nick knouf on Mon, 20 Apr 2009 00:41:17 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Mining the Military-Academic-Industrial Complex in a Poetic-Serious Fashion

Dear nettime,

As we now hear by some commentators that the "worst" of the so-called
financial "crisis" "might" be over, we have to acknowledge the
difficulty of squaring these remarks with the realities of our
colleagues in the university.  Friends are not having their teaching
contracts renewed and graduate students in the humanities are having
difficulty in finding TA positions for the fall semester.  I recently
overheard one administrator in a more "technical" department suggesting
that the lack of available TAships in the humanities is due to their
inability to support students on "research" grants.  He found no
problems with the fact that his own department was able to admit five
new graduate students this year, while a similar-sized humanities
department can barely afford to admit one student.  Survival of the
"fittest", indeed.

In these times, then, perhaps we ought to be focusing our critical
lenses on the institution of the University itself, to better understand
its role in the relations of capital.  Thankfully, many are doing this,
and the recent and current protest actions at schools in the US and
around the world are evidence of one, very much needed, type of
response.  My own response has been to develop MAICgregator
(, a Firefox extension that aggregates
information about colleges and universities embedded in the
military-academic-industrial (MAIC) complex. It searches government
funding databases, private news sources, private press releases, and
public information about trustees to try and produce a radical
cartography of the modern university via the replacement or overlay of
this information on academic websites.  MAICgregator is available for
download right now: .  If you want to see what MAICgregator
does to a website without downloading it, you can look at some
screenshots: .  This is its
first public release, so expect that things might not work properly.

I have written an extensive statement about MAICgregator that tries to
contextualize it within discourses of, the
military-academic-industrial complex, "data mining", and activist
artistic practices.  I include this statement at the end of the e-mail,
but it is also available on the MAICgregator website:

I welcome any feedback or discussion that this might provoke; if you
want to e-mail the project authors directly, please e-mail info --at--
maicgregator ---dot--- org.

nick knouf


Mining the Military-Academic-Industrial Complex in a Poetic-Serious Fashion

MAICgregator is a Firefox extension
( that aggregates information
about colleges and universities embedded in the
military-academic-industrial (MAIC) complex. It searches government
funding databases, private news sources, private press releases, and
public information about trustees to try and produce a radical
cartography of the modern university via the replacement or overlay of
this information on academic websites. This is a necessary activity in
light of the contemporary financial âcrisisâ. that will not be version numbered

Firefox extensions (putting aside (sadly) for the moment the regrettable
continued use of male language) or add-ons are today presenting a
relatively low-barrier entry into the development of web- and
browser-based artistic projects. While we do not want to discount the
level of programming knowledge necessary to build them, they are still
based on a libre platform and can be developed within a rather large
community of programmers, programmers whose own work is, by default,
available for inspection and study. (What we mean here is that all of
the source code for an extension is contained within the extension
itself, making it easy to learn from the work of others.) This is in
marked contrast to previous (and contemporaneous (and future)) strands
of that might have valorized the use of Director, Shockwave,
Flash, or Java, the first three being expensive, proprietary, and closed
platforms, and the last being an open programming language, but one
where the actual source code is often difficult to get to if it is not
provided directly by the artist.

Recently there has been a flurry of add-on development
( both poetic and serious. We would be remiss to
ignore the work of Michael Mandiberg ( who was
involved with two important early extensions, Oil Standard
( , a project that
would replace dollar amounts on pages to their equivalents in barrels of
oil, and Real Costs ( , an add-on that shows
carbon for alternative forms of transportation on major airline
websites. Similar in this vein is the recent Add Art
( plugin by Steve Lambert (
that replaces advertisements with curated shows; Track-me-not
( , that floods Google with fake
searches to descrease the efficacy of data mining; turkopticon
( that allows people to see
and respond to shady Amazon Mechanical Turk employers; and China Channel
( that lets people surf the web behind the Great
Firewall of China. Besides these there are add-ons for âcensoringâ text
on a page using black blocks (
as well as returning us to the heyday of mid-1990s web design
( . This brief list of add-ons shows the
extent to which artists are re-purposing the web browser for radical
artistic purposes using technology that is (potentially/oftentimes) much
easier to work with than in earlier times.

While there might have been other ways to develop and release
MAICgregator, it seemed most appropriate to develop it as a Firefox
extension, especially given the ability in many places to (at least
temporarily) install these plugins on public machines at colleges,
universities, libraries, or internet cafÃs. The ease by which extensions
can be installedâand the ability a programmer has to modify pages at
will once the extension is installedâmakes them an ideal vector for the
propagation of radical or alternative perspectives to those that are
fixed on the web page itself. This is especially the case within the
modern university, where schools carefully control what types of
information make it to their front page or internal portals, or where
students consume their news in computer-generated chunks via Google
News, absent marginalized or alternative voices. Add-ons provide one way
to break open this lock on web-based media, combining disparate sources
together in a montage that is at once both serious and poetic.

Obviously a plug-in like MAICgregator is not going to immediately alter
materially the construction of the military-academic-industrial-complex.
Nevertheless, in just the short time we have been developing it, we have
come to a much better understanding of the links between these major
actors, as well as some of the more strange players in the mix
/press-release/UrologicalcareCom-958964.html) . Part of our intent is,
yes, to provide carefully selected âfactsâ about the relationships
between universities, the military, and the corporate world. But just as
equally our goal is to perform an alternative, to show how so-called
ânewsâ sources can be recombined in new ways to create novel
connections. This is a performance that additionally re-opens the
consideration of exactly what the âwebâ is, given its continued atrophy
into staid configurations of a media-controlled semiotics. And it is
finally a performance of what we might call a âpoetic austerityâ: the
use of whatever means are available to usâabsent the possibility of
funding through traditional sources, given their decrease in this time
of focusing on the âessentialsââto respond to power on our own terms.
While it might be feeble, while it might seem utopian
/who-will-build-ark-utopian-imperative-age-catastrophe) , it is
certainly necessary nevertheless to do what we can, with what we have,
against that which oppresses, by creating that which we want.

The Military-Academic-Industrial-Complex (MAIC)

MAICgregator exists as one attemptâof manyâto counter the hegemony of
the present-day University. It is well-known that former US President
Dwight Eisenhower, in his 1961 farewell address to the nation, wanted to
speak not only of the military-industrial complex (
/wiki/Military_industrial_complex) that became the renowned phrase that
it is, but rather of the military-academic-industrial complex (The
University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex
(2007), Henry Giroux, pp 13-15), what we are here calling the MAIC.
Former US Senator J. William Fulbright
( spoke publicly of
the same thing in 1968. As you visit US college and university campuses
today, you easily see the extent of the military-academic-industrial
complex. Companies and academia are big business, and while the âendâ of
the cold war took away the spotlight from the relationship between
academic and the military, âdefenseâ monies easily find their way into
the university and out again to defense contractors. Corporations fund
endowed professorships, schools outsource fundamental operations such as
their bookstore to corporations like Barnes and Noble, and universities
offer advertising space on brand-new plasma screens installed in said
bookstores. Ads for everything from spring break vacations in Mexico to
jobs at Lockheed Martin plaster the walls of todayâs campuses.

This is all the more heinous now given the interrelationships between
universities, corporations, and capital. The precipitous fall in
university endowments is linked not only to the contemporaneous use of
business models in the governance of universities, but also on the
transplantation of corporate fund managers to highly-paid positions in
the university hierarchy. This is an invasive transplantation, as fund
managers more accustomed to the risk profiles of hedge funds are
ill-equipped to managing much more conservative portfolios such as those
of a university, an institution that is predicated on continued
existence without the possibility of being âsoldâ or âbroken upâ in any
type of âbankruptcyâ proceedings. Indeed, it has been reported that
Harvard Universityâs endowment was, at one point recently, leveraged 105
âmeaning that it had invested more than it actually had on hand. While
this may be a common tactic of those who come from a corporate finance
background, it becomes downright distasteful in the context of an
institution such as a university. Yet the University jumped on the
bandwagon of hedge funds, real estate speculation, and investment in
private equity, enticed by the thought of big returns. However, as soon
as the investments went down, the endowments tanked as well.

While the day-to-day functioning of the University in the United States
is vested in the oLces of the President, Provost, and various
Vice-Presidents, the overall strategic direction is governed by a Board
of Trustees or, in the case of public universities, Regents. Private
colleges and universities are actually chartered as non-profit
corporations and, as such, legally require these Boards in order to
exist. These Boards function quite similarly to their counterparts in
the corporate world, the Board of Directors: trustees have final say on
all tenure decisions, they set fund-raising goals, decide on capital
projects, and help set the direction of endowment investment. Thus, they
are also implicated in the horrible decline in endowment monies
experienced by many schools in the last year. However, their activities
and deliberations are done almost entirely in secret: while there is a
token movement towards transparency in the convening of public âforumsâ
during regular trustee meetings, most proceedings are done behind closed
doors. Such lack of transparency has been one of the most prominent
issues raised by the recent protesters at NYU
( and the New School

Indeed, the links between schools, corporations, governments, military
activities around the world become rather frightening once you start
putting it all togetherâwhich is of course why there is a lack of
transparency in the first place. For example, Cornell University has
received gifts from former Citigroup CEO and chairman Sanford I. Weill
totalling in the hundreds of millions of dollars
( for its
medical school in New York City. Citigroup, through its subsidiary
Citibank, has additionally been involved in providing loans to a rebel
group in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) associated with the brutal
civil war
in which millions have been killed that is additionally funded in part
through the sale of coltan
( , a
mineral that eventually is transformed for use in high-performance
tantalum capacitors like those used in modern electronic equipment.
There are reasons why some people do not want these sorts of links to be

Alter-data mining

Nevertheless, these links do need to be made, and are being made
everyday by the powerful through the practice of data mining. Data
mining as a term is a remarkable bit of rhetorical slippage or slight of
hand. In the juxtaposition of two terms we see the elision of disparate
meanings and the movement of concepts from one word to the other.
âMiningâ used to refer primarily to the material, the digging into the
earth in order to extract something of value, something that was hidden
on the surface but became seen only through the hard labor of
othersâimmigrants or the poorâin order to be sold as raw commodities
used in the production of further commodities in the chain. Iron, gold,
diamonds, copper, tin, aluminum, coltanâthese are things that are mined.
They can be held in your hand or in the back of an enormous truck.
Mining creates land disputes as ârightsâ are now bought and sold for the
contents of that which cannot be seen, but which can be sensed through
various forms of technologies that can âpenetrateâ the earth. Mining is
the creation of gashes in the earth in order to further our appetite for
other items in which the mined material does not âappearâ at all. Mining
is still a vital component of the world economy and can be especially
harmful and contentious, as we have seen with coltan and as threatens to
happen with lithium in Bolivia
( . Data, on the other
hand, is perceived to be the most immaterial. It is the thing that can
travel âinstantaneouslyâ from one place to another, that has no physical
analog, that does not obey physical laws. Yet data is materiality at its
most fundamental: it always already exists as magnetic bits on a
platter, or the movement of electrical or optic pulses down a wire or
fiber; it is subject to the same physical laws as everything else in the
universe. Dataâs meaning âother than in its form as abstractionâis
always imposed from the outside; the bytes that make up a text file are
meaningless without a lookup table that says the number â68â represents
the letter âDâ or the number â100â represents the letter âdâ (and yes,
case is important or âsensitiveâ). Can these mappings be âownedâ? Can
data become a commodity?

Of course these are questions that have obvious answers today, and it is
partially due to the rhetorical power of a term such as âdata miningâ.
The phrase itself thus brings the legal power of the owning of mining
ârightsâ to immaterial âdataâ, creating a mongrel that at the same time
diminishes and displaces the horrors of the continued physical mining
that must take place in order to feed the machines needed for âdata
miningâ itself. What a concept! The list of situations in which
corporations, the military, and the government use data mining is
enormous and growing constantly. To take a couple of recent examples:
    * The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created the
Total Information Awareness
( (TIA)
program in 2002 that, under an âInformation Awareness OLceâ, would
âimagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition
information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop,
information systems that will counter asymmetric threats by achieving
total information awarenessâ.  While many found their logo
( to be beyond creepy, it
was the danger of this mass surveillance system that brought the program
to a halt after extensive proceedings by members of the United States
    * Acxiom ( is one of the largest and most
powerful of the companies that market data products
( to corporations that help them
âsegmentâ âcustomersâ on a variety of axes. One of the more interesting
âproductsâ they offer is a report on the underbanked
( /UnderBanked_Indicator) which, in their
words, âhelps marketers find potentially profitable underserved
consumers who lack formal banking relationships and represent an
untapped pool for checking, savings, fee-based, prepaid or starter
credit services.â This is done through mining various types of public
databases and connecting that data with information from the credit
bureaus to find those that are not in the latter.
These data mining endeavors function on the premise of perfect, or
near-perfect data: that the data they produce, use, and sell gives an
âaccurateâ picture of the situation and cannot be gamed or interpreted
differently. Yet, as anyone who has taken a statistics course knows,
âgarbage in equals garbage outâ. Data mining rests on an enormous,
shifting mound of assumptions that can be endlessly debated and tweaked.
And the data that forms the âinputsâ to these models can additionally be
manipulated, through simple changes to the name (as those subject to
misplacement on terrorist âwatch listsâ know all-too-well) or flooding
of data aggregation sources with âwrongâ data.

Data mining, or the more common term in the academic community, machine
learning (where we should obviously put the word âlearningâ in quotes),
is an incredibly hot topic these days, especially given the
proliferation of social networks and the enormous amount of data to
âmineâ. Of course there are the obvious privacy âconcernsâ that are
brought up in papers
( but with little
consideration to other alternatives (such as not collecting the data in
the first place, or radically reconsidering social network research to
not be faced with such privacy concerns). Academic researchers from
across the world receive funding to âmineâ mobile phone call records
( , âanalyzeâ how
people revisit web pages
( , or
characterize âtypesâ within particular configurations of networks
( /citation.cfm?id=1117454.1117457) . This sort of
research is replete with actors from industry, including Microsoft
Research ( , HP
Labs ( /citation.cfm?id=1150402.1150423) , AT&T
Labs ( /citation.cfm?id=1242572.1242579) , and Dow
Chemical ( /citation.cfm?id=1081870.1081970) ,
companies that are all able to present at mainstream academic
conferences put on by one of the two main professional organizations in
the computer science field, the Association for Computing Machinery
( (ACM).

Nevertheless, we can consider an alternative form of data mining, one we
might want to call alter-data mining. Taking into account all of the
caveats that we have already mentioned, as well as the conceptual issues
with data mining in and of itself, we might be able to turn data mining
techniques on the powerful themselves, using the results to being to
form one alternative mapping of the situation, while in the process
commenting on the role of data mining in society. This is the main
conceptual foundation of the MAICgregator project: that perhaps we might
be able to aggregate some of this data and through direct and poetic
presentations of it, turn it into actionable information.

Performing the âre-â on âdata miningâ

Of course the aggregation of disparate sources of âdataâ or âinformationâ or
âsignsâ is not a new technique in the arts. It is certainly older than
the Dadaistâs photomontages, but it is interesting to turn to them, and
especially the work of Hannah HÃch, as it provides a historical parallel
to our re-appropriation of military and commercial techniques:
    "Actually, we borrowed the idea from a trick of the official
photographers of the Prussian army regiments. They used to have
elaborate oleolithographed mounts, representing a group of uniformed men
with a barracks or a landscape in the background, but with the faces cut
out; in these mounts, the photographers then inserted photographic
portraits of the faces of their customers, generally colouring them
later by hand. But the aesthetic purpose, if any, of this very primitive
kind of photomontage was to idealize reality, whereas the Dada
photomonteur set out to give to something entirely unreal all the
appearances of something real that had actually been photographed."
(Hanna HÃch, Interview with Edouard Roditi (1959), Dada, Phaidon Press,
2006, edited by Rudolf Kuenzli, p. 232)

This reapplication of techniques for radically different purposes is a
trope in radical and avant-garde artistic practice, yet it continues to
have an effect with each new form of media. From re-purposing the
spectacle to reapplying the nomadic war machine, performing the âre-â or
the âtrans-â has the potential to create new configurations that upset
present balances of power.

In recent networked and online works there has been much interest in
taking these techniques of data aggregation and re-appropriating and
applying them to the powerful actors. Designed as a response to the
Total Information Awareness (TIA) project mentioned above, Ryan
McKinley, while a student at the MIT Media Lab, developed Open
Government Information Awareness (, now
defunct), a website that collated information about government actors
( , such as members of
Congress, via public sources (Congressional records, C-SPAN video
archives and transcripts, and so on). The idea was to allow members of
the public to watch members of Congress
, just as the government was threatening to do with TIA. The project
unfortunately did not last long due to similar media outcry and publicity.

Other, less confrontational data mining works have additionally
re-purposed these techniques to produce radical cartographies of
governments and multinational corporations. They Rule
( is one such project that enables people to
make links between the Boards of Directors the largest multinationals,
showing how numerous directors are present on multiple boards. Josh On,
one of the main people behind the project, wrote about how he hoped that
projects like his would help shift the configuration of power from
âTheyâ to âWeâ: âBut as artists, as people, we should not shy away from
the most important task that confronts us, organizing collectively to
achieve a world in which we can honestly say: We rule. (
/en/archiv_files/20021/E2002_367.pdf) â. Additionally, the French group
bureau dâÃtudes ( developed a number of
maps that laid out the relationships
( between agencies of the US
Government as well as non-governmental organizations such as OPEC.

Recently the group RYBN ( has been creating a series of
projects under a rubric of what they call antidatamining
( . This work aims to use the techniques of
data mining to present information about capital and financial
institutions in alternative ways to those traditionally seen in business
contexts. Their most recent work, Stock Overflow
( extends this into a series of
installations and conversations with media theorists about how to
ârecontextualizeâ the present financial âcrisisâ.

Avoiding the void of despair

As we begin to make-the-links-that-we-were-not-supposed-to-make, it
becomes easy to see the mass as a void that would engulf us in a clingy,
clammy, sticky despair. Diving further in we become swallowed in the web
of edges that connect the nodes of the powerful actors together, unable
to move, still, in a paralyzed stasisâ

Yet what we need instead is movement, the proverbial (by now) âlines of
Rightâ that, yes, make these links visible, but additionally break them
open through acts of resistance, of the unexpected link to an
alternative network. We need the playful-serious, the â-â ever more
important as the link we make ourselves between
that-which-we-must-find-out and that-which-we-want-instead. This is our
own version of Guattariâs ethico-aesthetic paradigm, the development and
growing of our own individual and collective subjectivities that do not
deny the gravity of the situation but do deny the ability of the
situation to have complete hold over us. Libre software, radical street
bands, TAZs, immediatism, alternative currencies, pirate radio,
hacktivism, guerilla gardening, circuit bending, freeskools, street
dances; what we want is not new
( , yet we need to
continually reactivate it in the face of sustained counter resistance.
âPoetic austerityâ is our term du jourâand it will probably change
tomorrow. While we fight for the state to provide more than the basic
conditions of existence for everyone, we simultaneously (re-)construct
alternative and parallel forms of pedagogy, exchange, and communion. We
consider poetic responses based on our present abilities, absent the
support structures we hope one day to have. Our practices recognize our
materials and support around us: from the cast-offs at the thrift-store,
to the colleagues around the world who share their programs. Call us
naive, if you will; we donât care. The alternative power of conjoining
the poetic and serious enables us to not only respond to this so-called
âcrisisâ (a regular event within the history of capitalism) but also to
ferment our own links and develop our own tactics and (gasp!) strategies
that recognize our present material position while not being limited by it.

Appendix: Technical Details

The technical details regarding the sources that MAICgregator searches
can be found in the frequently asked questions (/FAQ) and examples of
the output can be seen in the screenshots (/docs/screenshots) . More
specifically, the extension talks to a MAICgregator server that runs the
code that performs the searches that aggregates the data. This code will
shortly be made available so that anyone can run a local installation of
the server-side application. We store the results in a variety of
database types, including SQL, XML, and RDF, depending on the type of
data retrieved. For a sneak-peak of what this all involves, please see
the basic server installation instructions
( . Aspects of
this database will be made public shortly, especially the growing
network of trustee relationships that we are building. We are
considering how to release the rest of the database; given our own
esoteric means of saving and retrieving the data we get, it will be
difficult for others to use the data exactly as we have it. But perhaps
that is okay; perhaps all is necessary is for this aggregate to be
available, no matter the difficulty of looking inside.

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