There are some elephants in the room that Chairman Bruce would like to show to us.
[Opening ceremony speech from transmediale2014]
Presenting the fact and fiction of tomorrow since 2001
There are some elephants in the room that Chairman Bruce would like to show to us.
[Opening ceremony speech from transmediale2014]
Or maybe not; very much depends on how you see causality in action in geopolitics, really. But enough with the preamble. I can’t seem to locate where I first said it (though I’m pretty sure it was on Twitter, around the time the Egyptian revolution was really hotting up), but I remember someone joking about how a Middle Eastern country had managed to achieve regime change almost in spite of the best status quo reinforcement efforts of the West, and me responding that – if the revolutions turned out to be even remotely successful – the very meddlers who caused the whole damn mess would start claiming the revolution as the hard-won victory that they’d always been aiming for in the first place.
To me, this is an ideal sort of SysAdmin intervention opportunity: keep it small and proportional and elevate in response to events. Big point: not pre-emptive but responsive. You want to ride with globalization’s natural tide as much as possible, letting the “new map” tell you where to apply pressure next, thus making local demand your primary guide.
Naturally, the fearful and paranoid will see the usual Western plot to grab oilfields, but denying the bottom-up nature on this one reduces them to sheer lying.
Don’t think anyone’s denying the “bottom-up nature”, Mister Barnett, but framing a violent popular uprising in an oil-rich country as an “opportunity” is rather to invite the very criticism you claim to be paranoid, despite the historical precedents, no? Where you see an “ideal sysadmin opportunity”, a lot of other people can see a country shaking off the legacy of decades of sloppy sysadmin work… and looking at the state of the prospective sysadmin’s own hardware at the moment, I’m not sure it acts as a great curriculum vitae for someone looking to tell other people how to run a safe and secure server, do you? But wait for it…
Me? I see a beautiful, globalization-driven process at work here. Let it roll! Because I like our longer-term odds versus those of the Iranians, al-Qaeda and the Wahhabist Saudis. Then again, victory was never in doubt–just timing and cost.
Bingo! That didn’t take long, did it? Political shamanism: if I wait long enough, the sun will rise just like I the gods promised it would! Now, where’s my private cave and mammoth-skin blanket, eh? Plenty more insightful prolepsis where that came from, but you’re gonna need to keep me sweet if you want the benefits thereof…
(For the record, I’m on the same page as Barnett when it comes to seeing the globalisation process as an inevitability driven by a huge number of complex interacting factors, and as – over the long term, at least – a net good for the entire human species. Where we disagree is at the point where each step in the globalisation process becomes a crack into which the prybar of American influence should be poked; if the last ten years haven’t shown you that the cost of meddling with other people’s countries isn’t far too high to justify the rewards – not just for your own people, but the people whose countries you decide to reorder – then I doubt anything I can say will convince you to the contrary.)
Just a quick one: among the folk among my Twitter cloud, this list of potential explanations from the BBC’s Paul Mason for “why everything’s kicking off” at the moment did the rounds maybe three times over the course of the weekend, and with some justification. A few highlights:
6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.
16. There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.
A minty-fresh blast of optimistic air, there. Well, James Nicoll is oftn quoted as saying “whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts”; in a naked remix thereof, I’ll say that whenever I feel my chest swell with optimism about current events, I read Bruce Sterling. Here’s the Chairman’s point-by-point besnarking of Mason’s list; by way of balance, two highlights:
4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected. (((Unless you count Birtherism and climate-denial as hermetic ideologies, ’cause they are)))
14. In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week. (((Revolution of the Dilettantes! Good luck getting these multitasking mayflies to govern anything.)))
I remember asking Sterling in an interview I ran here a while back what made him feel positive about the next few decades, and I quite deservedly got my own naive arse served to me on a plate*:
I don’t even do “positive” and “negative” potential. I sincerely think that attitude makes people actively stupid about the future.
History is what it is. Major change-drivers, true historical forces, they have little to do with people’s innate need for pep-talk. If you want to help people deal with futurity, you need to think talk and act in a way that clarifies the situation — not within mental frameworks that are dystopian, utopian, miserabilist, hunky-dory, apocaphiliac, Singularitarian, millennialist… wishful thinking just isn’t serious thinking. We’re wishful about the future because it hasn’t happened yet, but the future is history. Tomorrow is quite similar to all the other days in history, with the quite small difference that it’s personally happening to us.
Anything that’s got “potential” has always got some positive and negative potential. Otherwise it’s not even “potential.”
I try hard to live that lesson these days. Some days, of course – especially in difficult times – you just want to feel a little bit better about tomorrow. Which is fair enough, I guess, so long as you stay aware that it’s just soma, and don’t smoke the stuff 24/7…
… athough, of course, that’s probably the sound of me arguing in favour of my own mental crutches.
[ * I actually got off lightly; I don’t remember where I saw it, but someone was talking about having interviewed Sterling and asking him at the end “was there anything I missed?”, to which Sterling replied “no, you asked all the usual questions”. Ouch. ]
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When corporations get big, stuff starts getting weird. Facebook is now sufficently large and internationally ubiquitous to be playing a part (albeit a passive/enabling part) in the recent spate of revolutions in the Middle East… but that involvement puts them on the same playing field as nation-states.
For example, Tunisian Facebook users reported some account hacks, which led Zuckerberg’s people to block the government-ordered man-in-the-middle attack that was behind said hacks [via TechDirt]. Now, on one level that’s just a company looking after the interests and privacy of its client-base… but on another level, that’s a non-nation-state entity blocking a nation-state’s attempts to control its citizens. Not entirely unprecedented, of course (East India Companies, anyone?), but the post-geopolitical implications are… well, let’s just say a lot of old certainties have pretty much disappeared, especially for less-developed nations with a recent history of despotism, but increasingly for the old “first world” titans, too.
My inner cynic suspects that there’s more than a hint of good PR strategy involved, though; Facebook has suffered from the inevitable bad press that comes with becoming big news real fast, but they’ve earned much of that opprobrium fair and square… and largely through a cavalier attitude to the privacy of their userbase, ironically enough. Their latest we-opted-you-in-while-you-weren’t-looking move is a real doozy; take it away, Ars Technica:
Better go check your Facebook profile pic to make sure it’s suitable for advertising—the company has begun using real users’ postings in ads being shown to their friends. The effort is eerily similar to parts of the now-defunct Facebook Beacon, but Facebook is now calling them “sponsored stories,” and users won’t be able to opt out of their posts being used to advertise to friends.
The new “feature” started showing up quietly on Wednesday morning without any kind of fanfare from Facebook, but users began to notice it right away. Things posted by their friends; check-ins at businesses and “Likes” clicked from other websites started being highlighted in the right-hand column with the other ads, under the headline of “Sponsored Story.”
It’s the lack of opt-out that will rile people as this story gains traction (which, given similar stories last year, I fully expect it will). Furthermore, the Facebook T&C clickwrap now says that any content you post there – pictures, status updates, blog posts, whatever – becomes Facebook’s IP to do with as it pleases. Makes sense from a business point of view, enables them to keep the service free to use, and probably won’t bother the vast majority of people… but I’ll be switching off all my feed imports from now on. For me at least, Facebook’s utility is outweighed by my feeling that if my content’s worth anything to anyone, I should be getting some cut of the deal… but in countries hungry for political change, whose citizens find themselves with an unprecedented tool-set for self-organisation, the balances tip in the other direction.
How Facebook decides to wield this power will be worth watching closely. We spoke before about wanting to become “citizens of the Internet”; if we think of “the Internet” as a sort of federation of city-states, Facebook starts looking remarkably like a panopticon remix of Brave New World.
Not that I expect governments and military bureaucracies to change course in response to sensible thinking from qualified experts, the guy who penned (or rather keyed) The Hacker’s Handbook back in the day has co-authored a report that suggests the recently fashionable wing-flapping over “cyberwar” is counterproductive:
Published today, Reducing Systemic Cybersecurity Risk says that a true cyberwar would have the destructive effects of conventional war but be fought exclusively in cyberspace – and as such is a “highly unlikely” occurrence.
Controversially, the OECD advises nations against adopting the Pentagon’s idea of setting up a military division – as it has under the auspices of the US air force’s Space Command – to fight cyber-security threats. While vested interests may want to see taxpayers’ money spent on such ventures, says Sommer, the military can only defend its own networks, not the private-sector critical networks we all depend on for gas, water, electricity and banking.
Co-authored with computer scientist Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute, UK, the report says online attacks are unlikely ever to have global significance on the scale of, say, a disease pandemic or a run on the banks. But they say “localised misery and loss” could be caused by a successful attack on the internet’s routing structure, which governments must ensure are defended with investment in cyber-security training.
Personally, I think the Pentagon’s bluster and chest-thumping over “cyberwar” is thrown into an interesting light by the increasingly inescapable conclusion that they played a large part in commissioning the Stuxnet worm; as Chairman Bruce puts it, “what’s worse, strategically: Stuxnet, or proliferating Iranian nuclear weapons? How about a world where you’ve got proliferating Stuxnets AND proliferating Iranian nuclear weapons?”
Pandora’s box strikes again; code is far easier and cheaper to reverse engineer than a nuke, and requires no expensive and/or dangerous physical contraband. Beware of starting a knife-fight in a downtown full of ninjas.
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