British inventor, your stuff could be widely pirated in America. That's how they got rich. Only after America became a net exporter of copyrighted goods did it start to enter into treaties with other countries whereby American inventors and authors would be protected abroad in exchange for those foreign authors being protected in America. But now you have these countries in Africa, in Asia, and in Eastern Europe, who are signing on to trade agreements with the U.S. where they basically promise to just take huge chunks of their GDP and export it to the U.S. It's a kind of information feudalism, you know? Info-serfs.
RU: Within the context of this book, and with the issues you're raising, you're not just talking about information. I think you're also talking about material wealth. You're also talking about AIDS drugs and stuff like that.
CD: Yeah, absolutely. You know, Russia just signed onto this free trade agreement with the U.S. trade representative in which - among other things - they promised that from now on they would license all their digital media presses and subject them to government inspection. So America, which fought a revolution over not wanting to have licensed presses, has just gone to Russia, where they've just had a revolution over licensed presses. And they've imposed a requirement that they license their presses. This is staggering, awful, apocalyptically bad policy-making on the part of both the U.S. and Russia. Frankly, as someone who pays taxes in the U.S., I'm embarrassed.
So I wrote this story from the point of view of a little girl. She's in a utopia where they've done what the U.S. did after the American Revolution. They've abandoned all international copyright and patent and trademark and knowledge goods treaties and they're just pirating everything. It's in a kind of nanotech world, so if they don't care about respecting the rights of the inventors who created it, they can make pretty much anything. As a result, they've become an incredibly wealthy nation in a very short period of time.
They've been driven to this piracy by a disease that turns people into a kind of zombie. It's this terrible infectious disease. And the drugs for it were very expensive. And they had these ineffectual leaders who were co-opted by the pharmaceutical companies. So eventually they took the last of these leaders, put them in a barrel and drove nails through it and rolled it down a hill. (This is, in fact, how the Hungarians killed the priest who converted the animists to Christianity.) And they put in a new Parliament that broke all ties with the industrial world and decided to pirate everything.
But a siege is laid against them. And in the siege, the enemy infects their computers and other devices with a virus that shuts down all their nano-assemblers. They all start to starve to death, and the zombie-ism comes back, and so on. And it's all told from the point of view of this little girl who comes of age in this world. It was a fun and hard story to write, and I'm really happy with how it turned out. It's been picked up for a couple of the "Year's Best" anthologies, and I've done a podcast of it. And I'm talking with someone about a film deal for it. It seems to be a lot of people's favorites. ...
RU: Is there a particular piece of non-fiction that has recently changed your view of the way the world works?
CD: I read a couple of really good books in the last year or so. One is Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor by Sudhir Venkatesh. It's a serious economic, or ethnographic analysis of the underground economy in Chicago. He's mentioned in Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. He's the anthropology grad student who goes and lives with crack dealers in Chicago's South Side and writes up how the underground economy works. And that economy goes from the ladies who make sandwiches and sell them without charging sales tax or declaring it on their income statement; to the loan shark, the homeless guy who will sleep in your doorway and make sure that graffiti kids don't tag it, to the crack gang and everyone in between. It's a fascinating book.
The other one that I really liked was by Yochai Benkler. It's called The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. It's such a good title! It may just be the best tech book title of the last twenty years. It's a book about common space peer production - the stuff that happens on Wikipedia and on blogs and with free and open source software. It's about how to understand that in economic terms, not as a gift economy per se, and not as an industrial economy, and not as volunteerism. He shows it as a third mode of industrial production that is neither the kind of gift economy or volunteerism that characterizes people who volunteer at a church; nor capitalism as we understand it, where people invest. Rather, it is an entirely different mode of industrial production. And I found that book really fascinating.
RU: If he describes this as a sort of alternative mode of production, does that imply that it will always co-exist with the other modes of production? Or do you envision the sort of Creative Commons/open source idea ever becoming a dominant mode?
CD: Well, it may not be the case that Creative Commons/open source/free software becomes the dominant mode - although I can imagine worse futures. But I think it's very true that knowledge goods, by their nature, have a different economic reality from other goods. It's very hard to enforce exclusive rights - the right to prohibit or the right to authorize knowledge goods. As the Motion Picture Association is discovering - in a world where we have ubiquitous networks and cheap and fast hardware - it's really hard to stop people from copying. I don't know whether it's moral or immoral to copy things - we can talk about that all day long. I just think that it's hard to stop it. So if you're a business person, your business can't be built on what you think people should do. It should be built on what you think people will do. And what people will do with information is copy it. So now that we're living in an information economy, I think we will have different kinds of production. It may not all be sharing, Creative Commons-oriented, but I don't think they're going to be based on exclusion or proprietorship. I just don't know how you could make that work; it just doesn't seem plausible to me. Bruce Sterling says, "The future composts the past". I think he's right. I don't think that the future makes things disappear; I think it builds on top of things.
One writer who wasn't part of the cyberpunk movement but I tend to loosely associate with them anyway is Kim Stanley Robinson, who is the other writer besides Bruceto have produced science fictionalised accounts of a globally warmed future. ScFi.com has an interview with KSR, as does Moira Gunn at Tech Nation (podcast mp3 - covers a lot of interesting ground) on his latest book "Sixty Days And Counting".
Your Mars books were about terraforming Mars; the Science in the Capital series is to some degree are about terraforming Earth (to repair the effects of global warming). What are our chances of doing either before it's too late?
Robinson: We are the major force changing the surface and atmosphere of Earth now (we're faster than the natural processes changing it, I mean), so terraforming is indeed physically possible, but we're not used to thinking of ourselves in that role. It would require a changed paradigm, which admitted that we have become some kind of conscious "global biosphere maintenance stewards," and that environmental thinking now ought to include an openness to at least the concept of doing things deliberately to reduce our impacts. We have to reconceptualize wilderness as being a kind of ethical position as well as a piece of land, meaning active and conscious stewardship on our part. This is a kind of interaction with the Earth that has been going on semi-consciously since the beginning of humankind, but now it's become obvious, and it is a frightening thing to contemplate, because it's a stupendously complex system and we don't know enough to do what we now need to. And the unintended further consequences of anything we might try are hard to predict.
Even so, we may eventually agree through the U.N. or something else to try some things, if we get desperate enough. The crux may come if the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet begins to detach in a big way. About a quarter of the world's population lives very near the coastline, and the disruptions there could be so severe that we would contemplate mitigating actions.
Beyond that, I think it's best not to put the problem as a question concerning whether we are "too late" or not, because either answer leads to a kind of non-active response: i.e., if it's not too late, I don't have to change, and if it is too late, then there's no point in changing, so either way-party on! Also, in some sense, encompassing all life on Earth, it will never be "too late," in that even if we trigger a mass extinction event, the surviving life would quickly fill the empty niches and evolve onward. You can't kill life on Earth, short of toasting it in an expanding sun or whatnot. But you can kill a lot of species, and wreck a lot of biomes, and you can probably wreck human civilization for a time, which would kill a lot of people. So I think it's better to think of it in terms of "do we save more or do we save less," of the other species in particular.
Which of the global-warming fixes in the book could be accomplished right now?
Robinson: We could do almost everything I described in this series, although some of the actions are perhaps politically impossible (right now), rather than physically impossible. If we made the social decision to do it, we could certainly build clean-energy generation, and a clean transport system. We could decarbonize our technology a great deal. These are very big investments, but it's a very big economy, and retooling our basic technology is something we've done many times before. It's a business opportunity in some ways.
The biological mitigation schemes discussed in my novel, and unleashed in one case, are definitely not at all ready for deployment, and maybe never will be, for reasons I think my book makes clear.
The main thing we could do now is vastly increase our construction of clean-energy generation.
As an aside, my favourite KSR book wasn't any of the Mars or Climate in the Capital books, but rather "Escape From Kathmandu". I highly recommend going to Nepal and hanging around the city while you read the book.
Well, this is certainly a change of pace for the fans of Kim Stanley Robinson's epic "Mars" trilogy. That series, of course, was an intricate meshing of hard science, ecological musings, adventure, and sociological speculations. In its scope and in the wealth of issues with which it dealt, it was not unlike Frank Herbert's classic "Dune" trilogy. "Escape from Kathmandu" is something far different.
For one thing, it is set in the Nepal of our own timeframe (or close thereto...the four stories were originally written in the mid-'80s). For another, the protagonists are not colonizers or scientists or eco-rebels...they're hash-smoking Western expatriates who hang about the Himalayas in a rather carefree fashion, living for the thrill of climbing. Happily enough, for those with eyes to see, the area is rife with yetis, hidden cities and tunnels, and reincarnated lamas. So adventure is never too far away.
The plots themselves are rather slight and uncompelling, and they creak somewhat under the weight of the political views heaped upon them. Tibet and the Dalai Lama = good, China = bad (the Chinese are portrayed as genocidal militant oppressors and poachers to boot, although in the current political climes, many would tend to agree with this assessment). The ruling elite of Nepal are villains. Governments are almost uniformly bad, but luckily they will someday be overthrown by enlightened spiritual types.
Nevertheless, the book does offer some insight into the impoverished country of Nepal, although an earlier reviewer notes that most of the information is wrong or misleading, so don't take any of the descriptions of conditions as gospel truth. It's especially weird to read this book now, given the very recent upheavals in the country in June and July of this year (the crown prince's killing spree and the resignation of the prime minister). Since some of the members of the royal family actually appear as characters in the stories, it's rather unsettling to find out their real-life fates lately.
One line Brunner uses repeatedly in Shockwave Rider is about "slowing down to go faster".
This brings to mind the "Slow" movement, described here in a TED Talk by Carl Honore and his book "In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed".
Speed, notes journalist and author Carl Honore, has become a combining form: speed dialing, speed reading, speed walking, even speed dating. Modern life is stuck on fast-forward to such an extent, he notes, quoting Postcards from the Edge, that "even instant gratification takes too long." But there's a backlash brewing, he says, as everyday people start putting the brakes on. He concludes with the results of his own attempt to get in touch with his "inner tortoise."
Apparently we are so addicted to speed now that people are walking significantly faster on average than they used to
If it seems sometimes that the pace of life has quickened, rest assured that it has -- by about 10 per cent over the last decade.
We can thank Richard Wiseman, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in England, for quantifying the unquantifiable. He did it by comparing the time it took pedestrians in cities around the world to walk 60 feet (18.3 metres) in a 1994 study with recorded times of city dwellers traversing the identical length of unobstructed pavement today.
The results show that on average we move at about 3.5 mph (5.6 km per hour), or 10 per cent faster than in the early 1990s, an increase Wiseman attributed to a frenetic lifestyle driven by technology and 24-hour availability.
"The psychology is basically that people's walking pace is determined by how much they think they're in a hurry; how quickly they think they should be doing things," he said. "What's amazing is that these days, you press send on an e-mail and, if someone hasn't responded in 10 minutes, you think: 'Where are they?' "
Not surprisingly, the pace in the so-called Asian Tigers has quickened the most, with pedestrians in Singapore walking 30 per cent faster than a decade ago, covering the distance in a mere 10.4 seconds; and in Guangzhou (China) 20 per cent faster, in 10.94 seconds.
Jeff Vail had a post long ago on "The Original Affluent Society" and Vernacular Zen.
I am an advocate of localization, simplification, self-sufficiency and fulfilled ontogeny. Slow food. Tribalism. A thousand other catch-phrases that, above all else, raise a singular objection from friends and critics alike: isn't your idealized vision starkly juxtaposed to your professed enjoyment of the finer things in life?
My response: on the contrary, my good friend...these worlds are in fact one in the same, only separated by the disinformation of the consumer economy.
I have spent, to be perfectly honest, more than my fair share of mornings slowly enjoying an espresso as the fog burns off the slopes of Mount Etna in the distance, the scent of blood orange blossoms mingling with the sharp aroma of coffee. This is the kind of perfect moment that embodies our cultural ethos: sacrifice enough of what you love now, and you'll make enough money that some day you'll be able to buy back those priceless experiences in the form of a luxury cruise, a meal at that new bistro or a beach house in Florida. The irony is that this perfect moment cost about 65 cents--that's less than 8 minutes wage for a cashier at McDonald's, and yet it's enough to make highly paid executives and professionals alike salivate. This should tell us something...
The finer things in life can generally be divided into two categories: material and experiential. Despite the relentless psychological barrage of advertising, most of us can readily admit that it is the experiential that is truly rewarding and fulfilling. Many even recognize their own predilection to fulfill their desire for the experiential by compensating with an excess of the material. Commercialism tells us that the experiential--that which requires time--is too costly, out of our reach. Our time, we are led to believe, must be sacrificed to meet the demands of the economy. But time is free for all of us. It is the great equalizer, something to which we all have equally random access. But in the modern economy, where average individuals cannot directly provide for themselves, they are duped into trading time for the basic necessities of life--necessities that are directly available to the poorest of the Earth. As this economic hierarchy has intensified over time, we continue to be duped into trading our time for material possessions--far beyond those required to survive. The memes of our economic culture have convinced us that the material is a fine substitute for the experiential. A nagging doubt, dissatisfaction with our own suburbanization, some unknown, unfulfilled yearning tells us that, despire the overtures of mass-media, even the materially rich among us still long for the experiential.
The sun on your face, playing with your children, staring at a fire until late into the night, sitting still in the forest listening to the wind rush through aspen leaves, talking with friends, laying on your back in a meadow and watching the clouds pass above you. All of these things are free--they require only time. Hunter-gatherers around the world spend, on average, less than 20 hours a week "working". The rest of their time was available for the experiential, the "finer things" in life. Perhaps this is why anthropologist Marshal Sahlins calls them "The Original Affluent Society", or why Paul Shepard says that humanity's time in the "hamlet economy" was the best it ever had.
The finer things in life are nothing more than a connection and a oneness with those things that modern culture insists remain separate or "sacred". This connection is available to all of us. Reconnecting to the finer things in life is not dependent on success within the modern commercial economy...on the contrary, my good friend, this reconnection requires that we take a new--or is it old?--approach to life. This is vernacular zen.
Moving on to the next topic, probably the most important theme of Brunner's book was that of the virtue of openness and transparency (or more specifically, the ability for individuals to access the same data that governments and privileged corporations could).
Jeff Vail had a good post on this recently, asking Is Secrecy Dying ?.
An interesting new article in Wired Magazine suggests that transparency is the new king and secrecy is dying. I agree that there are too many secrets, and wrote about the potential for "radical transparency" in everything from military operations to business back in 2004. The problem, as usual, is power, and the Wired article highlights this issue by ignoring it: transparency is good and secrecy is dying as long as it's profitable, and not before. There is a high cost to early adopters of radical transparency, and the failure to view this game as an infinitely iterated game will most likely prevent any adoption of radical transparency in most cases.
I'll go out on a limb and suggest that radical transparency ALWAYS makes sense IF you're the good guy. The quanum leap in radical transparency will not come until the public at large realize the corrollary to that rule: if you're not radically transparent, you're the bad guy.
This is so obvious as to be almost invisible.
Tony Snow: "...it's a reasonable and extraordinary effort on our part to help Congress do its job [by insisting that officials testify without a record and not under oath]"
From the Wired article (which ignores the issue of power, as Jeff notes:
The Internet has inverted the social physics of information. Companies used to assume that details about their internal workings were valuable precisely because they were secret. If you were cagey about your plans, you had the upper hand; if you kept your next big idea to yourself, people couldn't steal it. Now, billion- dollar ideas come to CEOs who give them away; corporations that publicize their failings grow stronger. Power comes not from your Rolodex but from how many bloggers link to you - and everyone trembles before search engine rankings. Kelman rewired the system and thinks anyone else could, too. But are we really ready to do all our business in the buff?
"You can't hide anything anymore," Don Tapscott says. Coauthor of The Naked Corporation, a book about corporate transparency, and Wikinomics, Tapscott is explaining a core truth of the see-through age: If you engage in corporate flimflam, people will find out. He ticks off example after example of corporations that have recently been humiliated after being caught trying to conceal stupid blunders. There's Sony, which put a rootkit - a piece of spyware - on music CDs as a secret copy-protection technique, only to wind up in court when bloggers revealed that the code left their computers vulnerable to hacker intrusions. There's Microsoft, this time on the wrong side of the transparent shower curtain, offering to pay people to buff up the company's Wikipedia entry. And Diebold, which insisted its voting machines were unhackable - until a professor posted a video of himself rigging a mock election on them. The video went viral and racked up some 300,000 YouTube views.
Secrecy is dying. It's probably already dead.2 In a world where Eli Lilly's internal drug-development memos, Paris Hilton's phonecam images, Enron's emails, and even the governor of California's private conversations can be instantly forwarded across the planet, trying to hide something illicit - trying to hide anything, really - is an unwise gamble. So many blogs rely on scoops to drive their traffic that muckraking has become a sort of mass global hobby. Radical transparency has even reached the ultrasecretive world of Washington politics: The nonprofit Sunlight Foundation has begun putting zillions of public documents in elegantly searchable online databases, leaving it to interested citizens to connect the dots. One adroit digger recently discovered that former House Speaker Dennis Hastert had earmarked $200 million for a highway to be built near a property he had a stake in. When the property was sold, Hastert made a 500 percent profit on his original investment, provoking a wave of negative coverage.
All of which explains why the cult of transparency has so many high tech converts these days. Transparency is a judo move. Your customers are going to poke around in your business anyway, and your workers are going to blab about internal info - so why not make it work for you by turning everyone into a partner in the process and inviting them to do so?
One small movement for open information access is the Petition for Public Access to Publicly Funded Research in the United States, which is trying to make all US science research publically available (it would be interesting trying to work out where to try and draw the line for that, when you consider just how much "science" research is done by various arms of the US government).
We, the undersigned, believe that broad dissemination of research results is fundamental to the advancement of knowledge. For America's taxpayers to obtain an optimal return on their investment in science, publicly funded research must be shared as broadly as possible. Yet too often, research results are not available to researchers, scientists, or the members of the public. Today, the Internet and digital technologies give us a powerful means of addressing this problem by removing access barriers and enabling new, expanded, and accelerated uses of research findings.
We believe the US Government can and must act to ensure that all potential users have free and timely access on the Internet to peer-reviewed federal research findings. This will not only benefit the higher education community, but will ultimately magnify the public benefits of research and education by promoting progress, enhancing economic growth, and improving the public welfare.
We support the re-introduction and passage of the Federal Research Public Access Act, which calls for open public access to federally funded research findings within six months of publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
Another classic act of freeing information is this story about freeing some images from the Smithsonian.
Grabbing pictures of iconic Smithsonian Institution artifacts just got a whole lot easier. Before, if you wanted to get a picture of the Wright Brothers' plane, you could go to the Smithsonian Images Web site and pay for a print or high-resolution image after clicking through several warnings about copyrights and other restrictions -- and only if you were a student, teacher or someone pledging not to use it to make money.
Now, you can just go to the free photo-sharing Web site flickr.com.
A nonprofit group is challenging the copyrights and restrictions on images being sold by the Smithsonian. But instead of going to court, the group downloaded all 6,288 photos online and posted them Wednesday night on the free Internet site.
"I don't care if they sell the photos, but then once they sell it, they can't say you can't reuse this photo," said Carl Malamud, co-founder of the group Public.Resource.Org, advocates for posting more government information online. "You're not allowed to chill debate by telling people they can't use something because it's under copyright when that's not true."
A couple of limited examples of extreme transparency I've come across recently are a pair of prisons that couldn't be more different in some ways - but both let anyone who cares to see what is happening inside - one in Austria and one in Bolivia. Imagine what they could do with the Californian prison budget.
Jeff Vail also had a post on the "sickness of secrecy" and the "idiocy of hierarchy" called "Blue Force Intel".
While I'm awaiting publication of an article that I wrote on the escalating violence in Nigeria, I'll vent for a moment about an intelligence-related problem that I've continually run up against-as recently as yesterday.
The problem is collecting intelligence on our own forces - "Blue Force Intel."
It's a symptom of the deeper sickness of secrecy within our military. Open source warfare-the kind of thing increasingly practiced by outfits like al-Qa'ida-has far less of an issue with this. But the United States tends to guard information according to the classic method: the security of a secret is inversely proportionate to the square of the number of people who know it. Put otherwise, the US government doesn't tell the US government what it is doing, and especially not what it is planning to do.
My most memorable experience with this occurred during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As chief of intelligence for a squadron of electronic jamming aircraft (EC-130H Compass Call), I planned offensive and defensive components of our missions. Offensive components included jamming enemy communications infrastructure in the locations that most aided our advancing ground forces. This, naturally, required high-resolution understanding of what our ground forces were presently doing, and would be doing in the next day or two. Defensive components included avoiding those areas where our aircraft would be most vulnerable to surface-to-air fire. This, naturally, required high-resolution understanding of what our ground forces were presently doing (what areas they had cleared, what areas they had simply bypassed), and what they would be doing in the next day or two. Naturally, it was virtually impossible to get any of this information direct from the horse's mouth.
Sure, at some central operations center (actually only a few miles from my tent, but on an entirely different base that required driving a half hour through downtown Doha) there were people representing the exact units that I needed information on, but they didn't know what precisely their own units were doing any more than our own representatives knew what we were planning-it was a simple issue of information processing burden I hierarchy. We had enough time to plan our own missions, or communicate all the fine details of those missions to our representatives, but not both.
So, it turned out that the most effective way to get the information that we needed was to engage in our own, unsanctioned intelligence collection on our own forces. This may seem wasteful, but it involved significantly less information processing burden in a hierarchy the size of the US military than actually asking our army units where they are now and where they plan to be tomorrow. Plus, they wouldn't tell us anyway. Sure, we were on the same side, but specific operational details of the kind we needed are on a "need to know basis," and no matter how much we explained that we need to know to protect *you*, we still didn't have the right kind of "need to know." So we would debrief our own flight crews on their observations about our own units locations, we would deduce our own military plans from information that we could access about locations for our own satellite collections, UAV flight paths, etc., and we would scour the secure internet looking for ways to access other units mission planning files. It worked out OK.
Which reminds me about my favorite part of the TV show "24": the utter fantasy of how easily and fluidly they access information and electronic systems that magically tell them what they need to know. Trust me, it doesn't work like that.
Fast forward to the present. I'm still dealing with the same issues when I work with domestic infrastructure security matters. Consider the following scenario: assume for the moment that there is a possibility that we will attack Iran. Then assume that, after we attack Iran, Iran will retaliate by attacking inside the US. Now assume that you're tasked with protecting against that retaliatory attack. Wouldn't it be nice to know if, and when, we are going to attack Iran. Hah! It appears that I don't have the need to know these things. So, I resort to the same old tricks, and go to work using our own intelligence infrastructure to collect intelligence on ourselves.
Another example of the idiocy of hierarchy.
One classic recent example of the perils of secrecy was a Chinese censor letting through a story about the Tiananmen Square massacre - because she had never heard about it and didn't know it was a forbidden topic.
A young clerk with no knowledge of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown allowed a tribute to victims slip into the classified ads page of a newspaper in southwest China, a Hong Kong daily reported on Wednesday. The tiny ad in the lower right corner of page 14 of the Chengdu Evening News on Monday night, read: "Paying tribute to the strong(-willed) mothers of June 4 victims". An investigation was launched by Chinese authorities to find out how the advertisement slipped its way past censors.
Public discussion of the massacre is still taboo in Beijing and the government has rejected calls to overturn the verdict that the student-led demonstrations were "counter-revolutionary", or subversive. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed when the army crushed the pro-democracy protests on June 4, 1989. Hong Kong's South China Morning Post said a young woman on the Chengdu Evening News classified section had allowed the ad to be published because she'd never heard of the June 4 crackdown.
Jamais at Open The Future has a post on the virtue of transparency called "making the invisible, visible".
I've long been a proponent of the core Viridian argument that "making the invisible visible" (MTIV) -- illuminating the processes and systems that are normally too subtle, complex or elusive to apprehend -- is a fundamental tool for enabling behavioral change. When you can see the results of your actions, you're better able to change your actions to achieve the results you'd prefer. I've come to understand, however, that it's not enough to make the invisible visible; you also have to make it meaningful.
The canonical example of how MTIV works is the mileage readout standard in hybrid cars. Almost invariably, hybrid owners see a gradual but noticeable improvement in miles-per-gallon over the first month or so of hybrid vehicle ownership. This isn't so much the car being "broken in," but the driver: because of the mileage readout, the hybrid driver can see what driving patterns achieve the best results.
A growing number of non-hybrid cars now include miles-per-gallon readouts; will we see similar improvements in driver behavior as a result?
Possibly, but not likely. The hybrid miles-per-gallon readout comes in two forms: an average mileage, whether calculated for the current tank or the total vehicle miles; and a real-time, current mileage display, which will fluctuate significantly while one drives. As far as I have found, the non-hybrids with mileage readouts only include the average mileage display, not the real-time display. (Update: Howard notes in the comments a few makes of non-hybrid cars that do have both the average and real-time displays. I would be very interested in an examination of driver behavior -- and possible changes in behavior -- for those cars.)
This is useful information, to be sure; it's good to know what kind of mileage a vehicle gets in real-world use. But as a means of MTIV, it's not terribly helpful, because it breaks the connection between the action and the result. After the first few dozen miles of a given tank of gas, the average mileage readout changes very slowly, and only with sustained greater-than-average or less-than-average mileage driving. Small variations get lost in the noise. This means that minor changes in driving behavior can't be mapped to minor changes in miles-per-gallon. Without that connection between "I did this" and "I got that," drivers can't as easily learn to drive in a more efficient way. The driver needs to be able to compare behaviors and results to learn what works best. Both forms of display are necessary. The average mileage is the context for the momentary changes, and it's the comparison between the two that provides meaning.
This dilemma isn't just an issue for cars.
Late last month, the UK's environment secretary, David Milbrand, proposed putting ecological impact labels on all food products sold in UK stores. These labels would focus on the amount of carbon emitted as the result of the production of the food item. In this, the UK government is playing catch-up with some of its businesses, as the grocery chain Tesco announced in late January that it would be adding carbon labels to the products it sold. And now the Carbon Trust, a UK non-profit that works with businesses to reduce their greenhouse impacts, has embarked on an effort to build a labeling standard for adoption across industries. (It should come as no surprise that I'm very much in favor of this sort of labeling!) ...
Of course, the trend towards openness and the end of secrecy is far from one way traffic - Technology Review has a look at how the Internet Increasingly Censored: online repression is on the rise worldwide.
A report released today by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) concludes that the scale, the scope, and the sophistication of state-based Internet filtering have all increased dramatically in recent years. The survey highlights the tools and techniques used by countries to keep their citizens from viewing certain kinds of online material.
ONI is a collaboration among four leading universities: Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and Toronto. The group's testing was carried out during 2006 and early 2007. ONI used a combination of tools that can remotely test filtering conditions within given countries. The group also relied heavily on local researchers who evaluated Internet conditions from inside certain countries. Some countries, such as Cuba and North Korea, were deemed too dangerous for either remote or in-country testing. But of the 41 different countries tested by ONI, 25 were found to block or filter online content.
"Over the course of five years, we've gone from just a few places doing state-based technical filtering, like China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, to more than two dozen," says John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. "As Internet censorship and surveillance grow, there's reason to worry about the implications of these trends for human rights, political activism, and economic development around the world." ...
One interesting case is that of heavily wired South Korea, where ONI found Internet filtering limited to one topic: North Korea. "The South Koreans block several North Korean websites," says Nart Villeneuve, director of technical research at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. "They even tamper with the system so that when you try to access one of those North Korean sites, the URL resolves to a South Korean police page telling you, 'What you're trying to access is illegal, and we know your IP [Internet protocol] address.'" (An IP address could be used to locate the computer where the search is conducted, with the ultimate goal of identifying the individual involved.)
Another growing area of internet censorship is the area of satellite images, as any Google Earth geek who goes hunting for obscured or missing imagery will tell you.
The head of a US intelligence agency told the Associated Press that commercial satellite services like Google Earth may need to be censored in the future in order to protect American interests.
Vice Admiral Robert Murrett, who heads the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, spends his days helping the government map the planet and studying imagery. Once the exclusive domain of the government, commercial satellite imagery has attained high-enough resolutions that the government is thinking about ways to restrict its use in times of war or other emergency situations.
"If there was a situation where any imagery products were being used by adversaries to kill Americans, I think we should act," he said in the interview. "I think we may need to have some control over things that are disseminated. I don't know if that means buying up all the imagery or not. I think there are probably some other ways you can do it."
The reference to "buying up all the imagery" refers to the government's practice of purchasing all commercially-available satellite data on Afghanistan during the early days of the conflict there. While buying up all available images may be one solution to the problem, the government may also be able to exert a different kind of pressure, as it provides nearly $1 billion in grants to major US imagery firms.
As the imagery market becomes international, though, the competing demands of local governments may be more difficult to sort out. The issue is already becoming tricky for companies like Google that offer popular products using satellite imagery. Google has already faced requests from Vice President Cheney to remove images of his residence and from the Indian government to blur sensitive military sites. Headlines in the UK have already claimed that Iraqi insurgents are using Google Earth to attack British troops.
One strange old example I noticed recently of the universal obsession governments have with secrecy is this tale of James Bond creator Ian Fleming's involvement in the jailing of a woman for witchcraft during World War 2.
More than 60 years on, the case of Helen Duncan, the last woman in Britain to be jailed for witchcraft, refuses to die. As her supporters seek a posthumous pardon, evidence has emerged that she may have been the victim of a plot involving British intelligence agents, including Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.
In the 1940s Duncan, a Dundee housewife and mother of six, travelled the country performing seances for a war-weary public often seeking reassurance about their loved ones. As a 'materialisation medium', which involved her going into a trance and producing 'ectoplasm' through which spirits would take on earthly features to communicate with the living, Duncan built a reputation as one of spiritualism's greatest heroines.
However, during a sitting in Portsmouth on 19 January, 1944, Duncan, 47, fell foul of the security services when a sailor from HMS Barham is alleged to have formed in ectoplasm and greeted his surprised mother sitting in the audience. His death had been kept a secret by the Admiralty, which had been trying to conceal news of the ship's sinking three months earlier.
Fears that Duncan had access to secret information alerted the security services, and an investigation led to her trial at the Old Bailey, accused of contravening the Witchcraft Act of 1735 by pretending to 'bring about the appearances of the spirits of deceased persons'. She was jailed for nine months.
At a time when the military authorities were anxious to keep plans of the Allied invasion of occupied France secret, Duncan and other psychics were seen as a potential threat to security. Drawing on new research and trial documents released to the National Archive, an academic and award-winning film-maker, Robert Hartley, has claimed that the evidence points to a state conspiracy to crack down on security leaks ahead of D-Day by making an example of Duncan.
'In the run-up to D-Day, the authorities were paranoid about potential security leaks and Duncan was in danger of disclosing military secrets during her seances,' said Hartley. 'Helen Duncan was giving out very accurate information. There were other mediums round the country giving out news on soldiers that had died and someone in authority took it seriously, whatever the source of the information. D-Day was coming up and it was absolutely essential to keep the Allied deception plans intact.'
After examining all the documents, Hartley believes there is evidence to suggest that Duncan's conviction by an Old Bailey jury in March 1944 was unsafe. In a new book, Helen Duncan: The Mystery Show Trial, he suggests that among those responsible for the conspiracy to convict Duncan was Fleming, a key figure in the naval intelligence services, and John Maude, the prosecuting counsel at the trial. 'I am convinced naval intelligence were working with MI5, and when I began looking at that connection Ian Fleming's name kept cropping up as being involved with people either involved in the case or on the sidelines,' said Hartley.
I was hunting around recently for some information on a secretive local company that has amassed a stunning array of patents in recent years, which dredged up this article which mentions the bizarre world of secret US patents.
Ah, patents. The topic has pretty much taken charge of my life since last week's column revealing the lack of any way to identify the top 10 living U.S. patent holders Apparently half the Earth's population has something to say about patents, and most of them are e-mailing me. My inbox has been blowing up like Anna Nicole Smith between diets But the deluge has its upsides. The column prompted a few patent database companies to take a whack at the question. Two - ipIQ of Chicago and 1790 Analytics of New Jersey - came up with answers.
So here, for the first time, is a list of the 10 most-prolific inventors. This is from ipIQ:
1. Shunpei Yamazaki, Japan, 1,432 patents. Yes, it seems to be true: The top individual holder of U.S. patents is based at Tokyo tech research firm Semiconductor Energy Laboratory. For decades, the popular assumption has been that Thomas Edison is the all-time patent king with 1,093 patents. Yamazaki blows away Edison, and he is still inventing and getting patents. ...
And then there's one other oddity, pointed out by reader Michael Ravnitzky. This would be the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951. It's possible that any patent list results are skewed because various government agencies have the ability to classify any patent as secret and make it invisible to the public.
The USPTO even keeps a chart of "invention secrecy activity." It shows that so far in 2005, there have been 106 "new secrecy orders imposed." There are 4,915 "total secrecy orders in effect.". So if among all those florist patents Weder and Straeter invented the quantum computing secret decoder ring, we'd never know about it.
I'm not sure why some patents became secret in the 1950's - presumably the offical story is something to do with cold war weapons research - but this has always been a rich vein for tinfoil merchants to explore - if you read stuff like Nick Cook's "The Hunt For Zero Point" and Joseph Farrell's "Reich Of The Black Sun" this patent hiding is linked to a rich treasure trove of secret Nazi research seized from a black project facility in Czechosovakia which the American's were able to seize in the closing days of World War 2 (which leads into lots of theories about free energy and anti-gravity devices).
Of course, while the problems with secrecy are increasingly obvious, transparency and openness aren't completely without drawbacks, which is something I'll consider later. Before that, I'll have a look at some items related to computer security, as this was another key topic of Brunner's book (which as far as I can tell literally invented the idea of the computer virus / internet worm) and there is no end of interesting news to shovel in here.
Bruce Schneier is the person I always think of whenever computer security is mentioned (and whenever I see his image on a t-shirt), so I'll start with a great interview - Bruce talking to RU Sirius about why Everything The US Government is Doing About Security is Wrong.
According to the sleeve of his latest book, Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security, 'in an Uncertain World, Bruce Schneier is the go-to security expert for business leaders and policy makers.' If only the policy makers would listen, we'd be safer, happier and still free.
Other books include Applied Cryptography, described by Wired as 'the book the NSA wanted never to be published.'
Beyond Fear deals with security issues ranging from personal safety to national security and terrorism. Schneier is also a frequent contributor to Wired magazine, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and many other fine periodicals. He also writes a monthly newsletter, Cryptogram.
RU: I want to get right into the political area of security against terrorism. You wrote that security works better if it's centrally coordinated but implemented in a distributed manner. Tell us a little bit about that and maybe say a bit about how that might work.
BS: In security - especially something as broad as national security - it's important that there be a lot of central coordination. You can't have people in one area doing one thing, and people in another area doing another thing, and then not have them talking to each other. So sharing information across jurisdictions and up and down the line of command is important. When things happen, you need a lot of coordination and you can see coordination failures again and again. In the aftermath of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina there was a lot of replication of effort. A lot of things that were obvious‚Äö√Ñ¬∂ everyone thought someone else was doing. But the other half of that is distributed implementation. You can't be so rigid that your people in the field can't make decisions. In security today, we see smart people being replaced by rules. A great example is the Transportation Security Administration. They will blindly follow the stupidest rule rather than using common sense. Security works much better when the individuals at the point of security - the guards, the policemen, the customs agents - are well-trained and have the ability to follow their instincts. Think about how September 11 could have been prevented. A field agent in Minnesota was really first to put her finger on the plot, but she couldn't get her voice heard. And she didn't have the power to do anything herself. When you look at the real successes against terrorism at the borders, it's not custom agents following rules, but noticing something suspicious, and then following their instincts. So security works best when it's centrally coordinated, but distributedly implemented. A great example is the Marine Corps. That's their model. There's a lot of coordination, but individual marines in the field have a lot of autonomy. They're trained well, and they're trusted. And because of that, it's a good fighting force.
RU: You're talking about de-centralization, basically - the organizations making decisions on the local level.
BS: Right. Another analogy is the human body. There's a lot of coordination, but it's a very distributed organism. The pieces of our body do things autonomously, without waiting for approval. There's a lot of communication back and forth, a lot of coordination, but different pieces have their job, and they're empowered to do it. And it's robust and reliable because of that.
RU: What about radically democratized security, like Open Source kinds of efforts involving citizens?
BS: It's good and bad depending on how it works. I like Open Source intelligence. I like Open Source information gathering and dissemination. There's a lot of value in that. The downside of that is something like Total Information Awareness - TIA - where you have citizens basically spying on each other. And there you get pretty much nothing but false alarms. People will turn each other in because their food smells funny or they don't pray at the right time. Done right, a radically democratized, distributed security model works. Done wrong, you get East Germany where everyone spies on their friends.
RU: They were trying to get the postmen to spy on us for a while.
BS: Right. They were going to have postmen and the meter readers. That will work well if the postmen are properly trained. Where that will fail: if you tell a bunch of postmen, 'Report anything suspicious.' Because honestly, they don't know what 'suspicious' looks like in this context. So the question is: given all the police resources we have, what should they be doing? I don't want the government chasing all the false alarms from the postmen and meter readers when they could be doing something more useful. So that's a bad use. If you train them properly, you'll have something better. But then you don't have a postman any more. You have a security officer.
Think of a customs agent. They're going to watch people, and they're going to look for something suspicious. But they're trained in how to do it. So they're less likely to be overtly racist or a fool for dumb profiles. They're more likely to look for things that are actually suspicious. So it's a matter of training. And that's pretty much true of Open Source security models. Think of Open Source software. Having a bunch of random people look at the code to tell you if it's secure won't work. If you have well-trained people who look at the code, that will work! Open Source just means you can see it, it doesn't guarantee that the right people will see it.
RU: Even with trained security people, it seems like they make an awful lot of errors. It seems like America, over the past few years, really has that 'Can't Do' spirit. Is there anything you can tell us about trained security people, and how they could improve their efforts.
BS: Well, they're always going to make errors. Fundamentally, that's a problem in the mathematics called the base rate fallacy. There are simply so few terrorists out there that even a highly accurate test, whether automatic or human-based, will almost always bring false alarms. That's just the way the math works. The trick is to minimize the false alarms.
You've got to look at the false alarms versus the real alarms versus the real attacks missed - look at all the numbers together. But terrorist attacks are rare. They almost never happen. No matter how good you are, if you stop someone in airport security, it's going to be a false alarm, overwhelmingly. Once every few years, it'll be a real planned attack‚Äö√Ñ¬∂ maybe not even that frequently.
With training, you're less likely to stop someone based on a dumb reason. When airport security stops a grandma with a pocketknife, that's a false alarm. That's not a success. That's a failure. It's, of course, ridiculous. So the trick is to alarm on things that are actually suspicious so you'd spend your time wisely. But the fact that almost everybody will still end up being a false alarm - that's just the nature of the problem.
RU: Most of us experience the so-called 'War on Terror' in one place, and that's at the airport. What are they doing right, and what are they doing wrong at the airports? Are they doing anything right?
BS: (Laughs) Since September 11, exactly two things have made us safer. The first one is reinforcing the cockpit door. That should have been done decades ago. The second one is that passengers are convinced they have to fight back, which happened automatically. You can argue that sky marshals are also effective. I'm not convinced. And actually, if you pretend you have sky marshals, you don't even actually have to have them. The benefit of sky marshals is in the belief in them, not in the execution.
Everything else is window dressing - security theater. It's all been a waste of money and time. Heightened airport security at the passenger point of screening has been a waste of time. It's caught exactly nobody; it's just inconvenienced lots of people. The No Fly List has been a complete waste of time. It's caught exactly nobody. The color-coded threat alerts - I see no value there. ...
RU: So if you were in charge of airport security, are there any things that you would implement?
BS: I think we should ratchet passenger screening down to pre-9/11 levels. I like seeing positive bag matching. That's something that was done in Europe for decades. The U.S. airlines screamed and screamed and refused to do it, and now they are.
Really, I would take all the extra money for airport security and have well-trained guards, both uniformed and plainclothes, walking through the airports looking for suspicious people. That's what I would do. And I would just give back the rest of the money. If we secure our airport and the terrorists go bomb shopping malls, we've wasted our money. I dislike security measures that require us to guess the plot correctly because if you guess wrong, it's a waste of money. And it's not even a fair game. It's not like we pick our security, they pick their plot, we see who wins. The game is we pick our security, they look at our security, and then they pick their plot. The way to spend money on security - airport security, and security in general - is intelligence investigation and emergency response. These are the things that will be effective regardless of what the terrorists are planning.
RU: You emphasize intelligence. Is there any truth to the claims made by various agencies that intelligence people couldn't do things that they should have been able to do to protect us because of the Church Committee rules in the mid-1970s?
BS: I think that's overstated. The controls that the Church Committee put in place made a lot of sense. The purpose was to stop very serious abuses by law enforcement - by the police, the NSA, and the CIA. If you look at the failures of 9/11, they weren't based on the Church Commission restrictions. So I think we're making a mistake by dismantling those protections. In effect, those are also security measures that protect us from government abuses. Unfortunately, those abuses are far more common than terrorist attacks. ...
RU: I guess the idea of Total Information Awareness would seem sexy to some portion of the geek population. That's where it came from!
BS: We're so desperate to find ways to harness technology to solve the problem. We're used to that working in other areas of society - just apply more computing power, you get better results.
This is fundamentally a human problem. It's not a data problem. It's a problem of human intelligence connecting the dots. If I'm looking for a needle in a haystack, throwing more hay on the pile isn't going to solve my problem.
I need a better way to methodically follow the lead into the haystack to the needle. Another lesson of the liquid plot is that if they got to the airport, it would've gotten through. It would've gotten through all the enhanced screening; it would've gotten through all the enhanced profiling. The reason it failed had nothing to do with airport security.
RU: Moving on from terrorism, but still thinking about haystacks - you have a bit in 'Beyond Fear' about learning about security from insects, which I found really fascinating. What can we learn from insects?
BS: There's a lot to be learned from security from the natural world in general. All species have evolved as security beings - we need to survive enough to reproduce. We need to be able to protect our offspring so they can survive. We need to protect our food supply. We attack other creatures to kill them and eat them. There's so much security interplay in the natural world. And it's a great source of strategies and anecdotes. I find insects particularly valuable, because they evolve so quickly. You see so many interesting strategies in the insect world, because of the wacky evolutionary turns they take. Evolution doesn't give you the optimal security measure. Evolution tries security measures at random, and stops at the first one that just barely works. So you tend to get really weird security in the insect world. You do get some real neat examples of distributed security measures. Think of the way ants protect their colony. There are ant species that just wander around randomly, and if they hit a predator or a threat, they run right back to their colony to alert everybody. Individual ants are very cheap and very expendable, so if you have cheap resources, you just sort of do random things.
The lima bean plant is interesting. Effectively, when a certain mite attacks it, it calls an air strike. It releases a chemical that attracts a predator mite that will eat the mite that's attacking it. Very clever.
RU: We are moving into a society very much like the ones that have been written about in various cyberpunk novels in the early 90s. We can imagine people running around with suitcase nukes and bioterror or nanoterror weapons that are extraordinary. This kind of destructive power is moving from the government to the small group to the individual. Does that imply a need for a Total Surveillance society - basically, we need to watch everything everybody is doing, all the time?
BS: I don't think it implies that. It does imply we need some kind of different security. I think society is inherently good. Most people are inherently honest. Society would fall apart if that weren't true. In a sense, crime and terrorism is a tax on the honest. I mean, all of security is a tax. It taxes us honest people to protect against the dishonest people. The dishonest people are noise in the smooth running of society. The attacker gets a lot more leverage when the noise becomes greater - so in a complex society, a single person can do a lot more disrupting. But I don't believe that surveiling everybody will solve the problem. We have to start thinking about different ways to cope with these problems. But I sort of discount massive surveilance as ineffective. I don't even need to say: I don't want to live in a society that has that.
One concept that Bruce often talks about is the difficulty of defending complex, open societies from all possible forms of attack - the defender has to cover all possible angles of attack while the attacker only has to find one weakness (one of the same concepts that underlie John Robb's "Global Guerillas" theories). Its interesting how often this crops up in modern science fiction - two Cory Doctorow podcasts I listened too this week incorporated this idea - Little Brother and There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow/Now is the Best Time of Your Life (in part 2 - this one also features an unusual "evil treehuggers" theme - at least at the point I've made it up to).
Bruce himself has an interesting column on DNSSec and DHS efforts to control access to the internet.
Dept of Homeland Security Wants DNSSEC Keys. This is a big deal:The shortcomings of the present DNS have been known for years but difficulties in devising a system that offers backward compatability while scaling to millions of nodes on the net have slowed down the implementation of its successor, Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC). DNSSEC ensures that domain name requests are digitally signed and authenticated, a defence against forged DNS data, a product of attacks such as DNS cache poisoning used to trick surfers into visiting bogus websites that pose as the real thing.
Obtaining the master key for the DNS root zone would give US authorities the ability to track DNS Security Extensions (DNSSec) "all the way back to the servers that represent the name system's root zone on the internet".
Access to the "key-signing key" would give US authorities a supervisory role over DNS lookups, vital for functions ranging from email delivery to surfing the net. At a recent ICANN meeting in Lisbon, Bernard Turcotte, president of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, said managers of country registries were concerned about the proposal to allow the US to control the master keys, giving it privileged control of internet resources, Heise reports.
While Brunner's internet worm idea took off back in the 1980's (the famous Morris Worm which caused intense excitement amongst early internet users and made it very slow for half a day if I recall correctly), these things are now so common no one except virus scanning and firewall software companies pay them any attention. The modern day internet is a lot more distributed in nature than the relatively centralised version Brunner imagined, and has developed a more complex set of parasites as a result, with the "botnet" being the latest plague to afflict us all (though new virus threats are still emerging as well).
MSNBC's "Red Tape Chronicles" has a good introduction to the "silent epidemic" of botnets in an investigation of "Who''s behind the criminal bot networks ?". Bruce Schneier also makes some notes on them occasionally, such as Dutch Botnet and For-Profit Botnet.
They have infected perhaps 100 million computers with viruses, turning the PCs around the world into an army of willing criminal assistants known as ‚Äúbots.‚Äù They are using those PCs to send out billions of spam e-mails and make millions of dollars by attacking Web sites and extorting their owners. They have even attacked the core computers that keep the Internet running smoothly. Who are they?
The answer to that question is elusive, but there are a few clues.
In part one of this series, we described the epidemic of hijacked computers that‚Äôs swept the Internet. Controlled by malicious programs, the computers are turned into robots, or bots, that are directed by criminals known as bot herders. Part two looked at how profitable the bot business has become, leading hackers to engage in gang warfare in cyberspace for control of these hijacked computers -- a digital battle that has spilled out onto the Internet‚Äôs Main Street. Today, we examine who is behind these networks of infected computers.
For years, computer hackers typically were precocious, anti-social teen-agers who committed digital violence just to get attention. But computer crime has grown up, and grown into a big business. Now it is used by highly organized gangs to steal millions of dollars. The top gangs, most agree, are in Russia, Eastern Europe and Brazil, although there also are a few up-and-coming cybercrime syndicates in Asia.
Cybercriminals tend to be talented computer programmers who can make much more money stealing than working, the experts agree. There is so much money to be made in cybercrime that some observers speculate that terrorists are using it to raise money and support their organizations.
Computer security experts disagree on whether terrorists are involved in cybercrime, but there is one sure sign that computer crime has become a much more sober affair: Many experts interviewed for this story shied away from talking about the topic of who‚Äôs behind botnets, pointing to concerns for family safety. "When I got into this, it was kind of a game," said one expert who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Now, it's very serious. I wouldn't want my name attached (to comments about the topic)." That's a new sentiment in an industry that has often been criticized for using hyperbole to generate publicity.
One story about botnets that has been much in the news has been a DDOS attack on Estonia. According to The Economist, the Russians are using botnets as a stick to beat their opponents with (though this may just be part of the new cold war stuff).
FOR a small, high-tech country such as Estonia, the internet is vital. But for the past two weeks Estonia's state websites (and some private ones) have been hit by "denial of service" attacks, in which a target site is bombarded with so many bogus requests for information that it crashes. The internet warfare broke out on April 27th, amid a furious row between Estonia and Russia over the removal of a Soviet war monument from the centre of the capital, Tallinn, to a military cemetery ...
The unrest, Estonia says, was orchestrated by Russia, which termed the relocation "blasphemy" and called for the government's resignation. In Moscow, a Kremlin-run youth movement sealed off and attacked Estonia's embassy, prompting protests from America, NATO and the European Union. ...
But the internet attacks have continued. Some have involved defacing Estonian websites, replacing the pages with Russian propaganda or bogus apologies. Most have concentrated on shutting them down. The attacks are intensifying. The number on May 9th-the day when Russia and its allies commemorate Hitler's defeat in Europe-was the biggest yet, says Hillar Aarelaid, who runs Estonia's cyber-warfare defences. At least six sites were all but inaccessible, including those of the foreign and justice ministries. Such stunts happen at the murkier end of internet commerce: for instance, to extort money from an online casino. But no country has experienced anything on this scale. ...
The crudest attacks come with the culprit's electronic fingerprints. The Estonians say that some of the earliest salvoes came from computers linked to the Russian government. But most of them come from many thousands of ordinary computers, all over the world. Some of these are run by private citizens angry with Estonia. Anonymously posted instructions on how to launch denial-of-service attacks have been sprouting on Russian-language internet sites. Many others come from "botnets"-chains of computers that have been hijacked by viruses to take part in such raids without their owners knowing. Such botnets can be created, or simply rented from cyber-criminals.
To remain open to local users, Estonia has had to cut access to its sites from abroad. That is potentially more damaging to the country's economy than the limited Russian sanctions announced so far, such as cutting passenger rail services between Tallinn and St Petersburg. It certainly hampers Estonia's efforts to counter Russian propaganda that portrays the country as a fascist hellhole. "We are back to the stone age, telling the world what is going on with phone and fax," says an Estonian internet expert. Mikko Hypp‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ánen of F-Secure, a Finnish internet security company that has been monitoring the attacks, says the best defence is to have strong networks of servers in many countries. That is not yet NATO's job. But it may be soon.
John Robb has also had a look at the Estonian botnet situation in "RUSSIA VS. ESTONIA: 21st Century State vs. State Conflict".
What does "guerrilla" war between interdependent states look like in the 21st Century? Very much like the war now going on between Estonia and Russia. Russia is using the removal of a statue commemorating Russian war dead from Tallinn (the capital of Estonia) as a pretext to launch an information/economic war against Estonia in order to destabilize the state (the likely real reason is that Estonia is blocking the construction of a Baltic pipeline to Germany). So far:
* Oil shipments have been severed. Passenger rail service has been cut.
* Flash mobs have been generated both in Moscow (against the Estonian embassy) and in Estonia (through the mobilization of ethnic Russians living there). These mobs have been energized by a Russian propaganda machine that depicts Estonia as a fascist antagonist of Russia.
* Russian criminal bot networks (used for phishing and other types of criminal endeavors) have been rented to conduct denial of service attacks against Estonian government computers (to prevent normal functioning and stymie its ability to counter Russian propaganda)
Of course, Estonia like Singapore and other small states, do have substantial asymmetric advantages against larger more complex big states in this type of war, if they would only use them. The key is to make the decision to become a micro-power, which requires resilience and a capacity to enlist commercial partners in defensive/retaliatory warfare, before being subjected to assault.
Remember: Vulnerability to disruption accelerates with size while the capacity to disrupt (using these methods) is scale-free (based on self-replicating computer resources and thereby within the budget of any state, no matter how small).
The idea of Russia waging "guerilla" warfare on Estonia seems a bit odd given the power imbalance between the 2, but perhaps Estonia's positioning behind the NATO shield now makes this a viable tactic for states as well as 4GW groups - though it would seem there would be limits on how far you could take this sort of behaviour before you ended up with an actual confrontation between the states.
John Robb has a follow up post on "Internet Systems Disruption" opining that both Russia and China are adopting "global guerrillas" tactics as an offensive weapon.
A second preview (the first was the disruption of Georgian energy systems in 2006) of 21st Century state vs. state conflict can be seen in Russia's attack on Estonia (which has ramped rapidly since it began at the end of April). In this case, as opposed to the physical disruption of systems used against Georgia, the Russians have opted to use the Internet as a weapon. Russia's denial of service attacks (computer attacks that shut down Web sites by flooding them with traffic) by phisher and extortionist botnets (composed of over 1 million compromised/infected computers), have spread beyond attacks on government computers to attacks on banks, ISPs, newspapers, universities, and a host of private businesses (the effects of these attacks are exacerbated by the heavy reliance Estonia has placed on e-government/economy infrastructure). The sophistication of these attacks has also increased.
This type of campaign is similar to the effects based operations (EBO) conducted by the US Air Force against Iraq (twice) and the systems disruption we see from global guerrillas around the world. In all cases the aim of the attacks is to disrupt the target society, leaving it prostrate and unable to function as a modern country (read Brave New War for background on this).
Another interesting aspect of this campaign is that it is being conducted by a combination of government agencies and outsourced talent from the Internet black marketplace (and many hackers joy riding for free since the Russian government declared open season on Estonia). The end-result is that the free form, open source nature of this campaign has allowed the Russian government a level of deniability. We see similar developments going on in China. It's important to point out that this is different than the trend towards states adopting fourth generation warfare as their primary defensive strategy against conventional attack (Iran/Syria/Venezuela/etc.). In this case, Russia (and it seems China too) has adopted the offensive power of global guerrillas.
And finally (I hope, though at the rate I'm going with this post there may be more before I finish), John looks at "A New MAD (mutually assured disruption)?".
The test run of a Russian open source computer assault on Estonia has now subsided. The only tangible legacy will likely be a slowdown in the Estonian economy and copious computer logs that chronicle the event. What's more important is the intangible: the desire of the Estonians to not let this happen again. I suspect that defensive precautions, although necessary, would be expensive and would not serve as a deterrent to future attacks. The key is to develop an offensive capability that draws on the lessons of the cold war.
During the cold war, the doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction) led to the end of direct warfare between the major powers. The potential that any conventional conflict could slide into a nuclear war, where both the attacker and the defender were destroyed (a Nash equilibrium), was the deterrent. We may shortly see a reprise of this concept for warfare between states in an interdependent world, where disruption replaces destruction in a new MAD.
In a globally competitive marketplace, ongoing disruption of a single country's economic system can result in rapid declines in relative performance. Computer assaults can accomplish this result with a high level of deniability. The option for Estonia is clear, will it establish a similar capability alone (or in conjunction with other states to form an umbrella of protection) to make the new MAD a reality? The best approach for this is to develop an open source network of hackers/black marketeers that can match the Russians. That shouldn't be hard. It's also possible to easily scale the impact of the attacks such that the damage to the larger state is equal or greater than to the smaller state. Much more thinking needs to be done on this since it could be triggered by non-state actors...
Unfortunately it seems the Russians weren't behind this stuff at all, so perhaps some of the commentators above have overheated imaginations (or this is all just a psyop to put pressure on Tsar Vladimir).
An analysis by Arbor Networks' Jose Nazario has concluded that the distributed denial of service attacks targeting Estonia websites beginning in late April were not the work of the Russian government. "We see signs of Russian nationalism at work here, but no Russian government connection," Nazario told Heise Security. "None of the sources we have analyzed from around the world show a clear line from Moscow to Tallinn; instead, it's from everywhere around the world to Estonia."
The article also notes "there was no apparent attempt to target national critical infrastructure other than internet resources."
Sadly, this dashes THREAT LEVEL's hopes of seeing our own made up infowar term on a CNN graphic. Since we put it out a week ago, a few more hyperbolic cyberterror gems have surfaced in the coverage of the Estonia packet floods -- The First War in Cyberspace!, The Future Of Warfare! (exclamation points added) -- but the only writer to adopt our Cybarmageddon! was Bruce Sterling. We'll let you know if it turns up in his next novel.
While the Russians and Chinese are copping all the blame above, its probably worthwhile keeping Orwell's dictum about Oceania, Eurasia and EastAsia being as bad as each other in mind. Technology Review notes (errr - did note - make that the SMH) that the "U.S. generates more cyber attacks than any other country".
The United States generates more malicious computer activity than any other country, and sophisticated hackers worldwide are banding together in highly efficient crime rings, according to a new report. Researchers at Cupertino-based Symantec Corp. also found that fierce competition in the criminal underworld is driving down prices for stolen financial information.
Criminals may purchase verified credit card numbers for as little as $1, and they can buy a complete identity _ a date of birth and U.S. bank account, credit card and government-issued identification numbers _ for $14, according to Symantec's twice-yearly Internet Security Threat Report released Monday.
Researchers at the security software company found that about a third of all computer attacks worldwide in the second half of 2006 originated from machines in the United States. That makes the United States the most fertile breeding ground for threats such as spam, phishing and malicious code _ easily surpassing runners-up China, which generates 10 percent of attacks, and Germany, which generates 7 percent.
The United States also leads in "bot network activity." Bots are compromised computers controlled remotely and operating in concert to pump out spam or perform other nefarious acts.
Continuing on the topic of computer security, the SMH has an article on Richard Clarke's book "Breakpoint" which looks at a number of issues, including how reedundant the links individual countries have to the internet. Apparently the UK has but a single link (which seems crazy and would provide fertile ground for conspiracy theorists if true) - as does Vietnam.
Several worst-case cyber attack scenarios are described in Mr Clarke's most recent book, Breakpoint, which was launched in January. The fictional novel, set in 2012, begins with attacks on the fibre-optic cables linking the US to the internet. The attacks escalate to include assaults on satellites and the United States' ability to wage war is severely impaired.
Carrying out such an attack on Australia would be relatively easy, Mr Clarke says. "A physical attack on cyberspace, one that tries to cut off a country from the rest of cyberspace by hitting physical connections; that's probably something that Australia is more vulnerable to than say Europe or the United States," he says. "The United States has a lot of internet entry points into it, probably in the order of 20 major entry points, and that's a lot to take down. I think Australia's number is probably more in the order of six." To better prepare, Australia should "try to improve physical security around internet nodes, you try to create redundancy," Mr Clarke says. "You want to make sure that there are back-up systems, that certain functions that don't need to be connected to the internet even indirectly, like electrical power, are disconnected."
Mr Clarke says attacks on technology infrastructure, physical or virtual, could come from terrorists, criminals or nation states. At several points throughout Breakpoint, Mr Clarke suggests Chinese-manufactured technology in the fictional future he describes could contain "back doors" designed to allow the country's agents to clandestinely access computer and communications networking equipment installed throughout the US and Western world.
Such back doors would not be easy to detect, Mr Clarke says. "It's very, very difficult to detect things that are embedded in chips, embedded in motherboards - I think it would be extraordinarily difficult, especially if they're not used until a certain point in time ... (and are) remotely activated. "When IBM stopped making laptops and sold the company to a Chinese manufacturer the US Defence Department and State Department immediately cancelled all orders for the IBM laptops. That reflects perhaps some paranoia, but it may also reflect something else."
Mr Clarke denies that software companies allow US Government agencies, such as the CIA and National Security Agency, to plant back-door software of their own into their products. "I think American manufacturers depend so much now on the world market that they would be reluctant to do that because if they ever get caught they'd lose huge portions of their market," he says.
While Mr Clarke admits it's possible the CIA and NSA may seek to infiltrate US software companies and plant back doors of their own into products - without the permission or knowledge of the companies themselves - he doubts the Government is engaged in those types of activities. "That's possible, (but) it probably gives the United States Government more credit for competence than it deserves," he says. However, Mr Clarke says both the US and Chinese governments have admitted they have a cyber-attack capability that could allow them to attack network infrastructure and penetrate foreign governments' systems to gather intelligence.
Breakpoint has turned out to be somewhat prophetic. Last month Scotland Yard detectives claimed to have foiled an al-Qaeda plot to destroy a major "internet hub" through which most of Britain's internet traffic is reportedly routed. ...
From 2001 until his retirement in 2003, Mr Clarke was special adviser to President Bush on cyber security and chairman of the President's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board. Mr Clarke became well known around the world when he accused President Bush of mismanaging the "War on Terror" in his scathing account of his tenure under the President, Against All Enemies, published in 2004.
Today he serves as the chairman of Good Harbor Consulting, a security and counterterrorism consultancy. He says he wrote Breakpoint as a fictional novel because a more sober warning would have fallen on deaf ears. "I write fiction because I think it's a way of telling people interesting facts ... that they would never read because most people don't read nonfiction," he says. "Because it's a thriller people will read it. They'll learn, subliminally perhaps, about ... the issues."
The Armchair Anarchist at Futurismic notes that the UK also suffers from thin pipes - and the BBC is about to release a massive archive of free content.
While the government of the US continues to gnaw at he net neutrality knucklebone, UK experts are starting to panic - saying that if it doesn't seriously upgrade its internet infrastructure, Britain risks falling behind in the information economy. I guess someone should let the BBC know, as they are planning to make over a million hours of public service broadcasting available in a free archive. In the meantime, those of you who still hanker for the good old frontier days of the information superhighway can bathe in the discordant nostalgia of the 56k modem emulator, courtesy of Bruce Sterling.
One of the more interesting botnet style stories I've seen was the "Titan Rain" affair the Bruce Schneier talked about a couple of times, which was described as a massively distributed Chinese probe of American networks.
U.S. Government Computers Attacked from China
From the Washington Post:Web sites in China are being used heavily to target computer networks in the Defense Department and other U.S. agencies, successfully breaching hundreds of unclassified networks, according to several U.S. officials.
Classified systems have not been compromised, the officials added. But U.S. authorities remain concerned because, as one official said, even seemingly innocuous information, when pulled together from various sources, can yield useful intelligence to an adversary....
"The scope of this thing is surprisingly big," said one of four government officials who spoke separately about the incidents, which stretch back as far as two or three years and have been code-named Titan Rain by U.S. investigators. All officials insisted on anonymity, given the sensitivity of the matter.
Whether the attacks constitute a coordinated Chinese government campaign to penetrate U.S. networks and spy on government databanks has divided U.S. analysts. Some in the Pentagon are said to be convinced of official Chinese involvement; others see the electronic probing as the work of other hackers simply using Chinese networks to disguise the origins of the attacks.
This talk of Chinese computer attacks brought back this passage from the classic cyberpunk work - William Gibson's "Neuromancer", which took Brunner's worm idea to a new level a decade on - and to a much larger audience.
Maelcum produced a white lump of foam slightly smaller than Case's head, fished a pearl-handled switchblade on a green nylon lanyard out of the hip pocket of his tattered shorts, and carefully slit the plastic. He extracted a rectangular object and passed it to Case. "Thas part some gun, mon?"
"No," Case said, turning it over, "but it's a weapon. It's virus."
"Not on this boy tug, mon," Maelcum said firmly, reaching for the steel cassette.
"A program. Virus program. Can't get into you, can't even get into your software. I've got to interface it through the deck, before it can work on anything."
"Well, Japan-mon, he says Hosaka here'll tell you every what an' wherefore, you wanna know."
"Okay. Well, you leave me to it, okay?"
Maelcum kicked off and drifted past the pilot console, busying himself with a caulk gun. Case hastily looked away from the waving fronds of transparent caulk. He wasn't sure why, but something about them brought back the nausea of SAS.
"What is this thing?" he asked the Hosaka. "Parcel for me."
"Data transfer from Bockris Systems GmbH, Frankfurt, advises, under coded transmission, that content of shipment is Kuang Grade Mark Eleven penetration program. Bockris further advises that interface with Ono-Sendai Cyberspace 7 is entirely compatable and yields optimal penetration capabilities, particularly with regard to existing military systems. . ."
"How about an AI?"
"Existing military systems and artificial intelligences."
"Jesus Christ. What did you call it?"
"Kuang Grade Mark Eleven."
"Boy, that is one mean piece of software. Hottest thing since sliced bread. That goddam thing's invisible. I just now rented twenty seconds on that little pink box, four jumps left of the T-A ice; had a look at what we look like. We don't. We're not there."
Case searched the matrix around the Tessier-Ashpool ice until he found the pink structure, a standard commercial unit, and punched in closer to it. "Maybe it's defective."
"Maybe, but I doubt it. Our baby's military, though. And new. It just doesn't register. If it did, we'd read as some kind of Chinese sneak attack, but nobody's twigged to us at all. Maybe not even the folks in Straylight."
Case watched the blank wall that screened Straylight. "Well," he said, "that's an advantage, right?"
"Maybe." The construct approximated laughter. Case winced at the sensation. "I checked ol' Kuang Eleven out again for you, boy.
It's real friendly, long as you're on the trigger end, jus' polite an' helpful as can be. Speaks good English, too. You ever hear of slow virus before?"
"I did, once. Just an idea, back then. But that's what ol' Kuang's all about. This ain't bore and inject, it's more like we interface with the ice so slow, the ice doesn't feel it. The face of the Kuang logics kinda sleazes up to the target and mutates, so it gets to be exactly like the ice fabric. Then we lock on and the main programs cut in, start talking circles 'round the logics in the ice.
We go Siamese twin on 'em before they even get restless." The Flatline laughed.
"Wish you weren't so damn jolly today, man. That laugh of yours sort of gets me in the spine."
"Too bad," the Flatline said. "Ol' dead man needs his laughs."
One of Gibson's more famous sayings is "the street finds its own use for things" - one example I was partly horrified by and partly impressed by was this group of US soldiers in Iraq who tried to hack the aerial surveillence system to help provide them with a murder alibi (the URL for this one seems to have changed a few times - the one I first saved rapidly succumbed to link rot - hopefully the one used here doesn't suffer the same fate).
As they carried out the killing of an Iraqi civilian, seven Marines and a Navy medic used their understanding of the military's airborne surveillance technology to spoof their own systems, military hearing testimony charges...
The case is remarkable for the fact that the killers nearly got away with their alleged crime right under the eye of the military's sophisticated surveillance systems. According to testimony, at least three times the warriors took deliberate, and apparently effective, measures to trick the unmanned aerial vehicles - UAVs in military parlance - that watch the ground with heat-sensitive imaging by night, and high-resolution video by day...
The killing took place in the early morning darkness of April 26, when a "snatch party" of three Marines and a medic set out to kill and make an example of a suspected insurgent named Saleh Gowad, who'd been captured and released many times, according to testimony. Not finding him, they went next door and seized the sleeping Awad from his home, while the four remaining squad members waited nearby.
They men allegedly flexicuffed Awad's hands and marched him about a half-mile to a bomb crater, where they bound his feet and positioned him with a stolen shovel and an AK-47. Then they returned to an attack position and shot him.
On the way, according to testimony, the forward party took at least three steps to disguise its actions from aerial surveillance, steps that initially persuaded investigators the killing was justified. One Marine went forward and dug around in the crater. At the same time, the three other troops crouched with Awad behind a low wall in what [an attorney] described as a squad in a typical military posture.
They held that pose as the surveillance UAV passed over, creating an infrared tableau of four troops watching a bomber dig a hole along the road.
After the UAV passed, and they dodged being seen by a U.S. helicopter, the four rose from behind the wall to march Awad to the crater, according to the medic's testimony. While they were moving Awad the final 125 yards to his death, according to Bacos, they heard the UAV return. Cpl. Trent Thomas quickly wrapped himself around Awad so that the two men would appear as a single person on the heat-reactive infrared sensors, according to testimony.
Then they put Awad in the hole where the Marine had posed with the shovel seconds before, backed off and signaled. Six of the eight troops opened fire - staging a firefight with a bomb-planting insurgent.
"Congratulations, we just got away with murder, gents," the squad leader told them, according to Bacos' testimony...
Steps similar to those the alleged killers apparently took may someday be a routine part of planning a crime, as U.S. law enforcement agencies clamor to put UAVs over U.S. airspace for domestic surveillance.
Heading back to Bruce Schneier, Bruce was one of the heroes of the cypherpunk (cyberpunks who used cryptography) mailing list, which I was lucky enough to come across in the late 1980's when I was misspending my university years online during the early days of the internet (hmmm - come to think of it, that was probably the most productive use I put my time to back then - my pinball and video game playing skills certainly haven't been of any use in recent years, and I don't think I'd be of much use on a basketball court nowadays either). As far as I can recall, it was probably on the cypherpunks list that I first read a review of "The Shockwave Rider".
I vaguely recall French philosopher Jean Baudrillard getting quoted on the list from time to time. While I haven't heard him mentioned since, I did notice he died recently (within the timeframe this post has been gestating anyway - which shows just how long it has taken to finish).
THE French critic and provocateur Jean Baudrillard, whose theories about consumer culture and the manufactured nature of reality were intensely discussed in philosophical circles and in blockbuster movies such as The Matrix, has died aged 77. His death in Paris on Tuesday followed a long illness, said Michel Delorme, director of Galilee, Baudrillard's publisher.
Baudrillard, the first in his family to attend a university, became a member of a small caste of celebrated and influential French intellectuals who achieved international fame despite the density and difficulty of their work. The author of more than 50 books and an accomplished photographer, Baudrillard ranged across different subjects, from race and gender to literature and art to the attacks of September 11, 2001. His comments often sparked controversy, as when he said in 1991 that the Gulf War "did not take place" - saying it was more of a media event than a war.
He was once considered a postmodern guru, but his analyses of modern life were too original and idiosyncratic to fit any partisan or theoretical category. "He was one of a kind," Francois Busnel, the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Lire, said on Tuesday. "He did not choose sides, he was very independent."
Baudrillard was known for his witty aphorisms and black humour. He described the sensory flood of modern media culture as "the ecstasy of communication". One of his better known theories postulates that we live in a world where simulated feelings and experiences have replaced the real thing. This seductive "hyper-reality", where shopping malls, amusement parks and mass-produced images from the news, television and films dominate, is drained of authenticity and meaning. Since illusion reigns, he counselled people to give up the search for reality. "All of our values are simulated," he told The New York Times in 2005. "What is freedom? We have a choice between buying one car or buying another car? It's a simulation of freedom."
This idea was picked up by the US filmmakers Andy and Larry Wachowski, who included subtle references to Baudrillard in their Matrix trilogy. In the first movie of the series, The Matrix (1999), the computer hacker hero Neo opens Baudrillard's book Simulacra and Simulation, which turns out to be only a simulation of a book, hollowed out to hold computer disks. Baudrillard later said the movie references to his work "stemmed mostly from misunderstandings".
I also noticed Baudrillard pop up in a piece the Iridescent Cuttlefish likes to quote from time to time, called "L-Space and the Infinite Text" which deconstructs Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" novels.
There are many aspects of the Discworld which support theories of postmodernism. The condition of hyperreality, as posited by Jean Baudrillard in The Order Of Simulacra, leads to a world in which there are no distinctions between the simulacra and that which they simulate:"The new postmodern universe tends to make everything a simulacrum. By this Baudrillard means a world in which all we have are simulations, there being no 'real' external to them, no 'original' that is being copied. There is no longer a realm of the 'real' versus that of 'imitation' or 'mimicry' but rather a level in which there are only simulations."
Baudrillard's example to illustrate this principle involves "a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory" - a 1:1 scale simulation which effectively replaces the original. It is this effect which Baudrillard suggests has already taken place. ...
If reality now consists entirely of simulacra, then the boundary between fact and fiction has dissolved. In the words of Baudrillard, "art is everywhere, since artifice is at the very heart of reality." Once this concept has been accepted, it is little more than a logical leap to postulate the idea of "textual reality." This suggests that everything is a text, and can be treated as such: Madan Sarup writes of "a move to 'textualize' everything" and states that "history, philosophy, jurisprudence, sociology and other disciplines are treated as so many optional 'kinds of writing' or discourses." The evidence for this is manifest on several levels. As a continuance of Baudrillard's theories of simulacra, it stands to reason that if everything is hyperreal, if "art is everywhere" and reality is now a web of simulations or fictions, then there can be nothing that cannot be treated as a discourse, as a text.
I'm pretty sure my teenage self had no more clue about what Baudrillard was going on about than the Wachowski brothers apparently did, but in the hope of seeing if I was more able to decipher his words now I'm on the verge of becoming a cranky old git I popped "cypherpunk baudrillard" into Google to see if I could dig up the linkages. The top ranked link which popped out was this interview with the very dubious but interesting Peter Lamborn Wilson (P.L.W) / Hakim Bey of Temporary Autonomous Zone fame - it certainly didn't fill in the knowledge gap but it does fit quite well into this post so I'll quote a chunk of it anyway.
P.L.W.: The conference feels like something old and finished. The reason why I was there, was to try to recapture some of that, whatever it must have been like in the 40's, when people like Adorno, Heidegger, Feyerabend and Popper were there. There were three interesting groups - one group was on tribalism and globalism and then there was the cypherpunk or cryptography group, and the consciousness or psychedelic group, but the other five groups, I can not even remember what they were. They were incredibly bureaucratic and boring and stupid ...
K.B.: What about the audience? Was there a clear distinction between people who follow the traditional boring seminars and ...
P.L.W.: I think so. The people I talked to were moving amongst our three workshops. And they had nothing to say about the other workshops. Those of the people who were talking to me.... maybe ten people. Our group was - what was the name of this guy? Mr. Lendvai. Right, he was the chair person and there was Jude Millhon (St.Jude) and me, we were the anarchists. And then there was Sir Colin McColl who was the former head of MI6 which is like the CIA of England and Eric McLuhan who is the son of Marshall McLuhan and John Gage who is the head of Sun Computers, a 6 billion dollar man.
Actually Sir Colin was great, the British spy, everybody loved him, he was charming and unpretentious a real gentleman and perfectly willing to talk about his work from many different points of view - really a very pleasant person and smart.
McLuhan, I also liked him as a person but it was kind of strange that he was having the Marshall McLuhan philosophy. It was the air of his father, representing the global village, the medium is the message, everything - brought up to date for the Internet. I mean McLuhan's media theory is still very useful on a certain level but I actually found myself - and also Jude thought the same way - to disagree on almost everything he said. For example: He painted a picture that people get the wrong idea about the global village and that McLuhan never thought that it was a good idea. Of course I understand this. And then he went on to say that the village is a very constricted place and there are no individuals in the village, that everyone is prying into your business and so on. That global, I think in his mind, means urban culture where one is a true individual or whatever.
So obviously this is not my take on the situation. I pointed out that in the paleolithic era the tribes person is not saying to itself: "Oh I wish was in Paris !". In its true form the tribe with the village is a self contained cosmos - the tribe is the cosmos, every tribe is the whole cosmos. ... It's not true you can't be an individual in this situation. And the cosmos has room for everybody. So if you are an intellectual then you become a shaman, if you are an artist you might become a maker of spoons or painter of the outside of the tent or whatever. If you are a violent son of a bitch you get to be the war-chief, when there is a war. And if there is not a war everyone make sure - keep that guy out of trouble. There is room for every kind of marginal person in the tribe. It's not true that the tribe is restricted or the individual.
K.B.: It touches this aspect that it is very hard to disappear in a religion or in a tribe but it is very easy to disappear in a crowd.
P.L.W.: Sure, that's why I Iive in NY I mean I understand what you are saying. The point is, it's true for the modern world where the village or the tribe is in fact under attack by the center. The little village in east Tyrol or wherever - if any intellectual was born in one of those villages of course he would move to Vienna - no question about it. Because this village is under attack from Vienna. Vienna sucks out all its energy, takes all the taxmoney. I mean I assume this is true, because it's true in every other country I have ever been in. So I am simply using Vienna as an example. I say that Iran is an example. Teheran just sucks all the money and energy and all the artists, intellectuals. And anyone got to be nineteen years old and had two ounces of brains - went to Teheran.
So the village is a bad place to be now, because the village is under attack. On the other hand there is of course a reaction against this. People are leaving the city and not wanting to go to the suburbs, because the suburbs that's a failure, a historical failure, and so they go to the village. As someone also pointed out, with the net you don't have to be so isolated in the village. It's not the same as having a brilliant coffeehouse where you can go and meet all the people and really interact in the real world. But it's something anyway. I know people in Wisconsin, Wyoming or places like that who have gone back to the village but they are on the net - a sort of "satisfactory balance" between what the village is good for and the village is not good for. Anyway that was one aspect that we covered. We didn't really focus very well, and that was the fault of the chair person.
I think that a different moderator would have just allowed the flow to go anywhere, maybe something interesting would come out. It wasn't a bad group but he had this idea that we had a subject we had to talk about - globalism, tribalism.
I talked about those Zapatistas as a tribe doing something very postmodern and I talked about the Winnebagos in Wisconsin that I happened to have some knowledge about. A tribe of Indians who have a casino and make a lot of money so instead of spending a lot on booze they got organized and they have a 100% employment in their tribe and they are using the net - Their language has never been a written language so they are using the net to become literate in their own language. So they are leaping over the whole imperialist alphabetical stage of literacy and jumping - maybe, I don't know - over the whole industrial age into the postindustrial age in some strange way. So the net can be very good for tribal activists.
And these Zapatistas are also very much represented on the net. They don't put it up themselves, because they don't have the machines, but people in Mexico City will do it and translate all their stuff into English - instantly the same day that it came out -and put it on the net. So the North American press wasn't doing shit , wasn't covering the story at all. If you wanted to know the story you had to go into the net. That was interesting. The situation is going on in Mexico. I don't know what's happening with the net. I mean now the books are coming out, some serious assassment of what is going on, but for a few weeks the net was the only source, in North America. On my radio show I was putting as much as I could on the air.
Since I didn't get to the other groups I'm not exactly sure what they did but the consciousness group had Alexander and Ann Shulgin. He developed MDMA (Ecstasy) and he has done a lot of work with drugs. Albert Hoffman and his wife were there, very charming marvelous people. Very strange to meet the guy who invented LSD, considering my life - sort of like meeting Jesus or something, who turns out to be this nice Swiss gentlemen who puts back the Schnaps like a twenty year old.
Ruth Inge Heinze the expert in Asian shamanism and also very knowledgeable about Buddhism and other subjects - very nice lady who teaches at Berkeley.
Then there was the cryptography panel with Eric Hughes who is one of the founders of the Cypherpunk movement. Whitfield Diffie who invented public key cryptography and John Perry Barlow, an old friend of mine. ....
K.B.: Is there anything like a new political theory emerging from the US? What is the role of Noam Chomsky? Did you see his movie?
P.L.W.: No I did not. I do not think Chomsky is making a major contribution in theory. I don't see him as the American Baudrillard or something - no. And I think he conceives his own function in a different way - he is a watch dog. He gets information and passes it on. He had this obsession about getting information on certain subjects in a way where other people don't have the time or don't have the money. He's a tenured professor at MIT. His usefulness will never cease in that respect. He has worked as usefully as anybody, any shade of left or dissident. I know he is an anarchist, he even said this a few times in print, but he doesn't talk about anarchist theory which is too bad, because a lot of people would respect him or could learn something from him. ...
K.B.: Do you see a convergence of mythology and politics?
P.L.W.: Well, on the mythological level all the stuff is working but that has a relationship with the media which will be very complex to try to track in detail.
Well every once in a while these mythological memes also make their appearance in the media as well . And in that way some of them can be killed, if you know what I mean. But the source, the unconscious storehouse for all this stuff is never emptied - are never empty. The human consciousness or imagination.
And all the more so, because it penetrates into a world which still believes in the rational, in unified consciousness, in history - in the negative sense that I would give to that word. In other words we basically are still living, despite the romantic movement, despite modernism, in the 18th century.
In this respect the public discourse is assumed to be rational, assumed to be secular, separated from religion through some quasi-linguistic fiction. These mytho-memes are not received in this world of pseudo sunlight in a religious sense anymore, the way they would have been in the past, let's say in the 17th century or going on back to the stone-age. When they make their appearance they don't appear in the world of religion, they don't appear in this recognized separated sphere of spirituality. They penetrate everything including the secular consciousness. For example: satanic abuse, the UFO, abductions...
These things make an appearance in the rational media and people talk about abuse and they get panic stricken and they don't know why they get panic stricken. Because we are now anti-modernist, not postmodernist.
Anti-modernist in the sense that for example Freud has been chucked out of the window and we don't deal with the unconscious any more. That only happened for a few years. Maybe in the 40's, 50's, people tried to deal with the unconscious. A lot of people - fascinating stuff came out of that. And now that's finished. A friend of mine said we don't need the unconscious, we have advertizing. Now we don't even have advertizing so much, even advertizing is finished. So whatever this unconscious is - I mean it's sort of spread out in supermarket newspapers, home videos, mallculture..... and basically a lot of this stuff does not appear and can not appear and will never appear in the media, in a sense, it's too freaky. There are some things that the monster can't eat.......
K.B.: Conspiracies seem to make it on prime time TV these days. O.J. Simpson, The Fu Man Chu/Shoko Asahara thing, Oklahoma Bombing, Waco...
P.L.W.: That reminds me to go back to what we said about if we ever get the true story. I think that the point is that nobody really trusts the media - we are used to hear that people don't trust politicians. I think it's gone to the point now, on an unconscious level if not on a conscious level, no one trusts the media, with obviously very good reasons because all we have to do is spend a lifetime plugged into the media. And no - this is not real live and if you can't think that consciously you simply can feel it on a cellular level.
So the immediate assumption about Oklahoma is that we won't get the true story and we haven't got into the true story. And there are a lot of strange things about it for example the second perpetrator. I may have the details with the story mixed up so I'm not presenting myself as an expert in the case but as I understand it a second figure was arrested and then immediately released on orders of the miltary.
So in a sense - yes I think there is a vogue from all this stuff into, maybe not a new theory, but into new applications of theory, or maybe a new theory. The idea that paranoia is not necessarily a form of madness, but it could be a form of criticism. So from that point of view this is already a well established part to a theory and definitely important. I don't have any theories about conspiracies in connection with Oklahoma or Waco it's just very apparent to anybody that we are not getting the story. And I'm sure that the Waco story is not going to emerge, everybody is certain that the truth is not going to emerge except for 10% rich white males who vote and actually run the country and at least pretend to believe it :Yes the truth will come out......
But if you are black - there is the whole Move story, in Philadelphia. Mummia Abu Jamal is about to be executed for.
He was a member of Move and he was also a journalist in a radio show in Philadelphia and he was not actually charged with a crime in connection with Move, the burning and bombing at Move. He was charged with killing a policeman. It's a very, very bad story............
If he is going to be killed it is to show that the government was justified in blowing up a lot of black women and children, burning down the whole neighborhood in Philadelphia, simply because these people were autonomous and rude, everybody agrees they were really rude, but the point is that they were autonomous. The point about Waco was that they were autonomous. Whether we agree with these groups or not is not the issue. The issue is that they were behaving as if they were free to be what they wanted to be as groups. You don't have to like David Koresh's ideology, he was a crackpot and probably a dangerous crackpot. But for example he wasn't a racist. A lot of liberals in America just assumed that he was a racist, it's not true. There were Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, all kinds of people in that compound. They assumed that he was a fundamentalist, but that's not exactly true. He was a believer in the Book of Revelation which is not at all the same thing as being a fundamentalist like one of these television preachers. It's a whole different religious universe. Most of the liberals are not prepared to understand this.
These are not really evil right winged bastards these were a bunch of religious weirdos and they wanted to be left alone, basically to be weird -by themselves. And this is what outrages a lot of people in America.
The Oklahoma bomb - The first thing they said: the Arabs! Within in a couple hours out was the word: white Americans! The whole overground press, Time magazine, NYTimes, all the editorials and articles they went : White people hate the government?! We didn't know that. Bullshit ! - there are millions of people. White, black, yellow, red, you name it out there in America who are completely dissatisfied with whats going on. But they don't vote. They are not part of the economy. And people who are falling out of the boundaries of the middle class, which is a classic situation for the emergence of some form of fascism. At the moment it isn't fascism precisely, it's more like confused populism, which could go either right or left, take alliances to the right and the left. It doesn't necessarily have to be racist and reactionary. ...
One example of a (long lived) TAZ is the semi-autonomous (for the time being) neighbourhood of Christiania in Copenhagen. While I was poking around I found this excellent old interview with Bruce Sterling at Mute Magazine, which describes some of the drawbacks associated with this place (amongst lots of other interesting snippets).
Ulrich Gutmair: You live in Texas and have spent a lot of time under the rule of George W. Bush, so perhaps you could tell us something about his politics? From what I've heard, he represents this idea of 'compassionate conservatism', which means deregulation and having churches which feed the poor. What do you think his presidency will mean, in terms of change, for the USA?
Bruce Sterling: In terms of change for the USA, probably not very much - it's just a restoration of the Bush dynasty. All the old hands on the Ford administration and the Bush administration are back in power and he's just a young man who is the acceptable face of that particular establishment. He's very popular in Texas. He's not a megalomaniac or anything. He is just a young man of privilege who happens to have inherited this office.
You could think of it as the Hohenzollern dynasty, this sort of imperial- military power. The USA is the world's policeman and our Secretary of State is now the former Chief of Staff of our army - generally not a good sign, you know. If somebody says: "our General is our Secretary of State" that generally indicates that the Cruise Missiles are warming up in the basement. But it won't be about Europe, it will all be about Iraq. I think the Bush dynasty is convinced the only real interests America and the rest of the world have are resources - specifically oil. We've had an energy blackout in California and a lot of the campaign was centred around energy policy.
The idea is "go out there and dig, dig, dig". Not only are Bush and his father oil men, but the Vice President is also a very, very active oil man. I think it's kind of a segue back from the 'New Economy' as represented by Gore to the 'Old Economy' as represented by these oil moguls. What does this mean from a European perspective? Basically nothing! I don't think Bush even knows Europe exists; he can't tell Slovenia from Slovakia, he thinks the Americans have no interests whatsoever in the Balkans. They'll moan and complain about the idea of separate European armed forces, but probably nothing will happen just because it's too much trouble.
But it's not like he's a maniac or anything. There are people in the American Left who are coming on like the guy is a lunatic: dyslexic or insane or possibly stupid. It's always a bad mistake to call any politician stupid - it gives him an opportunity to do whatever he wants and not have to take any blame for it. Underestimating your opponent is one of the stupidest mistakes you can make.
UG: You say the Bush presidency won't have any consequences for Europe. But, on the other hand, you as the leader of the Viridian movement - which is concerned with the Greenhouse Effect - should be interested in all these oil people. Unlike Al Gore, I don't think they will be remotely interested in having a Green policy. Could you could explain what the Viridian movement means?
BS: The Viridian movement is kind of my hobby crusade against the Greenhouse Effect. I'm a futurist and I'm very interested in issues that aren't a big deal now but will soon be pressing on people. I really think the Greenhouse Effect is starting to change the climate pretty rapidly and it's going to be one of the most important things about daily life in the 21st century. People looking back from their perspective of, say, 2020 and reading contemporary political coverage will just be shocked that nobody was addressing this issue. It'll be like: were they in a dream or sleepwalking? What was the problem? So I make a lot of noise about it.
It's true there are the oil people but, in point of fact, oil people and private enterprises are doing some pretty good work in the way of the Greenhouse Effect. I'm very impressed by what BP does. If you're gonna reform the energy structure you can't just march with pickets, you actually have to build a different energy structure ‚- I mean you have to build it, and it's dirty work - like, with shovels! It's not something you do by pressing the F1 function key. Actually, George Bush's house in Austin has been solar-powered for quite some time. He's on the Green Programme in Austin. Some of his supporters are not just energy people but right-wing Greens - sort of an unknown thing in Europe because there's such a strong Red/Green coalition - but I'd consider someone like Bill Ford of Ford Motor Company or John Brown of BP basically to be right-wing capitalist Greens. There's no reason why you can't make a lot of money selling green energy, there's a business model there. It's not like a dot com, it's like 'voltage dot com' and there's this wheel that turns around and people get paid for that, it's not a difficult matter. I'd hope to see some progress made there but, let's face it, America is not the leader in that issue - Europe is, straight out and across the board! So people around the world shouldn't expect America to carry the torch for every single thing. There are just some things Americans are no damned good at. ...
UG: I found a short quote, something you said about the whole idea of ‚'Islands in the Net', and all the Hakim Bey followers who took it as a very liberatory model, the idea of having these distributed zones?
BS: Yeah, the Temporary Autonomous Zone...
UG: ... you said that the TAZ will ultimately be more advantageous to the deregulation of capitalism than to the forces of liberation.
BS: Yeah, I think the TAZ - in the way that Hakim Bey describes it - is an accurate reflection of something like an illegal rave. But, you know, if you want to engage in illegal activities and you want to use that particular technique, it doesn't matter what your political convictions are. Just like everybody can pick up a protest sign and march in the street. It doesn't matter whether you wear a red shirt, a brown shirt, a green shirt, a white shirt or a black shirt - I mean, they are all shirts! It's not like long-haired drug addicts have some kind of copyright on temporary autonomous gatherings that show up, accomplish something illegal, and then scatter in all directions leaving no trace. What that really sounds like is illegal North Sea dumping. That would be like: "I've got trash, you've got trash and we could get rid of it by recycling it. But that costs a lot of money - so why don't we have like a trash-dumping rave? Well just get this cool old ocean-liner and take it out into the international waters where no-one is looking and throw everything over the side and then we'll all go back where we came from, just like: hey man, party"! Instead of looking at each other saying: "boy are we cool, we fooled the cops one more time", they'd be saying: "wow, we saved a lot of money! Let's do this again"!
MC: There is this project by some people from Oklahoma building this 'New Utopia' island in the Caribbean, some libertarians. Have you heard of this project?
BS: I've heard of a lot of 'Island Republic' bullshit over time, yeah.
MC: Are they just fools, or is it the newest dream of the American frontier, or is this the contemporary format of an autonomous zone, or is it just hype? Is it taken serious in the States?
BS: Well, the Sealand thing got a lot of press. These Linux guys said: "well, we're gonna build up a rogue node on the Internet and do all this stuff..." or whatever. But my question is: what's the revenue model? There are a lot of counter-cultural organisations all over the place. There are lots and lots of religious communes, like the Amish in the USA, that are sort of semi-autonomous. The Amish can't be drafted and they don't pay certain amounts of taxes, they're tolerated because they're cute. The main reason they are tolerated is they look after themselves, raise their own crops and create their own buildings.
And then you got a place like Christiania in Copenhagen, where a bunch of guys took over this military base 27 years ago where it's like: "you know, we're Autonomen, and we're gonna squat this place and build our own beautiful rainbow flag hippie republic here". So, what do they actually do to make money? Mostly they sell hash, and they sell it to people who are coming in from the rest of the city. Now if they were just selling to each other and they could sustain an economy that way that would be okay, but that's not the truth. In point of fact they are merely parasitic. They're just retailing their autonomous legal status in order to break the law of some larger society and then retail their sort of semi-criminal enterprise.
So, if we gonna go build an independent island - and it's actually economically self-sufficient - that would be interesting. That would be very interesting. But if you just build one because you're trying to profit on this black marketeering scheme sooner or later somebody is just gonna step on you, maybe not this week, maybe not next week, but....
The other problem you might face is that as soon as you set up your TAZ somebody else will build one right next to you and then he's gonna come shoot you to get your turf. That'll be my prediction. Either two of them show up and there's a gang war between two independent republics both trying to seize this market, or else there's some kind of internal power struggle among the pioneers over whether it's really about autonomy or about the black money. Over the long term it's always about the black money! As long as there's black money it's like: "Cut to the chase. Just give me the cash! Forget the independent hand-waving temporary autonomous bullshit! Just give us the fucking cash"! It's like Grenada. Maurice Bishop: "They have turned their guns on the masses!" No, Maurice, they've turned their guns on you, okay? It was on you! You were the guy getting shot in the tennis court, not 'the masses', okay? It's like running around, doing your little thing here, arming the population and preaching, preaching, preaching. What was it about? Offshore money! All you have to do is look at the history of those things and you can predict how that's gonna shake out. If you can maintain the ideology and also have a productive economic system - if you could do that the Soviet Union wouldn't have collapsed, frankly. What's the problem there? No jogging shoes, man! No toilet paper! That's the problem. The economy does not function, it still doesn't function!
MC: In Heavy Weather you described how the run on information about the weather brings a whole system into terminal velocity. At the time the New Economy crashed in Europe the climate was also crashing and still is. There were those big rainfalls in England, for example. Are you surprised by this coincidence? Or is it like two sides of the same coin and that, in fact, the run on weather data is the great hope for the New Economy after the crash?
BS: Well, I think we're gonna see a lot more economic crashes and a lot more weather crashes. Like, the Champs-Elyses has its trees blown off, Britain is knee-deep in water, the Alps are melting and the glaciers are melting. It's becoming pretty severe. By 21st century standards we're really in the early days of the Greenhouse Effect. This is not the bad part. The bad part is ahead of us. This is just sort of early-warning signs, like a light cough and a sore throat compared to emphysema and lung cancer. The dot com crash will probably be behind us in a couple of years. People don't want to pay absurdly inflated amounts of money for companies that cannot realistically supply their revenue stream. There's nothing new about that, it happens all the time, it happened in railroads, and with a lot of different economic booms. It's very typical to over-value certain things. It's a bubble, like a Japanese real estate bubble or something, but it's not like the weather suddenly is gonna get better. The economy might suddenly get better really easily, because a lot of productive capacities are gonna been taken away from imaginary Internet companies and devoted to Internet companies that are actually changing the means of production and distribution. In other words, it's not an economic revolution or a new economy if I can merely talk gullible people into giving me money for nothing. That's not change, that's just a fraud. But I think there's plenty of potential for real change, really serious changes in the way things are made, in the way they are sold, in the way they are shipped, in pretty much every aspect of the industrial order. I don't think there is any way to stop that, it's just from now on it's gonna look a lot more like an actual economy and a lot less like a carnival.
As for the weather, it's gonna be probably getting worse for the rest of our lives. Our children may see the worst of it. Even if we shut down every carbon-emitting thing and every methane emitting thing and every greenhouse gas tomorrow, there's still a tremendous left over surge with the warming oceans and the changing currents and the rest of it. We're not gonna be able to do that tomorrow - it's just physically impossible, even with the greatest political will in the world and a warlike state of mobilisation it's gonna be very difficult to uproot that enormous network.
They are huge, those energy utilities - bigger than continents. They are the biggest machines the human race has ever built and they are literally on at the present: they're in every home, every industry, every airport, every nation. There is no nation that has no electricity. Sometimes there are areas that haven't been electrified yet, but there's never been a government that said: "Electricity? We don't want any of that stuff!" That has never happened under any system. Alright, the Amish don't want electricity. And people don't want to be Amish, believe me on that one! Even the Amish aren't real happy about being Amish, they just do it out of stubbornness.
My hope is that, if there's convergence there, it's not gonna be so much a convergence between the stock market's instability and the weather's instability, it'll probably be a convergence between electrical networks and digital networks. In other words, if the utilities were a lot smarter they'd probably be a lot more efficient. And I see some hope there - you might be able to see the utilities reform as rapidly as say, the telephone systems. But even then I don't have a lot of hope because there are plenty of telephone systems that still don't work. It's fragmentary, there's WAP in Europe, four different cellphone things in the US and a different DoCoMo in Japan. And there are analogue ones and digital ones, it's gonna be messy. You're just deluded if you think that something like energy reform is easy. If it were easy we would have done it during the first OPEC embargo. We would have done that in the 70s. We put it off. We put it off for thirty years and now we are going to pay the consequences of not having done it in 1970. It's just gonna get ugly.
UG: The idea of the Viridian design movement really reminded me of Buckminster Fuller's idea of a design revolution; to have an ecologically oriented design functioning in a very general way. Would you compare your ideas to that?
BS: I couldn't compare myself to Buckminster Fuller. He's an actual engineer and I'm somebody who talks a lot. Let's put it this way: I have a personal grudge against the Greenhouse Effect. I'm a child of the oil industry in Texas. I feel a personal sense of responsibility about what's been done by this industry because, hey, it fed me, it educated me. I'm a child of privilege thanks to this industry and I don't think that the people in it are evil. I'm not like denouncing my own father - he was my father! It was what we did. There is nobody in Texas who isn't implicated in oil - Texas is synonymous with oil. But when there was an environmental disaster in Mexico and the jungles in Chiapas caught fire the sky over my hometown was grey for two weeks and the plume went as far north as Chicago. I'm not prepared to ignore that. I'm not under the illusion that I can change it by going into the office and hitting the F2 function key, but I'm not gonna stay quiet! I dissent! I'm a dissident on that issue. I won't collaborate any more! I'm going to do what I think I can do in the most effective way I can think of.
Now, I could have started the Viridian political movement and supported the Green Party in the US and tried to do some fundraising. I live in a State capital and I have friends in politics, I understand how that system works, but I don't think that's a good place for a science fiction writer to be investing his energies. I'm more interested in issues like industrial design and technological development. If there's anything that I think science fiction writers are really good at it's making technology sexy. That's sort of where we shine! You take some gizmo nobody has ever heard of and you deploy it in some way where people say: "Wow, that's cool, that's the way forward"! That's the sort of very typical social role. So, I've written science fiction novels about this. I wrote the book Heavy Weather which is a Greenhouse Effect disaster novel which I wrote in 1994. But that didn't change anything. It's not like the guys at the Kyoto conference were like: "Oh, yes, Mr. Sterling's novel changed my entire....". It's just a science fiction novel and I really feel it's time to carry the war to the enemy here.
When I look at social groups I could talk to ‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö¬® the police or emergency health services or the military, who are gonna have a big role in environmental disaster, or architects, or literary people or academia or internet people ‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö¬® there are a lot of different groups, all of them will be affected by the greenhouse situation. But I think the group I'm most interested in reaching are industrial designers, really. And not even industrial designers that much, because the real industrial designers are busy designing stuff. The people I‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö‚â§m really interested in reaching are industrial design teachers. Although the Viridian list doesn't have a lot of working designers on it ‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö¬® it's like, Philip Starck isn't gonna stop making toothbrushes to come see ‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö¬® I want design teachers getting really interested in my list. There are lots of little projects there and they have students and they are always looking for imaginary schemes.
When you are in design school you don't get to make anything, you just have to make imaginary things, paper projects ‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö¬® and we are very good at that! You need some paper projects, boy, Viridian list has got plenty of those! It's something we specialise in. Things that don't exist that we wished we had, that are really objects from a better world. I think that's one of our most effective tactics: just to describe consumer objects that are very attractive that you can't have because your society is too dirty and too poorly organised to be able to produce them. To look at these projects and to imagine owning them is to be forced to imagine a different world. I think that's a better way to get people into that frame of mind. Give them the artefact! Don't give them a lecture about the constitution! It's like, give them the jogging-shoes. Let them see the toothbrush. Give them the CD, don't give them a talk about free speech! Let's see some free speech! You wanna live in a society where women are liberated? Let's not talk about female oppression! Let's see some liberated women doing something that shows their freedom!
MC: So what you're talking about is the opposite of dead media - it's forthcoming media?
BS: Dead media is about dead forms of media and the Greenhouse Viridian movement is all about making our current energy systems extinct. How do we kill them, how do we obsolesce them, make them obsolescent in the quickest and least blood-thirsty way? How do we drive these things out of existence and replace them with something more effective? I'm very interested in obsolescence. Obsolescence is the future in reverse. You wanna know how things are gonna arrive on the scene? Well watch how they leave. It's all the same curve, it's all the same phenomenon. Maturity, decline, age, senility and death are just as much a part of the human condition as sex, conception, birth, youth, puberty. People don't like to talk about that as much but that's the same phenomenon. There's no real reason to divide up the future of technology from its past ‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√ë‚àö¬® it's all technology and if you really want to understand it you have to understand the whole thing, you can't sort of pick and choose.
There are only a few hits for the cypherpunk / baudrillard query (none of which got me what I was looking for) but another interesting specimen was this old essay from Kevin Kelly of Wired called "Out of Control". I'd say that by and large the ultra-libertarian cypherpunk vision of unregulated and untaxed online commerce really hasn't come true, even though cryptography did escape from its military holding pens - like most utopian visionaries, the vision had a few major flaws...
The upshot of all this, Tim believes, is the end of corporations in their current form and the beginning of more sophisticated, untaxed black markets. Tim calls this movement Crypto Anarchy. "I have to tell you I think there is a coming war between two forces," Tim May confides to me. "One force wants full disclosure, an end to secret dealings. That's the government going after pot smokers and controversial bulletin boards. The other force wants privacy and civil liberties. In this war, encryption wins. Unless the government is successful in banning encryption, which it won't be, encryption always wins."
A couple of years ago May wrote a manifesto to alert the world to the advent of widespread encryption. In this electronic broadside published on the Net, he warned of the coming "specter of crypto anarchy":
"...The State will of course try to slow or halt the spread of this technology, citing national security concerns, use of the technology by drug dealers and tax evaders, and fears of societal disintegration. Many of these concerns will be valid; crypto anarchy will allow national secrets to be traded freely and will allow illicit and stolen materials to be traded. An anonymous computerized market will even make possible abhorrent markets for assassinations and extortion. Various criminal and foreign elements will be active users of CryptoNet. But this will not halt the spread of crypto anarchy.
Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure, so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions. Combined with emerging information markets, crypto anarchy will create a liquid market for any and all material which can be put into words and pictures. And just as a seemingly minor invention like barbed wire made possible the fencing-off of vast ranches and farms, thus altering forever the concepts of land and property rights in the frontier West, so too will the seemingly minor discovery out of an arcane branch of mathematics come to be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property."
The manifesto was signed:
"Timothy C. May, Crypto Anarchy: encryption, digital money, anonymous networks, digital pseudonyms, zero knowledge, reputations, information markets, black markets, collapse of government."
I asked Tim May, a retired Intel physicist, to explain the connection between encryption and the collapse of society as we know it. May explained, "Medieval guilds would monopolize information. When someone tried to make leather or silver outside the guilds, the King's men came in and pounded on them because the guild paid a levy to the King. What broke the medieval guilds was printing; someone could publish a treatise on how to tan leather. In the age of printing, corporations arose to monopolize certain expertise like gunsmithing, or making steel. Now encryption will cause the erosion of the current corporate monopoly on expertise and proprietary knowledge. Corporations won't be able to keep secrets because of how easy it will be to sell information on the nets."
The reason crypto anarchy hasn't broken out yet, according to May, is that the military has a monopoly on the key knowledge of encryption-just as the Church once tried to control printing. With few exceptions, encryption technology has been invented by and for the world's military organizations. To say that the military is secretive about this technology would be an understatement. Very little developed by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA)-whose mandate it is to develop crypto systems-has ever trickled down for civilian use, unlike technologies spun off from the rest of the military/industrial alliance.
But who needs encryption, anyway? Only people with something to hide, perhaps. Spies, criminals, and malcontents. People whose appetite for encryption may be thwarted righteously, effectively, and harshly.
The ground shifted two decades ago when the information age arrived, and intelligence became the chief asset of corporations. Intelligence was no longer the monopoly of the Central Intelligence Agency, but the subject of seminars for CEOs. Spying meant corporate spying. Illicit transfer of corporate know-how, rather than military plans, became the treasonous information the state had to worry about.
In addition, within the last decade, computers became fast and cheap; enciphering no longer demanded supercomputers and the superbudgets need to run them. A generic brand PC picked up at a garage sale could handle the massive computations that decent encryption schemes consumed. For small companies running their entire business on PCs, encryption was a tool they wanted on their hard disks.
And now, within the last few years, a thousand electronic networks have blossomed into one highly decentralized network of networks. A network is a distributed thing without a center of control, and with few clear boundaries. How do you secure something without boundaries? Certain types of encryption, it turns out, are an ideal way to bring security to a decentralized system while keeping the system flexible. Rather than trying to seal out trouble with a rigid wall of security, networks can tolerate all kinds of crap if a large portion of its members use peer-to-peer encryption.
Suddenly, encryption has become incredibly useful to ordinary people who have "nothing to hide" but their privacy. Peer-to-peer encryption, sown into the Net, linked with electronic payments, tied into everyday business deals, becomes just another business tool like fax machines or credit cards.
Just as suddenly, tax-paying citizens-whose dollars funded the military ownership of this technology-want the technology back.
But the government (at least the U.S. government) may not give encryption back to the people for a number of antiquated reasons. So, in the summer of 1992, a loose federation of creative math hackers, civil libertarians, free-market advocates, genius programmers, renegade cryptologists, and sundry other frontier folk, began creating, assembling, or appropriating encryption technology to plug into the Net. They called themselves "cypherpunks." ...
The main thrust of the group's efforts takes place in the virtual online space of the Cypherpunk electronic mailing list. A growing crowd of crypto-hip folks from around the world interact daily via an Internet "mailing list." Here they pass around code-in-progress as they attempt to implement ideas on the cheap (such as digital signatures), or discuss the ethical and political implications of what they are doing. Some anonymous subset of them has launched the Information Liberation Front. The ILF locates scholarly papers on cryptology appearing in very expensive (and very hard-to-find) journals, scans them in by computer, and "liberates" them from their copyright restrictions by posting the articles anonymously to the Net.
Posting anything anonymously to the Net is quite hard: the nature of the Net is to track everything infallibly, and to duplicate items promiscuously. It is theoretically trivial to monitor transmission nodes in order to backtrack a message to its source. In such a climate of potential omniscience, the crypto-rebels yearn for true anonymity.
I confess my misgivings about the potential market for anonymity to Tim: "Seems like the perfect thing for ransom notes, extortion threats, bribes, blackmail, insider trading, and terrorism." "Well," Tim answers, "what about selling information that isn't viewed as legal, say about pot growing, do-it-yourself abortion, cryonics, or even peddling alternative medical information without a license? What about the anonymity wanted for whistleblowers, confessionals, and dating personals?"
Digital anonymity is needed, the crypto-rebels feel, because anonymity is as important a civil tool as authentic identification is. Pretty good anonymity is offered by the post office; you don't need to give a return address and the post office doesn't verify it if you do. Telephones (without caller ID) and telegrams are likewise anonymous to a rough degree. And everyone has a right (upheld by the Supreme Court) to distribute anonymous handbills and pamphlets. Anonymity stirs the most fervor among those who spend hours each day in networked communications. Ted Kaehler, a programmer at Apple Computer, believes that "our society is in the midst of a privacy crisis." He sees encryption as an extension of such all-American institutions as the Post Office: "We have always valued the privacy of the mails. Now for the first time, we don't have to trust in it; we can enforce it." John Gilmore, a crypto-freak who sits on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says, "We clearly have a societal need for anonymity in our basic communications media."
A pretty good society needs more than just anonymity. An online civilization requires online anonymity, online identification, online authentication, online reputations, online trust holders, online signatures, online privacy, and online access. All are essential ingredients of any open society. The cypherpunk's agenda is to build the tools that provide digital equivalents to the interpersonal conventions we have in face-to-face society, and hand them out for free. By the time they are done, the cypherpunks hope to have given away free digital signatures, as well as the opportunity for online anonymity.
To create digital anonymity, the cypherpunks have developed about 15 prototype versions of an anonymous re-mailer that would, when fully implemented, make it impossible to determine the source of an e-mail message, even under intensive monitoring of communication lines. One stage of the re-mailer works today. When you use it to mail to Alice, she gets a message from you that says it is from "nobody." Unraveling where it came from is trivial for any computer capable of monitoring the entire network-a feat few can afford. But to be mathematically untraceable, the re-mailers have to work in a relay of at least two (more is better)-one re-mailer handing off a message to the next re-mailer, diluting information about its source to nothing as it is passed along.
Eric Hughes sees a role for digital pseudonymity-your identity is known by some but not by others. When cloaked pseudonymously "you could join a collective to purchase some information and decrease your actual cost by orders of magnitude- that is, until it is almost free." A digital co-op could form a private online library and collectively purchase digital movies, albums, software, and expensive newsletters, which they would "lend" to each other over the net. The vendor selling the information would have absolutely no way of determining whether he was selling to one person or 500. Hughes sees these kinds of arrangements peppering an information-rich society as "increasing the margins where the poor can survive."
"One thing for sure," Tim says, "long-term, this stuff nukes tax collection." I venture the rather lame observation that this may be one reason the government isn't handing the technology back. I also offer the speculation that an escalating arms race with a digital IRS might evolve. For every new avenue the digital underground invents to disguise transactions, the digital IRS will counter with a surveillance method. Tim pooh-poohs the notion. "Without a doubt, this stuff is unbreakable. Encryption always wins."
And this is scary because pervasive encryption removes economic activity-one driving force of our society-from any hope of central control. Encryption breeds out-of-controllness. ...
One of the founders of the cypherpunks was the EFF's John Gilmore, who almost appeared on the RU Sirius show recently.
This is a strange show folks. Some communication wires got crossed and our planned interview with John Gilmore was cancelled by John Gilmore. We'll leave it at that for the moment.
So, a bit discombobulated by the situation, we forged aheand and talked ABOUT John Gilmore - and pretty darned politely. Gilmore, of course, cofounded the EFF, the "cypherpunks", and recently lost his court case challenging the constitutionality of being made to show ID while traveling within the United States.
Two modern day web sites I tend to think of when the cypherpunks are mentioned are Cryptome and The Memory Hole, which seem to have made a near religion out of freeing information that some people would prefer remain hidden ((although some conspiracy theorists consider these honeypots for the overly curious rather than genuine sources of data).
I don't read Cryptome (there is some stuff I don't have any particular desire to know about) but it does get in the news from time to time when some outraged person or organisation tries to get some sensitive piece of information taken down (examples that spring to mind in this category include a list of British intelligence agents and some document that purportedly proved that some European politician worked for the KGB earlier in his career).
From time to time attempts are made to shut down Cryptome entirely, with one recent bout resulting in the site shifting ISPs.
The Cryptome link I have proudly displayed below will soon lead to nothing as the ISP hosting Cryptome has given Cypherpunk John Young (its anarchist-leaning operator) a termination notice. Young isn't taking it so badly, though, as Verio has probably had to take a lot of heat for hosting Cryptome over these years. Young suspects the termination may have something to do with the Lockheed/coast guard screwup involving useless leaking Tempest-related security.
Over the years Young has regularly articulated the scams and lies that governments have traditionally pulled or painted in order to get its citizens to support more war, or other activities that pretty much serve no more ultimate purpose than increasing the need for more government. Along those lines, Young has published hundreds of documents that emerge temporarily out of classification or are otherwise 'dangerous', such as the actual names of CIA and MI5 agents, aerial photos of senstivie installations, and anything else that's 'not supposed to be available'. And of course, the usual authorities equate a lot of this information with aiding and abetting terrorists.
Of course, Cryptome will soon be back, particularly as he's had dozens of offers for it to be hosted. And who knows? Maybe this time its ultimate home will be within the greater TOR cloud so that it will become impossible to identify the host.
One recent episode that seemed to epitomise the cypherpunk ethic was the HD-DVD copyright protection code fiasco, which briefly made this number the most popular item on the internt.
There is open revolt on the Web.
Sophisticated Internet users have banded together over the last two days to publish and widely distribute a secret code used by the technology and movie industries to prevent piracy of high-definition movies. The broader distribution of the code may not pose a serious threat to the studios, because it requires some technical expertise and specialized software to use it to defeat the copy protection on Blu-ray and HD DVD discs. But its relentless spread has already become a lesson in mob power on the Internet and the futility of censorship in the digital world.
An online uproar came in response to a series of cease-and-desist letters from lawyers for a group of companies that use the copy protection system, demanding that the code be removed from several Web sites. Rather than wiping out the code — a string of 32 digits and letters in a specialized counting system — the legal notices sparked its proliferation on Web sites, in chat rooms, inside cleverly doctored digital photographs and on user-submitted news sites like Digg.com.
“It’s a perfect example of how a lawyer’s involvement can turn a little story into a huge story,” said Fred von Lohmann, a staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group. “Now that they started sending threatening letters, the Internet has turned the number into the latest celebrity. It is now guaranteed eternal fame.”
The number is being enshrined in some creative ways. Keith Burgon, a 24-year-old musician in Goldens Bridge, N.Y., grabbed his acoustic guitar on Tuesday and improvised a melody while soulfully singing the code. He posted the song to YouTube, where it was played more than 45,000 times. “I thought it was a source of comedy that they were trying so futilely to quell the spread of this number,” Mr. Burgon said. “The ironic thing is, because they tried to quiet it down it’s the most famous number on the Internet.”
Charlie Stross (author of Glasshouse and Accelerando) did a talk at a German engineering consultancy recently on "Shaping the Future which looked at the ever growing gathering of information and erosion of privacy, warning that we risk "sleep-walking into a police state". I like the phrase "total history" too...
We're already living in a future nobody anticipated. We don't have personal jet cars, but we have ridiculously cheap intercontinental airline travel. (Holidays on the Moon? Not yet, but if you're a billionaire you can pay for a week in orbit.) On the other hand, we discovered that we do, in fact, require more than four computers for the entire planet (as Thomas Watson is alleged to have said). An increasing number of people don't have telephone lines any more - they rely on a radio network instead.
The flip side of Moore's Law, which we don't pay much attention to, is that the cost of electronic components is in deflationary free fall of a kind that would have given a Depression-era economist nightmares. When we hit the brick wall at the end of the road - when further miniaturization is impossible - things are going to get very bumpy indeed, much as the aerospace industry hit the buffers at the end of the 1960s in North America and elsewhere. This stuff isn't big and it doesn't have to be expensive, as the One Laptop Per Child project is attempting to demonstrate. Sooner or later there won't be a new model to upgrade to every year, the fab lines will have paid for themselves, and the bottom will fall out of the consumer electronics industry, just as it did for the steam locomotive workshops before them.
Before that happens, we're going to get used to some very disorienting social changes.
Hands up, anyone in the audience, who owns a slide rule? Or a set of trigonometric tables? Who's actually used them, for work, in the past year? Or decade?
I think I've made my point: the pocket calculator and the computer algebra program have effectively driven those tools into obsolescence. This happened some time between the early 1970s and the late 1980s. Now we're about to see a whole bunch of similar and much weirder types of obsolescence.
Right now, Nokia is designing global positioning system receivers into every new mobile phone they plan to sell. GPS receivers in a phone SIM card have been demonstrated. GPS is exploding everywhere. It used to be for navigating battleships; now it's in your pocket, along with a moving map. And GPS is pretty crude - you need open line of sight on the satellites, and the signal's messed up. We can do better than this, and we will. In five years, we'll all have phones that connect physical locations again, instead of (or as well as) people. And we'll be raising a generation of kids who don't know what it is to be lost, to not know where you are and how to get to some desired destination from wherever that is.
Think about that. "Being lost" has been part of the human experience ever since our hominid ancestors were knuckle-walking around the plains of Africa. And we're going to lose it - at least, we're going to make it as unusual an experience as finding yourself out in public without your underpants.
We're also in some danger of losing the concepts of privacy, and warping history out of all recognition.
Our concept of privacy relies on the fact that it's hard to discover information about other people. Today, you've all got private lives that are not open to me. Even those of you with blogs, or even lifelogs. But we're already seeing some interesting tendencies in the area of attitudes to privacy on the internet among young people, under about 25; if they've grown up with the internet they have no expectation of being able to conceal information about themselves. They seem to work on the assumption that anything that is known about them will turn up on the net sooner or later, at which point it is trivially searchable.
Now, in this age of rapid, transparent information retrieval, what happens if you've got a lifelog, registering your precise GPS coordinates and scanning everything around you? If you're updating your whereabouts via a lightweight protocol like Twitter and keeping in touch with friends and associates via a blog? It'd be nice to tie your lifelog into your blog and the rest of your net presence, for your personal convenience. And at first, it'll just be the kids who do this - kids who've grown up with little expectation of or understanding of privacy. Well, it'll be the kids and the folks on the Sex Offenders Register who're forced to lifelog as part of their probation terms, but that's not our problem. Okay, it'll also be people in businesses with directors who want to exercise total control over what their employees are doing, but they don't have to work there ... yet.
You know something? Keeping track of those quaint old laws about personal privacy is going to be really important. Because in countries with no explicit right to privacy - I believe the US constitution is mostly silent on the subject - we're going to end up blurring the boundary between our Second Lives and the first life, the one we live from moment to moment. We're time-binding animals and nothing binds time tighter than a cradle to grave recording of our every moment.
The political hazards of lifelogging are, or should be, semi-obvious. In the short term, we're going to have to learn to do without a lot of bad laws. If it's an offense to pick your nose in public, someone, sooner or later, will write a 'bot to hunt down nose-pickers and refer them to the police. Or people who put the wrong type of rubbish in the recycling bags. Or cross the road without using a pedestrian crossing, when there's no traffic about. If you dig hard enough, everyone is a criminal. In the UK, today, there are only about four million public CCTV surveillance cameras; I'm asking myself, what is life going to be like when there are, say, four hundred million of them? And everything they see is recorded and retained forever, and can be searched retroactively for wrong-doing.
One of the biggest risks we face is that of sleep-walking into a police state, simply by mistaking the ability to monitor everyone for even minute legal infractions for the imperative to do so.
And then there's history.
History today is patchy. I never met either of my grandfathers - both of them died before I was born. One of them I recognize from three photographs; the other, from two photographs and about a minute of cine film. Silent, of course. Going back further, to their parents ... I know nothing of these people beyond names and dates. (They died thirty years before I was born.)
This century we're going to learn a lesson about what it means to be unable to forget anything. And it's going to go on, and on. Barring a catastrophic universal collapse of human civilization - which I should note was widely predicted from August 1945 onward, and hasn't happened yet - we're going to be laying down memories in diamond that will outlast our bones, and our civilizations, and our languages. Sixty kilograms will handily sum up the total history of the human species, up to the year 2000. From then on ... we still don't need much storage, in bulk or mass terms. There's no reason not to massively replicate it and ensure that it survives into the deep future.
And with ubiquitous lifelogs, and the internet, and attempts at providing a unified interface to all interesting information - wikipedia, let's say - we're going to give future historians a chance to build an annotated, comprehensive history of the entire human race. Charting the relationships and interactions between everyone who's ever lived since the dawn of history - or at least, the dawn of the new kind of history that is about to be born this century.
Total history - a term I'd like to coin, by analogy to total war - is something we haven't experienced yet. I'm really not sure what its implications are, but then, I'm one of the odd primitive shadows just visible at one edge of the archive: I expect to live long enough to be lifelogging, but my first forty or fifty years are going to be very poorly documented, mere gigabytes of text and audio to document decades of experience. What I can be fairly sure of is that our descendants' relationship with their history is going to be very different from our own, because they will be able to see it with a level of depth and clarity that nobody has ever experienced before.
Meet your descendants. They don't know what it's like to be involuntarily lost, don't understand what we mean by the word "privacy", and will have access (sooner or later) to a historical representation of our species that defies understanding. They live in a world where history has a sharply-drawn start line, and everything they individually do or say will sooner or later be visible to everyone who comes after them, forever. They are incredibly alien to us.
And yet, these trends are emergent from the current direction of the telecommunications industry, and are likely to become visible as major cultural changes within the next ten to thirty years. None of them require anything but a linear progression from where we are now, in a direction we're already going in. None of them take into account external technological synergies, stuff that's not obviously predictable like brain/computer interfaces, artificial intelligences, or magic wands. I've purposefully ignored discussion of nanotechnology, tissue engineering, stem cells, genomics, proteomics, the future of nuclear power, the future of environmentalism and religion, demographics, our environment, peak oil and our future energy economy, space exploration, and a host of other topics.
David Brin's book "The Transparent Society" makes the case that universal surveillence is a good thing if it is implemented correctly.
This is a tale of two cities. Cities of the near future, say, 20 years from now. Barring something unforeseen, you are apt to live in one of these two places. Your only choice may be which.
At first sight, this pair of near-future municipalities look pretty much alike. Both contain dazzling technological marvels, especially in the realm of electronic media. Both suffer familiar urban quandaries of frustration and decay. If some progress is being made at solving human problems, it is happening gradually. Perhaps some kids seem better educated. The air may be marginally cleaner. People still worry about overpopulation, the environment, and the next international crisis.
None of these features is of interest to us right now, for we have noticed something about both 21st-century cities that is radically different. A trait that marks them distinctly apart from any metropolis of the late 1990s.
Street crime has nearly vanished from both towns. But that is only a symptom, a result. The real change peers down from every lamppost, rooftop, and street sign. Tiny cameras, panning left and right, surveying traffic and pedestrians, observing everything in open view. Have we entered an Orwellian nightmare? Have the burghers of both towns banished muggings at the cost of creating a Stalinist dystopia?
Consider City Number One. In this place, the myriad cameras report their urban scenes straight to Police Central, where security officers use sophisticated image processors to scan for infractions against the public order - or perhaps against an established way of thought. Citizens walk the streets aware that any word or deed may be noted by agents of some mysterious bureau.
Now let's skip across space and time.
At first sight, things seem quite similar in City Number Two. Again, there are ubiquitous cameras, perched on every vantage point. Only here we soon find a crucial difference. The devices do not report to the secret police. Rather, each and every citizen of this metropolis can lift his or her wristwatch/TV and call up images from any camera in town.
Here, a late-evening stroller checks to make sure no one lurks beyond the corner she is about to turn. Over there, a tardy young man dials to see if his dinner date still waits for him by the city hall fountain. A block away, an anxious parent scans the area and finds which way her child has wandered off. Over by the mall, a teenage shoplifter is taken into custody gingerly, with minute attention to ritual and rights, because the arresting officer knows the entire process is being scrutinized by untold numbers who watch intently, lest his neutral professionalism lapse.
In City Two, such microcameras are banned from many indoor places ... except Police Headquarters! There, any citizen may tune in on bookings, arraignments, and especially the camera control room itself, making sure that the agents on duty look out for violent crime - and only crime.
Despite their similarities, these are very different cities. Disparate ways of life representing completely opposite relationships between citizens and their civic guardians. The reader may find both situations somewhat chilling. Both futures may seem undesirable. But can there be any doubt which city we'd rather live in, if these two make up our only choice?
Alas, they may be our only options. For the cameras are on their way, along with data networks that will send myriad images flashing back and forth, faster than thought. In fact, the future has already arrived. ...
Similar ideas are found in Jamais Cascio's "Participatory Panopticon" concept - the modern surveillence state can be rendered harmless (or beneficial) by enabling everyone to access the data - and, more importantly, enabling everyone to participate in recording the data).
Soon -- probably within the next decade, certainly within the next two -- we'll be living in a world where what we see, what we hear, what we experience will be recorded wherever we go. There will be few statements or scenes that will go unnoticed, or unremembered. Our day to day lives will be archived and saved. Whats more, these archives will be available over the net for recollection, analysis, even sharing.
And we will be doing it to ourselves.
This won't simply be a world of a single, governmental Big Brother watching over your shoulder, nor will it be a world of a handful of corporate siblings training their ever-vigilant security cameras and tags on you. Such monitoring may well exist, probably will, in fact, but it will be overwhelmed by the millions of cameras and recorders in the hands of millions of Little Brothers and Little Sisters. We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily.
I call this world the Participatory Panopticon.
The Panopticon was Jeremy Bentham's 18th century model for a prison in which all inmates could be watched at all times. The term has in more recent years come to have a broader meaning, that of a world in which all of us are under constant surveillance. The proliferation of video gear in the hands of governments and corporations feeds a not unreasonable fear of the panopticon. The dramatic reduction in size of video cameras and the addition of tools for digital analysis have further enhanced that fear. (Charlie Stross, in his 2002 essay "The Panopticon Singularity," expands on this notion, spelling out the various new tools for relentless observation.)
But in the world of the participatory panopticon, this constant surveillance is done by the citizens themselves, and is done by choice. It's not imposed on us by a malevolent bureaucracy or faceless corporations. The participatory panopticon will be the emergent result of myriad independent rational decisions, a bottom-up version of the constantly watched society.
This day is coming not because of some distant breakthrough or revolution. The breakthroughs are already happening. The revolution has already taken place. ...
the panopticon aspect is really most visible in the world of politics and activism. In the US, in last November's national election, a group calling itself "video vote vigil" asked citizens to keep a watch for polling place abuses and problems, recording them if possible with digital cameras or camera phones. In the UK, the delightfully-named "Blair Watch Project" was an effort, coordinated by the newspaper The Guardian, to keep tabs on Prime Minister Tony Blair as he campaigns around the country. The project was prompted by the Labour party's decision to limit Blair's media exposure on the trail; instead he was covered by more cameras than ever.
Efforts such as these make it clear that every citizen with a cameraphone can be a reporter. Citizens can capture a politicians inadvertent gesture, quick glance or private frown, and make sure those images are seen around the world. The lack of traditional cameras snapping away can no longer be an opportunity for public figures to relax. All those running for office have to assume that their actions and words are being recorded, even if no cameras are evident, as long as citizens are present.
This notion of individual citizens keeping a technological eye on the people in charge is referred to as "sousveillance," a recent neologism meaning "watching from below" -- in comparison to "surveillance," meaning "watching from above. Proponents of the notion see it as an equalizer, making it possible for individual citizens to keep tabs on those in charge. For the sousveillance movement, if the question is who watches the watchmen? the answer is all of us.
Even if the term sousveillance is recent, the action isnt. An early well-known sousveillance effort -- long pre-dating the term -- is the Witness project. Founded in 1992 by musician Peter Gabriel, Witness has partnered with over 200 human rights groups in 50 countries, supplying video cameras and communication gear to allow people on the scene to document abuses of human rights. Witness attempts to create pressure for change by shining a light on injustice around the world. These are remarkably brave people. If the worst sousveillance supporters in the US may face is being escorted out of a department store, the worst Witness activists might face is torture and death.
But the Witness cameras stand alone; their only connection is via the hand delivery of video tape.
Things change when you can send your exposé over the Internet. Speed and breadth of access are the best allie for transparency, and the Internet has both in abundance. Once damning photos or video have been released onto the web, theres no bringing them back -- efforts to do so are more likely to draw attention to them, in fact. ...
Although the Abu Ghraib pictures were taken with regular digital cameras, they suggest that the effect of cameraphones will prove even more exasperating to those in power. The proliferation of small, easily concealed and readily networked digital cameras can be a headache for those trying to retain some degree of privacy, but theyre a nightmare for those trying to keep hold of some degree of secrecy.
And the value of sousveillance can be demonstrated by actions here in the US, as well.
New York City police arrested nearly two thousand people during last year's Republican National Convention. Protestors were condemned by authorities for "rioting," "resisting arrest," and the like. The city provided video tapes to the press and to the courts taken by police officers that seemed to show protestors out of control. But many arrestees denied that they'd done anything wrong--some even said they were not protesting at all, and were only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But it turned out that the police werent the only ones armed with video cameras. Citizen video efforts (PDF) show people swept up without cause and without resistance. It's become increasingly clear that police officers misrepresented the events at trial, and that prosecutors selectively edited the official video record to prove their cases. According to the New York Times, of the nearly 1,700 cases processed by early April, 91 percent ended with charges dropped or a verdict of not guilty. A startlingly large number of them have involved citizen video showing clearly that the police and prosecutors were lying.
The next time around, dont expect the police to politely ignore citizens with video cameras. Unfortunately, people carrying video cameras, even small ones, are pretty obvious. But people carrying mobile phones are not. Video phones and higher-bandwidth networks will transform activism. The next time around, we'll see the transmission of dozens, hundreds, thousands of different views from marches and protests live over the web.
As the selectively edited RNC protest videos suggest, you cant always trust what you see. But what digital technology taketh away, it also giveth. ...
Clearly, the world of the participatory panopticon is not one of strong privacy and personal secrecy. Paris Hilton is not going to be happy here. Its going to be hard to escape past mistakes. Its going to be easy to find unflattering pictures or insulting observations.
It's a world closer to what author David Brin described as a "transparent society." But even that's not quite right -- in Brin's words, from the Accelerating Change conference this last fall, "a good transparent society is one where most of the people know what's going on most of the time." Its sousveillance coupled with the sense of responsibility arising from knowing just how powerful these tools can be. It's an active phenomenon of strong accountability and unfettered access. The participatory panopticon, conversely, is one of passive engagement, where transparency is an emergent phenomenon coming from connections between myriad independent personal archives.
Also at Accelerating Change, Brad Templeton of the EFF countered Brin's vision with a quote from the Earl of Spencer: "Privacy is what they take away when they want to torture you. And indeed, official misbehavior does seem to go hand in hand with governments that want to know everything and tell you nothing.
But the world of the participatory panopticon is not as interested in privacy, or even secrecy, as it is in lies. A police officer lying about hitting a protestor, a politician lying about human rights abuses, a potential new partner lying about past indiscretions -- all of these are harder in a world where everything might be on the record. The participatory panopticon is a world where accusations can easily be documented, where corporations will become more transparent to stakeholders as a matter of course, where officials may even be required to wear a recorder while on duty, simply to avoid situations where they are discovered to have been lying. It's a world where we can all be witnesses with perfect recall. Ironically, its a world where trust is easy, because lying is hard. ...
Personal memory assistants, always on life recorders, reputation networks and so on -- the pieces of the participatory panopticon -- will thrust us into a world that is both painful and seductive. It will be a world of knowing that someone may always be recording your actions. It will be a world where official misbehavior will be ever more difficult to hide. It will be a world where your relationships are tested by relentless honesty. It will be a world where you will never worry about forgetting a name, or a number, or a face. It will be a world in which it is difficult or even impossible to hide. It will be a world where youll never again lose a fleeting moment of unexpected beauty.
Random Signal has a good podcast featuring Cory Doctorow called "From MySpace to Homeland Security: Privacy and the Totalitarian Urge" which talks about the transparent society - like others, Cory points out that the problem with this vision is power imbalances, with the powerful more able to use and abuse the surveillence systems than the non-powerful. He prefers to retain privacy, using technologies like Tr, which I'll touch on later. The podcast also features some great lines about America turning into a "snitch nation" and Disney training kids to live in a police state.
Amor Mundi has a longish criticism of Brin and the Transparent Society idea that makes a similar point.
As The Transparent Society is drawing to its close, David Brin retells the ancient Greek story of a “farmer, Akademos, who did a favor for the sun god.” Given the theme for which the tale will be meant to be illustrative here, it is interesting to note, as Brin does not, that the “favor” in question was the revelation to the divine twins Castor and Pollux of the secret location where their sister Helen had been hidden by Theseus. Akademos was something of a whistle-blower. In any case, in return for this favor, “the mortal was granted a garden wherein he could say anything he wished, even [engage in] criticism of the mighty Olympians, without retribution.” Brin goes on to muse, “I have often… wonder[ed] how Akademos could ever really trust Apollo’s promise. After all, the storied Greek deities were notoriously mercurial, petty, and vengeful…”
It isn’t exactly surprising to discover that Brin proposes as the resolution of his perplexity here that “there were only two ways Akademos could truly be protected,” and that these two exclusive possibilities will restage yet again the either/or that has structured the whole of his book.
“First,” he writes, “Apollo might set up impregnable walls around the glade…” Here, Apollo functions as the concentration of “centralized” authority, a divine Big Brother, Brin’s authoritarian “either,” as it were. But in this variation, this particular figuration of the one horn of the Brinian dilemma manages to evoke as well the Cypherpunk strategy of “strong privacy” against which he has also taken pains to distinguish himself over the course of the hundreds of pages that separate these concluding moves from his opening ones. And so, when he announces that “[a]las, the garden wouldn’t be very pleasant after that, and Akademos would have few visitors to talk to,” it is clear he means to denigrate the rather antisocial vision of the Cypherpunks and their fellow travelers quite as much as he would warn about the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance under authoritarian control (a concern he would share with market libertarians like the Cypherpunks and with most civil libertarians alike).
As for the Brinian “or” that yearns to nudge us over to an embrace of transparency, he writes: “The alternative was to empower Akademos, somehow to enforce the god’s promise. For this some equalizing factor was needed to make them keep their word…”
“That equalizing factor,” writes Brin, “could only be knowledge.”
But it is always right to ask after any blandly general claim to “knowledge,” not only knowledge of what? but knowledge for whom? knowledge to what purpose? And just so, it is difficult likewise not to wonder why knowledge of all things would be expected by anybody to be always an equalizer in fact, rather than, at least sometimes, an expression of and even the exacerbation of inequalities and the different desires they inspire. It is a truism to identify knowledge with power, and Foucault for one goes so far as to simply collapse the terms into the unlovely power/knowledge to drive the point home to those who would conveniently disremember it or disavow its entailments. Among these, wherever power is unequal it is hard to imagine what passes for knowledge will not likewise be, or the differential impact of its deployments by the powerful either.
Recall that Brin proposes in formulations early on in his book that those who shrink from the scrutiny of the powerful are engaged in more than a project rendered hopelessly quixotic by developmental urgencies he takes to be “inevitable” ones, but in a rather nefarious sort of project as well. Those who would curtail the scrutiny of the powerful in particular seem for Brin to hanker after the veiling or blunting or even blinding of some more generalized and congenial “seeing” to which we all might uniformly avail ourselves, at any rate in some ideal sense.
So too these later claims about a neutral and uniformly available “knowing” or “knowledge” of a world of natural fact underwrite as much as anything else Brin’s otherwise altogether counterintuitive confidence in a version of ubiquitous surveillance that would be immune to the worst political abuses and likely instead to be socially beneficial to all so long as it universally accessible. It is only because the facts of the world are apparently so stable or even manifest for Brin, so long as they are not distorted by the malice, errors, desires, or delusions of this or that misguided few, that he can imagine that a more collective recourse to the evidence gathered and distributed by ubiquitous surveillance could thereby police itself, would manage to stabilize without undue interference into an account that at once bespeaks righteousness and solicits consensus, would effloresce into yet another manifestation of the libertopian dream of spontaneous order.
“[M]ost honorable people,” after all, Brin assures us, “have little to fear if others know a great deal about them, so long as it goes both ways.” It is difficult to find such complacent reassurances anything but chilling to the bone. When has “honor” of all things ever secured for anybody a comfortable immunity from the depredations of the unscrupulous or the powerful? And who determines what will constitute an “honorable person” in the first place? Who determines just which conducts best bespeak the relative presence or absence of this exculpatory “honorableness” in some people more than others? Why would anybody expect the disbursal of even a knowledge that flows “both ways” between the relatively more and relatively less powerful to suffuse evenly and neutrally among the knowledgeable, and not to be prejudicially articulated by the self-interested ruses and strategies of the powerful themselves like everything else is?
The very metaphor of “transparency” itself for Brin amounts to the conjuration of a curiously clear-eyed, collective apprehension of the world implemented through ubiquitous surveillance technologies. Indeed, it is fair to wonder whether Brin’s evocation of “transparency” even counts finally as a formulation of surveillance at all. Surveillance is, after all, in Brin’s own terms, an “overlooking from above.” And it is unclear how a uniformly suffusing transparency could admit to the distributional unevenness of an up or a down and still remain, strictly speaking, a transparency.
In “Three Cheers for the Surveillance Society,” Brin mentions the work of Steve Mann (perhaps not exactly approvingly, calling him “radical and polemical”), a media performance artist and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto. When Brin goes on to offer up Mann’s work as an example of “reciprocal transparency” it is not clear to me whether or not he quite grasps the differences between his own vision of “transparency,” and Mann’s invocation of a "panopdecon" in which we speak truth to powers while at once testifying to our immersion and negotiations within them. In Brin’s cheerful interpretation, Steve Mann “prov[es] that we are sovereign and alert citizens down here, not helpless sheep. Mann contends that private individuals will be empowered… by new senses, dramatically augmented by wearable electronic devices.”
In fact, Mann counterposes to “surveillance” a host of interventions he describes instead as “sousveillance,” or scrutiny from below, conceived very much as matters of talking back to, offering critiques of, and coping with the complexities of emerging surveillance techniques. Sometimes satirical, sometimes defensive, sometimes documentary, sometimes amounting to direct political action, almost all of these sousveillant inverventions make use of ingenious original or reappropriated prosthetics, wearable computers, monitors, cameras, interfaces, displays. Like the activists of Project WITNESS and others who are struggling in this moment to provide cameras and other documentary technologies to especially vulnerable people, Mann’s sousveillance can scarcely be assimilated to a broader narrative in which “cameras” diffusely and indifferently accumulate to testify to manifest and hence, somehow, self-regulatory truths. Sousveillance, like surveillance, is neither the expression of a uniform and monolithically overbearing power nor an avenue toward the emancipatory circumvention of such a power, but a tactic of power in its particularity, deployed by variously constituted powers, immersed in the ongoing play of power.
For Brin, enhanced observation paired (via the very same surveillance and media tools) with universal accountability would body forth the facts themselves in a luminosity that burns away the public realm as any kind of space of ineradicable or interminable contestation quite as much as it would obliterate privacy in its glare. In this, Brin’s “transparency” is more than notionally correlated to the perfectly controlled discretionary opacity of the Cypherpunk’s “strong privacy” against which it would array itself. Both seek to implement a comparable ideal evacuation of the agonistic public through recourse to certain new tools on which their advocates have fixated their own attentions in a lingering fascination they have possibly mistaken for the tracking of developmental inevitabilities.
“I never promised a road map to a transparent utopia,” writes Brin a few pages later. “My main task was… to criticize… an appealing but wrongheaded mythology: that you can enduringly protect freedom, personal safety, and even privacy by preventing other people from knowing things.” But surely what worries many skeptics and critics of emerging regimes of ubiquitous surveillance is not so much that unspecified “other people” will “know things,” likewise unspecified, about them, as Brin would apparently have it.
Critics of surveillance worry, to the contrary, that some information-gatherers will mistake what they know for knowing everything, knowing enough, knowing what to do “about us” with whatever knowledges they have gleaned. They worry that some information-gatherers will be better empowered to make use of personal information than others. They worry that some information will be more prone to abuse than others. They worry, of course, that the selective gathering and deployment of personal information could too easily facilitate exploitation by replacing persons with profiles compiled by others with particular interests in mind and particular powers in hand. ...
Bruce Schneier often writes about privacy issues, with this article on "The Value Of Privacy" being a good summary of his views.
Last week, revelation of yet another NSA surveillance effort against the American people has rekindled the privacy debate. Those in favor of these programs have trotted out the same rhetorical question we hear every time privacy advocates oppose ID checks, video cameras, massive databases, data mining, and other wholesale surveillance measures: "If you aren't doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?"
Some clever answers: "If I'm not doing anything wrong, then you have no cause to watch me." "Because the government gets to define what's wrong, and they keep changing the definition." "Because you might do something wrong with my information." My problem with quips like these -- as right as they are -- is that they accept the premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong. It's not. Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.
Two proverbs say it best: Quis custodiet custodes ipsos? ("Who watches the watchers?") and "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Cardinal Richelieu understood the value of surveillance when he famously said, "If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged." Watch someone long enough, and you'll find something to arrest -- or just blackmail -- with. Privacy is important because without it, surveillance information will be abused: to peep, to sell to marketers and to spy on political enemies -- whoever they happen to be at the time.
Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we're doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.
We do nothing wrong when we make love or go to the bathroom. We are not deliberately hiding anything when we seek out private places for reflection or conversation. We keep private journals, sing in the privacy of the shower, and write letters to secret lovers and then burn them. Privacy is a basic human need.
A future in which privacy would face constant assault was so alien to the framers of the Constitution that it never occurred to them to call out privacy as an explicit right. Privacy was inherent to the nobility of their being and their cause. Of course being watched in your own home was unreasonable. Watching at all was an act so unseemly as to be inconceivable among gentlemen in their day. You watched convicted criminals, not free citizens. You ruled your own home. It's intrinsic to the concept of liberty. ...
And to close off this little section on the benefits of transparency versus those of privacy, here's a look at the lack of either in the present world from the "International Campaign Against Mass Surveillance" on "10 Signposts: The Emergence of a Global Infrastructure For Mass Registration and Surveillance".
Global security and the "war on terror" now dominate the global political agenda. Driven largely by the United States, a growing web of anti-terrorism and security measures are being adopted by nations around the world. This new "security" paradigm is being used to roll back freedom and increase police powers in order to exercise increasing control over individuals and populations.
Within this context, governments have begun to construct, through numerous initiatives, what amounts to a global registration and surveillance infrastructure. This infrastructure would ensure that populations around the world are registered, that travel is tracked globally, that electronic communications and transactions can be easily monitored, and that all the information that is collected in public and private databases about individuals is stored, linked, data-mined, and made available to state security agents.
The object of the infrastructure is not ordinary police work, but mass surveillance of entire populations. In its technological capacity and global reach, it is an unprecedented project of social control. Already, the United States and other countries are aggressively using information gathered and shared through this infrastructure to crack down on dissent, close borders to refugees and activists, and seize and detain people without reasonable grounds.
And, all of this is taking place at a time when the U.S. and its allies are maintaining a system of secret and extraterritorial prisons around the world, in which unknown numbers of prisoners are facing indefinite, arbitrary detention and torture.
It is time for the public to take stock of the road that governments are leading us down with these new registration and surveillance initiatives. The ten "signposts" described below show just how far down the road we have already traveled, and the dangers that lie ahead for all of us if we fail to make governments turn back.
1st Signpost: The Registration of Populations
The first signpost on the road governments are leading us down was the effort by the United States after September 2001 to register male non-citizens from designated countries, and then all foreigners traveling to the U.S., and similar efforts by the European Union to register immigrants and travelers.
In the United States, this happened under two programs called NSEERS and US-VISIT.
* NSEERS. Under NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System), male non-citizens over the age of 16 from designated (mostly Muslim) countries were required to register with the federal government. The more than 80,000 individuals who registered reported many stories of harassment, insult, and rough treatment. NSEERS resulted in more than 13,000 people being put into deportation hearings and thousands more fleeing the country in fear.
* US-VISIT. NSEERS was eventually phased out, but that has hardly resulted in an end to the registration of foreigners; it was replaced by another program called US-VISIT, under which all visitors (except some Mexicans and most Canadians) are to be digitally photographed and fingerprinted upon or prior to their entry into the United States. This data will not be used merely for authentication checks, but will be linked to over 20 U.S. federal government databases as well as to unknown other sources of information. Combined with that data, the US-VISIT biometric data will form the seed of a vast new system of dossiers on international travelers.
In Europe, similar registration and data linkage is occurring with the creation of the new EU Visa Information System (VIS) and an EU-wide foreigners' register:
* EU-VIS. Under the new EU VIS system, the information on every visa application to the 25 EU member states, including the photographs and fingerprints of individuals, will be recorded in a central database. These records will be accessible to law enforcement and security agencies across the EU.
* EU-wide foreigners' register". Additionally, registers of all legally resident third-country nationals are being created through the "harmonization" of residence permits in the EU member states. This data will be stored in a central EU database. An automated procedure will link this database and the new EU VIS database to other EU databases.
2nd Signpost: The Creation of a Global Identification System
The second signpost is what amounts to the domestic counterpart of the registration of foreigners: the creation by governments of an international identity card system for citizens.
National ID cards - and more significantly, the databases that lie behind them - not only provide a means of registering domestic populations, but they also provide a centralized, standardized means for tracking people as they go about routine life activities. In many democracies, the idea of a national identity card has been anathema due to its strong association with police states. Although some democracies have national identification cards, in most of these systems, the kind of information linked to the card is limited, and access is restricted to domestic officials for specific purposes.
Since September 2001, many countries around the globe have started or intensified efforts to institute national ID databases; countries that already have national IDs are in many cases exploring ways of extending their capabilities and their use.
But overtaking this trend is the emergence of a new identity tool that is being implemented in all countries: the "globally interoperable biometric passport." Based on an international standard created at the urging of the United States, nations around the world are in various stages of adopting passports that contain biometrics such as digital photographs and fingerprints, as well as RFID chips capable of broadcasting that information to anyone with an reader. The United States has informed its allies that if they do not adopt these passports, their citizens will no longer be permitted to enter the U.S. without a visa.
The upshot is that individuals around the world are being issued computerized identity documents, and entered into identity databases in their own and other countries, setting the stage for the mass, routinized surveillance of individuals' movements.
3rd Signpost: The Creation of an Infrastructure for the Global Surveillance of Movement
The third signpost is the creation of a global infrastructure for the surveillance of movement. Not only are the authorities of many nations well on the way toward constructing checkpoints and databases to track individuals' movements using their national identity documents and/or biometric passports, they are also seeking direct access to airlines' passenger name records (PNR).
PNR is the information kept in air travel reservation systems. It can include over 60 fields of information, including the name and address of the traveler, the address of the person with whom the traveler will stay, the trip itinerary, the date the ticket was purchased, credit card information, the seat number, meal choices (which can reveal religious or ethnic affiliation), medical information, behavioral information, and frequent-flyer information.
The United States government, in particular, has demanded access to this information, forcing airlines to turn it over even when it would violate the privacy laws that protect passengers in the European Union and other nations around the globe. After extended negotiations, the U.S. succeeded in pressuring EU officials to betray their own privacy principles and enter into a formal agreement with the U.S. giving it access to European PNR. The European Union, meanwhile, has decided to set-up its own PNR system to record the movement of everyone traveling in and out of the EU.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN body, is currently considering a harmonized data format for PNR, encouraging states around the world to establish their own PNR systems and to share data globally. Information about where individuals fly, and how often (together with very personal information such as ethnicity and hotel sleeping arrangements), will be tracked, stored, and shared between countries, and used to regulate and control the movement of people across borders.
4th Signpost: The Creation of an Infrastructure for the Global Surveillance of Electronic Communications and Financial Transactions
The fourth signpost is the creation of an infrastructure for the global surveillance of electronic communications and financial transactions. That includes a number of developments, including:
* Expanded legal authorities for eavesdropping. Through measures such as the American "Patriot Act," the United States as well as other nations around the world have responded to the events of September 11 by expanding government powers to read e-mail and eavesdrop on conversations and other electronic communications, and by weakening judicial oversight over those powers.
* Expanded private-sector requirements. Governments are also imposing more requirements on companies and other private-sector entities to ensure that surveillance is technically possible and easy to do. Some governments are claiming they must introduce these requirements to comply with the Convention on Cybercrime - a treaty that has been pushed by the United States since 9/11 and would give the authorities broad new powers to investigate computer-related crime across national borders.
* Mandatory "data retention": Governments, particularly those in Europe, are also pushing for "mandatory data retention," under which all communications service providers will be required to save and store data on their consumers that they would otherwise erase in accordance with privacy laws. The EU is currently discussing binding legislation that will require the mandatory retention of all telephone, e-mail, fax and internet traffic data for up to three years.
* The expansion of ECHELON. A shadowy and little-understood international surveillance program codenamed Echelon soaks up much of the world's electronic communications. A partnership between the United States, the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, Echelon allows each country to avoid domestic judicial oversight over surveillance by asking the others to spy on its citizens. With new requirements in many countries regarding the retention and collection of data, far more information will presumably be available to Echelon in the future.
* Tracking and reporting of financial transactions. New laws around the world enlist financial institutions and ordinary businesses into a financial-surveillance infrastructure under the justification of stopping money-laundering and the financing of terrorism. For example:
- A post-9/11 U.N. Security Council resolution requires all states to prohibit their citizens from making funds or services available to terrorists - a mandate that all but requires mass surveillance of economic activity.
- In the United States, the "Patriot Act" has built up a vast legal-bureaucratic machinery for the systematic gathering and analysis of financial transactions.
- The FATF (Financial Action Task Force), a multilateral policy-making body with 31 member countries, has extended its mandate from money-laundering to terrorist financing, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has followed suit.
Through these initiatives, state agents from around the world are rapidly gaining direct, cost-free access to every e-mail and phone call made, every website visited, and every financial transaction conducted. Charities and NGOs working in conflict zones, or with links to Arab and Muslim communities, are already experiencing the chill of this new infrastructure.
5th Signpost: The Convergence of National and International Databases
The fifth signpost is a development that feeds into all of the others: the convergence of diverse databases -government and private-sector, nationally and internationally. This trend is happening on many different levels. Examples include:
* The U.S. effort to tie over 20 different government databases into the US-VISIT system
* The collection and conglomeration of personal information about U.S. citizens and the citizens of other countries by giant corporate data brokers in the U.S. and the purchase of this data by dozens of U.S. government agencies
* The tying together of numerous government and private-sector data sources into a single comprehensive view by programs like the one called "the MATRIX" in the U.S., which is then made available to police across the country
The convergence of data from different sources into single centralized (or distributed but centrally accessible) databases turns data collection into full-fledged surveillance by providing ever-more-comprehensive records of individuals' activities across time. The result is a global web of databases that will be used by the U.S. and other countries (in conjunction with the infrastructures for the global surveillance of movement and of electronic and financial transactions) to generate detailed dossiers on everyone.
6th Signpost: The Spread of the "Risk Assessment" Model
The sixth signpost is the spread of a "risk assessment" paradigm that is driving the collection, storage and linkage of so much information. Under this approach to security, personal information is collected en masse about individuals so that a judgment can be made about their "trustworthiness" or risk to security. Instead of focusing on time-honored techniques of working outward from known facts and suspected wrongdoers, the risk assessment approach seeks to subject everyone to scrutiny, in the hopes of combing wrongdoers out of the crowd.
The high tech approach to sorting for "risk" through the ocean of information that is being collected by mass surveillance, is to use computer "data mining" programs that search for suspicious patterns of activity. This is like looking for a needle in an ocean of needle haystacks. Not surprisingly, these programs yield alarmingly high error rates - not only in the innocent people they flag as "dangerous", but in the dangerous people they fail to flag. The low tech approach to risk assessment is to have human beings making on the spot judgments about who they think presents a "risk" to society. But since human beings are encouraged to err on the side of caution and disregard the welfare of the individuals involved, the stories of innocent people being wrongly assessed in this way are mounting.
Risk assessment has truly Kalfkaesque implications because the criteria used for making judgments are vague or undisclosed and the information used is often inaccurate or incomplete. Innocent individuals who are labeled security risks under the risk assessment model are usually given no indication of why that label was applied and how they can remove it.
7th Signpost: Security-Force Integration and the Loss of Sovereign Checks and Balances
The seventh signpost is the deep integration of countries' police, security, intelligence, and military establishments, and the concomitant abandonment of national sovereignty and control. Examples of this trend include:
* Mounting stories showing the inability of governments to protect their own citizens when they are wrongly caught up in the global security net, as in the case where the Canadian government tried to obtain the release of a Canadian citizen whom the U.S. had rendered to Syria, or the case where the Swedes tried to have some of their citizens' names removed from U.N. terrorist list and had to negotiate with the U.S. ...
8th Signpost: The Corporate Security Complex
The eighth signpost is the creation of a new "corporate security complex." In the computer age, an ever-larger proportion of our activities are being tracked and recorded by private companies, and that information is increasingly available to governments. Government powers to demand access to such data are being expanded, but many businesses are also voluntarily selling databases and other services to government agencies.
For technology and data companies, the "war on terror" has opened up a new government customer base. For government security and intelligence agencies, left searching for a raison d'être after the end of the Cold War, the "war on terror" has offered an unprecedented opportunity to increase its investigative and surveillance powers. This new corporate security complex has become an aggressive driver of the global surveillance project.
Multinational corporations based in the U.S, Western Europe and Asia are poised to make huge profits from the global market for databases, biometric readers, data mining programs and other new technologies of control.
The EU has established a new "security research agenda", intended to make the EU the rival of the U.S. in security technology. One of its objectives is to break down the barrier between civil and military research so that both can serve military, economic and foreign policy ends. Canada, too, has channeled billions into surveillance and security technology. The major surveillance projects undertaken by the United States such as the U.S. VISIT, MATRIX, CAPPS II and Terrorism Information Awareness programs, have offered a veritable goldmine of business opportunities to technology companies. Corporations have been quick to seek relationships with security apparatuses in these countries and elsewhere and to peddle more and more intrusive technologies of control.
9th Signpost: The Erosion of Democratic Values
The ninth signpost is the dismaying betrayal of democratic values by the government of the United States and other democracies as they move to implement the global surveillance project. In order to achieve their ends, governments have:
* suspended judicial oversight over law enforcement agents and public officials
* concentrated unprecedented power in the hands of the executive arm of government
* circumvented the democratic oversight and debate normally provided by the legislative arm of government by imposing policy through unelected, unaccountable transnational bodies
* steamrolled over well-established privacy protections for citizens
* ignored constitutional guarantees and rolled back criminal law and due process protections that balance the rights of individuals against the power of the state (such as the presumption of innocence, habeas corpus, attorney-client privilege, public trials, the right to know the evidence against one and to respond, reasonable grounds for search and seizure, and the right to remain silent)
* undermined freedom of expression and association
Where mass registration and surveillance measures have been adopted by repressive regimes, they have bolstered or worsened the status quo. The example set by Western nations allows governments in less democratic countries to consolidate their grip on power and gives them a green light to commit human rights and other abuses.
10th Signpost: Rendition, Torture, Death
The tenth signpost is the loss of moral compass on the part of the United States and other countries that hold themselves out as defenders of human rights as they have begun to embrace inhumane and exceptional practices of social control. It is now clear that the U.S. and other countries are engaging in torture, inhumane treatment and indefinite detention of detainees in the "war on terror" in their own facilities, as well as sending suspects to third countries where they face similar or worse abuses. The worst that individuals have to fear from the global surveillance system is something far darker than mere loss of privacy, civil liberties, or freedom of movement.
The United States is operating a system of prison camps and detention centers around the world that remains largely unseen by the world. ... The sordid record of torture, extra-legal renditions, and even extra-judicial killing amount to betrayal of democratic values and of civilization itself.
When one examines all of the developments described above, it becomes apparent that the road toward a global infrastructure for mass registration and surveillance is a dangerous one, both for our personal and our collective security.
The initiatives described in this report are not effective in flagging terrorists or stopping their determined plans. They divert crucial resources away from the kind of investments in human intelligence we need to give us good intelligence about specific threats, rather than useless information on the nearly 100 percent of the population that poses no threat whatsoever. They alienate the very communities from whom intelligence agencies need assistance in order to obtain good intelligence. They do nothing to address the root causes of terrorism. Far from making us personally safer, they weaken the democratic institutions and individual protections upon which citizens' security depend. Far from making the world a safer place to live in, they exacerbate global insecurity. Their unjust targeting of Muslims and the brutal, lawless treatment meted out in the global network of detention camps described above engender hatred against Western countries and their partners, fomenting only more fanatical oppositions and terrorism.
We are less safe with mass registration and surveillance, not more.
An online music company that some of my friends use called Pandora that does a sophisticated form of internet radio they call the "Music Genome Project" recently had to block off access to everyone outside a select group of countries (basically the US, UK and Canada). They are also having trouble remaining in business at all courtesy of harsh copyright and licencing conditions, which was explained on Neofiles recently. The sudden shut-off to foreigners prompted a little discussion of how to get around their geo-location algorithims - with anonymous proxies (the modern day equivalent of the old cypherpunk "anonymous remailers" idea) seeming to be the obvious solution. The idea of using "Tor" also came up, though I suspect you would still be gambling on the Tor endpoint your request comes out of being located in one of the chosen countries.
Tor is a more sophisticated implementation of the anonymous proxy server idea - Ethan Zuckermann explains how to set it up in "Anonymous Blogging with Wordpress and Tor".
One of the great joys of working on Global Voices has been having the chance to work with people who are expressing themselves despite powerful forces working to keep them silent. I’ve worked with a number of authors who’ve wanted to write about politicial or personal matters online, but who felt they couldn’t write online unless they could ensure that their writing couldn’t be traced to their identity. These authors include human rights activists in dozens of nations, aid workers in repressive countries as well as whistleblowers within companies and governments.
I wrote a technical guide to anonymous blogging some months back and posted it on Global Voices, outlining several different methods for blogging anonymously. Since then, I’ve led workshops in different corners of the world and have gotten comfortable teaching a particular set of tools - Tor, Wordpress and various free email accounts - which used in combination can provide a very high level of anonymity. The guide that follows below doesn’t offer you any options - it just walks you through one particular solution in detail. ...
Tor is a very sophisticated network of proxy servers. Proxy servers request a web page on your behalf, which means that the web server doesn’t see the IP address of the computer requesting the webpage. When you access Tor, you’re using three different proxy servers to retrieve each webpage. The pages are encrypted in transit between servers, and even if one or two of the servers in the chain were compromised, it would be very difficult to see what webapge you were retrieving or posting to. ...
Boing Boing has a comprehensive list of lots of options for defeating censorware.
If your employer or corrupt, undemocratic, dictator-based government uses a filtering service such as Secure Computing's SmartFilter to block access to BoingBoing.net -- or anything else online -- you can try the following workarounds:
* Distributed BoingBoing mirrors everything on BoingBoing.net at random IP addresses to foil filters.
* Read "Technical Ways to Get Around Censorship," a helpful primer from Reporters Without Borders: Link.
* Google can act as a lightweight, proxy-like tool for accessing forbidden sites -- but don't rely on this method for anonymity. Link.
* The popular RSS reader Bloglines can offer lightweight help in some cases, too. Boing Boing reader Tom says, "I work for a BIG financial services company that apparently uses (not-so-) SmartFilter because BoingBoing has recently become a forbidden site. I use Bloglines as my RSS reader so that I can access the blogs I read from work and home. It turns out that Bloglines is acting as sort of a proxy, since it connects to your RSS feed and not my computer, I'm still able to read BoingBoing at work. Since you publish the full text of your entries in your feeds I'm not missing much, though any photos linked directly from your site are edited out."
* A group called Peacefire created proxy software called Circumventor to bypass censorware. Install this software on your home computer and allow others to use your proxy to access the web, or use your proxy from work or school to access any web site. (Thanks, Sean!)
* Bennett Haselton of Peacefire, who developed Circumventor, says:
"For 90% of users in the USA affected by SmartFilter, there is no reason to use anything but Circumventor. The reasons are:
1) It's simple to set up. Just run three simple point-and-click installers. We even have a wizard that comes up automatically to help you set up port forwarding on your router if you've never done it before.
2) You are not required to install anything on the "censored" computer, you just bring a URL in with you to work.
3) It works even if the censored network blocks direct connections to IP addresses outside the network (which would break some of the other solutions recommended in this guide).
"If you're in Iran, Saudi Arabia, or some other country censored by SmartFilter, then your best choices are (a) TOR, or (b) use a Circumventor if you can get someone in a "free country" to set one up for you. (The reason Circumventor works for 90% of workplace-filtered users in the U.S. is that they can almost always set it up on their home computer and take the URL in with them. But not everybody in a censored *country* has someone outside who can help them.)
"Circumventor is the *only* method (as far as I know) that will work reliably on computers where people are blocked from installing their own software (or even changing proxy settings) -- because after you install it on your home computer, all it gives you is a URL, and you can take that URL in with you to work and use it whenever you want. Many people in workplaces and libraries are blocked from installing software on their computers. Or even if they could, it would be a definite 'smoking gun' if anyone noticed that the software had been installed; whereas our software leaves fewer traces. (There is a 'smoking gun' in the form of a URL in the URL history, but that's much less likely to be noticed than a TOR icon on your desktop!)"
* Rich says, "This cgi-bin script is the guts inside Peacefire's Circumventor - a Perl CGI script that proxys for you. While Circumventor is a full script to get it working under Win2k/XP, the cgiproxy script alone lets you get it going on Linux and (presumeably) Mac OSX. And the best part - the setup is dirt simple - if you're already running a web server, pretty much just drop it in your cgi-bin directory.
* Access the TOR network. The more people who run Tor servers, the faster and more anonymous the network becomes.
* Using an SSH tunnel, VPN, or anonymous overlay to an unfiltered network is widely considered to be the best way to protect yourself while accessing "prohibited" content. (Thanks, chris)
* Chris says, "There is a new option in OpenSSH that allows for ethernet level tunneling using the kernel's TUN interface. This is probably the most powerful solution if you have access to a friendly system to use as the end point of the tunnel. Manual for ssh, see -w option: Link. For ssh_config, see Tunnel option: Link. And one more way to use SSH as a tunnel is to with SOCKS: Link. osx example script: Link.
* Breaking out of a Proxy Jail. Link (Thanks, Mutz!)
* Try Daveproxy, and other services listed on the proxy list at samair.ru/proxy together with AntiFirewall (a small app that tests proxies). (Thanks, Joao Barata!)
* Try Java Anonymous Proxy. JAP uses the TOR network, and installation is pretty easy for non-nerds. (Thanks, Jonas)
* The Bitty browser, while not initially designed as an anonymizing tool, has helped some of our readers work around corporate internet filters. (Thanks, Scott Matthews!)
* Some of our readers have found the Coral Content Distribution Network (CCDN) helpful for evading internet blocks. Just add ".nyud.net:8090" at the end of boingboing.net -- for example, instead of typing http://www.boingboing.net to your browser's address line, instead type http://www.boingboing.net.nyud.net:8090. If port 8090 is blocked for some reason, the Coral Cache also functions on port 8080. Or, try adding .cob-web.org:8888 to the URL if the Coral Cache is blocked, for an alternate cache network. (Thanks, BeHE, Tian and Michael!)
* Check out the regularly updated list of public proxy servers at publicproxyservers.com. ...
Kevin at Cryptogon isn't entirely convinced about the anonymity provided by Tor, with a tinfoil tale about someone attempting to monitor the Tor network along with a general introduction to online anonymity and how hard it is to achieve it in "High-Traffic Colluding Tor Routers in Washington, D.C., and the Ugly Truth About Online Anonymity".
I need to get this off my chest, once and for all, because people, who don’t know much about computers, are being bombarded with nonsense, and they’re bombarding me with nonsense as a result. I want a single post that goes all the way, and this is it.
“Have you heard about Tor?” I am routinely asked via clear text email.
Yes, I know about Tor, but we need to take a much closer look at what remaining anonymous online really requires.
First of all, since this is a long post, I don’t want to waste your time. If you’re a computer expert or network engineer, etc. you will already know this stuff. If, however, you’re a casual computer user who doesn’t know much about the underlying principles of information systems, this will be way over your head. If you’re a casual computer user who is thinking about anonymity online, this article might be useful for letting you know some more about what you don’t know.
A lot of times, ignorant people refer to things they don’t understand as “tinfoil.” (The gatekeeper Left loves this term.) What follows, however, is so far out that it seems like tinfoil even to me. But then again, I haven’t been targeted by a death squad for my activities online, like some people are in many countries around the world. So, is it tinfoil? For you, maybe. For people struggling against repressive regimes, maybe not.
When I use the term “tinfoil” below, I’m not making fun of you, I’m making fun of myself, and the roles I’ve had to play in corporate IT departments. You don’t know tinfoil unless you’ve worked in a corporate IT department. Corporate IT is a technocratic pyramid built on paranoia, surveillance and fiefdoms of specialized knowledge and privileges (rights and permissions). Since all modern fascist organizations are essentially the same, I hope that my grim experiences within these organizations will help you understand more about the nature of the dire situation that we’re all facing.
If you think that you’re thinking outside of the box, my main purpose in writing this is to inform you that there are actually boxes within boxes, and that if you plan on engaging an opponent as powerful as the American Corporate State (or any other maniac fascist regime), it’s not going to be easy. I don’t know how many boxes within boxes there are. What I do know is that the U.S. Department of Defense built the underlying technologies that make the Internet possible. They built “this” world.
So, you want to be anonymous in a world that was thought up by the U.S. Department of Defense?
Most computer users don’t have what it takes, in terms of technical skills, or discipline, to pull it off. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but it’s absolutely true. I’m not claiming to be any kind of expert at all. If knowledge of computers and networks represented all the grains of sand on a beach, I’d say that I was familiar with about 5 of those grains of sand. I would like to hear from people who know more than me about any flaws in this information.
A long time ago, as a sort of theoretical challenge to myself, I tried to define a reliable protocol for remaining anonymous online. Why? Ask any nerd, “Why?” and the nerd will usually respond: “Why not?” If the nerd is unusually honest, he or she might respond, “Because I can’t help it.” So, somewhere between, “Why not?” and “Because I couldn’t help it,” I set out on this quest.
As you might already know, I studied information warfare in college and I did several years of time in corporate IT environments. I knew about the types of surveillance and control that are possible at the client, server and network levels.
I looked at the challenge as all IT people look at all IT related challenges: Assume the absolute worst.
I went even further with this. I made irrationally negative assumptions.
I assumed that everything I did online was compromised. I assumed the worst tinfoil nightmares about commercial operating systems. I assumed that my ISP was a subsidiary of the NSA, etc.
Got the idea?
Let’s look at each level in a bit more detail (in no particular order):
Servers: Potential Honeypots
Many technologies that amateur anonymity fetishists are attracted to are actually designed to harvest information. Put yourself in the shoes of the NSA. If you wanted a concentrated haul of the most interesting information what would you do?
You would establish a honeypot: a service (free or paid) that purported to provide an anonymous web browsing/email capability. Who knows what people might get up to if they thought nobody was looking? That, of course, is the idea with honeypots.
If you’re relying on a proxy server, how will you know that it’s not simply recording your entire session for examination by acreages of the Homeland’s supercomputers that are running advanced statistical Magic 8 Ball algorithms? Because the company or individual providing your proxy service says that they don’t keep logs? HA
Am I saying that all proxies are run by the NSA. No. Am I saying that some number of them are. I’d bet my life on it. How many of them are run by governments? I don’t know. Unless you know which governments are running which proxies, you must assume that all of them are compromised.
In reality, the NSA would probably be the least of your worries when using a proxy server or open base station.
Nerds with too much time on their hands get up to all kinds nonsense. Do they set up anonymous proxy servers and open base stations just to see what people do with them? Yes. Do criminals do it to find out personal information about you? Yes.
So even if the proxy or base station you’re on isn’t run by the NSA, who is running it? And why?
Maybe you’re eLitE and use several proxies. You can probably assume that the proxies aren’t colluding directly, but what about the networks? Which leads us to the next level…
Networks: If You Feel Like You’re Being Watched, It’s Because You Are
The network providers are keeping end to end records of every session. The question is: Are the network providers colluding with the U.S. Government? Since you can’t assume that they’re not, you must assume that they are. I would assume that the U.S. Government has end to end coverage of every IP session that starts and ends on U.S. networks. With corporate collusion and off the shelf hardware and software, this isn’t a stretch at all. ...
Access the Internet Using an Open Wireless Network, Preferably from Great Distance
In terms of a threat assessment, for our purposes, I see the networks as posing the biggest problem.
People write to me all the time raving about the dreaded Google cookie. HA. “We must use scroogle!” for freedom and safety, etc.
When I mention that their ISP is, most likely, keeping every URL that they visit in a database, at a minimum, and that NSA boxes are probably analyzing every FORM tagged submission, well, that’s a hard lesson for people. Go ahead, use scroogle. Maybe the people running it aren’t evil. So what. Scroogle might make you feel good, but it has nothing to do with security or anonymity, not when you consider the capabilities of the enemy on the network.
Give any 14 year old hacker access to the right network switch and, unless you know what you’re doing, he or she will use a packet sniffer to find out what you had for breakfast. Now, the difference between most 14 year old hackers and the NSA is that the pimply faced kids don’t have physical access to the network that would allow them to conduct man in the middle surveillance on you. The NSA does. Again, that NSA/ATT thing is fly fart level. That’s nothing. That’s just the piece of the program that got outed.
You need a false flag connection to the Internet. In other words, access the Internet via someone else’s open wireless router, preferably from great distance. Lots of organizations, businesses and individuals provide free, wireless Internet access; on purpose, believe it or not. Ideally, you would use a cantenna or a high performance parabolic antenna to authoritatively distance yourself from any surveillance cameras that are likely saturating your local coffee shop or other business that provides free Internet access. Hitting the base station from hundreds of meters away would be nice.
If you were to carry the paranoia to an extreme level, you would assume that They would show up at your access point and use direction finding equipment to spot your physical location. “Tinfoil!” you say? Keychain WiFi access point finders have had crude DF capabilities for years. Then you have civilian grade WiFi network engineering stuff like the Yellow Jacket. Direction finding is as old as the hills and trivial to do. If you do happen to attract the wrong kind of attention on an anonymous base station, pinpointing your location would be a simple matter.
Solution? If you are playing this game as if your life is on the line, don’t use the same open base station twice. Hey, this post is going out to those of you who send me the paranoid emails. You wanted to know, I’m telling you! I mean, it would suck to look toward your friendly anonymous WiFi provider with a pair of binoculars and see a guy in a suit looking back at you. Hint: if you see a van with several antennas arranged in some geometric pattern on the roof, that would not be a positive development. But that was 1980s era technology, the last time I dabbled with DF gear with a buddy of mine. Here’s a nice little integrated soup to nuts solution that is probably more like what They would be using.
Surf Away: Just Don’t Do Anything That You Normally Do Online
All of the stuff that you do with your “normal” online persona, you know, online banking, checking email, discussion groups, etc: You can’t do any of that. The second you associate a user profile on a server with your behavior, you’re back to square one. The Matrix has you. You would have to create what the intelligence business calls a “legend” for your new anonymous online life. You may only access this persona using these extreme communications security protocols. Obviously, you can’t create an agent X persona via your anonymous connection and then log into some site using that profile on your home cable modem connection. To borrow another bit of jargon from the people who do this for real, full time, you must practice “compartmentalization.”
If you actually attract the wrong kind of attention on a server, OR a network, with your agent X persona, if you haven’t f@#$%& up in some way, all roads will lead back to the open base station.
“After connecting through the open WiFi network, should I also use an anonymous proxy?”
I would assume that even if the proxy is clean, and there is no way to know that it is, They will have that thing covered on the network, end to end. Physical disassociation from the access point is the best proxy. ...
Last but not least: Make sure that you spoof your MAC address EVERY time you go online. Funny story: I worked at a place that was locked down to the point that every MAC address was screened at the network level. Say, for example, that someone brought in a personal laptop from home, even though there was no chance of being able to use the network for much (domain sign on was required) the switch would alert a sys admin indicating that an alien device was plugged into the network, along with the jack/cube/desk number.
MAC addresses are unique, and perfect for surveillance purposes. Always spoof your MAC address when you’re running in agent x mode.
Well, that’s pretty much it. (Actually, I’m tired of typing.) I didn’t say it was going to be easy, and you should watch out for people and products that make those claims.
Of course, evil people could use the above techniques to do evil things, and that is the argument that the government will use to convince you to submit to total surveillance of everything you do.
In case you’re curious about how I get online: I use Windows XP on a five year old laptop, from home. While I’m running two firewalls, there’s no onion routing, proxies, live CD operating systems and I don’t bother with spoofing my MAC address. If you use a bank that knows where you live, They know where you live. Since I’m forced to use such a bank, I don’t bother with the rest. The Matrix has me.
If you think being anonymous online is hard, try living without a bank account…. Sorry, being homeless in a city park doesn’t count.
Oh yeah, what about Tor…
HAHA. Imagine my shock.
A group of 9 Tor routers also functioning overtly or indirectly as Tor exit nodes have been observed colluding on the public Tor network. ...
Cryptogon has a couple of follow ups to this one - the first noting Microsoft can identify you purely from your online browsing habits (unless your daily surfing routine consists of but a few very bland and non-cookie using sites), and the second on anonymour email services offered by various conspiracy theory sites - "Remember My Warnings About Proxy Services ?".
I suspect that most attempts at online anonymity will be throwaway in future - disposible devices, brought for cash, using wireless mesh networks that are thrown away after short duration one-time use in non-surveilled locations (well - places without security cameras anyway). For the rest of us for whom privacy would just be nice to have on principle, rather than something important from the viewpoint of physical wellbeing (like the bloggers living in undemocratic countries Ethan Zuckermann talked about), we'll probably just have to live with the fact it doesn't really exist.
Very cheap computers have been in the news a lot lately - Metropolis Magazine has an article on "living on the network" and the OLPC XO laptop.
Other designs make their sense of "presence" political, like the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project's XO computer, designed by Yves Behar. At the edge of its goofy green case, two little rod antennae perk up like cartoon rabbit ears, accentuating, even anthropomorphizing, the laptop's connection to the network - a particular kind of network. The XO creates "mesh" systems that self-organize so that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Each XO can extend a wireless signal to others, even when turned off, rather than having to rely on a centralized hub. Those prominent antennae boost the wireless network range by a half-mile, but they also remind the laptops' kid-users that their bandwidth is quite literally a social construction.
The XO's graphical user interface, designed by Lisa Strausfeld's group at Pentagram, makes the same point. It goes beyond the usual "desktop" metaphor, incorporating a "zoom lens" approach that switches perspectives, like the Eameses' documentary Powers of Ten. Two of the views, called "Friends" and "Neighborhood," show the laptop's relationship to other laptops, to an Internet connection, or to the classroom servers that OLPC's boosters hope will be a cost-effective replacement for textbooks. It's all meant to make the kids self-conscious about how they're working on the network. "There were a lot of almost ethical decisions about what it means to have your computer on the network," Strausfeld says of the design process, "but for the most part, the model is built on sharing." The XO celebrates the metaphorical power of the network, not just its bandwidth. And by making the kids as much the network as their laptops are, it also suggests a very different digital future.
Jamais Cascio at Open The Future also has a post on this machine, called "One Revolution Per Child". This isn't the only cheap laptop out there - sub $200 Linux or Windows PCs are starting to appear in Asia.
I wish that Nicolas Negroponte had never referred to it as the "one hundred dollar computer."
Yes, yes, it's an attention-grabbing name, but noting with a smirk that the first ones will actually cost $150 has become a game for reporters. I'm particularly aghast when technology journalists do it, because they of all people should know that information technology prices always fall -- the OLPC laptop won't remain $150 for long.
All of this comes to mind because of a new article from IEEE Spectrum magazine, "The Laptop Crusade." For the first time, I've become really excited about the potential this project holds, and not solely because of its leapfrogging possibilities.
(Some people I really respect, like Lee Felsenstein and my friend Ethan Zuckerman, show up in the article with some astute comments; I was interviewed for the piece, as well, with the usual result that a couple of my throwaway comments got used, and the main point I tried to make nowhere to be found. So it goes.)
I'm excited about the OLPC machine's potential because it's so clearly a revolutionary device, both in the sense of it having capabilities that nobody has ever before seen in a laptop, and in the sense it being a catalyst for out-of-control social transformation. The OLPC project will drop millions of powerful, deeply networked, information technology devices into the hands of precisely the population (children and teens) most likely to want to figure out the unanticipated uses.
From the startlingly long-range wifi mesh networking to the "Sugar" social interface, these devices were built to treat hierarchies as damage, and route around them.
This is a participatory culture dream device. Using entirely open source software, the laptops are enormously friendly to "hacking" (in the exploration sense, not the criminal sense), yet can be returned to a safe configuration at the push of a button. Moreover, they're extraordinarily, wonderfully, energy-efficient: at normal use, a OLPC laptop draws 3 watts, compared to 30 watts for a typical lower-end conventional laptop; and a full charge lasts for over six hours at maximum power use, 25 hours in power conservation mode.
Felsenstein notes that teachers will (rightly) see these laptops as a direct assault on their authority, and many will be banned from classrooms, leaving the kids to use the machines unsupervised.
I sure hope so.
A generation growing up believing in their capability to hack the system, work collaboratively, and make information a tool is probably one of the best things that could happen to a developing nation. Possibly not in the short run -- backlash from fearful authorities will be nasty -- but certainly in the longer term, as the first wave of OLPC children reaches adulthood.
The revolution begins in 2008.
Moving on to Brunner's subtopic of emerging tribalism in The SHockwave Rider, Ill go back to to Jeff Vail again - his post on Nigeria is an example of the new world of tribalism predicted by Toffler and Brunner in action. Many years ago when I first lived in London I played in the London basketball league and a number of my teammates were from Nigeria. I have a vague recollection of once playing a team in Peckham (at the time a very rough area of south London) where I was the only white guy in the stadium, let alone on the court. While I thought this didn't augur well for me when I (not unusually) found myself in a fight shortly after the game started, I learned as the game went on that the various ethnic groups involved in the 2 teams hated each other so intensely that I was pretty much ignored when the going got rough.
I also had a Nigerian from Port Harcourt as a flatmate for a while a few years later when I worked for an oil services company who was given to long moans about Nigerian tribalism and corruption - though this mostly seemed to be based on the fact that his tribe weren't getting their snouts deep enough into the trough. A Kenyan conman I met in Nairobi several years later on noted that white people never starve because they always help each other, while Africans frequently starve because they never help anyone beyond their own tribe. At the time I thought this made some sense but I think those days are disappearing...
A little background: Nigeria is a construct of post-colonial cartography. It is one of history’s foremost examples of the fiction of the Nation-State, a forced amalgamation of over 250 distinct ethnic groups and numerous religions (see illustration) to effect efficient British control of the region. In the post-colonial era, three dominant ethnic groups, the Hausa-Fulani, Igbo, and Yoruba, continue to joust for control of Nigeria’s huge oil revenues—and for control of Nigeria itself, though this is truly and ancillary concern to the oil. One thing has remained constant: the ethnic Ijaw, who inconveniently live where all the oil is, have been almost entirely excluded from sharing in the oil riches in their own backyard. As a result, the Ijaw resorted to violence to advance their political aims of representation in Nigeria’s government and a real share in the oil revenues.
MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, was the military branch of the Ijaw struggle. It was relatively easy for the government of Nigeria to reign in the violence in the Niger delta for two reasons: MEND had clearly defined political motivations, and a long-term interest in the viability of Nigeria as an oil exporting state. Further, as a coherent tribal society, the traditional system of tribal relations and leadership exerted effective control over the actions of MEND. Because the motivations of the Ijaw power structure were clearly defined (setting up transparent game rules), the Nigerian government and foreign oil companies operating in the Delta had two effective tools to reign in violence when it threatened their profits: offer talks on political issues, or buy peace with aid and development projects. The situation was violent yet stable—the slow diplomatic dance between parties with predictable motivations acted as a negative feedback loop preventing the violence from escalating out of control.
Free-Market Insurgency: A Positive-Feedback Loop
Over the past year this relatively stable system has rapidly broken down, and the result is the likelihood of a runaway escalation in violence. MEND fractioned amidst infighting among Ijaw tribal alliances. Various factions, with various political agendas, neutralized the ability to push for peace through negotiations—there was no single party, nor accession to a single set of demands, that could defuse the motivation to violence. In addition, the ransom money that foreign oil companies now routinely paid for the return of western employees spawned a market for guerrilla entrepreneurs—actors who were less motivated by traditional Ijaw political goals than by a return on investment. The lure of easy money has led to a proliferation of militant groups (now perhaps best characterized as criminal gangs) and a dramatic increase in attacks. This infusion of easy money to youthful militants broke down the traditional tribal structure of respect for leadership by elders—much as the infusion of easy drug money makes urban street gangs in the US less accountable to traditional cultural and familial restraints. ...
The blogger I immediately think of when the topic of post-modern tribes comes up is John Robb, though his "Global Guerillas" don't really have a great deal in common with Brunner's
tribes, who tend to resemble street gangs (although they remain sketchily drawn throughout as the characters tend to move in government, corporate or free town environments) like this first post I'll quote on "Milwaukee Crime Crews". Sao Paulo's "PCC" gang also fall roughly into this category.
"They had the same mentality I had: Get rich or die tryin'" Crew member Eugene Rhodes.
They dynamics of open source conflict continue to show up in the US. In Milwaukee, gangs and syndicates have been replaced by ad hoc "crime crews" that form for a spree of violence/crime and then disband -- a variant on the ad hoc organizations formed for phishing and IED attacks. Derrick Nunnally at the The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a recap of their experience with crews:Big gangs have a shadow of their former influence here, but they have been replaced by small, loosely organized bands of young men who commit strings of violent offenses before breaking up, or ending up behind bars. Their unpredictability has come to confound even veteran street cops and prosecutors who despite years of studying street-crime patterns are suddenly behind the times.
"They are the least predictable; they're the toughest to break up because they can be so spontaneous," said Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who led the county's gun-crimes prosecutions for six years and has considered a specialized prosecution team to go after crews. "They would really require the most resources to get rid of. . . .The damage just one crew like that can do is significant."
The article also contains a lengthy description of the birth and death of a single crew. Worth the read.
Mexican drug gangs feature in this post on "Info Warfare, Narcocorridos, and YouTube" (the gangs are also shutting down traditional media outlets they don't like).
"Many of these ballads [narcocorridos, or drug trafficker's ballad] are in the classic Medieval style, and they are an anachronistic link between the earliest European poetic traditions and the world of crack cocaine and gangsta rap." Elija Wald.
"Following the model of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, the cartels have discovered the Web as a powerful means of transmitting threats, recruiting members and glorifying the narco-trafficker lifestyle of big money, big guns and big thrills." Manuel Roig-Franzia, writing for the Washington Post
The best way to view Mexican narcocorridos, or ballads to drug traffickers, is as a form of information warfare directed simultaneously at:
* internal/general audiences (to enhance the prestige of affiliation and attract adherents),
* the opposition (to demoralize and provoke),
* the state (to demonstrate its impotence through brazen announcements of intent).
Here's an example. The popular Mexican singer, Valentin "The Golden Rooster" Elizalde wrote a paean to the Sinaloan cartel that villified the Zetas/Gulf Cartel. The song's video was posted on YouTube (featuring bodies of killed cartel members from news clips). The Gulf Cartel/Zetas sent a return message by killing Elizalde and his manager outside a concert, punctuated by a YouTube video of Elizalde's autopsy.
Historically, information warfare was restricted to elites (government, media, parties, etc.). The onrush of Jihadi videos, political pro-war/anti-war blogs, and narcocorrido videos have categorically demonstrated that this state of affairs has changed. We now live in a world where infowarfare is accomplished by individual practitioners through an open source framework. Over time, the gap between those in the open source framework and the elites will widen in the favor of the former -- we have only scratched the surface of where this empowering technology can go.
While the new media infowar will be chaotic (as much as against each other as for or against the state), the bulk of the momentum will be with those that represent revisionist forces. Namely, those groups that want to change the status quo. Here's an example: Lee Garnett at PostPolitical notes an important transition already occurring in Narcocorridos:However, more recent slayings have shown a marked tendency to try to transcend the limits of revenge. The videos have begun depicting the killers as vigilantes, bringing justice to the streets by killing off members of their hated rival cartels, which are depicted as the enemies of the people.
John Robb is a lot more pessimistic about greater online connectedness leading to co-operation and understanding than most other sources I tend to quote - for an outline of the reasons for this, see "The Violence Of Social Distance".
The surge in violence we face at the hands of small groups will continue to increase well into the future. One reason is that the barriers to entry for warfare have fallen and the new methods that are being developed (at both the organizational and tactical levels) are exceedingly effective.
Another reason is that while the physical and information distance between people has been radically reduced through globalization, our social distance -- defined by culture, function, hierarchy, economic role, etc. -- remains little changed. This means that many of the causes of violence that have taken all of human history to develop are rapidly being unlocked (not unlike Pandora's box) through rapid integration. An excellent way to explore this is through Donald Black's work on sociology, best applied to this topic in, "The Geometry of Terrorism." He posits that the psychology or ideologies of specific groups is of much less importance than the social connectivity of that group to its social superior -- violence in the form of terrorism is typically directed upwards (Van Creveld's, the weak against the strong). Large social distances equal danger. Our problem is that as physical distances decline in importance, these social distances become a not merely a necessary condition but a sufficient condition for violence. Even small provocations can set it off.
Is Social Integration the End Game?
Black's nuanced view of the social origins of violence provides a blueprint for finding ways to reduce the origins of violence. However, given its complexity, we should be prepared to assume that this violence will continue for a significant period of time until:
... in the long term it (technology) destroys the social geometry on which terrorism depends.
However, I am not as sanguine on the ability of technology to reduce social distance. In fact, just the opposite. Technology can radically increase social distance as we see daily in comment/discussion threads and in the polarized media. The online comity does not exist. We are increasingly using the medium to artificially create social distance. As a result, everything seems to point to more fragmentation rather than less, particularly at the individual level. In the long run it's Virginia Techs with bioweapons.
I think its probably fairer to say that some people and groups act to increase social distance, while others aim to reduce it. My general policy here is to try and reduce it, and hopefully that becomes the dominant paradigm online over time (all evidence to the contrary in online discussion groups notwithstanding - surely people have to tire of adolescent flame wars one day ?).
One last quote from Jonh Robb, this one on "Guerrilla economics".
"Tribal loyalty is stronger than national loyalty"
LTC Jack Pritchard, US Army, to the Wall Street Journal.
As globalization accelerates fragmentation, we will continue our race to the bottom where primary loyalties -- loyalty to a tribe, gang, clan, religion, etc. -- take precedence over loyalty to the state. This inversion will bleed into economic behavior as the state begins to hollow out, often resulting in the organic emergence of complex parallel/parasitic economies. Given that these economies also fuel the disruption from guerrillas that hollows out the state, the cycle can self-perpetuate. Philip Shishkin, writing for the Wall Street Journal, provides us with an excellent description of one such guerrilla economy in Northern Iraq:After months of investigation, Col. Pritchard and his team uncovered the answer [for why oil was being stolen from government pipelines]: The operations were part of a sophisticated network of savvy thieves, unruly desert tribes, bomb-planting insurgents, corrupt security forces, cross-border smugglers and operators of small domestic refineries. At those refineries, U.S. officers believe, raw oil is turned into fuel and sold on the black market, where it's used in vehicles and to power home generators. This loose confederation has all but crippled production in Iraq's northern oil fields, even as the political future of this ethnically mixed city and its underground riches hangs in the balance.
I suggest that someone should send LTC Pritchard a copy of Brave New War. It will save him lots of time.
Jamais Cascio at Open The Future has a review of Robb's book - "Open Source with a Bullet: John Robb's Brave New War". Jamais also has an interview with RU Sirius based on his "Last Hegemon" posts.
The U.S. is Microsoft. Al Qaeda is Linux.
That, at least, is the grossly-oversimplified version of John Robb's new book, Brave New War. Such a parallel has nothing to do with politics, but with position. The United States, and other centralized, conventionally powerful global actors, fill a role in the geopolitical ecosystem akin to Microsoft: big and slow to respond; wealthy and wasteful; hierarchical and ossified. Al Qaeda, and other distributed, guerrilla insurgency and terrorist movements, fill a geopolitical role more akin to Linux: decentralized and nimble; open to new entrants; innovative out of necessity. It's for good reason that Robb refers to the conflicts now underway as "open source warfare," and the distributed participants, "global guerrillas."
I'll leave it to others to address the military implications of Robb's argument; it's enough to say that I found his ideas compelling (this should come as no surprise, given how often I link to his site when I write about global politics). I'd like to focus, instead, on what he calls out as the proper response those opposed to the global guerrillas should adopt.
Robb makes it clear that the tactics the United States (and, to a lesser extent, Europe and other post-industrial nations) now employs are bad, bad ideas. "Knee-jerk police states" and "preemptive war" fall into a category Robb borrows from security specialist Bruce Schneier: "brittle security." The big problem with brittle security is that, when it fails, it fails catastrophically; moreover, by employing these tactics, the U.S. (etc.) undermines the very moral suasion and memetic influence that are among the most important tools to fight empowered extremism.
He proposes instead the adoption of "dynamic decentralized resilience:"It is simply the ability to dynamically mitigate and dampen system shocks. Specifically, it is those things we (and our state) can do to change the configuration of our networks to ensure that intentional or naturally occurring attacks on our society don't do much damage or spiral out of control.
This is a welcome argument. The concept of resilience is useful as a response to a spectrum of threats, as it emphasizes not the specific counters to a particular challenge, but the broader ability of a society or network to survive and thrive even when faced with major threats. Robb uses it here as a way of dealing with open source warfare; a few months ago, I used it as a way of dealing with environmental disruption:"Resiliency," conversely, admits that change is inevitable and in many cases out of our hands, so the environment -- and our relationship with it -- needs to be able to withstand unexpected shocks. Greed, accident or malice may have harmful results, but [...] such results can be absorbed without threat to the overall health of the planet's ecosystem. If we talk about "environmental resiliency," then, we mean a goal of supporting the planet's ability to withstand and regenerate in the event of local or even widespread disruption.
Robb and I are not alone in the use of resilience as a fundamental part of surviving the 21st century. The Resilience Alliance greatly expands on the notion of environmental resilience, and links it to concepts such as adaptive cycles and Panarchy. (I'd love to see how Robb would make use of the Panarchy argument in his own work -- there are definite connections.)
This isn't simply a coincidental use of the same word. The overlaps between social resilience and ecological resilience are quite profound. A small example of this can be seen when Robb leads us through reconfiguring an existing system to make it more resilient. He argues that the power grid could be made much more resilient -- that is, much better able to absorb and mitigate threats -- by becoming much more decentralized, with individual buildings becoming power generators as well as power consumers. To be clear, this isn't a call for energy isolationism -- he doesn't want to go "off-grid." It's a call for a much more deeply-networked grid. And it happens to be an argument very familiar to those of us looking at ways to deal with environmental crises, not simply because it supports greater use of renewable energy, but because of its resiliency under stress.
Looking more broadly, Robb lists three rules for successful "platforms," or sets of services, operating under his resiliency model: transparency (so all participants can see and understand what's happening); two-way (so all participants can act as both providers and consumers of the services); and openness (so the number and kind of participants isn't artificially limited). Again, these rules should sound very familiar to readers of (among other sites) Open the Future and WorldChanging.
I make a point of highlighting these similarities in order to demonstrate that the concepts that Robb discusses as a way of dealing with a particular kind of challenge actually have far broader applicability. An open, transparent, distributed and resilient system is precisely what's needed to survive successfully threats from:
# Natural disasters, such as tsunamis, earthquakes, and pandemic disease.
# Environmental collapse, especially (but not solely) global warming.
# Emerging transformative technologies, such as molecular manufacturing, cheap biotechnology and artificial general intelligence.
# Open source warfare.
# Even (should it happen) the Singularity.
John Robb addresses some of these when referring to "naturally occurring attacks" or the value of sustainability as a way of supporting resilience. Because he focuses on the military/security manifestations, however, he doesn't make a strong connection to the broader utility of the concept. I hope that he starts to look more closely at these other arenas as sources of innovation and even alliance.
The one element that Brave New War lacked, and would have been well-received, is some exploration of what kinds of counter-global guerrilla strategies might be in the offing. He's clear that the current approach is disastrous, and the resilience argument does a good job of showing how post-industrial nations can better survive the threat of global guerrillas without surrendering their values. But I found myself wondering what kinds of tactics and technologies will emerge as a way of meeting the open source warfare threat head-on. Is it something as obvious as re-tooling conventional militaries to adopt more "open source" style techniques? Is it something as surprising as a shift in focus towards what might be thought of as an "open source peace corps"? Maybe it will require a major technological leap, where we find that the best counter to open source guerrillas is ultra-high-tech swarming bots, or nano-weapons, or something even more startling.
The question I have for John Robb is, then, if we build the open future, how do we defend it?
Alex Steffen has a good article up at WorldChanging, reviewing Fritz Lang's movie "The Testament of Doctor Mabuse", which also touches on Robb's book and the value of transparency and openness.
When life seems daily to be out-pacing the speculative fiction which is meant to induce a sense of wondrous future shock in our lives, the mindsets of 1930s modernists are as distant as colonies on Mars.
And Mabuse echoes in profound ways the concerns of its day: the pace, sophistication and industrialization of urban life. From its camera work and its use of sound (still novel for its time) to it expressionist graphics and modernist design fetishism (at one point, the heroine actually begins caressing a lampshade, in a way that marks her perfectly as the future target market for Dwell), the film alludes to the rise of a new mechanized city culture. Technologies (what were, in their day, the red-hot emerging technologies) are raised almost to the status of characters in the film: recording devices, scientific equipment for crime scene forensics and ballistics, cars and pistols and telephones (and thus car chases, gun fights and the tracing of mysterious calls) all play prominent roles.
All of this, though, builds to the film's prime question: "Who will use these incredible new technologies and capabilities, and to what end?" Lohmann uses them, in a sardonic style that can't hide his essential decency and bravery, to defend the public good, democracy and justice; Mabuse wants to use them to exert his power over the course of history. Indeed, Mabuse's testament reads much like the transcript of a bin Laden cave video. Here is a man who does not hesitate to destroy the innocent to make room for the promise of a vague, "purified" new order.
The resemblance to Nazism was intentional. Mabuse -- which tangentially was produced at UFA, where I stayed when last in Berlin -- was censored by Goebbels himself and banned throughout the Reich. Lang fled Germany almost immediately afterwards, with the film's premier being held in Budapest. The idea that a madman might use the force of personality and modern technologies to wreak havoc on the world unless good people stopped him was not, apparently, a welcome cinematic theme.
Of course, the same fear of technologically empowered madmen cuts both ways. Despite much clear evidence that fundamentalist crazies, while dangerous, are not our greatest concern as a civilization, politicians unburdened by scruples have, the world over, taken these old fears, these worn-out puppets, dressed them in new outfits, called them by new names, and used them to frighten and distract the people. Frighten them into giving away their liberties. Distract them from the naked greed of the puppet masters. What a boring old game.
Just how old these fears are is really best demonstrated by the degree to which nostalgia is actually our primary attitude towards the era which spawned them. From steampunk and the vogue in old industrial design to retro politics and "greatest generation" propaganda about Pearl Harbor, the Spanish Civil War and the nobility of fighting the Fascists (implying our current struggles are the same), our societies are riddled with longing for and distance from the realities of those days. We are not our grandparents, though, and their world is as extinct as the Tasmanian tiger.
Really, what we ought to worry about (and hunger for) are those new facets of our time that we're just now gaining the insight to both fear and desire.
Emerging technologies, like nanotechnology and biotechnology, ought to worry us in their potential to be used stupidly, carelessly or with evil intent, yes.
But more importantly, all that we believe to be solid is melting into air, again. The world in which we live will no more last out our lives than the ice box, buddy whip or telegraph delivery boy outlasted theirs.
We live in a deeply networked, interconnected world, a world where the leapfrogging of technology is mingling with the annihilation of distance to produce a world which not only feels different, but runs by different rules.
Some of those rules should scare us, within reason. John Robb, in his new excellent new book Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, makes the point that it is the very nature of the systems upon which we currently depend -- centralized, hierarchical, brittle and above all, closed, proprietary and secret -- that makes us most vulnerable to the depredations of small bands of networked terrorists. Our industrial system is like one giant, opaque Windows operating system, just waiting for the next wave of attacks to bring it crashing down, and its very opacity is its biggest threat: "We are vulnerable because we don't know, and our vulnerability is actually increased because we don't know."
The only sane response to these dangers is the opposite of our current approach (which Robb calls "Knee-Jerk Police States"): it is a society-wide shift to openness, transparency and planned resilience.
That sounds tedious and burdensome, but the reality could be dynamic and creative and prosperous -- a million experiments in diversifying (and making more sustainable) the energy, food, water, materials and communications systems we depend on to supply our lives. The likelihood is that, for most of us, attention to these systems, and innovative thinking in our interactions with them, will become more and more a fact of daily life, from farmer's markets to home water purification systems and solar panels, to the steps we take to increase neighborhood survivability. ...
Jason Godesky and the tribe of Anthropik are pretty big on the idea of small scale tribes (though again, not in the way Brunner envisioned), combining primitivist and peak oil themes to envision a post collapse future where the tribes are all that is left in the ruins of industrial civilisation. One example of this also ties in with the anarchist fondness for pirate utopias and the "Pirates of the Carribean" series - "A Pirate's Life for Me II: Opening the Map".
Nearly a year ago, we published "A Pirate's Life for Me." It's become one of our most popular articles (though I suspect that might have more to do with people pirating our bandwidth for that picture of Johnny Depp). It made the case that the pirates' lasting, romantic allure lay in the fact that they represented a kind of primitivism, or as Captain Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts put it, "In an honest Service, there is thin Commons, low Wages, and hard Labour; in this, Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power; and who would not ballance Creditor on this Side, when all the Hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sower Look or two at choaking. No, a merry Life and a short one shall be my Motto."Fleeing from hideous "benefits" of Imperialism such as slavery, serfdom, racism and intolerance, from the tortures of impressment and the living death of the plantations, the Buccaneers adopted Indian ways, intermarried with Caribs, accepted blacks and Spaniards as equals, rejected all nationality, elected their captains democratically, and reverted to the "state of Nature." Having declared themselves "at war with all the world," they sailed forth to plunder under mutual contracts called "Articles" which were so egalitarian that every member received a full share and the Captain usually only 1 1/4 or 1 1/2 shares. Flogging and punishments were forbidden-quarrels were settled by vote or by the code duello.
Piratical primitivsm was no accident, nor even evidence of the universal longing for the genuine human condition; rather, pirates emerged in the New World out of relationships with indigenous groups, along the periphery of colonial society. Many authors have noted that the ideals of freedom and independence that Western countries today pay so much lip service to arose in the colonies, as oppressed Europeans came into contact with genuinely free primitive peoples. Piracy grew up along one such edge.This sort of dropping out and going native was not always accidental. The buccaneers of the Caribbean originally got their name from boucan, a practice of smoking meat they had learnt from the native Arawak Indians. The buccaneers were originally land squatters on the large Spanish owned island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic)-they turned to piracy following Spanish attempts to oust them. On Hispaniola they followed a way of life essentially identical to the native peoples who had preceded them. This sort of 'marooning life' was very clearly identified with piracy-apart from the buccaneers of Hispaniola and Tortuga the main other group of European dropouts in the New World were the logwood cutters of Bay of Campeche (now Honduras and Belize), a "rude drunken crew" who were considered by most observers to be interchangeable with pirates. They consciously chose a non-accumulative life living in independent communal settlements on the world's periphery.
That periphery was key. The "Golden Age of Piracy" occurred after the era of exploration, but before the complete subjugation of all the newly discovered areas to European control. The lands were claimed, but the empires were still struggling to develop the force needed to enforce those claims. In that pocket, the pirate as we know him emerged. Peter Lamborn Wilson (a.k.a., "Hakim Bey") coined the term "closure of the map" to refer to the elimination of non-state peripheries and frontiers. In The Trial of Socrates, Socrates makes the argument that he must abide by Athenian law because he had accepted it tacitly by living in Athens his entire life. This argument has remained, more or less unexamined, even as its fundamental assumptions have failed. Today, there is no place on earth that can support human life, where one can go to escape the rule of one state or another. Socrates' case assumes the frontier, an assumption that held right up to the beginning of the last century, to one degree or another. The "Golden Age of Piracy" occurred at precisely the time it did, as the most recognizable expression of a particularly attractive pocket outside of civilization. This is what attracts Lamborn's attention, and why he has so much to say about "pirate utopias."We were taught in elementary school that the first settlements in Roanoke failed; the colonists disappeared, leaving behind them only the cryptic message "Gone To Croatan." Later reports of "grey-eyed Indians" were dismissed as legend. What really happened, the textbook implied, was that the Indians massacred the defenseless settlers. However, "Croatan" was not some Eldorado; it was the name of a neighboring tribe of friendly Indians. Apparently the settlement was simply moved back from the coast into the Great Dismal Swamp and absorbed into the tribe. And the grey-eyed Indians were real-they're still there, and they still call themselves Croatans....
So-the very first colony in the New World chose to renounce its contract with Prospero (Dee/Raleigh/Empire) and go over to the Wild Men with Caliban. They dropped out. They became "Indians," "went native," opted for chaos over the appalling miseries of serfing for the plutocrats and intellectuals of London.
As America came into being where once there had been "Turtle Island," Croatan remained embedded in its collective psyche. Out beyond the frontier, the state of Nature (i.e. no State) still prevailed-and within the consciousness of the settlers the option of wildness always lurked, the temptation to give up on Church, farmwork, literacy, taxes-all the burdens of civilization-and "go to Croatan" in some way or another. Moreover, as the Revolution in England was betrayed, first by Cromwell and then by Restoration, waves of Protestant radicals fled or were transported to the New World (which had now become a prison, a place of exile). Antinomians, Familists, rogue Quakers, Levellers, Diggers, and Ranters were now introduced to the occult shadow of wildness, and rushed to embrace it. ...
It is simply wrong to brand the pirates as mere sea-going highwaymen or even proto-capitalists, as some historians have done. In a sense they were "social bandits," although their base communities were not traditional peasant societies but "utopias" created almost ex nihilo in terra incognita, enclaves of total liberty occupying empty spaces on the map.
Last year's original article was published at the same time that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest came out in theaters-a reminder that what so many people found so alluring in such swashbuckling films was the life of freedom they remembered in their bones, an appeal to the shared human heritage of primitive life. Of course, I expected such ideas to provide only a subconscious theme for a major Hollywood film; I did not expect to find any treatment of the weighty matters of freedom and the state that the pirate truly personifies.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Not that Pirates of the Caribbean should be noted for its depth, but the second film wrapped the narrative in a larger social context about the expansion of state power, typified by the East India Trading Company, and the character of Lord Cutler Beckett, who is shaping up to be the series' primary villain. Lord Beckett makes several explicit references to filling in the blank areas of the map-and thus eliminating the space in which piracy can survive. Near the beginning, he states, "Jack Sparrow is a dying breed. The world is shrinking; the blank edges of the map filled in. Jack must find a place in the new world or perish." (Another of Lord Beckett's quotes in the movie could hardly put the difference between a civilized, market economy and a tribal, gift economy in starker terms: "Loyalty is no longer the currency of the realm. I'm afraid currency is the currency of the realm.") ...
One of the weirder tribes to have formed over the past decade is the hard core Republican supporter tribe. Thankfully this delusional and violent tribe seems to be a shrinking one, albeit one still capable of creating a lot of chaos.
There's been a lot of discussion of a recent Pew Research Center study of US voters ... which certainly suggests a strong reaction against the Bush Administration and the Republican Party.
But the underlying picture is much worse for Republicans than this, as Gary Kamiya observes. On the one hand, the Pew Survey shows that Democrats and Independents are becoming pretty similar in the views to people elsewhere in the developed world (such as Europeans) - liberal on social issues, moderately social-democratic in social policy, preferring peace to war and so on. Not surprisingly, this translates to a strongly negative view of the Republican party, just as it does everywhere else in the world.
On the other hand, Republican support is contracting to a base of about 25 per cent of the population whose views are getting more extreme, not merely because moderate conservatives are peeling off to become Independents, but also because of the party's success in constructing a parallel universe of news sources, thinktanks, blogs, pseudo-scientists and so on, which has led to the core becoming more tightly committed to an extremist ideology.
There's plenty to support this account outside the Pew survey. This Gallup poll shows that a majority of Democrats and a large plurality of Independents think that the US is spending too much on the military - hardly any Republicans take this view. The proportion thinking spending is too high is the highest since 1990 and one of the highest on record.
Looking at the Republican side of the aisle, Jonathan Chait points out (via Matthew Yglesias), that even as scientific evidence on global warming has become overwhelming and most of the oil industry has ceased to promote delusional thinking on this issue, the same thinking has hardened within the Congressional Republican party, to the point where Republican members of Congress who are qualified scientists (amazingly, there are some) are barred from sitting on committees where they might disrupt the anti-science orthodoxy. The position of rightwing blogs is even worse, with a recent survey 59-0 score in favour of the delusional position.
Looking at the evidence, Gary Kamiya asks whether this is just a swing of the pendulum, and in some respects it is, but some effects are likely to be longer-term. The general liberalisation of thinking on social issues is unlikely to be reversed. Moreover, while American faith in military power bounced back after Vietnam, I doubt that the same will be true after Iraq. If you wanted a textbook lesson in why resort to violence is rarely a sensible choice, Bush's presentation of that lesson could hardly be bettered.
I'll end with one stat that ought to worry any Republicans who think sticking with the Rove strategy is a good idea. According to the Pew study, members of Gen Y (18-30) are about as likely to be atheists/agnostics (19 per cent) as Republicans (no age group breakdown, but it must be less than the 25 per cent for all voters given low party identification in this age group).
Another aspect of the tribal division that seems to have opened up between coastal liberal types and those in the heartland / flyover states is the gap between those who work in the globalised economy (and tend to move around in the sorts of numbers predicted by Toffler and Brunner) and those don't, which was pointed out in this interview in the FT recently. I think the popularity of the "Left Behind" series of books (the title of which may sum up how the readers feel about themselves) and the accompanying tribalism described in Chris Hedges' book "American Fascists" is not unrelated to this growing gap in lifestyle.
Judt grew up in a stoutly middle-class family in London. In an impressive academic career, he went to King's College, Cambridge, Paris's Ecole Normale Superieure, Berkeley and Oxford. He moved to New York in 1987 to teach European history and French studies, when, he says ruefully, "the study of France was still a fashionable and desirable activity and not something you had to hide your head in shame about."
His last book, Postwar, is a fluid history of Europe since 1945. It tells of the continent's rise from the ashes and the emergence of the European Union, which he is rather bullish about. The book was nominated for a Pulitzer prize, and was one of The New York Times top 10 books of 2005. Part of his job in New York, he says, is to explain Europe to Americans - people accuse him of forever trying to "sell" Europe to Americans, he says - as well as to explain America to Europeans. It is a tough job, Judt says, when, in their worldviews, the two are growing further apart.
Judt seems to be concerned with divisions. As well as the "vertical" separation between Europe and the US, he says, there are widening "horizontal" chasms within countries - between wealthy jet-travelling elites and the rest of the population.
We probably face a world that is divided much more horizontally than vertically. We have a class of world travellers - as the medievals might have called them, 'clerks' - who speak Latin, or English, and feel at home in Tokyo, New York or Singapore. Underneath are the 'villains', the serfs, who don't speak English, who don't travel - beyond the occasional cheap vacation flight abroad - and who are still very much in a national, local cultural world. They are as much separated from their own airport people as from serfs of other countries."
Cory Doctorow's book "Eastern Standard Tribe" described a world where the modern day "clerks" were themselves segmented into tribes, with the tribes being time zone based cultures that people picked and choosed between depending on which culture they found most attractive. The EST tribesmen of the book worked for McKinsey in London, who also got a mention recently in this story from The Times about the competition between London (GMT) and New York (EST) over who will be the world's financial capital.
Its "cool, classy, cosmopolitan" and it should secede from the UK. Business Editor James Harding on why London is the new capital of the world.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine bought a one bedroom flat in Chalcot Square in Primrose Hill, London NW1. He paid £480,000 - just less than one million dollars. As I was living in the States at the time and flabbergasted by the price, he explained: "Chalcot Square is the best place in Primrose Hill, which is the nicest part of London, which is the coolest city on earth." Location, location, location. "This is the best property on the planet."
In fact, he was a few miles off. The most prized piece of real estate on God's green earth has a view of the Serpentine rather than of Joan Bakewell's living room. The Candy brothers, two upmarket property developers, have started selling flats at Number One Hyde Park for £4,200 a square foot. That means £84 million - $164 million - for a nice, roomy apartment.
Why? Because London is, indeed, the coolest city on earth. The capital of the world. New York, like Paris, has become a mini-break destination, a playground for grown-ups who enjoy the same standard tourist menu: a walk around Central Park; a shopping trip in SoHo; an entertaining, if unsurprising, show on Broadway; and a very large steak.
The world loves a long weekend in New York but, these days, prefers to make its home in London. New York has the nostalgia, London the future. New York defines the metropolitan, London the cosmopolitan. ...
The mandarins of New York are currently gripped by a bout of Woody Allen-style neurosis, fretting that the city's stature as the capital of world capitalism is being sapped by London. Last year, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the New York senator Chuck Schumer commissioned McKinsey, the management consultants, to examine why international financial business was drifting away from Manhattan. And it suggests that their paranoia is justified.
In business terms, London's claim to be the world's favourite marketplace is not just a boast, it's a statistic: the report found that in the past five years international companies have not been choosing to list on the New York stock exchanges but to float their businesses in London. In 2001 the US accounted for 57 per cent of all stock market flotations over $1 billion - otherwise known as initial public offerings (IPOs). By 2006 this had fallen to 16 per cent. In the same period, Europe's share of the world's big IPOs had risen from 33 per cent to 63 per cent. ...
Wall Street has blamed the resurgence of London on regulation, immigration laws and the tax regime for foreign residents. There is some truth to this. After a spate of high-profile corporate collapses, Congress passed a set of new corporate governance rules known as Sarbanes-Oxley that made the whole business of operating a company in the US a lot more tiresome. Foreign companies used to consider a New York listing a badge of honour. In the past three years, many have come to see it as an unnecessary bother. They have come to London instead. (The UK has also done a good job of making the Financial Services Authority a selling point of doing business in London: while New York is governed by a rules-based regulatory regime in a litigious country that is susceptible to frivolous lawsuits, London's regulators operate a principles-based system that has an altogether lighter touch.)
In the wake of the September 11terrorist attacks, Washington also tightened its borders. The visa restrictions have stopped many foreign scientists, mathematicians and economists from travelling to the US. The UK's relatively open borders have become a competitive advantage. The tax regime in the UK has also played a part, but a less important one than many people think. The lenient treatment of nondomiciled residents - typically, very wealthy people who buy homes in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea but claim that their real "home" is elsewhere - has added to the lure of London. But, according to the private bankers at HSBC in St James's, a Russian oligarch gets as good, if not better, tax terms in Moscow as he does in London.
When I read this for some reason this passage from EST came up in my mind:
Art groaned again. Fede lived in perennial terror of being found out and exposed as an ESTribesman, fired, deported, humiliated. He was always at least three-fifths positive, and the extra fifth was hardly an anomaly. "What's up now?"
"It's the VP of HR at Virgin/Deutsche Telekom. He's called me in for a meeting this afternoon. Wants to go over the core hours recommendation." Fede was a McKinsey consultant offline, producing inflammatory recommendation packages for Fortune 100 companies. He was working the lazy-Euro angle, pushing for extra daycare, time off for sick relatives and spouses. The last policy binder he'd dumped on V/DT had contained enough obscure leave-granting clauses that an employee who was sufficiently lawyer-minded could conceivably claim 450 days of paid leave a year. Now he was pushing for the abolishment of "core hours," Corporate Eurospeak for the time after lunch but before afternoon naps when everyone showed up at the office, so that they could get some face-time. Enough of this, and GMT would be the laughingstock of the world, and so caught up in internecine struggles that the clear superiority of the stress-feeding EST ethos would sweep them away. That was the theory, anyway. Of course, there were rival Tribalists in every single management consulting firm in the world working against us. Management consultants have always worked on old-boys' networks, after all-it was a very short step from interning your frat buddy to interning your Tribesman.
Moving on to the subject of think tanks, the "Tarnover" think tank our "Shockwave Rider" protaganist escaped from is thought be some reviewers to be based on the RAND Corporation, which has had a lot of influence in quite a large number of areas, especially computer networking.
The achievements of RAND stem from its development of systems analysis. Important contributions are claimed in space systems and the United States' space program, in computing and in artificial intelligence. RAND researchers developed many of the principles that were used to build the Internet. Numerous analytical techniques were invented at RAND, including dynamic programming, game theory, the Delphi method, linear programming, systems analysis, and exploratory modeling. RAND also pioneered the development and use of wargaming.
Current areas of expertise include: child policy, civil and criminal justice, education, environment and energy, health, international policy, labor markets, national security, infrastructure, energy, environment, corporate governance, economic development, intelligence policy, long-range planning, crisis management and disaster preparation, population and regional studies, science and technology, social welfare, terrorism, arts policy, and transportation.
RAND designed and conducted one of the largest and most important studies of health insurance. The RAND Health Insurance Experiment, funded by the then-U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, established an insurance corporation to compare demand for health services with their cost to the patient.
According to the 2005 annual report, "about one-half of RAND's research involves national security issues."
Notable RAND participants:
# Kenneth Arrow - economist, Nobel Laureate, developed the impossibility theorem in social choice theory
# Paul Baran - one of the developers of packet switching which was used in Arpanet and later networks like the Internet
# Samuel Cohen - inventor of the neutron bomb in 1958
# Daniel Ellsberg - leaker of the Pentagon Papers
# Francis Fukuyama - academic and author of The End of History and the Last Man
# Cecil Hastings - programmer, wrote software engineering classic, Approximations for Digital Computers (Princeton 1955)
# Brian Michael Jenkins - terrorism expert, Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation, and author of Unconquerable Nation
# Herman Kahn - theorist on nuclear war and one of the founders of scenario planning
# Zalmay Khalilzad - U.S. Ambassador to Iraq
# Lewis "Scooter" Libby, V.P. Dick Cheney's former Chief of Staff
# Harry Markowitz - economist, developed the Portfolio Selection model that is still widely used in modern finance
# Margaret Mead - U.S. anthropologist
# John Forbes Nash, Jr. - Nobel prize-winning economist and mathematician
# John Von Neumann - mathematician, pioneer of the modern digital computer
# Paul O'Neill - Chairman in the late 1990s
# Condoleezza Rice - former trustee 1991-1997 and current Secretary of State for the United States (as of May 2006), former intern
# Donald Rumsfeld - Chairman of RAND Corporation from 1981-1986 and Secretary of Defense for the United States from 1975 to 1977 and 2001 to 2006.
Speaking of think tanks, I always enjoy my occasional emails from "The Future" (aka The Arlington Institute) - one recent one (Volume 10, Number 5) contained a number of snippets relevant to both the information freedom / security theme I'm dwelling on, as well as the usual energy and environmental collapse articles.
Cyber-Worms Could Cripple FCS -- (UPI -- March 20, 2007)
The U.S. armed forces are still pushing ahead with trying to implement former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's visionary Future Combat Systems programs to centralize command, control and firepower of land, sea and air weapons systems into high-tech headquarters - almost like the ultimate video game made real. However, the more the U.S. armed forces become dependent on efficiently integrated IT systems, as FCS requires, the more they could be vulnerable to being paralyzed by asymmetrical cyber-warfare attacks. This is a by no means hypothetical danger. All major nations are working on such programs with China by far the most active.
Surge in Hijacked PC Networks -- (BBC -- March 19, 2007)
The number of computers hijacked by malicious hackers to send out spam and viruses has grown almost 30% in the last year, according to a major industry survey. While the total number of bot-net PCs rose, the number of servers controlling them dropped by about 25% to 4,700, the twice-yearly report said. Symantec researchers said the decrease showed that bot network owners were consolidating to expand their networks, creating a more centralized structure for launching attacks.
Hiding Messages in Plain Sight -- (BBC -- February 15, 2007)
A technology that can "hide" information in plain sight on printed images has begun to see the first commercial applications. The technology can encode data into a picture that is invisible to the human eye but can be decoded by relatively simple camera, not too dissimilar from ones already found in mobile phones.
General Atomics Scores Power Production First -- (SPX -- March 15, 2007)
A team of researchers successfully tested a new method for generating electrical power on board a hypersonic vehicle. A magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) generator was operated to produce electrical power using the exhaust stream from a prototype hypersonic scramjet combustor simulating flight at Mach 8 conditions. This is the world's first successful demonstration of a hypersonic MHD generator. This will lead the way for future development of this technology as a viable means to provide multi-megawatt MHD auxiliary power systems for air-breathing hypersonic vehicles.
Search for bin Laden at Home -- (Wired -- March 15, 2007)
Where in the world is Osama bin Laden? Uh ... try checking Google Earth. After Google recently updated its satellite images of parts of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, much of the region still looked blotchy - but several small squares (they stand out as off-color patches from 680 miles up) suddenly became highly detailed. These sectors happen to be precisely where the US government has been hunting for bin Laden. It turns out that Google gets its images from many of the same satellite companies - DigitalGlobe, TerraMetrics, and others - that provide reconnaissance to US intelligence agencies.
Paying Attention to Not Paying Attention -- (Physorg -- March 19, 2007)
C'mon, admit it. Your train of thought derails several times a day - if not more. It's just, well, mind-wandering. We all do it, and surprisingly often, whether we're struggling to avoid it or not. Mainstream psychology hasn't paid much attention to this common mental habit. But a spate of new studies is chipping away at its mysteries and scientists say the topic is beginning to gain visibility. Someday, such research may turn up ways to help students keep their focus on textbooks and lectures, and drivers to keep their minds on the road. It may reveal ways to reap payoffs from the habit.
Species Evolve Faster in Cooler Climes -- (New Scientist -- March 15, 2007)
Contrary to popular belief, the 'hot spots' of evolution are actually quite cool: a study suggests that new species emerge more frequently in temperate regions than in the tropics. Scientists had assumed that new species develop faster in the tropics, since they are home to greater species diversity than at higher latitudes. But the researchers behind the new analysis say the explanation for this is that fewer species have gone extinct near the equator.
A FINAL QUOTE...
The learning and knowledge that we have, is, at the most, but little compared with that of which we are ignorant. - Plato
Another snippet from their latest (at the time of writing) email was this odd video (with annoying soundtrack and visuals) on a planned "global information grid" - unlike the global energy grid idea I'm fond of blathering about, this one seems to be an entirely military network.
DARPA's iXo Artificial Intelligence Control Grid (Google video - March 25, 2007)
This twenty minute video was constructed almost entirely using government/military quotes, animations, videos, images and photos. The narrative is sourced from government quotes from start to finish. It unveils the government's numerous and ongoing programs related to artificial intelligence., "NBIC", the "Global Information Grid", nanotechnology, biotechnology, autonomous drones, "naval sea-bases", space weapons and weather modification. The makers of the video clearly had an agenda that exceeded mere information. Leaving aside the agenda, the video is nonetheless an introduction into types of technology that many civilians know little about.
TAI also issued a strange, very enthusiastic email alert about Irish free energy company Steorn (who I'm going to talk about a bit more in a later post) recently. David Brin takes a look at this one:
Interrupting our present topic, this just came in from the Arlington Institute:The Irish company Steorn, (www.steorn.com), in a brilliant strategic move, took out a full page ad in The Economist to tout their new energy technology (now called Orbo) which they say uses no input energy and produces usable output. They were soliciting for candidates for a jury of scientists to publically evaluate their claims. They got 4000 responses, 1000 of which were from scientists. Although initially looking for 12 jury members, they settled on 22 who are in the process of evaluating the technology and will issue a report in the fall.
As a physicist I must warn folks to be careful and skeptical. Moreover, it is vital that the appraisal jury include not only physicists and engineers, but at least a couple of professional magicians.
Yes, you read that right. In past cases, physicists -- who are used to honest experiements -- proved to be quite susceptible to illusions that professional illusionists, like the Great Randi, were able to uncover. Having said that, let me turn around and offer an unusual perspective... that people should watch out what they wish for.
It is one thing to vastly improve efficiency and sustainability... our cities should be covered with solar rooftops, for example. And the dogmatic-radical monsters who have undermined American science and energy research are bona fide traitors to humanity... On the other hand, a completely free energy source has dozens of implications that aren't likely to be pondered at first... implications that -- well -- it may take sci fi folk to conjure up. Implications that may turn out to be very worrisome and disturbing.
All in all, I'd prefer ten million solar roofs.
Along with the "World's Biggest problems" project I mentioned a while ago (which interestingly enough mentioned wisdom as the prime requirement for solving our problems rather than knowledge), TAI is also launching a project called the "WHETHERreport" which sounds rather like the "Delphi Pools" concept described in "The Shockwave Rider", with a mystic twist (while I'm not going to point out every parallel to the book that the items in this post make, pretty much everything included here does have a corresponding passage somewhere - I was originally thinking of something a little more ambitious where I effectively re-wrote the book using actual events, but this eventually proved too much of a lump to swallow given my fondness for trying to get some sort of blog post up each day).
Before every major global event, whether it is a tsunami or a terrorist event like 9/11, people around the world begin to have strong dreams about the impending catastrophe. These unusual dreams - and other intuitions, like visions and strong feelings - sometimes manifest themselves as explicit mental images, sometimes symbols, and sometimes a combination of the two.
This kind of dreaming is not limited to extraordinary individuals (although clearly some people appear to be more naturally sensitive than others), but the scientific literature and anecdotal reports suggest that many, if not most people at one time or another will have a particularly memorable intuition that turns out to be premonitional.
This dynamic has been noted by the law enforcement and intelligence communities, with a number of intelligence services and police agencies utilizing particular individuals who actively dream about threatening events. Christopher Robinson of the UK, for 15 years worked very successfully for Scotland Yard and other British intelligence and security services anticipating IRA bombings, drug movements, etc. Secondly, the participants in the now well-known but previously highly classified U.S. remote viewing program, had the ability (particularly after training) to visualize events and situations unlimited by space and time.
WHETHEReport will be a tailor-made web portal for this purpose: it will serve as an unprecedented community early-warning system, capable of providing timely alerts of impending major events, while at the same time exposing a new dimension of the human experience. This real-time monitoring of the "aggregate intuition" - or collective unconsciousness - of individuals around the globe could provide the first concrete indications of a common connection that exists between and among all humans.
The Arlington Institute's project "WHETHEReport" is predicated on the idea that before catastrophic, world changing events people have premonitional dreams that anticipate those events. While there have been a number of famous people throughout history who have accurately predicted the future, it also appears that almost everyone has intuitions from time to time in the form of dreams, visions, or simple gut feelings.
WHETHEReport would provide an online portal for people to create intuition journals which they could update daily. While maintaining complete privacy and anonymity, their reports will be scanned and aggregated with the most sophisticated sense making and pattern recognition technology available today to create visual displays of intuition clusters designed to identify potential catastrophic events.
Our hope is that through WHETHEReport human beings will have a system that can anticipate surprise events of global significance.
The Arlington Institute, a 501 c-3 non-profit, has for the last 18 years provided expert analysis to non-profits, governments and businesses. TAI's core business is creating scenarios. WHETHEReport's unique method of scenario generation, coupled with access to a network of futurists, leaders in technology innovation, and intuitives will produce results unrivaled by any previous experiment of this kind. Our established reputation in the futures community, combined with our comprehensive network, provide the technical experience, momentum and sustainability to be able to accomplish a project of this size.
Another Delphi Pool like idea that came out of the beltway was John Poindexter's "Policy Analysis Market" concept, which caused something of a furore. He was also the dude behind "Total Information Awareness", which was even more controversial and still has tinfoil types like the unreliable Wayne Madsen theorising away about every large data loss or theft known to man being part of an undercover attempt to drag all information into some hidden TIA program's databases.
One of the key ideas in Shockwave Rider is the notion of a Delphi group, or Delphi pool. Read on for Brunner's explanation from the book.It works, approximately, like this.
First you corner a large - if possible, a very large - number of people who, while they've never formally studied the subject you're going to ask them about and hence are unlikely to recall the correct answer, are nonetheless plugged into the culture to which the question relates. Then you ask them, as it might be, to estimate how many people died in the great influenza epidemic which followed World War I...
Curiously, when you consolidate their replies they tend to cluster around the actual figure as recorded in almanacs, yearbooks and statical returns. It's rather as though this paradox has proved true: that while nobody knows what's going on around here, everybody knows what's going on around here.
Well, if it works for the past, why can't it work for the future? Three hundred million people with access to the integrated North American data-net is a nice big number of potential consultees.
Perhaps the most striking attempt to make use of this kind of idea was the Policy Analysis Market (PAM), a proposed futures exchange developed by our friends at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). PAM was intended to be a kind of "futures market" for the Middle East; investors could trade futures based on political outcomes in the region.
The idea is that the monetary value of a particular "future" (a stated outcome in Middle East politics) would tend to increase as the outcome became more likely. That is, the value of a futures issue would tend to reflect the relative likelihood of that future actually occurring.
Unfortunately, it turned out that PAM would allow trading in such events as coup d'etats and assassinations; the resulting uproar caused the cancellation of PAM.
The name "Delphi pool" is derived from the pythia, or priestesses, of Delphi in ancient Greece. The pythia would take questions and make predictions (which modern-day geologists attribute to hydrocarbon gasses like ethylene, which bubbled up from the faults in the region).
The best article I could find on the Delphi Pool idea is this one on "Futurist Markets", which points to the original RAND paper (pdf) on the idea.
The recently blasted "terrorism futures" market isn't as bad an idea as it's been made out. DARPA's highly ideological embodiment was modeled on the commodities market, a questionable implementation that turned a means of measuring shared knowledge into an instrument of psyschological warfare. But the underlying idea consensus knowledge mining has been around for quite a while. And it's not a bad idea. As a matter of fact, I'd like to propose an entire society based on the principle.
Getting there requires a somewhat circuitous route. The first stop is an alternate future where these techniques are used and abused on a regular basis, pretty much along the DARPA line of thought. Then a short random walk down Wall Street to probe the concepts of information sharing and market efficiency. Briefly returning to the fantasy future for a glimpse of a democratic systhesis of public health and domestic intelligence as a humane alternative to DARPA's earlier attempt to make being spied on a way of life in the land of the free and the home of the brave. A quick lap around the racetrack examines market efficiency and consensus knowledge in parimutuel gambling (with a minor tip on sure-thing bets on the ponies). Agent Easy gave me a bit of a hard time for offering criticism on this site without making a counter proposal, so I'm going to pitch a market model that will not only beat the socks off of the DARPA flop but could help resolve some of the problems in our conflict-ridden world.
The Delphi Oracle
A quarter of a century ago, John Brunner wrote a landmark science fiction novel; one of the precursors of cyberpunk. Among other things, it introduced computer "worms" and "viruses" into the noosphere. And one of the central ideas of his vision of the future included public future prediction models. ...
The forecasting mechanism Brunner is talking about is the "Delphi Poll." It's a marvelous discovery of the distributed knowledge of the noosphere. As he says, even though nobody knows what's going on, everybody knows what's going on. It's true and it works.
The Delphi polling method was developed at RAND back in the late 1960s. In a nutshell, a Delphi poll is iterative feedback polling with confidence estimates.
Like most things in a nutshell, a little explanation is necessary. Iterative feedback means the poll results are presented to the sample group and the questions asked again. The process is repeated until the results start repeating themselves. As long as the answers keep changing, you continue the process. The confidence estimates mean that each question is really two: what do you think the answer is and how confident are you that your answer is correct. The confidence estimates are included in the results, so that everybody shares the information about the certainty or uncertainty of the answers. In some more elaborate versions, participants can include short comments on the questions, explain the reasons for their answers, discuss their reservations and share remarks about how the process is going.
The questions are usually phrased so they can be answered on a continuous scale, rather than the yes, no, or choose one of several divergent answers typical of polling techniques used to shape -- rather than measure -- public opinion. The goal of the Delphi process is to share knowledge and the participants are the first recipients of the shared knowledge. Again, this is quite different from opinion polling, which was strongly shaped by the wartime need to measure the effects of propaganda campaigns and psychological warfare.
As the Delphi poll proceeds, the answers typically gravitate towards one of two general outcomes. A shared consensus answer will show the results moving towards a single peak response, like the loaves of bread question in Brunner's example. A divided consensus produces usually two but occasionally more peaks in the response. A divided consensus can indicate that the question needs to be rephrased or split into more questions or that perhaps people just don't know.
Most Delphi polls operate on small numbers of participants, usually experts chosen for expertise in special areas of knowledge. There has not been much effort in constructing Delphi pools open to the public, though.
The Delphi process isn't a magic panacea and it doesn't always produce clear or correct results, but a majority of the time properly worded questions can elicit knowledge that was not previously accessible.
The DARPA project was not a Delphi poll, though it shares some aspects with it. Instead, the Political Analysis Market (PAM) was modeled on commodity futures exchanges. In one graphic of a dartboard (at the bottom of this page) the PAM site claimed better results than Delphi, but how they substantiated this claim is unclear. The now-vanished web site restated what is known as the "strong" version of the efficient market hypothesis -- the idea that markets capture all the information to the extent that prices accurately reflect the "true" value of a commodity.
The implication that in an efficient market prices match reality is a misunderstanding, albeit a very widespread one. What the efficient market hypothesis means is that you cannot systematically locate pricing errors in order to cash in. This is a whole different kettle of fish. Bad prices may predominate in an efficient market, but you can't find them. ...
In The Shockwave Rider, the problem with corrupt regulation of markets was addressed in an interesting manner. One of the novel's subplots involves a service organization named "Hearing Aid." The future in Shockwave Rider features a society where surveillance is total, except of course, for the favored elites. One absolutely secure means of communication does exist, however. Hearing Aid is a private service organization that provided a public health function: they listen. Anyone can dial ten nines into a phone and say anything they want, for as long as they want, about anything at all. At the end of the call, the Hearing Aid operator says, "Only I heard that. I hope it helped." The lines are secured by a massive computer worm/virus that inhabits the national data grid and defeats all attempts at evesdropping by the authorities.
In a world caving in under the stress of accelerated change, massive corruption and intrusive government, Hearing Aid performs a valuable service. It gives people a chance to unburden themselves without fear of reprisal. Given the high degree of surveilance (including continuous monitoring of the Delphi boards to maximize the "social mollification factor") in the future, not even the sanctity of privileged communication with a priest, therapist, lawyer or doctor is assured. So Hearing Aid is a unique safety-valve for the future-shocked.
It bears a lot of resemblance to Danius Maximus' proposal for a witness protection program for people who suddenly stumble out of the fun-house of the media simulacrum into the harsh daylight of real knowledge. Given the trend in the abolition of civil liberties and privacy rights under things like the Total Information Awareness (brought to you by the same wonderful folks at DARPA, but now renamed "Terrorist Information Awareness" -- making you a terrorist because the snoops are spying on you) and the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (which pretty much abolishes the concept of legal rights for the accused), there are a lot of people who need a safe place to unburden themselves of their knowledge of the crimes of the state.
Here's a key passage. Speaking are Nick Hafflinger, a computer prodigy who escaped from a government program, joined up with Hearing Aid, was captured and is now being interrogated by Paul T. Freeman, an investigator for the federal Bureau of Data Processing. Mr. Freeman is about to get a nasty suspicion confirmed:"But he was trusting Hearing Aid, wasn't he?"
"Yes, and that's one of the miracles performed by the service. While I was a minister I was resigned to having the croakers monitor the link to my confessional, even though what was said face-to-face in the actual booth was adequately private. And there was nothing to stop them noticing that a suspect had called on me, ambushing him as he left, and beating a repeat performance out of him. That type of dishonesty is at the root of our worst problem."
"I didn't know you acknowledged a 'worst' - you seem to find new problems daily. But go on."
"With pleasure. I'm sure that if I start to foam at the mouth there's a machine standing by to wipe my chin. . . . Oh, hell! It's hypocritical hair-splitting that makes me boil! Theoretically any one of us has access to more information than ever in history, and any phone booth is a gate to it. But suppose you live next door to a poker who's suddenly elected to the state congress, and six weeks later he's had a hundred thousand-dollar face-lift for his house. Try to find out how he came by the money; you get nowhere. Or try confirming that the company you work for is going to be sold and you're apt to be tossed on the street with no job, three kids and a mortgage. Other people seem to have the information. What about the shivver in the next office who's suddenly laughing when he used to mope? Has he borrowed to buy the firm's stock, knowing he can sell for double and retire?"
"Are you quoting calls to Hearing Aid?"
"Yes,- both are actual cases. I bend the rules because I know that if I don't you'll break me."
"Are you claiming those are typical?"
"Sure they are. Out of all the calls taken, nearly half - I think they say forty-five percent - are from people who are afraid someone else knows data that they don't and is gaining an unfair advantage by it. For all the claims one hears about the liberating impact of the data-net, the truth is that it's wished on most of us a brand-new reason for paranoia."
Meanwhile, back here in the real world, we find the web playing a role very similar to Hearing Aid, but (sigh) without the facility of being centralized through a face-to-face community. There are advantages to the world wide world. Human contact being the first that comes to mind. The Shockwave Rider is a novel, after all, and we are stuck here in a world in conflict. ...
One of the serious flaws in the PAM scheme was the lack of a free market in issues. The participants in the market were restricted to a set of "stocks" limited by the operators of the market. As some people have pointed out, this only allowed predictions based on previous assumptions. The parimutuel example outlined above would operate as a free market -- the restrictions on issues would be fairly narrow and almost any question would be fair game.
Likewise, the presence of derivatives in the PAM scheme opens the door to substantial inefficiencies without improving the underlying accuracy of the system as a whole. The Information Warfare Site's copy of PAM screens shows (at the very bottom of the page) an example of derivatives. The prices shown are perfectly calculated. However, the "random walk" of the bidding on the derivative prices would almost certainly open up opportunities for sure-thing bets exactly like the derivative inefficiencies exploited by Ed Thorp. The parimutuel market does not allow derivatives and thereby avoids a needless source of pricing inefficiency.
A major problem in policy "markets" these days is the tendency towards groupthink and politicized intelligence. Public opinion polling doesn't address this problem because it is neither free nor open. The issues polled are not determined by the participants and the pool of participants is closed. The sampling bias of polling organizations is due to small pool sizes and different selection rule for choosing who gets asked, leading to the consistant biases noted by Dr. Pollkatz. In The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner offers the example of Hearing Aid as a way of increasing the transparency of information in society. The parimutuel predictions market would offer a similar function. Got a conspiracy theory? Put your money where your mouth is. Got a whistle-blowing situation? Step up to the window and buy your ticket. Think a situation needs some fresh air and daylight? Place your bets.
Currently, the transformation of the politics and the media into entertainment has made emotion the deciding coin of the realm. How about making reality the coin of the realm? Unlike the current game, the parimutuel Delphi pool offers substantial rewards for being in the minority and being right.
There is, of course, a system of government based on people being able to directly influence the policies that govern their lives. It's called democracy. Scott Buchanan has argued that democracy is not just a form of government but it is the basis of all government -- because no government can function indefinitely without the consent of the governed. Maybe it's worth a try.
The Shockwave Rider plebiscite
In The Shockwave Rider, the dramatic resolution comes about by a sudden collapse in the secrecy necessary to maintain corruption in government. The upshot of this new public awareness is a plebiscite calling for a more open and fair government that would abolish corrupt privilege:
THE CONTENT OF THE PROPOSITIONS
#1: That this is a rich planet. Therefore, poverty and hunger are unworthy of it, and since we can abolish them, we must.
#2: That we are a civilized species. Therefore, none shall henceforth gain illicit advantage by reason of the fact that we together know more than one of us can know.
THE OUTCOME OF THE PLEBISCITE
Well -- how did you vote?
The Long Now has a look at another form of Delphi Pool - this one a prediction market for weather forecasting (they also have an interesting post on "Public data and proprietary systems".
This is a very short article on how economists are using prediction markets to predict weather at least as good as meteorologists, which is not very good:
Penn State Researchers Testing Futures Markets For Weather Forecasting
UNIVERSITY PARK, PA (March 21, 2007) – Economists at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business and College of Earth and Mineral Sciences are testing whether futures markets can be used to accurately forecast the weather, and, so far, they’ve found the markets to be just as accurate as major forecasting services.
The 60 participants in this predictions market experiment, which is in the midst of a two-year run at Smeal’s Laboratory for Economics Management and Auctions, are mostly students studying business or meteorology at Penn state. They use allotted funds to bet on what they believe the high and low temperatures will be in different U.S. cities on a given day. As the going rates for various temperatures fluctuate within the market, the researchers can weigh the market’s confidence in what temperatures will be reached.
To date, the weather markets have been as accurate as the major public forecasting services that serve as benchmarks for the research: AccuWeather, the BBC, CNN, and the National Weather Service. On average, the temperatures predicted by the markets have been off by only about 6.6 percent.
In addition, the results so far show the market to be far more profitable for traders who are studying meteorology than those who are studying business. This is consistent with economic and financial models that suggest that better informed traders can reap substantial profits from their inside information.
“Investors, political pundits, and sports fans have all used futures markets to successfully predict everything from presidential elections to World Series champions,” said Anthony Kwasnica, associate professor of business economics at Smeal. “Our experiment is along those same lines. By using markets to forecast something as unpredictable as the weather, we’re testing the limitations of futures markets.”
Each participant in the experiment, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, has the opportunity to buy and sell contracts that represent a particular temperature range. For instance, the markets for March 8 were focused on Tucson, Ariz., and participants could buy or sell contracts betting on a high temperature of 74 degrees or less, 75 to 76 degrees, 77 to 78 degrees, 79 to 80 degrees, 81 to 82 degrees, or 83 degrees or more.
Each contract represents a commitment by the seller to pay the buyer $1 if the temperature falls within the specified range of the contract. Participants can base their decisions to buy or sell contracts on any information available to them, including weather forecasts.
In the Tucson example, if a participant thinks that the high temperature will be 81 degrees on March 8, he offers to buy an 81- to 82-degree contract for a price of up to $1, which he determines based on his level of confidence in his prediction. A seller can then accept or reject the offer.
If the offer is accepted and 81 degrees is indeed the high temperature on record at the end of the day, then the seller of the contract pays the buyer $1. Thus, the seller loses and buyer gains the difference between $1 and what he paid for the contract.
If the high temperature is outside of the 81- to 82-degree window, then the buyer loses what he paid to the seller for the contract and the seller wins.
The going price of the contracts, which are listed on a Web site run by LEMA, determines the market’s confidence in the likelihood of a particular high or low temperature being recorded - a high price on a particular temperature reflects a high degree of confidence that the temperature estimate will be accurate. Thus, the markets can provide a measure of uncertainty associated with the prediction, something not typically provided by weather forecasters.
The cities and dates chosen for the experiment follow those used in the WxChallenge, a weather forecasting competition developed at the University of Oklahoma. The market’s forecasting accuracy will ultimately be judged in comparison to the accuracy of the forecasters participating in the WxChallenge. So far, the predictions markets are just as accurate as the WxChallenge consensus forecast.
One last example of unusual predictive markets comes from Jamais Cascio, pointing to a creepy article on "assassination markets".
A Killer Deal: Concept of the week: Assassination Markets, a prediction market wherein profits are made by knowing the date of a particular negative event, possibly (but not always) by being the entity that makes said negative event happen. The canonical example is a bet made on the date of the assassination of a given political figure by a person who then carries out that assassination as described; the possible real world example is the conjecture that a variety of short-sell orders on airline stocks made just before 9/11 originated from terrorist groups that knew of the upcoming attack.
Moving back to the "think tanks" theme, while SAIC isn't a think tank (its more like a larger, technology based equivalent of Halliburton) it could be considered the commercial or operational form of RAND in some ways. Vanity Fair has an interesting profile (or outrageous criticism of, depending on your point of view) of Washington's $8 Billion Shadow.
Mega-contractors such as Halliburton and Bechtel supply the government with brawn. But the biggest, most powerful of the "body shops" - SAIC, which employs 44,000 people and took in $8 billion last year-sells brainpower, including a lot of the "expertise" behind the Iraq war.
One of the great staples of the modern Washington movie is the dark and ruthless corporation whose power extends into every cranny around the globe, whose technological expertise is without peer, whose secrets are unfathomable, whose riches defy calculation, and whose network of allies, in and out of government, is held together by webs of money, ambition, and fear. You've seen this movie a dozen times. Men in black coats step from limousines on wintry days and refer guardedly to unspeakable things. Surveillance cameras and eavesdropping devices are everywhere. Data scrolls across the movie screen in digital fonts. Computer keyboards clack softly. Seemingly honorable people at the summit of power-Cabinet secretaries, war heroes, presidents-turn out to be pathetic pawns of forces greater than anyone can imagine. And at the pinnacle of this dark and ruthless corporation is a relentless and well-tailored titan-omniscient, ironic, merciless-played by someone like Christopher Walken or Jon Voight.
To be sure, there isn't really such a corporation: the Omnivore Group, as it might be called. But if there were such a company-and, mind you, there isn't-it might look a lot like the largest government contractor you've never heard of: a company known simply by the nondescript initials SAIC (for Science Applications International Corporation), initials that are always spoken letter by letter rather than formed into a pronounceable acronym. SAIC maintains its headquarters in San Diego, but its center of gravity is in Washington, D.C. With a workforce of 44,000, it is the size of a full-fledged government agency-in fact, it is larger than the departments of Labor, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development combined. Its anonymous glass-and-steel Washington office-a gleaming corporate box like any other-lies in northern Virginia, not far from the headquarters of the C.I.A., whose byways it knows quite well. (More than half of SAIC's employees have security clearances.) SAIC has been awarded more individual government contracts than any other private company in America. The contracts number not in the dozens or scores or hundreds but in the thousands: SAIC currently holds some 9,000 active federal contracts in all. More than a hundred of them are worth upwards of $10 million apiece. Two of them are worth more than $1 billion. The company's annual revenues, almost all of which come from the federal government, approached $8 billion in the 2006 fiscal year, and they are continuing to climb. SAIC's goal is to reach as much as $12 billion in revenues by 2008. As for the financial yardstick that really gets Wall Street's attention-profitability-SAIC beats the S&P 500 average. Last year ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil company, posted a return on revenue of 11 percent. For SAIC the figure was 11.9 percent. If "contract backlog" is any measure-that is, contracts negotiated and pending-the future seems assured. The backlog stands at $13.6 billion. That's one and a half times more than the backlog at KBR Inc., a subsidiary of the far better known government contractor once run by Vice President Dick Cheney, the Halliburton Company.
It is a simple fact of life these days that, owing to a deliberate decision to downsize government, Washington can operate only by paying private companies to perform a wide range of functions. To get some idea of the scale: contractors absorb the taxes paid by everyone in America with incomes under $100,000. In other words, more than 90 percent of all taxpayers might as well remit everything they owe directly to SAIC or some other contractor rather than to the IRS. In Washington these companies go by the generic name "body shops"-they supply flesh-and-blood human beings to do the specialized work that government agencies no longer can. Often they do this work outside the public eye, and with little official oversight-even if it involves the most sensitive matters of national security. The Founding Fathers may have argued eloquently for a government of laws, not of men, but what we've got instead is a government of body shops.
The unhappy business practices of the past few years in Iraq-cost overruns, incompetence, and corruption on a pharaonic scale-have made the American public keenly aware of the activities of mega-contractors such as Halliburton and Bechtel. Although SAIC takes on government projects such as those pursued by contractors like these, it does not belong in exactly the same category. Halliburton and Bechtel supply the government's brawn. They pour concrete, roll out concertina wire, build infrastructure. They call on bullnecked men to provide protection.
In contrast, SAIC is a body shop in the brain business. It sells human beings who have a particular expertise-expertise about weapons, about homeland security, about surveillance, about computer systems, about "information dominance" and "information warfare." If the C.I.A. needs an outside expert to quietly check whether its employees are using their computers for personal business, it calls on SAIC. If the Immigration and Naturalization Service needs new record-keeping software, it calls on SAIC. Indeed, SAIC is willing to provide expertise about almost anything at all, if there happens to be a government contract out there to pay for it-as there almost always is. Whether SAIC actually possesses all the expertise that it sells is another story. ...
Any peak oilers still reading will, of course, remember that one of the most prominent studies of peak oil was the Hirsch report - also from SAIC.
I quite enjoyed this story from The Daily Reckoning on the profits being made by some of the other members of the military industrial complex, as well as the new propaganda movie "300", in "Bush Administration Hopes '300' Will Increase War Support".
Go tell the Cretins, you who read;
We took their orders, and are dead.
- Based on inscription at Thermopylae, with apologies
The Bush administration is hoping that the new film, 300, will give the troop surge a lift with the public. The film glorifies the sacrifice of 300 Spartan warriors who held back an invading army of over 100,000 Persians in 480 B.C.
Choosing their terrain well, the Spartans managed to neutralize much of the Persians advantage; while the Persians had many, many more troops, they could only get a few of them to the line of battle at a time. But the Greeks could see they were on the losing side of this fight. The Thespians, fighting alongside the Spartans, withdrew while the Spartans decided to stay and fight to the last man. They might have done so as a purely military necessity, holding off the enemy so as to give their allies time to retreat and regroup; or they might have fought on simply for the glory of it. We don't know.
We do know that they managed to hold their ground for a couple more days, until a fellow Greek, Ephialties, betrayed them by showing Xerxes how to outflank his opponents. Then, the Persians got behind the Spartans and rained down arrows upon them until they were all dead.
Leonidas's body was recovered, beheaded and crucified. But the rest of the surviving Greeks were then able to take up the fight; and, in a number of calamities and misadventures, the Easterners were finally driven back across the straits to Asia Minor. Western civilization was saved.
According to today's neo-conservative apparatchiks, we are once again involved in an epic struggle - a clash of civilizations between the free West and the tyrannical East. Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Philip Zelikow - this handful of men (probably no more than 300 of them), pushed a bright, shining war on a dim yahoo of a president. Together, they see themselves like Leonidas at the Pass of Thermopylae, guarding our western way of life, without even getting their suits dirty. The sacrifice of others is worthwhile, they believe.
But now, after four years with neither victory nor defeat in hand, it is too late for earnest criticism; instead, the time has come for gratuitous ridicule.
The targets are many. For instance, against whom the war in Iraq is being waged (or why) has yet to be fully clarified. Every question on the subject brings a response that only deepens the mystery.
But the costs are becoming clearer every day. So far, Britain's Ministry of Defense admits to having spent 5 billion pounds on the war in direct costs. Indirect costs are sure to be many times that figure. America's total is much larger - $505 billion of U.S. 'taxpayers money' has been spent or approved. The biggest of all liar's loans?
Of course, we are already in the Land of Lies. Neither the British taxpayer nor his American counterpart has any spare money; their taxes were already earmarked for other boondoggles. Still, the U.S. President asked for another $100 billion of it on Monday, and is expected to request $140 billion more for 2008, bringing the total to over $700 billion. Looking ahead, to the cost of caring for wounded and incapacitated soldiers, the whole thing is expected to cost more than $1 trillion.
Since we're tallying, we cannot fail to mention the cost in lives. 3,205 U.S. soldiers have died, and 134 British soldiers. More than 24,000 Americans have been seriously wounded. Iraqi casualties, if anyone is keeping score, may top half a million.
Meanwhile, George W. Bush asked Congress for the latest $100 billion draw, without strings and without delay - or else the war might have to be called off, he seemed to warn. The politicians bent over and checked under the cushions, but the spare change they recovered came nowhere close to $100 billion. They are already facing budget deficits of a half a trillion over the next two years. Where would the extra money come from? What would the extra strain do to the finances of the nation - or to the value of the dollar? How was the investment expected to pay off? No one knew. No one even asked.
But as for the strings, everyone knew exactly what the chief executive was talking about -even the chief executive himself. Lawmakers have come to see the war, not as a real war, but merely as just another spending opportunity, with live ammunition. To the latest demand for cash, the polls have attached a number of pork-barrel provisions, including $25 million for spinach growers, $100 million for citrus growers, $74 million for peanut storage, $4 billion for 'emergency payments' to farmers, and $283 million for milk subsidies. Who says there isn't progress in human affairs? The U.S. congress has managed to improve upon the old Roman formula - they've combined bread, circuses and war in a single spending bill.
Every war has its profiteers. Neither in love, nor in war do you stop to count the costs. But a phony war is a bigger opportunity than most, because there is no patriotic necessity to win. Unlike the Spartans, the Cretins know Iraq poses no real danger to the homeland. So everyone gets into the spirit of the war as it really is.
Halliburton, Lockheed, and Bechtel inflate prices, take money for nothing, and gouge taxpayers for useless weapons and unnecessary supplies. In one report, truckers reported that they were asked to drive empty trucks back and forth across the desert, carrying sailboat fuel so that contractors could bill the government for delivery. A total of $9 billion has been officially lost or unaccounted for.
War critics will complain about the waste of money involved. They will point to this week's polls, showing the war to be so ineffective that the average Iraqi now regards democracy with suspicion, and finds it acceptable to kill U.S. and British troops. The more the U.S. government tries to improve the lives of the Iraqis, the more Iraqis seem to want to get even. Given the deadly drift of things, wasted spending may turn out to be the best spending the Bush team did.
"There will be good days and there will be bad days," said the American president, stoically. And he's right- but they won't be shared out equally. The spinach growers, milk producers, and weapons contractors will get the good days. The poor grunts, the Iraqis and the taxpayers will get the bad ones.
But what about the Cretins? In the film, as in the battle, the Spartans were wiped out. "Spartans. Tonight we dine in hell," Leonidas was said to remark. Later, a shower of arrows so thick they blotted out the sun, according to Herodotus, came down on them. The Spartans fell; but Greece was saved.
We don't know how far the parallels go. The U.S. military presence in Iraq hardly seems like 300 Spartans defending the homeland. Instead, it seems more like the Persian Empire invading someone else's homeland.
Adam Curtis' (of "The Power of Nightmares" and "The Century of the Self") latest TV documentary is called "The Trap - What Happened to Our Dreams of Freedom". Madeleine Bunting has a review in The Guardian.
What will define the 21st century? When the question was put to a wide range of thinkers by Prospect magazine, the answers read like the horsemen of the apocalypse - disease, disaster, mayhem. Not cheerful bedtime reading then. The comments of philosopher, Jonathan Ree seemed to sum it all up: at the beginning of the 20th century, "the main emotion behind most people's politics was hope: hope for science, for free trade, for social democracy, for national efficiency, for world government". That sentiment has now been replaced, he argued, by indignation. "People are more interested in bearing witness to their personal moral righteousness" than in engaging in open-minded debate.
Optimism and a belief in progress are now the implausible preserve of Labour party apparatchiks who are regarded as at best deluded, at worst as cynically trying to preserve their own legitimacy. The rest of us have little faith in the capacity of human beings for self-sacrifice or cooperation to avert climate change or any of the other predicted catastrophes that fill the media.
Gloomy thoughts for a Monday morning. Last night the BBC television series The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom began, claiming to explain how we have managed to land ourselves in this miasma of misery. Its director, Adam Curtis, has built a reputation on tracing how ideas shape political and social trends. This series, though his most dense, could be his most important yet. Ultimately, its message is optimistic - better understanding of the trap we're in will help us find a way out.
The central tenet of the argument is that during the cold war an understanding of human nature as suspicious, distrustful and always operating out of self-interest came to dominate political thinking. From that emerged a narrow definition of freedom as "giving people the ability to get whatever they wanted". This kind of freedom has become the central political idea of the past 25 years, but it's a corrosive form of pessimism rooted in a bleak, simplistic view of human nature.
It all goes back to the bizarre world of cold-war strategists in America developing sophisticated ways to achieve the "delicate balance of terror". They seized upon game theory that originated in poker playing as a way of rationally calculating your opponent's moves and therefore your own. How many Soviet cities would you have to nuke to deter the Soviets from nuking New York? The theory was that the suspicious distrustfulness of both sides in the cold war created a kind of stability.
If that was the case for nuclear weapons, perhaps the model could be applied elsewhere? John Nash, a mathematical genius at the US thinktank Rand and subject of the film A Beautiful Mind, took game theory further and developed the Nash equilibrium, which argued that the rational pursuit of self-interest by human beings could lead to a kind of social order. Selfishness didn't have to lead to social breakdown. ...
The Guardian also had a roundup of reviews for episode one:
The Trap - What Happened to Our Dreams of Freedom (BBC2) must have one of the longest titles for any television programme anywhere. But did it match the intellectual headiness generated by documentary maker Adam Curtis's previous effort, the Power of Nightmares?
Zoe Williams in the Guardian found the ideas interesting but quibbled with the programme." 'Fuck You, Buddy' is the first part in a series (The Trap - What Happened to Our Dreams of Freedom, Sunday, BBC2) about civil liberties. The 'inflammatory' name refers to a game invented by the mathematician John Forbes Nash, whom they actually draft in here, which at first I thought lent it authority, and later on I decided was just because, well, he's mad, innee?
"Frankly, as interesting as game theory is, and it is interesting, I couldn't help thinking, 'Hold the front page! Paranoid schizophrenic thinks rest of world is out to get each other!' A number of other game theorists were wheeled out. They're all pretty old now, and they pause for so long you think the telly's on pause. I kept thinking the dog was sitting on the remote. 'That dog is probably out to screw me,' I thought. 'It will serve him better, in the long run, than cooperating with me.'
James Walton in the Daily Telegraph wondered whether less confident film maker than Adam Curtis might have been tempted to add a question mark to the title.
Adam Curtis, though, is not a man beset by self-doubt. In his first series since The Power of Nightmares, Curtis explains with characteristic certainty how the concept of personal liberty has been perverted by our political rulers. His basic methods are pretty familiar too. Highly impressionistic visuals are combined with eye-opening archive clips. Meanwhile, Curtis's off-screen voice provides an exhilaratingly intelligent essay, which delights in making unexpected connections -- and in showing that what might seem intractable facts of human existence are really just intellectual fashions.
Last night's programme began during the Cold War. Back then, American scientists developed a strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union that essentially (and perhaps rightly) depended on being paranoid. Assuming that your enemy wanted to destroy you was, they believed, the rational starting point for stopping him doing so.
If you plucked up enough courage, it was possible to disagree with some of Curtis's points -- and even to wonder if he's mildly paranoid himself. (For a start, mightn't our rulers be somewhat more bumbling than he acknowledges?)
Nonetheless, I can't think of another current documentary-maker with the same ability to step back from the most precious received wisdoms of our age -- and to examine them in a way that suddenly makes the world look so different.
Thomas Sutcliffe in the Independent, said Curtis's powers of film-making were like a TV hypnotist's."As a stream of enigmatic and suggestive images flicker past your eyes, nudging the brain's gearbox into neutral, that calm, steady voice talks quietly in your ear, building its chain of intellectual consequences with such steady conviction that you almost forget that is it just one argument among many and that it might actually be contradicted by a viewer less stupefied by his skill.
"It's a deeply seductive style and it achieves its effect, I think, by the way that it combines visuals layers with allusion and insinuation with a very old fashioned linear narrative, which in consequence follows cause with neat, almost reassuring clarity."
From the comments:
My concern would be that Curtis himself has a tendency towards reduction. No, sorry, I take that back. My real concern would be that there aren't enough polemical filmmakers on television. Curtis only has the hour in which to make his argument, i.e., our current state of mind is down to the Rand Corporation and other relatively obscure bogeymen. And so the documentary form forces Curtis to produce an argument that is itself only half-true and reductive. Perhaps in future the BBC could enrich the debate via a website, dedicated to the latest Curtis TX, featuring additional/opposing views in the form of user generated content? Also, I would love to see Curtis applying his rhetorical style to highlight unforeseen benefits derived from 50s/60s conspiring.
And finally, the concept of the government being taken over by organised crime of one sort or another that The Shockwave Rider pondered has been a staple of literature (and the news) for some time - you could ponder Eisenhower's warning about the military industrial complex as one variant of this, but I always like the way the movie "Goodfellas" put it:
Now the guy's got Paulie as a partner. Any problems, he goes to Paulie. Trouble with a bill, he can go to Paulie. Trouble with the cops, deliveries, Tommy, he can call Paulie. But now the guy's got to come up with Paulie's money every week. No matter what. Business bad? Fuck you, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? Fuck you, pay me. The place got hit by lightning, huh? Fuck you, pay me. Also, Paulie could do anything. Especially run up bills on the joint's credit. And why not? Nobody's gonna pay for it anyway. And as soon as the deliveries are made in the front door, you move the stuff out the back and sell it at a discount. You take a two hundred dollar case of booze and you sell it for a hundred. It doesn't matter. It's all profit. And then finally, when there's nothing left, when you can't borrow another buck from the bank or buy another case of booze, you bust the joint out. You light a match.
And of course, there is always just your garden variety corrupt politicians:
Nearly two years after federal agents reported finding $90,000 in a freezer in his Washington home, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson has been charged with a global campaign to solicit bribes, obstruct justice and engage in racketeering, Justice Department officials said Monday.
The veteran Louisiana Democrat faces 16 criminal counts, said Alice Fisher, assistant U.S. attorney general in the criminal division. "This case is about greed, power and arrogance," said Joe Persichini, director of the FBI's Washington field office, which led the investigation. In addition to the racketeering and solicitation charges, Jefferson has been charged with money laundering, wire fraud, conspiracy and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
I think I'll finish with a couple of quotes - the first from Zbigniew Brzezinski with a top down view of the value of information:
"The technotronic era involves the gradual appearance of a more controlled society. Such a society would be dominated by an elite, unrestrained by traditional values. [T]he capacity to assert social and political control over the individual will vastly increase. It will soon be possible to assert almost continuous surveillance over every citizen and to maintain up-to-date, complete files, containing even most personal information about the health or personal behavior of the citizen in addition to more customary data. These files will be subject to instantaneous retrieval by the authorities."
Zbigniew Brzezinski (protege of David Rockefeller, cofounder of the Trilateral Commission, and National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter), Between Two Ages, 1971
And the picture on Ron Paul's desk: