[iDC] 10 Luftballoons

nicholas knouf nak44 at cornell.edu
Mon Dec 7 18:11:05 UTC 2009

* cue Nena track *

This past Saturday DARPA sponsored a challenge to find 10 red weather
balloons spread across the United States.  Working in teams, the first
team to find all of the balloons would receive the reward, $40,000, and
distribute it amongst the team in whatever manner they see fit.  The
winner, as you might expect, was a team from MIT and lead by a post-doc
at the MIT Media Lab, a not-insignificant fact for me personally (and
something I will return to in a moment).  The Washington Post article on
the event provides a good background:

The title of the hunt was the "Network Challenge"
(https://networkchallenge.darpa.mil/), and was announced to coincide
with the 40th anniversary of the first transmission of packets across
ARPANET.  According to DARPA, the purpose of the challenge was to
"explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely
communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required
to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems".  According to Norman
Whitaker of DARPA, "It's a huge game-theory simulation."

While we might be used to corporations preying on our leisure time for
their own profit, this is one of the first times that I can remember--at
least in recent years--where there was a mobilization of a broad range
of individuals and non-engineers in order to enrich an agency of the
Defense Department.  Yes, DARPA has run other "grand challenges" in the
past, but those were limited to students with extensive engineering
skills.  This challenge, however, was open to any member of the public,
something that the MIT team exploited to win the prize.  So, let me be
clear: people _willingly_ chose to participate, to sign up their
friends, in a simulation of war or state of emergency in order to
potentially "win" a small amount of money.  The data that DARPA
collected is worth much more to them than any payout they had to make to
the victors.  This is participation different in kind from those who
choose to take part in disaster preparedness exercises run by the
Department of Homeland Security or Defense: this is the collection of
social networking data (were Twitter and Facebook partners in this
challenge?) in a war game with willing civilian participants.

There is something profoundly troubling to me about this, something that
troubles me much more than our ongoing consternation about the role of
corporations in exploiting labor.  If I may explain some of the
background, I will get to what this incident has suggested to me as
someone who is engaged in trying to work against the corporatization and
militarization of everyday life.  As I mentioned earlier the winning
team was led by a post-doc from the MIT Media Lab.  I happen to have
received a Master's degree from them a couple of years ago, and thus I
still remain on their internal mailing list.  When they announced their
formation of a team to the list, I immediately sent a message denouncing
it, reminding them of the recent arrests of the activists using Twitter
during the G20 protests in Pittsburgh, the CIA investment in social
networking firms, the potential for this sort of research to be used for
all sorts of unintended consequences, and the profound implications of
willingly choosing to work for a Defense Department agency.  While MIT
itself is indeed fully embedded within DARPA funding networks, the Media
Lab has never been that way; their funding is overwhelmingly from
corporate sponsors first, governmental agencies like NSF and NIH second,
and DARPA and ONR a much, much more distant third.  There had been a
sense, while I was there, that taking money from DARPA was just
Something You Did Not Do.

My polemic turned into a private conversation with a friend there who is
engaged in social network research himself, but on a level that is more
aligned with corporate interests rather than military.  Because I don't
want to directly implicate him in this e-mail I cannot give too many
details.  But the gist of the conversation-cum-argument was the
following: To automatically dismiss this challenge is to be naive to the
potential benefits of it.  Dismissing the military does a disservice to
those who are involved (he has a friend in the service) and ignores the
complexity of things on the ground.  Suggesting that one might be able
to categorically deny the usefulness of military funding--or the
military in general--is something that can only occur if one is in the
ivory tower.

Following the announcement that the MIT Media Lab team won the
challenge, another message by a different student was posted to the list
saying that "understanding how networks such as these mobilize is not
necessarily such a terribly evil thing."

Now, we have of course heard these arguments regularly during this past
decade, arguments designed to counter the opponents of the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq.  We read them if we venture into the comment areas
of mainstream newspapers and blogs.  We witness them if we turn on our
TV to Fox News.  What is more insidious here, to me, is that these
arguments are being made _by computer science students who are training
to become the next workers at Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, IBM,
and elsewhere_.  I fully expected that the students would take part in
such a challenge if it had been supported by one of the aforementioned
companies.  Yet here they were working with an agency that develops
technologies for _state-sanctioned lethal violence_.  There thus seems
to be a new acceptance of working for the military on the part of the
budding techno-elite.  And if this is so, we have a much more difficult
problem on our hands--namely, how to work against the acceptance of
_state-sanctioned lethal violence_.

To me this is as much a question of pedagogy as it is of theory.  And it
suggests the challenges are vast.  Not only do we have to work to
disclose the relationships between corporations and the exploitation of
labor, we have to additionally (and perhaps primarily) denounce
violence.  Yes, engineering students often get jobs with Boeing,
Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and others.  But the extension of
this to a place primarily known as a design school is something new--or
if not entirely new, then something that should at least cause us to
think carefully about its implications.

The response also speaks to a failure of idealism--not of the German
Romantic kind, of course, but the kind that would suggest that
alternative worlds are possible and able to be brought into being.  And
this is a failure of idealism amongst those most able to make a change
in the technocratic system, the _technocrats themselves_.  What is the
meaning of this dejection?  How can it be countered?  What is the role
of our own discourse here?  For me, engaging with someone who supports
_state-sanctioned lethal violence_ is a non-starter; if so, whither
conversation?  What does it mean for our rhetoric when there is that
boundary that is seemingly impossible to cross?

My post is probably as much about me trying to make sense of the
rationales of my (former) colleagues as it is suggesting that the
incident has wider implications.  Yet I keep on tripping over the phrase
_state-sanctioned lethal violence_, and ruing the fact that amongst
academics in design and social networking we cannot even take the
denunciation of such activities as given anymore.

nick knouf

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