dispatches from the digital revolution – part one

In 1999 I wrote this for Mute Magazine, its not very good but I am posting it here because I feel that I can now progress and hopefully tell part of a tale that is more complex and mature. This is just a simple thing, early in my career thinking about what the internet means to us, as a place to be and as a contested space. That issue was about Tactical Media.

Mark simpkins

The current war in the Balkans is being called the first Internet war. Previously, the Gulf war was hailed as the first information war. That is, information war in the terms set out by Bruce Sterling, Alvin Toffler, Jean Baudrillard et al – fought by a war machine using the latest information technology to strike at the enemy accurately, quickly and, notionally, ‘without risk to human life’.

Of course, the main front in this information conflict was back at home, packaging and selling the war to the general public. The information war was fought in our living rooms – by each side against it’s own populace. In information conflict, missiles and bombs go on destroying; civilians and soldiers go on being killed, but politicians require at least the illusion of a public mandate to sanction military attacks.

Now, eight years later, we have a similar situation, although this time part of the conflict is taking place online: both war machines involved in the conflict are using websites and newsgroups to spin their media hype.

At the same time, the NATO website was supposedly hit by a denial of service attack, a flood of pings requesting a response from the server and reducing it’s response time to a crawl. In America at least one person took it upon himself to do the same to a pro-Serbian website, using an off-the-shelf spam package.

All of these actions fit wonderfully into the new-speak of military action: ‘SYN Flooding’, ‘Denial of Service Attack’, etc – technical terms that generals would love to be able to use to describe aspects of their bombing campaigns.

Information war has to be constructive, not destructive. Instead of flooding the Net with SYN packets, we should be listening to it’s flood of voices. Away from the electronic toys of crackers and wannabe hackers, the information war is being fought with dialogue, conversation and the broadcast of ideas.
In media terms, the Internet is not quite up there with the televisions, but it’s getting closer to the living room corner. When it does, will we visit the site of consent, as we did before, or will we search out genuinely alternative sources of information? Instead of listening to the news about government sites being brought down by hackers, will we instead find sites built and emails sent by those on both sides of the conflict?

April 1999

This was a time spent reading Sterlings ‘The Hacker Crackdown‘ as well as the work of Toffler, Baudrillard and Virillio. It was also more importantly the time when Radio B92 broadcast online as it was continually silenced over the airwaves. This was thanks to XS4ALL. This ISP’s name appears in at least two recent books, Heather Brooke’s ‘The Revolution Will Be Digitised‘ and Becky Hogge’s ‘Barefoot in Cyberspace‘.

Both these books cover some similar ground, as at there core is the rise of Wikileaks but both also start to examine two areas of contest in our digital space. Heather speaks to the Cypherpunks, the people that broke encryption free from the bounds of being proscribed munitions. What is important here is the realisation from these very same people that they won a battle but ‘lost the war.’ Whilst we can all use encryption, design wise it is not baked into our software and systems. The default has not been to design in privacy but instead allow an open transfer of personal information.

Becky touches on the fact that most digital spaces are now, (arguably were they ever), commons type places. They are owned by corporations, they are beholden to the rules of capitalism. Google has shareholders, whilst for now they may not ‘Do evil’ in the future who is to say that whomever is put in charge by the shareholder decides to do what they want with the information that Google (and many, many other companies) has collected on you.

Information that has been transferred and given up without privacy designed in.

Both of these takes are about control, Adam Curtis touched on this in his recent documentaries ‘All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace.’ I wrote briefly about the first episode and mentioned that this was discussed by the work of Lawrence Lessig in his book Code, and also in the recent work of Douglas Rushkoff.

And I am going to write more about control, of the media, your space online and in the real world next time…