Phil Agre on Thu, 17 Dec 1998 16:42:37 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> [RRE] notes and recommendations

[orig to "Red Rock Eater News Service" <>.]

Some notes about cyberwar, hyperreality, electronic commerce, and the
visual ethnology of entomophagy.  And a couple of URL's.

I don't normally get emotional about political issues.  I don't know
why, but I don't.  Nonetheless, in October 1997 I heard something
that I found so disturbing that I haven't been able to write about
it until now.  At the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference,
the conference organizers put together a plenary panel presentation
about so-called cyber war.  The presenters were all US military guys,
both officers and military academy intellectuals, who have developed
what is apparently an entirely new US military doctrine for the cyber
world.  I judged these guys to be honest about their reasoning, and
I was hardly alone in finding everything they said to be astonishing.

Their starting point was military procurement.  You are probably aware
that it has been US policy for several years to encourage the military
to buy its equipment from civilian sources whenever possible.  In most
people's minds, this is a common sense policy that responds to the
recurring outrages over $400 wrenches and the like.  In fact it is an
extremely important phenomenon that can be well understood in economic
terms.  Although you wouldn't realize it from reading the newspaper,
the modern global economy does not remotely approximate the economic
vision of Adam Smith.  The fundamental reason for this is information.
Adam Smith's economy -- the economy of efficient competition -- only
works right in the absence of large economies of scale.  Economies of
scale arise when goods can be produced more cheaply after substantial
up-front investments, whether in factories, machines, or any other
cost that must be distributed across an entire production run.  When
economies of scale are large, only large producers can prosper, and
when economies of scale grow, industries tend to become concentrated.

The most important economies of scale derive from the information
content of a product, that is, the information work that is necessary
before the first copy of the product can be manufactured.  Software is
famous for its extremely large economies of scale: almost all of the
cost goes into making the first copy of a given program, after which
successive copies can be manufactured very cheaply.  This is one of
the several reasons why monopolies dominate so much of the computer
industry: a million companies make software, but with few exceptions
only one company ends up dominating each category of software once
the market in that category matures.  Computer hardware exhibits large
economies of scale as well, inasmuch as computer chips have a large
information content.  As more products start to have computers inside
of them, and as information technology is used more intensively in
the creation of other products and services, economies of scale that
affect information technology markets start to affect markets in those
other products as well.

This is the military's dilemma: on the old model, the military could
support a parallel industry to produce things to its own specs.  With
the growing pervasiveness of information technology, however, this
becomes impossible.  As the military starts to represent a smaller
and smaller proportion of the market for goods with high information
content, military-only producers become radically less efficient than
civilian producers.  As the ratio between the costs of military-spec
goods and civilian goods becomes overwhelming, the military has no
alternative to shutting down its parallel industrial system and buying
its equipment on the civilian market.

And this is where the problems start.  The military once maintained a
parallel industrial system for the simple reason that its requirements
really are different from those of the civilian market.  The civilian
computer industry, for example, has steadily produced computer systems
whose security against intruders is just terrible.  One reason for
these security problems is that the civilian market simply doesn't
need security beyond a certain point.  Another reason is market
failure: because of network externalities, the market offers greater
rewards to companies with rapid time-to-market (and thus proportionally
lesser rewards to companies with other positive attributes) than an
efficient market probably would.  Whatever the reason, the military
finds itself stuck in a very bad situation: they are obligated by both
economics and policy to acquire computer systems that cannot withstand
entirely plausible attacks.

The gentlemen who presented the military's viewpoint on this subject
at TPRC were entirely forthright about the problem.  They seemed
genuinely sad about it.  But orders are orders, and they have followed
through on those orders by developing the military doctrine that would
seem logically to follow from them.  And this is the doctrine that
I found so frightening.  If the military is obligated to use public
communications networks, they observe, then national security requires
that those public networks be designed to military specifications.
That's the choice: either you build separate military communications
networks to military specifications, or you put the military on the
civilian networks and build those networks to military specifications.
And it's not just communications networks, but every last category of
products that the military is obligated to acquire from the civilian

That's bad enough, but it's just the start.  In the new world, the
military guys said, warfare is no longer conducted along borders
and boundaries, with front lines and supply lines and all of that.
Warfare, in fact, can no longer be comprehended in spatial terms.
To the contrary, in a world where communications infrastructure
is everywhere and every element of communications infrastructure
is a sensitive military target, war has no spatial limits.  And when
terrorists can use public communications networks to conduct endless
low-level attacks anywhere in the world from anywhere else in the
world, war has no temporal limits -- they actually used the phrase
"permanent war".

That's not all.  War, on these guys' conception, is now conducted
in every aspect of society.  Foreign manipulation of the content
of American news media, for example, is "cultural war".  Taken all
together, the result is -- and this is their term -- "total war".
You might have thought that the Soviet Union had fallen, that the
United States was by far the greatest military power on earth, that
the heavy cloud of the Cold War had lifted, and that it was time for
the United States to stand down from its total mobilization, disband
the national security state, end the culture of secrecy, reshape the
military in some reasonable proportion to its plausible adversaries,
and get to work on the rest of society's problems.  You might think
all of that, but you would be wrong.  In the world of the Internet,
it would seem, things have only gotten worse.  We are now in a world
of permanent, total, omnipresent, pervasive war.  Cold War plus plus:
all war, all the time.  They said this.

The military guys' view of the emerging nature of war has numerous
consequences, and they spelled some of them out.  They stated, for
example, that in the event of war it would create no precedent for
the government to take control of facilities that are sensitive from
a military perspective.  But they asserted that war is no longer an
event but a permanent state, and they had also asserted that virtually
the entire productive infrastructure of the country was relevant
to war as it is now defined.  During the question period, therefore,
I asked them where the boundary between military and non-military
facilities could be found, and they answered, with seemingly genuine
distress, that the boundary does not exist.  The consequence, which
they did not spell out, is that the emerging economics of information
infrastructure have required the United States government to adopt
as official policy an authoritarian variety of communism.

Precisely because this is all so shocking, I find it hard to take
as seriously I should.  It's the sort of thing you hear on AM radio.
Describing it to you, I feel like one of those guys who has heard
somewhere that the United States government was officially abolished
sometime in 1933, and that some document somewhere proves this for
certain.  ("No, it's true! I heard it!", they're all saying as they're
reading this, and if the past is any indication they'll tell me about
it in e-mail messages, all of which will sound impressively specific
and nailed-down, even though they don't quite provide me with the
information that I would need to verify their claims in any library
that I have access to.)  I don't claim that the guys who presented
these novel military doctrine represent a perfect unanimity of opinion
within the United States Department of Defense and its constituent
branches of military service.  But neither were they disgruntled
mid-level drones putting on baseball caps, lurking in bars, and
delivering packets of incriminating top-secret documents to David
Duchovny.  They were serious people, they were saying scary things,
and they were doing an outstanding job of making these scary things
sound like the inescapably logical conclusions of well-known and
widely accepted premises.

So what are we to make of this?  The cyberspace ideology provides us
with two contradictory approaches to the question.  One approach is
to laugh at the military guys and the rest of the big bad government's
anachronistic control freaks, all of whose efforts to rein in the
Internet are inevitably futile because of the inherent dynamics of the
technology.  The other approach is, quite the contrary, to rage at the
military guys and mobilize political opposition to the dark ages that
they and their whole anachronistic control-freak cabal are trying to
substitute for the utopia that the Internet would otherwise bring us.

You may recall that, as recently as a couple of years ago, proponents
of the cyberspace ideology filled the Internet with manifestos against
the Communications Decency Act and many other bad actions on the part
of the government.  Where have those people gone?  Some of them remain
in business, of course, including many of the sensible ones, but they
no longer come close to defining the Internet's culture.  The Internet
is still an object of political controversy, but these controversies
now resembles all of the world's other political controversies in
their alignments of interest groups with their realistic understandings
of the political process.  Much of the controversy has gone underground,
into whatever back room the computer industry is using to conduct its
negotiations with those parts of the military that have opinions about
the architecture of its products.

What's not happening is any kind of broad-based public debate about
the honestly monumental consequences of emerging military doctrine.
Does anybody know that the government is moving toward a stance of
total, permanent war?  Does anybody care?  Do we retain the capacity
to pay attention to such things?

At times like this I am reminded of the park rangers at the Grand
Canyon who are at their wits' end because people have been falling
into the canyon in unprecedented numbers, even if you control for the
increased absolute numbers of people who visit the canyon.  The reason
why people keep falling into the Grand Canyon is officially a mystery,
but the real reason, in my opinion, is that Americans believe way deep
down that they are safe.  War is now conducted by remote control.  The
consumer protection movement has done its job, not least by instilling
the holy fear of lawsuits in businesses and governments of every sort.
Theme parks offer expensively simulated danger that can't possibly
hurt you.  Fictional people are slaughtered by the thousands in mass-
marketed entertainments that go out of their way to numb any emotional
response to the carnage.  Bombastic pundits systematically smear
anyone who believes that life is endangered by the side-effects of
industrial civilization.  Crime is way down.  The people who survived
the Great Depression and World War II are old, and the people who
lived through Korea and Vietnam don't talk about it.  The news media
pretty much ignore the rest of the world.  Danger, if the concept even
remains, is an abstraction, a symbol, something existentially far away.

Perhaps as a consequence of all of this taken-for-granted safety,
it has become harder and harder for Americans to comprehend danger
-- that is, to really *get* that by standing too close to the edge
of the Grand Canyon, one could actually fall into it and actually
die.  Likewise with our political system.  It is just *too* *weird*
to comprehend -- to really *get* -- that the United States Congress
is actually -- not in make-believe, not in the movies, but here, in
this reality -- impeaching the president for no honest reason besides
the maybe-or-maybe-not half-true answers he gave to a strangely worded
question about which parts of someone else's body he had touched.
And it is just too weird that the United States military establishment
is in the process of declaring the country to be in a state of total,
permanent war.  We are numb.  Please, someone, put us out of our misery.

Highest possible recommendation: Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, Man
Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Bugs, Ten Speed Press, 1998.
The authors are photographers of color photographs that they have taken
on trips around the world.  For example, One of Mensel's books, called
"Material World", consists of families who have agreed to arrange all
of their material belongings in front of their home and then pose for
photographs with them.  "Man Eating Bugs" is similar, except that the
people are all posing with the various insects that they enjoy eating.
The effect is 100% as gross as you might imagine, at least to someone
from a non-insect-eating culture such as my own, and the book will make
a fine gift for any child who might be going through a gross-out stage.
(Disclosure: Peter Menzel took my picture for a German news magazine
in Burlingame, CA a few years ago.  I despise having my picture taken,
but he made the whole process complicated and technical enough that it
was actually fun.  He sat me in the front seat of a car at dusk on a
busy street, and he took a picture of my reflection in the car's rear
view mirror.  I had to sit still because he used a long exposure so
the passing cars' headlights would leave trails behind them.  This was
for a story about transportation privacy.  I never saw the picture.)

Recommended: Richard Hawkins, Robin Mansell, and W. Edward Steinmueller,
"Towards 'digital intermediation' in the European information society".
This is the best paper that I have read about the concept of digital
intermediaries -- that is, online businesses (and other organizations)
that exist to connect people who have stuff with people who want stuff.
The authors work at the outstanding Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU)
of the University of Sussex, which I have already mentioned in connection
with their also-recommended book "Communication by Design: The Politics
of Information and Communication Technologies" (Oxford University Press,
1996).  The paper is available online in PDF format on SPRU's working
paper site:

Digital Worlds Research Center

article on Y2K and the far right

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: