|Aldgate station plan, London underground|
A month into the official inquest into the ‘7/7’ London bombings of July 2005, it is clear that the governmental imperative to arrive at a clear, authoritative and final account of what happened on the day might prove impossible because of the unreliability of human memory. This was an event in which cameraphone footage from the scene was reaching the BBC within 20 minutes of the first of four explosions, and iconic images and memorial rituals were in place within days and weeks. Yet it took police four months to take witness statements and now five years for witnesses to testify in court. It is no wonder that discrepancies emerge. Not unlike 9/11, there are significant differences between sweeping media- and politically-driven narratives of national mourning and the local, particular perspectives of those involved.
In Diffused War, Andrew Hoskins and I argued we’ve entered a new paradigm of warfare. The wikileaks stories seem to confirm much of this account. War is mediatized, we wrote, as the institutions of war and those affected by war take a form governed by continual media recording, display and archiving. This creates diffuse causal relations between action and effect, since mediatization can amplify or contain the cognitive and emotional response any action generates in ways not dependent on the initial action itself. Militaries, NGOs, insurgents, journalists – none can predict the outcomes of their actions or the display of their actions. US and UK military practitioners did not envisage their communications going public, but their institutions allowed those records to exist. And as my Duck colleague Charli Carpenter notes, they’ve started shredding documents. This is to counter the greater uncertainty now faced by those conducting war. While who sees what, when, and where is usually largely controlled (most people still rely on mainstream media), the potential for surprises is permanent and unavoidable, such that the worst case must always be built into decision-making.
In contrast to the splutterings of military chiefs, for my students wikileaks is already the norm. So what should we expect to see next? Where might novelty lie? Let’s take a risk and look briefly at some ideas in contemporary art, which has long dealt with mediatization and how it reconfigures human relationships and our ideas of the image and representation. Nicolas Bourriaud recently wrote that, in our ‘control+S’ culture of instant archiving of all political and social life, ‘an insistence on the “here and now” of the artistic event and a refusal to record it are a challenge to the art world’. What is notable now is what goes unrecorded or is not made public. He discusses Brian de Palma’s 2003 Iraq war film Redacted, which pieces together soldiers’ blogs, cameraphone footage and other media from the war to produce a style of ‘organized proliferation’ that is now common in TV and movies generally. Pushed to its limit, Bourriaud suggests, ‘the degree of spatial (and imaginary) clutter is such that the slightest gap in its chain produces a visual effect’. In other words, we now expect the depiction of war to amalgamate several media recording technologies, a chain of styles, textualities and episodes edited into any single news summary or Hollywood movie. And if a gap occurs, something is wrong. If no citizen-generated content emerges, that is surprising. If footage from the helicopter gunship’s point of view is absent from the news report, and we now know such a perspective is continually recorded, then at least a few members of the audience might begin to ask why there’s no footage.
We’d expect the next phase of military media management to employ the full range of textual styles to which audiences are now accustomed. Its a question of credibility, and studies show audiences are far more savvy than military practitioners assume. With that in mind, instead of shredding documents and looking like you’ve something to hide, perhaps a truly pre-emptive PR agent would deliberately create a full, convincing range of leaks for wikileaks such that a controlled version of the worst is already on show. It would then appear there are no surprising gaps.
(Cross-posted from https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/)
Last week I participated in a workshop at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies in Doha, Qatar, which brought to an end the ESRC’s Radicalisation & Violence programme of research projects, led by Prof. Stuart Croft. I was one of several researchers invited to present recent research on ‘terrorism, resistance and radicalisation’. My fledgling experience of academia has thus far been that debates rarely get politicised. It is noteworthy when it happens, triggering a visceral thrill or horror as we depart from our scripts of professional civility. The Radicalisation & Violence programme has been politicised from the outset. Anthropologists and sociologists were unhappy that researchers might apply to carry out fieldwork in dangerous regions, that the FCO was offering some funding towards the programme and hence it was ‘state-sponsored’ to an extent (although so is the ESRC), and nobody carrying out research could be unaware that in the UK in the 2000s people at universities were being arrested for having ‘radical’ material on their computers, even if they were carrying out legitimate research. It is no surprise, then, that the concluding event retained this political edge. Talking about terrorism in this particular region could not be otherwise.
Two cyber warfare trends are catching the eye, but both raise the same major question. First, cyber attacks have been democratised in recent years because of social media and easy to use denial of service attack (DDoS) tools. Popular armies have returned, made up not of a mass of bodies charging, a Clausewitzian centre of gravity on a field, but constituted by curious and enthusiastic citizens on the internet. As William Merrin argued at a keynote in 2009, security has been crowdsourced. US officials set up webcams along the Mexico border so that citizens can sit at leisure and watch for shadowy figures moving through the desert (and they do watch). Other national leaders have encouraged citizens to launch DDoS attacks against strategic targets. Sometimes, ordinary people just feel the urge to participate without any guidance, for instance the ‘Help Israel win’ group of students who targeted Hamas in the 2008-09 Gaza conflict. If thousands or even millions of people act collectively this way, where does legal responsibility lie for any harm caused? Is there legal responsibility for encouraging people to participate? Are people using digital media today out of patriotic gusto in ways that will later incriminate them?
Second, news media have reported a new super-cyber-weapon this week, the first digital nuke, apparently capable of destroying real-world objects. Previous malware just shut down systems or stole data. Once this new piece of malware touches a digital system (e.g. through a USB stick) the malware itself secretly takes control of the system, and can make it destroy whatever it is managing – a bank, a nuclear plant, whatever you can imagine. The designer can tell it what to target, but thereafter the software does its own thing. In terms of responsibility, whoever funds, designs and delivers such a weapon would seem the locus of responsibility. But not many nations have the expertise to detect such software. Successful attacks would just seem like industrial mishaps. Expect reports of mystery explosions near you (especially if you live in Iran).
Where does this leave international law? We’ve caught up with World War II and the regulation of mass armies and nukes. Who has the technical expertise, political will and diplomatic savvy to draw up laws for a world of crowdsourced armies and weaponized software?