On the edge of the mesh

A “professional n00b“: that’s how I introduced myself at the OHM2013 convention last year, and ever since that’s how I’ve taken to introducing myself whenever I encounter a gosu. My hacktivist colleagues tell me that I’m being too hard on myself, since I do have a determination to learn (albeit in fits and starts, time and money permitting). However, I do actually see it as something good, since it’s people like me who have an interest in cutting through the technical arcana of engineers in order to bring important digital and technical tools to journalists, entrepreneurs, and the general public.

My life as a professional n00b began in the summer of 2011, shortly after the mysterious explosion of Abadan in Turkmenistan. I was approached by some, let’s call them helpful folks, who wanted to know whether mesh networking, or “meshing” for short, would be a useful way to circumvent surveillance and censorship in the country. Oh boy.

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The future civilization has already arisen; we are its agents here in the past

bishkek

Things are moving quickly in Bishkek. In a single day, I already have several potential living spaces, including one for a measly approximately $37 per month (a fantastic place; the only problem is it’s practically in the foothills of the Ala-Too, far from the downtown where most of my daily work will be). The long-term visa is a situation that still needs some ironing out. Yet, although some anxiety simmers down in the depths, for the most part the foundations are calm. Something inside of me is saying, This should work, and even if it doesn’t, results per se were never the real point.

The city is even more energetic than what I remember from when I was last here, two years ago. A vortex of car traffic punctuated by pedestrian kamikazes; cracked pavement, or just no pavement at all, surging with plant life and petulant stone; orange and brown dust kicked up in the air; violet and turquoise neon lights bedecking chaikhana after chaikhana; sleek grey social-realist buildings, slowly crumbling or freshly renovated; the ubiquitous scent of burning metal, mountain, and chai — I feel as though I’ve found myself a character in what should prove to be a very interesting, and hopefully meaningful, science fiction film.

And speaking of science fiction, a strange time traveler-like feeling began to creep up on me in recent months about my and my friends’ various vocations as Bahá’ís, journalists, human rights activists, teachers, hacktivists, rogues, and the like. Somehow, being in this young, boisterous Asian republic, surrounded by all the hyper-ideological Soviet-era architecture — the living ruins of one of the great, failed grand discourses — have given me the words to describe it.

How often have we felt that we are fighting, even resisting, as though we were some lunatic minority bestriding the fringe of history, struggling to make a better world? How often have we felt that the horizon is dim, and our lot is merely to be stoic the face of human self-defeat? In fact, it’s totally the wrong way of viewing things.

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The coming Global War on Hacking?

Šutej01

I’ve got a suspicion that 2013 could very well go down as a fulcrum point in contemporary history, as well as in my own meager part in it. Julian Assange’s pinprick has now become Edward Snowden’s stab to the jugular vein, and meanwhile, I’ve had to provisionally decide how I’m going to steer the imminent deluge.

Here’s my thought process, and I’ll put it frankly to my audience: we should all be expecting in the near future the replacement of the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) with the GWOH (Global War on Hacking). Consider: all it would take would be one massive power grid failure or some other similar immense infrastructural disruption, and then a logical but ultimately evidence-independent speculation (“we have reason to believe hackers were behind it”) to roll out new Patriot Act-like powers that effectively render criminal any technological attempt to maintain individual or collective privacy, much less to peer into the secrets of power.

The idea is not strictly-speaking mine. I heard it mumbled about in some quarters at the recent OHM2013 convention. However, other than an obscure comment to a 2011 editorial (copied in the post-script of this post), there’s nothing about in on the public web. So, let me spell it out a bit here, and then explain my own position, which I hope is moderate. And if not moderate, then at least independent…

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Capitalist realism: homo capitalus / homo financus

Update 31 May, 2012: Some readers, even after braving through the many photos and philosophese, have asked me: “Just what exactly is the ideology or goal of ‘capitalist realism’?” I think what I’m trying to say is simply this: if socialist realism celebrated and promoted the mechanization of humanity, then capitalist realism celebrates and promotes the marketization of humanity. Moreover, both art forms have strong semiotics of the future and of power. However, where socialist realism was explicit in its totalitarian drive (at least, it’s obvious in retrospection), capitalist realism still purports to be liberalist (in the sense that people are allowed to be whoever they want to be “in private”, although what exactly that means, much less the boundaries of the private, is uncertain).

Although this is clearly a critical photo-essay, it’s also, perhaps paradoxically, supposed to be appreciative: contrary to opinions currently in vogue about the aesthetic “superficiality” and psychological “blandness” of either communist or capitalist architecture, the art form is actually quite intelligent, provocative, and in its own way, rather sublime. That’s not to say that it’s morally good; rather, that’s to say it shouldn’t be blithely dismissed or knee-jerkingly condemned.

This post could be alternatively entitled, “How I learned to stop grumbling and love corporate-capitalistic architecture.” As a young boy, I would sometimes visit my father’s stock brokerage firm in 650 Fifth Avenue. I couldn’t decide whether its granite modernist facade was drab, imposing, and soulless, or somehow futuristic, even graceful and attractive. I think in general that has characterized my feelings about most post-Sixties corporate/financial office architecture — until yesterday as I wandered Hammersmith and the City of London for a few hours. I found myself taken in by some kind of obscure metaphysical charm, even sublimity. And then I realized: this stuff’s not at all dissimilar Soviet socialist realism. In fact, I’d dare even call it capitalist realism.

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What if the USA collapsed instead of the USSR? (что было бы, если бы вместо Советского Союза распались Соединенные Штаты Америки?)

[Нажмите “Read More” для русского языка.] While I was on my tour through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, I thought of what could be a really fun premise for a story: what if the United States broke up instead of the Soviet Union? The story would follow an alternative reality version of myself, namely, a young Soviet Kazakh journalist in charge of newamerica.net (instead of neweurasia.net), who has just written a book about post-US North America using the blog posts from the region and goes on a tour of independent New York and Pennsylvania to promote his work. I might want to add some political intrigue or a murder mystery to the plot, but essentially it would be a road trip tale.

Obviously, the story would be very much a satire. Instead of ex-KGB oligarchs, Chechen and Uighur rebels, Uzbek-Kyrgyz strife, and authoritarian presidents, there would be ex-CIA robber-barons, Native American rebels, Mexican-American strife, and New Media-based autocrats (Obama as the Turkmenbashi of Hawaii, his home state? Bush as the president of an Uzbekistan-like Texas?) I imagine that what is today the Midwest would break down into a kind of Afghanistan: without the strong federated American state to maintain irrigation and borders, it would devolve into a war-torn wasteland as the Soviet Union, Canada and Mexico vied for dominance in a new Great Game. The coasts would probably be the most stable areas.

Beyond North America, I imagine that the European Union would be a stronger and more socialist confederacy (but it would probably be struggling to absorb Italian and Irish returnees from America, the inverse of what happened to the Volga Germans and other Western ethnic groups from Central Asia). Africa would still be a mess, while Australia and New Zealand would be some of the world’s last capitalist countries, and Afghanistan and Pakistan would be a hybrid Marxist-Islamist republic; I have no idea about India, China, South America or the Middle East. Radical Christianity, instead of radical Islam, would be the new ideological scourge confronting the world. Technologically, global warming would probably be incredibly worse, but we would probably also be mining the moon.

But these are only tentative ideas. I’d love to hear from you, my readers: what would this alternative world be like? Also, try to imagine little details. For example, what would movies be like (would we be watching Standartenfuhrer von Stirlitz movies instead of James Bond?) and instead of China, where would cheap, shitty plastics and textiles come from? Leave a comment on this blog post in whichever language you feel most comfortable.

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Wiki-Orwellianism

Could transparency be used as a tool of oppression? The idea occurred to me soon after filing my most recent blog post with RFE/RL on the latest — and scariest — WikiLeaks spawn, Porn WikiLeaks.

What strikes me about Porn WikiLeaks is that it appears to essentially be the community of the pornography industry turned upon itself, as one vigilante ex-member seeks to expose the private identities of the industry’s pseudonymous actors and actresses. Many men and women have taken recourse to stints in front of the camera to pay for university or just put food on the table.

So, what’s at stake here are normal people — lawyers, doctors, teachers and home makers — with real reputations to lose, which is why the institution of the pseudonym is so important (society’s own double-standard of using the product but condemning the producer is the crucial factor to this sad reality, but that’s a topic for another blog post). This is counter to the logic of the original WikiLeaks, which Guy Rundle eloquently explains thus:

WikiLeaks has never been about an unedited, unconsidered process. Assange has argued that the degree of power exercised and the right to leak should also be considered in implicitly mathematical terms: total power licenses total exposure; zero power implies a total right to personal privacy. Such an ethic presumably lies across the boundary of a single life – the personal circumstances of someone in power should not be fair game for leaking, unless the circumstances of that private life are generating corrupt activities.

But here’s the really disturbing catch: besides the fact that Porn WikiLeaks’ webmaster may have had some help from inside the industry in terms of gathering the basic profile data of over 23,756 individuals that serves as the foundation of the site’s database, the deeply private data that he’s also accruing — from photographs of residences and family members to phone numbers — is most likely coming from colleagues and otherwise normal people like you and me, i.e., neighbors, supposed friends and other acquaintances. In other words, emphasis here is on the Wiki part of the site’s name.

On one level, the whole enterprise is sickeningly masturbatory: Porn WikiLeaks is itself pornographic, for the site essentially applies crowdsourcing to voyeurism. On another even more disturbing level, for me the site constitutes nothing less than Wiki-Orwellianism, that is to say, crowdsourcing used as a means to invade privacy. That’s profoundly worrying because this is a methodology that could be put to authoritarian ends. Imagine: what if the East German secret police had access to today’s Internet technology, and one day simply decided to publish their vast database of the citizenry’s private lives as a mass-readable/mass-editable Wikipedia-like website?

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The Eurabian intellectual tradition?

Here’s a radical hypothesis: if we apply core-periphery theory to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, could Scholasticism be reconstrued not, as its generally held to be today, as a distinctly European or Latin Western phenomenon, but as nothing more than Europeans practicing Arabic/Islamic philosophy and science in their own distinctive way?

In other words, is it more historically accurate to characterize the High Middle Ages in Europe as an era defined by the very same process happening now to the non-Western world, namely, the absorption, assimilation, and adaptation by a marginal culture of the intellectual tradition  of a dominant one?

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