Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Frankenstein, version 1078.78, build 22

Medium has an excellent piece up ostensibly on the cozy relationship between the national security state and Google.  Its really much more about the foundation of American innovation since roughly the end of the first Bush administration, when the old cold warriors looked around at the wreckage of the world and, despite their eventual determination to burn their prophets, decided they needed to get the Internet into everything so they could control the world they'd won.

The story is nothing new, then, in one respect, because that's been going on for a very long time, at least since WWII.  The history up to the 80s was ably dealt with in Stuart Leslie's unjustly ignored book The Cold War and American Science.  I've gone through a few copies of that book.  One I lent to a young woman who was subletting a room one summer in a flat in San Francisco that I also lived in.  She was back visiting the west coast for the summer and didn't want to live with her parents, one of whom was a very famous co-founder of a very famous (and now defunct) hardware-software company that was instrumental in building and managing much of the modern plumbing of the Internet.  Jenn was (and probably still is) a lovely young woman with a dumb boyfriend, who'd decided to go into art gallery management, but her parents had made her and her brother travel the world and work in near-complete poverty a few times, so they wouldn't grow up assholes.  She was stunned to read the background behind her family's fortune - although, if you stand at the top of Sand Hill Road and look around at all the money, all of it sloshing up into the Diablo Range across the Bay, and do your best to avoid the sunshine running down the gutters, you'll see literally trillions of dollars of buy-in precipitated as private fortunes, from the casually dressed 4GL app developers strolling across the old Sun campuses to the linear accelerators to the houses of Stanford professors and middle-management marketing executives at hardware and good-old software companies alike.  Ahmed in his Medium piece is bringing Leslie's book into the 21st century, when the building of sensors for warfighting has expanded far beyond what Terman might have thought possible. 

So Jenn took the book when she moved back east and out of our flat, and I had to buy a new one.

There is a strong and scary argument to be made that this new technology, the history of expanding surveillance, is far scarier and more insidious and more powerful than the old technology.  The old technology was all about killing you dead, after all, while the new one is about control.  Its about influence, unseen and permanent; its about the boot of fascism forever on humanity's face, forever pushing us into the mud, only instead of us knowing its a boot we've actively and happily pulled it upon us.  We've confused the jackboot for Laboutins, the scheduled fascism for happy hour, the surveillance and data mining for Candy Crush and Facebook updates from people we were infatuated with in middle school.

And there's something to be said for that fear.  On my first day as a graduate student in the Philosophy department at Stanford I walked in to a villa on the edge of campus that was - according to Leslie - one of the primary means of laundering military-industrial cash into the humanities, and observed two things critical to my future at that school.  First, I saw stacks of Macs.  And when I say stacks of Macs, I mean Macintosh computers piled on top of each other, outside the doors of the offices, because the institute housed in the villa had just made the switch from Apple to PC, and everyone with an office - grad students and full professors alike - got a new machine.  (This institute was so tightly integrated with Xerox PARC, the birthplace of the modern operating system, that it was a home-away-from-home for many of its brightest stars; at that point I gave up on Apple for good.)  The macs they'd gotten rid of weren't old, either; as something of an afficionado of the platform I saw last year's models going to the junk heap, far more powerful than anything I could have hoped for.  Having come from a working-class background and a small state school struggling to stay within the two-year upgrade cycle, where if a professor had a computer on their desk they'd paid for it themselves and were considered a bit of a "tech whiz," I was needless to say stunned at the wealth.  I had the nerve to poke my head into the Director's office to introduce myself and ask him what was going on; he casually mentioned, behind a glass desk the size of my dorm room, that they'd just decided to make the switch.

Now ok, big deal.  Lots of money.  This was just a year or two after the university had run into a scandal over its practice of billing e.g. new sheets for the university President's yacht to the Navy.  But it was what was on the walls that made me gulp, the second observation: presentations laying out the results of research programmes funded by Air Force intelligence, the NRO, the ONI and ONR, the NSA, and even the scary violent daddy of them all, the CIA, all of it done by humanities faculty and their grad students, all of it for a couple hundred thousand dollars a pop, and all of it very specifically for military applications. 

Do Americans in general know about this stuff?  Do they know how thoroughly the military-industrial complex has taken over their elite universities?  They may suspect that the engineering and physics departments are in bed with the Pentagon, but are they aware that, for example, their ethics professors are taking money from the Air Force to suggest simple theories of goal management for cruise missiles?

There's a way in which this is the natural behavior of patriotic and even very liberal people: They can help the war effort like other good citizens, after all, and everyone else is doing it.  If anyone can figure out a way to make Philosophy pay it the DoD.  But there's also a way in which, as an intellectual with a moral responsibility to a 2500-year-old discipline that outweighs any parochial national allegiances, this is such a complete and utter failure of moral instincts that, had the aforementioned ethics professor not been the chair of the department, I might, in my judgmental leftist 22-year-old mind, have gone to someone in authority to complain.

That research on simplified goal management for cruise missiles in now extremely salient in drone guidance.  It took about twenty years but Action Theory has a lot of very practical applications in the War on Terror.  Its almost as if the Air Force projected forward 20 years.

The university got into trouble with this sort of research years once - twenty years before, in fact, when its research arm for tying the humanities into the military-industrial complex, called SRI, got caught out taking money for research on stuff that was so morally appalling the students tried to burn the cancer right out of the system.  I believe - and Leslie's book goes into considerable detail about the campus protests - that the straw that broke the camel's back, in that case, was a project in which some people in the Psychology department got money from the CIA to write a manual on what's now known as "enhanced interrogation techniques."  (Plus ca change...)  This was of a piece with earlier research; the famed "Stanford Prison Experiment" was funded by the ONR for the same reasons.  While the students kicked SRI off campus and forced the university to create an arms-length relationship, the money found a way back in, not least through the institute who's villa I walked into that first day, but also through arrangements and back-channel sponsorships through ostensibly morally upright companies just in it for the money, like Microsoft and Sun, who were used as wiling cutouts.

And so while I think we should all work really hard to fight the encroachment of the military on research, and I think pieces like Ahmed's (and books like Leslie's) do an invaluable service, in the big picture as I get older I am less and less concerned about the end-game, about the technology and the genuinely immoral alliances between institutions like Stanford and Google and the deep politics of the national security state.

And the reason is that, despite that history, despite the horror visited upon the world by flying robots and the inevitable fuck-ups committed by people who think they're smarter than the rest of us because they can read our email, they don't control anything.  They have no more control now than they did in the 60s, when the CIA paid Stanford University psychologists good money to figure out how to mentally torture or at the very least strongly influence Vietnamese villagers into giving up their fight for national self-determination.  (The Vietnamese may have ended up in a Stalinist nightmare, but that eventuality occurred independently of any motivation of the CIA.)  They may have come up with the silver bullet of Influence, but ultimately they handed it to a bigoted group of guys from south Vietnam and South Carolina, and no one in that scabby overconfident group was able to make it work the way it was supposed to.  And in the end the only thing any of that technology was able to do, anyway, was kill someone dead.

Dead is dead, of course, and that's horrible.  But it is not, as Orwell was concerned, ultimately a boot on the human face forever.  It is a pathetic attempt to manage the unmanageable, another concerted effort to maintain artificial distinctions between the classes and the races, doomed to failure because of the perfidy and pathos of authority, the Incompleteness Theorem, the inadequacy of digital schemes in an analog world, the collapse of distinctions into a sea of exceptions: whatever the reason, these things just don't work for long.  

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