Issue 3/2018 - Net section
Yasha Levine is author of Surveillance Valley, published by Public Affairs in 2018. Levine is an investigative journalist and founding editor of The eXile whose work has been featured in NSFW Corp, Pando Daily, The Baffler, Alternet and The Nation. He has long followed the convergence of surveillance, libertarianism and oligarchy and can count among many scoops exposing the role of the Tor Project in American soft-power projection.
Olivier Jutel: How have you found the reception of your book and its central thesis that the internet is essentially a surveillance weapon?
Yasha Levine: My book came at a really good time, right as people were becoming aware of the “dark side” of the internet. Before Trump, it was all good things, Facebook manipulation was a good thing when Obama used it. Surveillance Valley came out two months before the Cambridge Analytica story hit and everything I talk about is a preface to how personal data manipulation is central to our politics and economy. It’s sort of the whole point of the internet going back 50 years to ARPANET. So I hope the book fills some gaps in our knowledge because as strange as it seems we have forgotten this history.
Jutel: The way the internet gets discussed its often reminiscent of Midi-Chlorians, as if it consisted of immaterial particles. What your book does is explain the material, political and ideological origins of the network. Can you talk about the military imperatives it served?
Levine: One thing we have to understand about the internet is that it came of a research project that started during the Vietnam war as the US was concerned with counterinsurgencies all around the world. It was a project that would help the Pentagon manage a global military presence.
At the time there were computer systems coming online like ARPANET that functioned as the first early warning radar system in America to alert of a potential Soviet bombing raid. It connected radar rays and computer systems to allow analysts to watch the entire US from a screen thousands of miles away. This was novel since all previous systems had relied on manual calculation. Once you can do that automatically there’s a totally new way of thinking about the world because all of sudden, you can manage airspace and thousands of miles of borders from a computer terminal. This happened in the late 1950s, early 60s. The idea was to expand this technology beyond airplanes to battlefields and societies.
One of things that ARPANET was involved with in Vietnam in the 60s was “bugging the battlefield” as they called it. They’d dropped sensors into the jungle [/i>editor’s note: some shaped like animal excrement] in order to detect troop movements in the jungle hidden from aerial view. These sensors were wireless and would ping back information to a control center with an IBM computer taking that information, mapping troop movements to help select bombing targets. This was happening in Vietnam and it became the basis of electronic fence technology that was exported to the US and is used on the border with Mexico today.
The internet came out of this military context and the technology that could tie different types of computer networks and databases together. At the time every computer network was built from scratch in terms of network protocols and the computers themselves. The internet would be a universal networking language to share information.
Jutel: There seems to be a dichotomy in the ideological founding of the internet between anti-communist paranoia and a liberal-libertarian optimism about information unlocking human potential. What do you make of these two strains?
Levine: It seems like a dichotomy but it really isn’t. The specter of communism led to the internet and helped accelerate this technology. In rarefied military circles left-wing politics was seen as taking over the world, including domestically. After Vietnam the question of counterinsurgency was how to placate societies without giving them what they want.
They saw the problem as people not being managed properly, they have certain concerns, there is some inequality and material resources aren’t being distributed properly. America wasn’t seen as facing an ideological challenge or anti-colonial struggle but as having a problem of management technic.
And so the computer networks that later became the internet, and the information they ingested functioned as sensors for society in order to monitor unrest and demands. That information could be fed into computer models to map what potential path these feelings and ideas were going to take – thereafter you can say “OK, there’s a problem here, let’s give them a little of what they want”, or “here’s a revolutionary movement, we should take out that cell”.
So the network would manage society and create a utopian world where you could manage conflict and strife out of existence. It would never come to armed conflict as you’d have a better and kinder technocratic management.
Jutel: I can’t help but think of Hillary Clinton’s intersection tweet about the devastation of Flint Michigan. “Complex social problems” like racial and class oppression are put into little problem-solving boxes for the benevolent technocrats to workshop some ideas.
Levine: Yeah, and this all begins in the 1960s. You mention the Democrats. There’s this guy Ithiel de Sola Pool who was an MIT social scientist and a pioneer in using computer modelling, polling and simulations to run political campaigns. Relying on Pool, John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign was the first to use modelling to guide outreach and messaging.
What’s interesting is that Pool would go on to play a big role in ARPANET’s first surveillance project that was then used to process surveillance data on millions of American anti-war protestors in the early 70s.
He was also a guy who believed that the problem with international and domestic conflict was that government planners and business leaders don’t have enough information; that parts of the world are still opaque to them. So the way to get rid of strife and have a perfect system is to have no secrets. He wrote a paper in 1972 where he said the biggest impediment to world peace is secrecy.
If we could design a system where the thoughts and motivations of world leaders and global populations were transparent then the ruling elite would have all the information they needed to properly manage society. But he saw this in utopian terms, it’s better than bombing people. If you can influence people before they pick up Kalashnikovs they don’t have to be bombed, gassed or napalmed; it’s the better of the two systems.
Jutel: How much does our own hyperactivity online – in seeking pleasure or scrolling the timeline just one more time like a slot machine – mirror the imperatives and failures of total information awareness? There is a capacity to collect individual pathologies and idiosyncrasies but it fails in its own terms, right?
Levine: Yeah, if your premise is wrong whatever information you feed is always going to be wrong.
The promise of “more information equals better management” or a better society is where this falls apart. A lot of these cybernetic models and computer systems which are supposed to give managers a better view of the world, have blind spots or are susceptible to being manipulated, while giving the people using those systems the sense that they are in total control.
This is what happened with Hillary Clinton. They had the best minds of data modelling and up until the end their numbers told them that everything would be great. They weren’t even interacting with the real world anymore but only with their model. It wasn’t the electorate but their own idea of how the electorate would behave. They were fundamentally wrong.
The idea that the more data you have, the better your understanding of the world is wrong. Data is only ever a representation of that world which is shaped by specific assumptions and values. Take the bugging of the battlefield example. The Viet Cong knew what was happening and saw these sensors. They could trick the system. They’d create vibrations and drive trucks by without troops to get airstrikes on empty jungle allowing the actual convoys to get through. The system was manipulated, but the planners saw the system as working perfectly, they were annihilating the enemy. But the reality was they bombed empty jungle.
One of the bright spots of researching this book is that both the boosters and detractors of these systems have over-estimated the effectiveness of these networks.
Take Donald Trump and Cambridge Analytica. People who are horrified by Trump as President want to believe in Cambridge Analytica. It gives them a way of explaining how he got elected. They take all the anxieties and place it on this company that zombified the electorate through some Facebook posts.
Jutel: When the network produces a social reality that we don’t like it’s as if it was infected by an alien entity or virus. It’s similar to extreme anti-communism in this way.
Levine: Hang on a second, this is actually what Facebook wants advertisers to believe about its business. If you can convince voters to vote for Donald Trump just by scraping their profiles and showing them a few targeted ads then as an advertiser or a political campaign you’ve got to put all your chips on Facebook. This is how powerful they are supposed to be. Putting all this at the feet of Cambridge Analytica is helping Facebook’s bottom line. It’s selling Facebook’s product; access to their user base, renting out users and selling targeted ads. Opponents of Facebook believe that they are much more effective than they are in reality.
Jutel: An interesting story came out about Facebook in Wired that ads were sold cheaper to Trump than Clinton because of the kinds of user engagement Trump content generates. Trump voters tend to be pretty mad online. So Facebook seems to be privileging seething emotion and the darker side of politics?
Levine: Yeah, they want people stuck on their platform as long as possible and anger, outrage, hatred is a big thing that makes people stay online. I can tell you as a twitter user that’s true! If you are emotionally invested in something you are engaged with it.
What you are describing, though, is not something exclusive about Facebook. You can say cable news gave Trump airtime, covering every ridiculous statement, because of the extraordinary ratings. Like Facebook everything is about ratings and viewers because it’s all based on ad revenue.
But this is the minutia. We conceive of the internet as a cloud, disconnected from physical space but it’s private property where we have no real rights as users in this private network. We exist in data centers and on wires owned by giant corporations. We have no rights in that space, there is no right to be on the internet. These companies make the rules and we have no recourse. For people on the left thinking about this, it is clearly a toxic place, it has become a means for capital to further control our lives.
Jutel: What would a wholistic, public-oriented and left approach to this form of oligarchic power be?
Levine: This might be the hardest question of our time. You can’t focus on reforming the internet without looking at the broader cultural environment in which it exists. It’s a reflection of our values and political culture. Its dominated by giant corporations, intelligence agencies and spies because generally speaking, our societies are dominated by those forces.
You can’t start with the internet, you have to start deeper, on a political or cultural level. It’s a brutal analysis, sorry. Our conception of politics today is so crude. We are restricted to thinking “we need to regulate something”, “we need to pass some laws”. We shouldn’t start with that, we need to start with principles. Like what does it mean to have communication technology in a democratic society? How could it help create a democratic world? How does this democratic world control these technologies? How can we stop simply taking a defensive position? What does it mean to have an active pose? To have a political cultural that says “this is what we want technology to do for society”.
Everything that we’ve been told about the democratic nature of the internet has always been grafted on to the technology as a marketing pitch to sell this thing. To sell the internet as a technology of democracy when it is owned by giant corporations is ridiculous. The only answer that I have to this question is that we first have to figure out what kind of society we want and what kind of role technology can play to achieve that end.