Interview: Everything that we’ve been sold about the democratic nature of the internet has always been a marketing pitch

The great Olivier Jutel interviewed me in the pages of Eurozine / Springerin. Check it out!

Olivier Jutel: How have you found the reception to your book Surveillance Valley and its central thesis that the internet is essentially a surveillance weapon?

Yasha Levine: My book has come at a really good time, right as people are 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. I hope the book fills some gaps in our knowledge because, as strange as it seems, we have forgotten this history.

The way the internet gets discussed, it’s often as if it were some immaterial phenomenon. What your book does is to explain the material, political and ideological origins of the network. Can you talk about the military imperatives it served?

One thing we have to understand about the internet is that it came out of a research project that started during the Vietnam war, when 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 to a potential Soviet bombing raid. It connected radar arrays and computer systems to allow analysts to watch the entire US from a screen thousands of miles away. This was novel, as all previous systems relied on manual calculation. Once you can do that automatically it’s a totally new way of thinking about the world, because all of sudden you can manage airspace and thousands of miles of border from a computer terminal. This is in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The idea was to expand this technology beyond airplanes to battlefields and societies.

One of things that ARPA was involved with in Vietnam in the ’60s was ‘bugging the battlefield’, as they called it. They’d drop sensors into the jungle in order to detect troop movements hidden from aerial view. These sensors were wireless and would ping back information to a control centre with an IBM computer taking that information, mapping troop movements to help select bombing targets. This became the basis of electronic fence technology that was exported to the US and used on the border with Mexico. It’s still used 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.

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