Joe Costello reviews "Surveillance Valley"

Note: I'm republishing Joe Costello's review, which he sent out to his email newsletter list earlier this week. Joe is an amazing political thinker who has spent his life working in politics. Most recently, he's been doing amazing work trying to chart a path forward on the politics of technology, a topic that's not only underdeveloped but extremely difficult for many of us to even conceptualize. I highly recommend his recent paper, "The Politics of Technology." —YL

* * *

Review: Yasha Levine's "Surveillance Valley"

By Joe Costello

"Life just bounces so don't you get worried at all"
- The Fall
God Love Mark E. Smith (1957-2018)

Yasha Levine's “Surveillance Valley” is an important and not well known history of computers and the internet. In our tech driven culture, history is ignored, yet it is only by knowing the history of technologies can we hope to create a much needed politics of technology. Without history, it is impossible to adequately understand any given technology's impact on society, simultaneously limiting any capability of influencing its development. With all technologies and especially with one as powerful as the computer, such ignorance will prove extremely detrimental to the future of our economy, democracy, and lives.

At its origin, the computer was largely a military construct. Its modern development emerged in World War II's atomic-bomb laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the cryptography labs of England, and various ballistic calculating centers. Computers facilitated calculation of the massive amounts of data necessary to design the implosion force necessary for triggering a nuclear bomb or how to accurately target heavy artillery shells over long distances. In many ways, the computer is as lethal as any military system ever developed, helping launch the planet into our present nuclear era. The computer's military origins embedded certain characteristics and methods into both the computer and its culture, including a preference for extreme hierarchical order and a military sense of information security obtained via the mechanisms of surveillance, secrecy, and cryptography.

Levine begins his story in 1957 and the collective US psychological breakdown caused by the launching of the Soviet Sputnik satellite. One response was creating an agency under the Defense Department called the Advanced Research Project Agency(APRA), eventually becoming DARPA by adding Defense. In this agency, the internet was birthed and for several decades significantly shaped the network's design and culture.

In the 1960s, computers, known as mainframes, were still massive and expensive room-sized machines which could only be afforded by large corporations or public and private universities subsidized by the infinite US military budget. A man named J.C.R Licklider, who was Director of APRA's Behavioral Science and Command and Control Research divisions, conceived the idea of networking these computers. It's somewhat incredible today to think the idea of networking computers was at one point new and even more astounding to consider its resulting societal impact in barely a half-century.

The need for computer networks evolved with the ever exponential amounts of data being created. While the concept of “big data” has become the newest pop-intellectual mantra of the moment, big data's been around since at least the development of mass-industrial markets of the 19th century, though certainly, explosively expanding at the inception of the computer era. Levine documents one of big data's complete failures in America's Vietnam misadventure, where networked big data was first used in a attempt to socially target the cultures of South East Asia.

“Counter-insurgency” developed as the military's main strategy in Vietnam, with Ford Motor's own big data man Robert McNamara as Defense Chief. Licklider developed the Cambridge Project, which would network university computers to help manipulate the vast data being collected on the populations of South East Asia in order to win their “hearts and minds.” In his internet creation proposal, Licklider noted the “data banks” to be constructed included: “public opinion polls from across countries; cultural patterns of tribes and all peoples of the world; political participation including voting, membership in associations, activity of political parties; youth movements;” and others. Big data proved a big-flop in Vietnam, as the greatest data point, funnily enough the one the US was founded on, was ignored - people don't like to be occupied. Nonetheless, big data and the internet era arrived and has since been utilized both legally and illegally by our military, Intelligence Agencies, and ever more massive corporations to watch and in various attempts guide, or in the words of APRA, “Command and Control” the US citizenry.

At the end of the 1970s a revolution occurred in computing with the development of the personal computer. Initiated by the development of the microprocessor a decade earlier, the PC(Personal Computer) revolution allowed the power of the computer into every business and home. Why was this a revolution? Simple, the system architecture of mainframe computing had “dumb-terminals” connected to one central mainframe computer. The terminals had no computing power and were completely reliant on the mainframe computer. The personal computer changed all this by detaching from the central computer, distributing computing power to each “terminal.” It truly was a revolution of the established architecture of the technology.

Through PCs the internet would be popularized. It was also at this point, following the political currents of the time, the Net was privatized. “Surveillance Valley” does a good job of telling the forgotten story of moving the Net from government control to corporate control. Levine accurately describes the contrived and hypocritical laissez faire anti-government attitude of an industry birthed in the womb of the military and still umbilically attached to the military purse.

Politically invaluable about “Surveillance Valley” is Levine's revealing the characteristics of the first computers and the beginnings of the internet, and their continuing influence on the design and operation of today's network. The most important inherited design is the continued centralized architecture of the network, after what now appears an evolutionary dead-end of more distributed architecture possibilities with PCs. In the 1990s, as the Net became ubiquitous and PCs the dominant computer experience, there was a lot of grandiose empty statements about the Net's leveling impacts. However, without a distributed system architecture there was no possibility of this. Not only had the internet first been created with a mainframe/dumb-terminal architecture, but the initial networking of PCs was done with a “client/server” architecture. Unlike dumb-terminals, in PC networks, the “client,” did have computing power, but all communication and shared data on a PC network was controlled by one central computer, the “server.”

This is imperative to understand: be it with the architecture of a computer network or the design of any technological system, the technical designs and system operations are politics. You can talk all you want about any given technology's empowering abilities, leveling or democratic capabilities, but as with every political system, if you don't have fundamental designs of distributed power and democratic processes, somewhere there's centralized control and power. Over the last 25 years, the privatized internet developed a massively centrally controlled system, dominated by corporations such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and let's not forget the several reconstituted Telecom giants, including AT&T and Comcast, now controlling access to the network.

These companies rapidly grew from the established centralized architecture of the network, allowing central computer servers control communication and information across the network. Building atop this centralized architecture allows for continuous collecting and amassing of data. These companies quickly monopolized control by establishing standards/interfaces for creating data and its communication. The user data perpetually collected by Google and Facebook would no doubt make 1960's Licklider, APRA's Director of Behavioral Science and Command and Control, extraordinarily impressed.

It's important here to step back a quarter-century and understand the internet might have evolved a different way, if there had been an actual politics that demanded it, building on some of its more open and egalitarian features. I bought my first Internet account from a garage in El Cajon, California. For $19.95 a month, I received an unlimited connection, an email, and web-page hosting. The fellow running the operation had a great business and made plenty of money. As the Net grew and the public was fed candy notions of individual empowerment, the business of the internet developed understanding and exploiting the centralized architecture of the Net. In exchange for technological trifles like email or posting pictures, Google and Facebook control the organization of information and amass data banks of each person's every activity, sell it to whoever, and in fact, your own information even gets sold back to you. Besides the problem of information and communication control, this has allowed a few to make billions, contributing to a toxic concentration of wealth. Instead, today's Net could be designed on a distributed network architecture with many functions directly coded into the network. Greater control of data left in individuals' hands, facilitating their ability to create and join their own various business, information, and political associations. But the race for gold is on, and the democratizing features of the technology were always more a political proposition than a business one, and as we all know, politics is only for fools at this point.

The development of these massive information and surveillance giants didn't occur by mistake or accident. It's simply a result of the technology's design characteristics and processes, many embedded from the start, evolving into our larger established economic, political, and cultural environments. Levine goes onto document the Valley's continued strong symbiotic relationship with the military and intelligence communities, leading to the final design feature embedded in the technology's DNA, cryptography, best represented in the public eye today with the pop-tech fetish bitcoin.

As already noted, in part, computing grew out of cryptography. As computers became ubiquitous, a cult of cryptology grew inside computer culture. In an ironic and certainly amusing development for a world increasingly shaped by computing's unblinking eye, various forms of cryptography protection have been championed as supposed guards against unwanted intrusion. Even more humorous, Levine documents how many supposed evangelized crypto-tools, such as Tor, are funded by the same government agencies their “libertarian” advocates claim they guard against.

Cryptography may have certain roles of some value, but its history is mostly tied to military secrecy as an inherently undemocratic tool. Democracy, to paraphrase the Amazon owned Washington Post, lives only in open light. That cryptography has become the most discussed politics of the technology, only exemplifies how limited and impotent the political discussion. Just as importantly demonstrating how this politics is almost exclusively and badly defined by the established culture of the technology. It is of no little irony that gaggles of enormously asocial people are creating what they define as “social media.”

As they rapidly alter every aspect of society, it is troubling just how stunted any popular understanding of these technologies. The power of these technologies is their ability to fundamentally reorder, reorganize, and restructure our society. There are plenty of ways they can be used helpfully. All power – economic, cultural, social, and technological – has an underlying structural organization. The organization of power is politics at its most fundamental. Without a popular understanding of the technology, the politics of societal reorganization it generates will be exclusively in the hands of a few. And say whatever else you like about the founding of this country, it was in direct opposition to rule by the few.

“Surveillance Valley” is an excellent history of computing and the internet and an important addition to understanding how increasingly powerful entities created by these technologies have come to the positions of unchecked and unbalanced power. Unfortunately, we still look at technology as an add-on or incidental to accepted societal shaping dynamics such as economics or culture. We need to understand technology has always been and remains a driving and defining political force of its own, one of immense power. The information technology revolution is speedily reshaping society and our present politics do not even reach the level of being reactionary. If we want a democratic future, and those controlling and implementing the technology show little democratic inclinations, we need to develop a politics of technology. Levine's history of “Surveillance Valley” provides an essential first step.

Read more: reviews

< Back