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Tag: war

This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Controlling the Opposition to Some Extent

This quote is often attributed to Vladimir Lenin: “The best way to control the opposition is to lead it ourselves.” He speaks of puppet movements and useful idiots. (The latter term is also Leninese, as it happens.) There is a less-popular companion statement, which seems to have bubbled up from the frustrated id of anonymous extremists:

"All opposition is controlled opposition." Made with Buffer's Pablo.

“All opposition is controlled opposition.” Made with Buffer’s Pablo.

The idea behind this maxim is that the state allows a certain amount of opposition to exist, and often infiltrates protest movements or steers them from afar. (Anarchist groups have developed what they call “security culture” as a way to guard against this.)

Dissidents are permitted to bleed off tension without actually endangering the regime. People with the savvy and energy to organize real trouble are swallowed up by doomed groups fighting for doomed causes.

For example, the “controlled opposition” interpretation of the #NoDAPL protests would be: The activists feel like they’ve won a victory, but the pipeline will just be slightly rerouted, built eventually, and imperil the groundwater in due time. The tribe’s supposed success serves to placate the public. Behind the scenes, the state and its capitalist cronies do whatever they want.

Some observers interpret mainstream political parties as controlled opposition en masse. Show contests orchestrated by the deep state in order to keep the voters occupied. Wars are engineered by corporate interests. According to this paradigm, we don’t just swoop in and crush ISIS because the military-industrial complex thrives on hot wars.

I think “all opposition is controlled opposition” is a bit like “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Both sayings are nonsense when interpreted literally, but they’re catchy ways to encapsulate an emotionally compelling idea.

Yes, clearly controlled opposition does exist. But genuinely disruptive fringe groups also exist. The English government didn’t benefit from the IRA, and the French Revolution managed to behead a couple of monarchs (plus many unfortunate members of the aristocracy). Mao Zedong’s rise to power was not controlled opposition.

In general, I think people tend to see conspiracies where there are actually incentive structures. Of course the state has to strike a balance between crushing dissent entirely and allowing it to enter society’s memetic bloodstream. If the politicians and bureaucrats err too far in either direction, the state loses its power.

Header photo via the euskadi 11.

Cyber Arms Racing

Cybersecurity researcher Bruce Schneier published a provocatively titled blog post — “Someone Is Learning How to Take Down the Internet” — which can either be interpreted as shocking or blasé, depending on your perspective. The gist is that sources within high-level web infrastructure companies told Schneier that they’re facing increasingly sophisticated DDoS attacks:

“These attacks are significantly larger than the ones they’re used to seeing. They last longer. They’re more sophisticated. And they look like probing. One week, the attack would start at a particular level of attack and slowly ramp up before stopping. The next week, it would start at that higher point and continue. And so on, along those lines, as if the attacker were looking for the exact point of failure.”

Schneier goes on to speculate that the culprit is a state actor, likely Russia or China. So, I have a few reactions:

1) I would be very surprised in the opposite case, if Schneier asserted that no one was trying to figure out how to take down the internet. Just like the executives of public companies have a fiduciary duty to be as evil as possible in order to make money for their shareholders, government agencies have a mandate to be as evil as possible in order to maintain global power.

When I say “evil” I don’t mean that they’re malicious. I mean they end up doing evil things. And then their adversaries do evil things too, upping the ante. Etc, etc.

2) Schneier’s disclosure may end up in the headlines, but the disclosure itself is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Venkatesh Rao said (in reference to Trump, but it’s still relevant), “It takes very low energy to rattle media into sound and fury, ‘break the Internet’ etc. Rattling the deep state takes 10,000x more energy.”

3) I don’t expect whoever is figuring out how to “DDoS ALL THE THINGS!” to actually do it anytime soon. Take this with a grain of salt, since I’m not a NatSec expert by any means, but it would be counterproductive for China, Russia, or the United States itself to take the internet offline under normal circumstances. “Normal circumstances” is key — the expectations change if an active physical conflict breaks out, as some Hacker News commenters noted.

I suspect that being able to take down the internet is somewhat akin to having nukes — it’s a capability that you’d like your enemies to be aware of, but not necessarily one that you want to exercise.

I also like what “Random Guy 17” commented on Schneier’s original post: “An attack on a service is best done by an attacker that doesn’t need that service.”

A Private Air Force Would Require More Than Two Planes

A plane like this, but retrofitted to launch missiles. Photo by Jon Schladen.

A plane like this, but retrofitted to launch missiles. Photo by Jon Schladen.

This afternoon I read The Intercept’s blockbuster report on “Erik Prince’s Treacherous Drive to Build a Private Air Force”, which is about military outsourcing. It’s a very long piece, so stuffed with facts that the excitement is sucked out of a pretty provocative story. Dryness aside, Jeremy Scahill and Matthew Cole’s reporting is excellent, so I look forward to watching the eventual movie about this debacle. Hopefully a Hollywood budget will revivify the somewhat insane plot. War Is Boring provides a useful summary:

“The story reads like a spy novel. It describes how Prince allegedly hid behind a network of shell companies, concealing the real nature of the airplane modifications from the board of the very company that paid for them, Frontier Services Group, of which Prince is the founder and chairman. […] But even more baffling than Prince’s criminality is his obsession with the concept of a mercenary air force — and its utility and profitability in counterinsurgency operations, especially in African countries.”

I’m going to climb onto one of my usual hobbyhorses and point out that Erik Prince’s fantasy is essentially libertarian. He and his partners expended a lot of effort to dodge Austria’s arms export regulations as well as similar laws in the United States. Weirdly, national governments don’t want you to weaponize crop dusters and drop-ship them to whatever African civil war is handy! A telling excerpt from The Intercept’s article:

“In early 2014, Prince and Citic Group, China’s largest state-owned investment firm, founded Frontier Services Group, a publicly traded logistics and aviation company based in Hong Kong. […] Over the past two years, Prince has given interviews and speeches describing his vision of FSG. ‘This is not a patriotic endeavor of ours,’ Prince said of his new company. ‘We’re here to build a great business and make some money doing it.’ China, he said, ‘has the appetite to take frontier risk, that expeditionary risk of going to those less-certain, less-normal markets and figuring out how to make it happen.’ But while he burnished his new image as chairman of a public company, he was secretly overseeing the clandestine attack aircraft program.” (Bold added.)

The amount of money, time, and falsehoods that Prince devoted to this endeavor is astounding. It also surprises me that someone so corrupt and willing to break the rules — and with so many resources at his disposal — could be so incompetent. He didn’t ever manage to sell the planes! If you want a shorter write-up of this debacle, War Is Boring published it.

Tripping Toward Terror

We’re not in the darkest timeline. The darkest timeline wouldn’t be Apple versus FBI and Hulk Hogan versus Gawker and Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton. The darkest timeline would be drones blowing up American citizens (yes, I do focus on my own country like a dirty jingoist, thanks).

The premise of this newsletter is that cyberpunk is happening now, but that doesn’t mean we occupy the worst possible reality. Our reality is… well, I’d say mediocre. It’s bearable — given my white and middle-class privilege, anyway — but more B- than A+. We could do better. We could do worse, definitely, but we could also do better.

Image via Matt Lyon. Source unknown.

Image via Matt Lyon. Source unknown.

In the darkest timeline, “civil liberties” would be a meaningless phrase everywhere, not just in Turkey, Russia, and the like. The darkest timeline would mean that Trump wins instead of merely having a frighteningly successful candidacy. The darkest timeline would bear most of the features of modern life, plus a lot more dystopian power-fracturing. War, famine, and biological weapons would be unleashed on the poorest places as well as the richest. (I know, this does sound a lot like the future that we’re already building. Shh.)

Personal finance website The Billfold recently posted an interesting anonymous article about someone with a lot of student debt who ended up working in the expat war industry, albeit for an NGO:

“My job was ostensibly to plan the IT and communications infrastructure for the newly established Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq (IECI). Nationwide elections were scheduled for January 2005, only five months away. Given that no one had a firm grasp on how any of this was going to work, my job was initially little more than an intellectual exercise, but concepts had a disconcertingly rapid way of becoming reality in Baghdad. By the end of my second week, I was asked to stay on through February to build what I had planned.”

Aside from the professional pressure, the writer’s story describes bombings as a banal recurring element of daily life. Are we all headed there? I’m skeptical — for example, ISIS poses no material threat to the US. Police officers kill more citizens than terrorism. But we keep pushing ourselves toward escalated violence.

My friend Samio pointed out on Facebook that it’s pretty goddam rich for me to say all of this from the cushy United States. Here is a slightly edited version of his comment:

“In México City we have such poor breathing conditions that we’ll have to filter indoor air soon and only go out with breathing masks. We’re gonna have water shortages. Don’t even get me started on the murders of women, which have become normal. Hell, earlier today the metro line I was on had a major malfunction and chemical smoke burst out. I still can’t breathe fully.

AND EVEN THAT IS NOTHING compared to what someone in Palestine or a Chinese mega-slum is having to deal with right now. The general sentiment that our world is a brutal and nasty place, that life is cheap and everything is gonna get worse, is what the phrase ‘darkest timeline’ seeks to express. In that sense, yes, we’re undeniably fucked.”

Fair enough, Samio. (This is why it’s good to know people with different life experiences! You find out when you’re being arrogant in your assessments of the world!)

Conflict Resources & Murky Culpability

After I wrote this dispatch I read “Your Phone Was Made By Slaves” by Kevin Bales and immediately felt silly — his longer piece covers a lot of the same ground in more depth. If you find this topic interesting, it’s a good read.

Computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices contain conflict minerals. For those of you unfamiliar with the term: “Conflict resources are natural resources whose systematic exploitation and trade in a context of conflict [AKA a war zone] contribute to, benefit from or result in the commission of serious violations of human rights”. Furthermore, “Take away the ability to profit from resource extraction and [the fighting groups] can no longer exacerbate or sustain conflict.”

To provide an example, minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are mined by rebel militias and sold to fund the continuation of the fighting. The buyers are nobody in particular, but those minerals are laundered the way illicit money is laundered, by being passed through middlemen. Eventually manufacturers use the minerals on behalf of multinational purveyors of consumer electronics. Big companies — brand names that you would recognize. And so the violence continues, because local warlords want to keep access to their money machine. (If you have a Netflix account, I recommend watching the investigative documentary Virunga to learn more about this.) The DRC is only one of the places devastated by neocolonialism paired with local power-mongering.

The photo above dates from the late 1800s or early 1900s. According to USC’s caption, “The Congolese man is likely to have been a victim of the ‘Congo atrocities’, punishment, murders and mutilations (particularly amputation of the right hand on living victims or after death) that took place on colonial rubber plantations in the Congo Free State, territory owned by Belgian King Leopold II […] Workers on rubber plantations were paid with worthless goods, and it was in noticing this imbalance of trade that shipping clerk Edmund Morel reported in his columns for The West African Mail, noticing that large numbers of weapons were going into the country to control the rubber workers.” I call it neocolonialism because we are continuing an old pattern, just shuffling the guns around.

The New York Times’ East Africa bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman wrote in a piece for National Geographic:

“In the ensuing free-for-all [after dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was deposed and Congo was consumed by war], foreign troops and rebel groups seized hundreds of mines. It was like giving an ATM card to a drugged-out kid with a gun. The rebels funded their brutality with diamonds, gold, tin, and tantalum, a hard, gray, corrosion-resistant element used to make electronics. Eastern Congo produces 20 to 50 percent of the world’s tantalum.”

How do we cope with this, as consumers? Do we drop out of modern life, eschewing all the connected devices that have become standard in the “First World”? Do we cling to guilt and shame because we don’t care enough to actually change our behavior? I’ll admit it: I don’t care enough about this problem to sacrifice my iPhone or my laptop. I’m not going to switch to a Fairphone. Neither do I only buy fair-trade food and clothing.

So, should I blame myself for the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Is it my fault and yours? I’m genuinely undecided. On one hand, the demand side of a transaction doesn’t specify the methods of the supply side. I didn’t ask anyone to buy from militias. I didn’t ask the seventeenth-century European superpowers to pursue mercantilism and shoulder the spurious “white man’s burden”. On the other hand, I am funding terrorism, albeit very indirectly. Amnesty International released a report on cobalt sourcing in January — it’s pretty clear that this is not a resolved issue.

Problematic Exploding Drones

Jeremy Lizakowski responded to “Robot Uprising, NBD” (the recent dispatch featuring a meme of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton). His comments are below, lightly edited for readability.

I think “robot uprising” is the wrong term, although everyone uses it.

Killbots are the threat. Murder by robot.

Whether or not robots are killing for humans or via unexpected judgments made by a program is a secondary issue. There are plenty of homicidal humans who would press the button. An exploding drone is a problem regardless of who sent it.

Most likely, killbots will do the dirty work of humans, especially in the early years, before any other option is available. [Editor’s note: Middle Eastern war zones are already experiencing this scourge.]

It’s a real threat. I just worry that personifying the machines might lead us the wrong direction.

If you disagree, you join many world-class scientists and visionaries, from Hawking to Bostrom. I’m bucking the trend.

A still from Chappie, the movie about policebots and Die Antwoord.

A still from Chappie, the movie about policebots and Die Antwoord.

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