Power to the people!

27 February 2012

Monday


Like the Roman god Janus, who had two faces — one looking toward the past, the other looking to the future — all technology has at least two faces, and probably more. When a technology is new one often sees the technology presented either as a threat or a promise, when it is of course both. Internet technology is like this. Both themes are to be found in the popular media: the internet is dangerous and destabilizing (and possibly corrupts the youth, since it provides us with pornography in the privacy of our homes), and the internet is the stupor mundi that will usher in the millennium.

The many faces of any technological development is an important lesson for futurism, since most futurism takes the form of extrapolating a strategic trend developing in the present beyond its present dimensions. In so far as one extrapolates only a single face of a technology, the result is an extremely lop-sided prediction that doesn’t take into account the other faces of the same technology, which often have countervailing influences. This makes for interesting fiction but poor strategy. Strategic thinking needs greater balance. One way to achieve greater balance is through greater knowledge — deeper and wider knowledge.

The internet has vast resources of information for us, but it is a step beyond this information to acquire knowledge. Nevertheless, acquiring information is the first step. Almost everyone uses the internet today; not everyone uses it to inform themselves. Most people are content to use Facebook and to download music and pornography. If, however, you want to inform yourself, you are in a better position to do so now than ever before in human history.

Recently I have been thinking (and occasionally writing) about the extent to which the internet has vastly expanded open-source intelligence to the point that an individual who is suitably motivated can be almost as well-informed as someone with proprietary access to government intelligence. I was once again encouraged to reflect on this by a website that has been brought to my attention, Open Source GEOINT (OSGEOINT). The detail and breadth of information here is astonishing, and I was quite pleased to see that the site links to mine.

Open Source GEOINT (OSGEOINT) represents open source imagery intelligence or IMINT, made available through ever more widely available and accessible satellite and imaging technology. Government with satellites, of course, have much better resolution, and the publicly available imagery intelligence will always lag behind the best government intelligence, but there comes a point where this lag time means little — and it means less and less over time as the publicly available signals intelligence improves.

Genuine signals intelligence (SIGINT) — including electronic intelligence or ELINT and intercepting communications or COMINT — may not be on the open source horizon for some time, but there is a species of signals intelligence (albeit of a tawdry kind) in the newspapers that have tapped in the cell phone calls of celebrities. With this less-than-edifying example in mind, it would not be going too far out on a limb to predict that enterprising hackers may yet provide SIGINT by tapping into the communications of government officials. The Stratfor Hack and the release on Wikileaks of the stolen e-mails represent a kind of ELINT or COMINT.

The internet also provides us with human intelligence (HUMINT). In relation to the Wikileaks diplomatic cables, I mentioned in Once More, With Feeling… that once I had read some of the diplomatic cables that I realized there are many blogs and websites that provide equally incisive insight into the life of nation-states around the globe.

The internet can also provide us with analysis. That’s what I try to do, and there are many others who are also engaged in the task of analysis, though analysis tends to be more ideologically skewed than human intelligence, and far more ideologically skewed than signals or imagery intelligence. There is a simple test that, while not infallible, can be very helpful when it comes to analysis: if the writer is absolutely certain, voices no doubts or hesitation, and never acknowledges an error, then you can be pretty sure that that writer is self-deluded and that their analysis is more akin to ideological venting than to trying to get at the truth.

It is tempting to make the distinction that free content is worth what it cost — namely, nothing — whereas paid content is worth something and that is why people are willing to pay for it. This is not always wrong, but it is also not the whole story. It is also problematic in a context in which business models are being forced to adapt rapidly to technological changes. Many established institutions are going bankrupt because they cannot make money under the changed conditions imposed by the internet.

In the past couple of days I learned the term “paywall,” which refers to the distinction between free and paid content. Paid content is behind a “paywall,” while free content is available to all without restriction. Even sites primarily organized for paid content (like, for example, Strategic Forecasting) will offer some of their content for free. Since I stopped being a Stratfor subscriber I continue to receive their weekly free emails, and for the moment, in the wake of The Stratfor Hack, the site is offering all its intelligence for free. (This will end soon; enjoy it while it lasts.)

Despite website paywalls, a truly prodigious volume of open source intelligence is available. In order to access this information you must have an internet connection and you must either live in the country that does not restrict internet access or learn how to use a virtual private network (VPN). These are essentially economic qualifications. In most industrialized and semi-industrialized nation-states today (as well as urban area in non-industrialized regions) a computer and an internet connection is within reach of most working class individuals. A VPN would cost a little extra, and so would raise the economic bar a little, but not disastrously so.

After you have access to the information, you have to filter, sort, and judge that information. This is really the difficult part — the clincher of the whole thing. In a post I wrote some time ago I characterized objectivity as a talent. This is an unusual assertion, and although I still believe this to be the case, I should add the important qualification that, while objectivity is a talent, even those who do not possess much in the way of intuitive objectivity can cultivate objectivity through effort and application. The reader should be aware that I am fully aware that my focus on objectivity is not in fashion at the moment — there are many philosophers today who deny the very possibility of objectivity. I am unconcerned by this.

Of course, objectivity is only one of a range of intellectual virtues that one must cultivate in order to tease a coherent picture of the world from the vast amount of information available. Knowledge of the world is not a gift; you have to work for it. And the harder you work to inform yourself, the better informed you will be. Unless, of course, you take a dead end.

This is one problem (among many) with conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories are dead ends with vast amounts of information associated, so if you can’t recognize a conspiracy theory you can waste a lot of time over it. This is where having the right instincts and intuitions is crucial. If you have a natural feeling for what is bogus and what is valid, you can save yourself a lot of time and only focus on the material that is worth your time. If you can’t recognize a waste of time for what it is, this comes with an opportunity cost: the time wasted could have been better spent on valid intelligence.

I have written about conspiracy theories previously (cf. A Reflection on Conspiracy Theories), but it is always important to point out the dangers of unwarranted speculation. If you follow a dead end, you not only waste your time, and possibly also the time of others, you also reduce and perhaps nullify the efficacy of all your actions, and in so doing you remove yourself from any possibility of effecting change or making a difference. The loonier your theory, the more the world ignores you, and rightly so. People want to accomplish practical ends, and they can only do so by practical means. Among these means are the ideas and theories used to make sense of the world. If the theories themselves don’t make sense, then they will never make sense of the world.

The batshit crazy conspiracy theories are easy to identify (if someone is talking about Illuminati or reptilians, that’s a pretty good sign that they’re batshit crazy); the more subtle conspiracy theories are less easy to identify, but they still have characteristics that can be recognized. I have recently come to realize that one of the distinctive things about conspiracy theories is really the lack of a theory. It is a typical technique of the conspiracy theory to selectively present a number of facts or events that prima facie seem to suggest a certain conclusion. The conspiracy theorist then leaves it to you to draw the conclusion. The implication here is that the facts speak for themselves. They do not. I have emphasized in several posts that the facts do not speak for themselves. Facts only can be attributed meaning and value in context, and the more context you have, the more meaning and value you can attribute to them.

Even the more subtle forms of conspiracy theories can be more than a little kooky. Recently a reader comment on my post Spooks and Skullduggery suggested that the mysterious cargo of the Thor Liberty might touch off the next global conflict:

I’m the host of Toronto’s Conspiracy Cafe program. I have been tracking Thor Liberty since it left Finland. It fell off the radar after a rendezvous with a ship called Global Star. Global Star was on the way to India to be scrapped. It has a Russian crew. It made a rendezvous last night with Gibraltar based Fehn Sky in the Mediterranean. Fehn Star sailed from El Ferrol Spain. That’s Spain’s main naval base. They have a contract to dismantle Russian nuclear subs. Global Star is heading for the Suez Canal and perhaps the start of WWIII.

While I am always happy to receive comments, I’m not at all sure how the author got from the various doings of the Thor Liberty after leaving Finland to WWIII. This is what logicians call a non sequiter, though it is at least introduced with a “perhaps.” Perhaps, and perhaps not. Most likely the latter.

Here’s an even kookier example, though in a specifically philosophical context. Below is a reader review from the Amazon.com website for Karl Jaspers The Origin of Goal of History:

This is one of the most significant works of the twentieth century yet it is not even in print. Deep sixed from the word go. Remarkable! Even books detailing the intellectual biography of Jaspers omit mention of it. The various efforts to subject the issues to scholarly study distort the original observations. What’s going on? The reason is not hard to find. It contains the first crystallization of something current science and religion don’t want to face, the phenomenon of synchronous parallel evolution, global in scale, and operating in a fashion that flagrantly contradicts received dogmas of religious, scientific and economic history. Check out the reviewer’s World History and the Eonic Effect for a discussion of this text. Meanwhile it should be reissued and the public deserves to know the existence of this line of historical evidence going back to the nineteenth century. It makes mincemeat of Darwinian thinking. Aha! Now we know why they deep sixed the book.

There are many important scholarly works from the twentieth century that aren’t in print. Fortunately, Jaspers’ work is well known and frequently cited despite its being out of print. Even dyed-in-the-wool Darwinians like me cite the book. I happened across this review on Amazon because I was linking to the book for a post I wrote, since I not infrequently cite Jaspers (Jaspers, like Leibniz, becomes more important to me the older I get). Also, the idea of an “Axial Age” is one of the few ideas of twentieth century philosophy to be widely known outside strictly philosophical circles (like Kuhn’s “paradigm shift”).

The lesson here is simple: don’t be a kook. That should be simple enough, but I’ve gone on at some length about conspiracy theories because I have found that it is apparently rather difficult not to be kook. It seems that the self-educated are especially vulnerable to conspiracy theories, and this has brought discredit onto many autodidacts. One of the valuable functions served by formal education is that an experienced and knowledgeable individual who has been through the process of education guides those who are less experienced and less knowledgeable through difficult epistemic waters where they might otherwise become lost.

I have discussed my views on autodidacticism elsewhere, so I won’t repeat them here. Suffice it to say that the opportunities for self-education in open source intelligence present all the promise and all the dangers of any other branch of scholarship, though with the difficulty of widespread dishonesty superadded. One must read Machiavelli as a primer to all this in order to understand that it is equally important to know the difference between what men say and what men do, and important again to know why these are different and must be kept separate.

With the increasing emergence and accessibility of sophisticated open source intelligence, we are only at the beginning of a curve which may take us in unprecedented directions. In the future we might well see the construction of an entire parallel open source intelligence network, stateless, existing on the internet, and open to all who can gain access. This “parallel” intelligence network is to be understood as dissidents behind the Iron Curtain understood their efforts toward the creation of a “parallel polis”, abandoning corrupt institutions beyond hope of reform and creating parallel institutions to which the disillusioned can turn when they, too, realize that established institutions lack sufficient credibility to bring about needed social change.

The industrialized nation-state system has been as predicated upon a distinction between an elite minority and a disenfranchised majority as any feudal, aristocratic, tyrannical, or despotic government of the past — though today that disenfranchisement is a de facto disenfranchisement. One historical difference between the elite minority and the disenfranchised majority has been the possession of proprietary knowledge by the elite minority. Historical conditions may shift to the point where imperfect knowledge in disequilibrium converges on de facto equality, so that the advantage the elite minority has had through its access to proprietary knowledge is taken out of the equation. Things are still far from equal between between the two social classes, even with intelligence no longer being a decisive inequality, but they will be less unequal than before. This could have profound social consequences.

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Monday


The aftermath of the fall of Gaddafi and the violent transfer of power in Libya is beginning to make itself felt through the region. Several stories have come out of Libya itself of conflict between tribes and factions within the country over predictable issues of power sharing, the division of spoils, and acts of revenge and reprisal, as well as conflicts between and among these groups. The transitional government is weak and inchoate, if it could even be said to exist at all. Weakness means vulnerability in the state of nature than exists among nation-stats, and it is inevitable that outside powers will seek to influence events in Libya. One must suppose that spooks and spies from all over the region have been dispatched to Libya, and that some of the disorder in the country is the work of agents provocateurs.

On 11 February 2012 the BBC story Libya’s Saadi Gaddafi threatens to lead uprising reported that Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saadi Gaddafi (who had previously tried to flee to Mexico) appeared on television on Niger threatening to lead a rebellion against the transitional government in Libya. The next day there was a much more detailed story in the Financial Times by Borzou Daragahi in Tripoli, Libya on alert after warning from Gaddafi’s son, which had some interesting information on the strained relations between the transitional government in Libya and the nation-states of sub-Saharan Africa. Muammar Gaddafi had curried favor in the region by spreading Libya’s oil money around; that largess has come to a screeching halt, with the predictable consequence that nation-states in the region are suddenly sentimental for the ex-Libyan strongman.

Muammar Gaddafi liked to dress the part: here he is seen with other now-deposed North African heads of state, who chose the Western business suit look. Is Saadi Gaddafi seeking the constiuency once served by Mubarak, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and others?

Interestingly, in this television appearance Saadi Gaddafi is wearing an expensive-looking Western business suit, sitting in a large overstuffed leather chair, and surrounded by symbols of wealth, opulence, and power. He looks, to put it plainly, like he is seated in an office of executive power. This is clearly meant to send a signal, and that signal is this: I’m alive, I’m in control, I have money and backers and influence and you can’t touch me. While this is a powerful signal, it is also not exactly what I would have expected. His father made much of cultural appeals, often dressing the part with theatrical panache. when the elder Gaddafi wanted to appeal to Arabs, be positioned himself as a Arab and dressed as one. When he wanted to appeal to Saharan and sub-Saharan Africans, he positioned himself as an African and dressed the part, and would engage in heated anti-Arab diatribes. So what is Saadi Gaddafi’s intended constituency when dressed as a Westernized businessman? The obvious answer would be “western businessmen,” but in this case I do not think that the obvious answer is the correct one. I will wait for more clues before I hazard any more guesses on this head.

In the map above I have put numbers in the nation-states indicating the number and location of Muammar Gaddafi’s surviving children: Saadi Gaddafi is in Niger, Saif al-Islam is at home in Libya, a prisoner of the transitional government, and in Algeria there are Muhammad al-Gaddafi, Hannibal Gaddafi, and Ayesha al-Gaddafi. Interestingly, the Gaddafis in Algeria have been quite silent, whereas Saadi in Niger is in front of television cameras — precisely the reverse of what I expected. And then I put a star in Mali to represent the clashes there.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Sahara, Tuareg tribesman who served as Muammar Gaddafi’s mercenaries for many years (read: well-trained and well-armed) have returned to their native regions, mostly in Northern Mali but, being nomads, they travel across Algeria, Niger, Chad, and Libya as well, and are reinvigorating an old insurgency of Tuaregs against the Malian government based in Bamako. I say, “based in Bamako,” because if you look at a map you will see that there is a lot of desert between Bamako and the Mali-Algerian-Niger border region. It will be extraordinarily difficult for the government of Mali to effectively project power in this periphery, and especially so against desert nomads who call the region home. Strategic Forecasting has published an excellent analysis of the Tuaregs in Mali, Mali Besieged by Fighters Fleeing Libya, which details some of the problems that Malian government is having and will have.

The government of Mali claims that the Tuareg rebels are affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), while the Tuaregs make the counter-claim that they will be a bulwark against AQIM. In other words, AQIM is in play in Mali. At the same time, other al Qaeda identifying representatives have urged support for the rebels against the Syrian government. The relationship of this to North Africa is distant, but, I think, still significant. Notwithstanding the fact that Syria is ruled by the minority Alawites, who are Shia, and al Qaeda affiliated groups tend to be predominately Sunna (which would make the al Qaeda support of Syrian rebels comprehensible under any circumstances, and therefore not surprising), one can see this as a preemptive move by rump al Qaeda elements to get back in the game after having had most of their apex leadership killed. The relation to the Sahara is that a similar dynamic could emerge here, with al Qaeda shifting its focus from its traditional preoccupations to supporting the overthrow of regimes of all kinds, so that the ensuing chaos might be exploited. With this stance comes the popular sympathy and street cred of having sided early with rebels who are ignored by other powers, and therefore being in a position of disproportionate influence should those rebels prove successful.

We now recall, in this context, that the elder Gaddafi himself tried to play both sides of the al Qaeda card, at one moment warning the Western powers (essentially), “Après moi, le déluge,” while at another moment trying to hijack popular Islamic sentiment by seeming to align himself with the goals of al Qaeda. Thus one message that Saadi Gaddafi’s business suit may be intended to send is that, “I’m not al Qaeda,” but, of course, he could change that with his next television appearance. And, also of course, there is a diplomatic advantage to being unpredictable, especially when acting against the predicable purposes of established nation-states.

In The Gaddafi Diaspora I suggested that:

“…North and Central Africa are complex crossroads, made all the more complex by recent events. With all these forces in play, the Sahara Desert may become a periphery that decides the fate of the political centers of the region. The momentum of history, at least in Africa, has passed into the vast emptiness of the interior of the continent. This will be a theater to watch in coming years.”

I continue to think that the Sahara may yet prove a disruptive theater in future African affairs.

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