Archive for July 2010


United States vs. Wikileaks – part III

July 26th, 2010 — 7:01pm

Today saw the release of 90,000 pages of classified reports from the US Army by Wikileaks.org through its three media partners, the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel. The leaking of such a large volume of secret material in the middle of a war has only one recent parallel: the Pentagon Papers, published by the New York Times after they had been stolen and copied by Daniel Ellsberg.

But this leak of the so-called ‘War Logs’ has a number of new features, thanks to the internet. First, and perhaps most importantly, the source remains anonymous. Of course Wikileaks itself is the target of campaigns and attacks and threatened prosecutions by a number of governments, but the individual(s) within the US military who originally supplied the material to them remains unknown. And the same is true of many other Wikileaks sources (although the informant who allegedly leaked the ‘collateral murder’ video is now in custody).

Wikileaks is also (to all intents and purposes) indestructible, and this raises a number of fresh questions for authorities who would like to shut them down. Using secure encryption, servers and mirrors in various countries and the protection of some pretty determined web hosting, Wikileaks has made itself virtually invulnerable to ‘technical measures’.

The combination of these two factors means that the genie really is out of the bottle and we are seeing the ecology, politics and economics of news media changing before our eyes. Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of what Wikileaks has done – and let’s face it, when it comes to war all information is a form of propaganda – the fact remains that the wholesale leaking of secret military and diplomatic and commercial information is here to stay. And so far I think it’s fair to say the response of the US government to this new reality has been – how can I put it? – lame.

There’s really only one strategy for coping with Wikileaks, and that is to try to marginalise them. You can’t just shout at them and try to tell people that they are irresponsible. You have to work out a way of discrediting them or removing their legitimacy. And to do this you need to be very subtle. First of all, you need to acknowledge the veracity of a large part of the information they’ve put in the public domain. But then, and only then, can you start to play on people’s legitimate anxieties about the context and interpretation of this data. Do not, whatever you do, try to imply that Wikileaks has an agenda, or that they are effectively doing the Taliban’s bidding. That will backfire, as we have already seen.

Concentrate on the data, take specific examples, show how, with a lack of context for the reports, they become fairly meaningless. Take some of the more unreliable information and show why it’s bogus. Ask some preliminary questions about Wikileaks itself – who are they, do we know anything about them? But don’t push it, and certainly don’t try to insinuate that they are putting soldiers at risk. It might even be true, but if you say that you’ll come across as threatening and defensive. Simply explain why some operational information has to remain secret in order to protect soldiers. Maybe even try releasing a little information of your own, but be careful.

Unfortunately for them, the US govt doesn’t show any sign of accepting and certainly not understanding this situation. They still just think that if they get their lawyers to mail a ‘cease and desist’ letter and threaten sufficient punishments, the leakers will sooner or later comply.

Of course the impact propaganda has, and the public’s propensity to believe it, has as much to do with the situation in the war as it does with the presentation of the message. There has been for some time a growing feeling that Afghanistan is a disaster, an unwinnable war, a costly and unnecessary foreign adventure that will harm the US and possibly destroy the NATO alliance. This makes it much more likely that the public will accept wholesale the version of the war presented in the ‘War Logs’ and via the partner news outlets. Any counter-messaging has to be extremely carefully considered at this stage, not to appear to be painting a rosy picture of a desperate and hard-fought conflict.

It will be very interesting to see how Julian Assange’s carefully managed media presence evolves over the next few weeks, and how the response of governments to this latest leak takes shape as the story unfolds. So far, Wikileaks is winning, and not just on points. If the White House and the Pentagon want to regain the initiative they need to get their heads around this whole new world of news immediately and start dealing with it in a very different way. But judging by their reactions today, the signs are not good. They had better be careful in case sooner or later Wikileaks lands a knockout blow, and domestic support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq collapses completely. That might make it impossible for the US to engage in any military interventions overseas for the foreseeable future.

And that would make the world a very different, and not necessarily safer, place.

UPDATE: in case you missed it, here is Julian Assange’s press conference from the Frontline Club today – http://bit.ly/9MIBtW

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Persistence of Vision

July 19th, 2010 — 9:08pm

On Wednesday I visited FACT in Liverpool and was given a tour of the exhibition, ‘Persistence of Vision’. Unfortunately, because time was short, I could only manage a very quick dash around the gallery, so I want to concentrate mainly on two pieces: The Space Around Me by Julius von Bismarck, and Exploding Camera by Julien Maire.

In Gerald Edelman’s excellent book: Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, he describes the process by which the Hippocampus creates spatial maps, allowing the mind to navigate both physical and virtual environments. He goes on to reiterate his (admittedly controversial) theories of neuron group selection, and tries to describe how the brain gives rise to various states of consciousness. In particular, he describes memory as a process, a process in which what he calls ‘re-entrant’ stimuli cause certain neuronal connections to be strengthened. The more often these synapses are activated, the stronger the chemical and physical links between them. The brain, then, does not store memories, it builds them.

Julius von Bismarck’s piece, The Space Beyond Me, makes a visual metaphor of the building of these neuronal connections and at the same time creates its own concrete work, a luminous path of photosensitive molecules that gradually moves around the inner wall of the exhibition space and traces peaks and troughs as it goes. These images, fleetingly registered on the delicate film, slowly fade as the projection moves round, precisely controlled by a specially written piece of software. The greenish yellow shadows are reminiscent not only of the dye-infused sections of cerebellum that have been used to model neural networks, but for me they bring to mind a wide range of other patterns, including the rise and fall of an EKG machine, and the obscure connections Eliot hints at in Burnt Norton:

The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars.

If we look closely at the frames in the film, we find a young man slowly progressing through the stages of youth and apparently ageing. The room’s circular dimensions also contain an implication of the return to childhood. As the film progresses the figure travels around the nearly closed loop, almost coming back to the starting point. The reaction of the projector’s ultraviolet light with the film produces a ghostly shade of green, as if the Absinthe fairy has traipsed across the surface. The work is not simply analogous to neurobiological mechanisms. It alludes to a much wider set of cycles in nature: of growth, formation and decay.

Memory is built through associations. Neurons congregate and electro-chemical channels are reinforced. The brain is shaped by experience. This process is mirrored in the work by the illumination of particles in the film as they are struck by photons from the projector. The loss of memory, the loosening of chemical bonds and the less active firing of neural signals, appears here as the fading afterglow of the projected image.

von Bismarck’s work combines a deep insight into the process of memory with an unusually precise execution and a poetic and macabre sense of symbolism. The configuration of the piece, with the projector mounted on a tripod like a kind of ghostly mechanical eye, the movement of the image around the viewer, as if you are actually inside the zoetrope, or the eyeball, watching the shadow puppets appear from behind the screen, cleverly positions the viewer right in the metaphorical visual cortex.

You would be hard pressed to find another exploration of memory that is so radical in form, so visually beautiful and so technically accomplished, even if others may claim as much intellectual rigour. But then you only have to step into the next room to find another work that produces an equally powerful effect.

Julien Maire’s Exploding Camera (2007) recreates the final frames of footage captured by the video camera that was used to assassinate Ahmed Shah Massoud two days before the attacks of September 11th 2001.  A few slivers of celluloid mounted on a rotating wheel move back and forth over the bulb and throw out pictures that remind us dimly of conflict, destruction and devastation. Some are golden, red, like the colour of our eyelids when we turn our closed eyes to the sun. Are we looking through the eyes of a dying, or dead, man? What do we expect to see in our last moments?

In his late novel, Ravelstein, Saul Bellow suggests that when we die ‘the pictures stop’, and the brain’s link between visual perception and existence in the world is a deep one. Young children often equate closing their eyes with making themselves invisible. They know very well that Esse est percepi, so they close their eyes, thinking that if they cannot see the world around them, it will cease to exist. Perhaps the artist wants to remind us, here, that even when we do close our eyes, even when the camera is switched off or destroyed, the world goes on, the atrocities continue and are none the less real because we do not witness them.

The slides are abstract, watery, tinged with flame. They look as if they have been burned up, or as if the machine that made them has expired, as if they are the last fragments of a fading consciousness, registered by broken apparatus, the camera as symbol for the eye, its mechanical failure standing in for our biological frailty. The broken body has been laid out, strung back together in a kind of patchwork of electronic surgery. This is a memory dragged back from the brink, a final memory and a lasting testimony to that violent, fatal climax of an Autumn morning high in the Panjshir valley.

We are more used to video art that deconstructs narrative and uses now standard formal innovations such as multiple projections, stop-motion, filters and disjointed sound to break up conventional stories or to reduce a moving image to near-abstraction, but this work which literally explodes the camera and looks directly at the role of visual perception in our formation of memory and our spatial awareness is something altogether different, and more interesting.

Persistence of Vision, FACT Liverpool, 18th June – 30th August 2010

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The Coalition, the Big Society and Web 2.0 mythology

July 12th, 2010 — 8:53pm

“Everything can be reduced to politics. Like soup.” – I can’t remember

“Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” – John Maynard Keynes

So, I’ve already committed the cardinal sin of blogging – failing to update my blog regularly  – and therefore I have no right to expect anybody to visit again, still less subscribe. I know how annoying it is when a blogger doesn’t update frequently and you are left wondering whether they will ever write anything again. When a blog just sort of tails off and dies. So, apologies for my absence. The last few weeks has been very busy indeed, but I fully intend to keep it up and to post more regularly from now on.

I usually like to avoid politics altogether, but sometimes it just won’t leave you alone. And sometimes, and with increasing frequency, politics and technology overlap to such an extent that writing about technology means you have to write about politics. Never more so than now.

The Government’s big idea, the insipidly-titled ‘Big Society’ (a glancing and disingenuous reference to LBJ’s 1965 domestic policy programme ‘The Great Society’) draws heavily for its inspiration on the Web, and specifically on some of the key concepts of the Web 2.0 era – ideas that, if they ever held true in the first place, were largely misunderstood at the time and are now considered by many on Planet Geek to be well and truly out of date.

Charles Leadbeter and Hilary Cottam wrote an essay in 2007 called ‘The User-Generated State: Public Services 2.0’ http://www.charlesleadbeater.net/archive/public-services-20.aspx which argued, very forcefully and presciently, for reform in public services to allow ‘users’ to take greater control of those services and for investment to follow demand/need more closely through a more participatory and flexible funding model. This essay made an important contribution to an argument that had been raging since at least 2001 and Tony Blair’s vow to increase the pace of public sector reform. What it showed was that, by using technology to open up control of services to ‘users’ in an ‘on-demand’ model, you could increase the efficiency with which resources were allocated.

This essay also came at a time when in the private sector the triumph of websites and web applications such as eBay, Flickr, YouTube, MySpace and Wikipedia, seemed to have established forever the superiority of the de-centralised, crowd-sourced and increasingly personalised web-based service to deliver enormous public goods with a fraction of the cost and infrastructure traditionally required. Of course, to idea-starved and ambitious politicians and policy makers, this was like Sex on a Stick. The Web promised to square the circle of public spending by increasing pareto optimality (non-wonks see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_efficiency) while at the same time reducing overall investment.

Now of course all politicians want to deliver better outcomes for less money. Or so they say. But what was especially appealing about these ideas to the Conservatives was that they seemed to prove not only that radical reform of the state could bring major improvements in efficiency, but that their whole political ideology of de-centralisation, individual control, the stripping away of bureaucracy, was not only possible, but that it was positively de rigueur. They had found, in other words, an unlikely source of inspiration and they could see the prospect of a huge political windfall by grasping this new mood of technological utopianism to strip away the Whitehall mandarins and replace them with servers and modems.

There have already (for a long time now) been some excellent projects that have used network effects and the best of the Web to improve the delivery of services. One of the best examples is Lee Bryant’s Headshift – http://www.headshift.com/about/public-services.php, but there are many more, such as Social by Social, Social Innovation Camp, The School of Everything and so on… and this territory has been explored in great detail and with a great deal of success by a new generation of very brilliant social entrepreneurs and activists. Some of them also are committed to the replacement of unwieldy centralised public services by nimble and responsive organisations or groups who can deliver services more efficiently. But very few of them, I would guess, would ever agree that these small groups can effectively replace the work of major public services altogether, or that investment in these services in toto should fall simply because some of the work can be farmed out now to these more agile and cheaper providers, or even to users themselves. Indeed, many of them would find the idea repellent.

Because although the Web does allow you to do some amazing things, and does allow small organisations to deliver highly efficient services in some areas at a fraction of the cost of more traditional institutions, it is not a magic bullet. It is very important to understand what it can and can’t do, and what role it can actually play in improving provision, without suddenly being expected to replace whole swathes of the public sector. And it is important also to understand in some detail the structural problems and characteristics associated with de-centralised and web-based services.

As an enormous fan of Wikipedia, I acknowledge that it has created possibly the most comprehensive and widely read body of knowledge in history (an amazing achievement), but Wikipedia works not just because it is a free for all, and not just because it allows anybody to write anything. It is a carefully organised collaboration between the public and a small but significant community of power users, and a team of professionals who are the final editors. It is also not without problems – problems of inaccuracy, abuse, vested interests, misinformation and controversy, which have to be corrected constantly.

It is very important that we don’t just get caught up in our (admittedly well-founded) enthusiasm for the wonders of the internet and fall victim to the mis-application or misuse of this technology that some people would like us to for their own rather different purposes. My nightmare is that the new lions of Web 2.0 social enterprise and social innovation are used by the Coalition as a kind of intellectual Trojan Horse (metaphorical in the Greek/Trojan sense or the electronic one – you decide, afterall, you are the Boss), even against their own wills, to ameliorate massive reductions in public spending on the basis that ineffectual and monolithic quangos are being replaced by a few coders and a batch of Ruby on Rails. Because it doesn’t work like that.

You could argue that politicians have just drunk the Kool-Aid, and if I didn’t know better I’d like to believe it. But what I worry about is the exploitation of the hype and confusion that surrounds these technologies to ease the implementation of destructive spending cuts and to back up a philosophy, nay a religion, of small Statism. This is not, I hasten to add, an argument against the introduction of technology in many discrete areas of service provision. In fact, I spend most of my life arguing and fighting and making the case for just that. I want more and more of it. In more radical moments I have even wondered if the Web will and perhaps should enable us one day to do ourselves out of a job altogether.

But I also want it to be fully recognised that the Web can’t do everything. It doesn’t hold all the answers. It is very, very good at some things, and very, very bad at others. Apart from anything else, some of the brilliant projects that we have seen have yet to demonstrate how they can be effectively scaled beyond working with a few hundred or a few thousand users to millions. I have no doubt that one day they will, but the challenge shouldn’t be underestimated. And even if we can replace large parts of the bureaucracy with smaller, nimbler organisations, should that automatically mean that we reduce overall investment? I don’t think that necessarily follows. Otherwise we may end up with some very patchy and under-resourced  services.

One other important lesson of the Web 2.0 experience is that it doesn’t necessarily come cheap. If you want it to be done well, you need to factor in a lot of indirect costs, especially the costs of maintaining and running the thing on a daily basis. When websites scale to the size of a Flickr or a YouTube, they themselves require a small army of workers to keep going. So it can’t simply be about saving money.

So please, when you start to hear the Government talk about The Big Society taking up the slack of the slashed-and-burned public sector, and how the Web is going to make it all ok, because everybody is going to control their own services, think twice.

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