A new Internet

The roots of the Internet are military, as everyone knows. One of the earliest projects of the military computer age, alongside automated discrimination of ICBM radar trajectories to separate them from harmless civilian traffic, tactical gun-computers, augmented inertial nav, traffic and logistical control and numerous other exploitations of the new tech.

DARPANet, aka ARPANet, its academic-collaboration cat’s-paw, preceded the Web and URLs, obviously. It also preceded TCP/IP and the DNS superstructure, well-defined comms stacks, WIMP computing (or any other kind of ‘personal’ computing); even the term ‘database’ was coined subsequently.

So, built in to the very soul of the internet was the military requirement for a resilient technical system to underpin the survivability of CCC – Command/Control/Communication – in the event of what was politely termed ‘territorial degradation’. That is, if your opponent in a MAD stand-off decided not to stand off any more and started to lob strategic nuclear weaponry into your homeland, and managed to get a few through despite your best efforts to stop them.

A subtle change started to take place in military thinking, which matched and took advantage of this resilient platform – the global nature of the Cold War conflict became reflected in increasingly globalised, strategy-led and planning-based command structures. CCC was to become more sophisticated, but at the cost (at least for a considerable time) of agility in the event of conflict becoming ‘hot’ but non-global, ie society remaining at least nominally under civil control – how inconvenient, how complicating. I am in no way a military historian (or even faintly military), but the Vietnam saga is suggestive of an armed force at the top levels prepared for the wrong kind of war, notoriously driven to lying to the public, and ultimately bruised and humiliated by their enemy. To this untrained observer, it seems that theirs was a Dunkirk with no subsequent Normandy landings.

The point of this piece is not to go wandering off into armchair speculation into something of which I know nothing. The focus here is the Internet – where it came from, and how it is constituted. Because today, it bears the hallmarks of its roots no less than when it was engendered all those years ago.

The irony of unforeseen consequences is about as strong as it gets, here. It was planned and designed to be captive and capable, re-assertable under degradation and indissolubly tethered to a chain of command, control and communication. It was meant to be owned, from the start. And through all the subsequent changes – the opening up to public use – initially academic, professional, corporate; subsequently commercial, consumer, broadcast and social media – it has NEVER LOST THAT UNDERLYING NATURE. That is the key.

The irony being that, whatever you think about the Military-Industrial-Complex, the initial ownership was national-military-globally-deployed. So basically nationalist, with military alliance extensions, carefully retaining ownership by the US home state (think GPS as another example). Which lasted roughly until the decompression and mission-confusion of the ending of the COld War. Subsequent to which, what do we find? Ownership not only being progressively shredded to follow a thousand different objectives, but in the process becoming – de-nationalised, universalised, GLOBALISED!

So now we have the actuality that the universal monopoly medium of discourse is, to its very bones, resilient, re-assertable, and tethered to the survivability of an ownership which is dedicated to command and control on a global level, and is unaccountable to any civil population whatsoever, be it at local, national or regional level. Surprised? I was, when I started to think about it.

One of Kurt Vonnegut’s earliest novels, ‘Player Piano’ envisages the ironically devastating effects of rampant automation and robotics on civilisation – that is the way most people think of digital dystopias, in terms of machines taking over. We are on the verge of a dystopia of the machine age no less devastating, but an invisible one – one which disguises itself as an indispensible medium for civilisation, instead of the instrument of global tyranny which it now threatens to be. And my point here is that it can never be wrested away from its core purpose.

So what shall we do? We can hardly take to Luddism – smashing machinery is laughably inadequate as a response, just as it was with looms two centuries ago. What I am proposing instead is something that I do not even know is possible.

To repeat: the Internet is inalienably fixed to its roots in command and control, which translates now to unassailable global tyranny. As a means of progress for mankind it is utterly cucked and fucked now. Every aspect of it is compromised, from ISPs, DNSs, the cable to your home or business, the switches and digitalia that mediate the bitstreams, the appliances you use to connect to it – every single aspect serves the wrong purpose, and only serves our purpose as an afterthought, while it remains commercially convenient or does not interfere with the aims of the global elite.

What we need is to engineer its replacement – nothing less will do. And the goal which needs to be welded in at the fundamental level, on which everything else is based, is the preservation of liberty and freedom – specifically and as a priority, freedom of speech, but not limited to that. Not ‘incidental’ freedom either, back-fitted as some app, some encryption, some VPN, some interference-free zone on the current Net. We urgently need a structure engineered from the ground up to serve those requirements – to be inalienably tied to liberty of communication and freedom of speech. If it can be made to serve those in its bones, then other freedoms will follow.

So this is a call to arms. Not to go onto the streets; not to engage in massive digital conflicts via the social or other media; not to flee to some overlooked corner of the Net and inhabit an isolated safe-space while the tide of control creeps upward and outward to consume us. We are playing in a play-pen owned by our opponents – we know now that this could all be shut down overnight and there would be nothing we could do about it.

This is a call to all you autistic engineers of the alt-universe. And anyone else who can lend a hand. Stop playing the games that the opposition wants you to play. Start designing something new. From the ground up. Deconstruct the Net, turn it upside down and inside out. Rethink everything – literally everything. Take the comms stacks away and think of something that isn’t a stack. Take the connectivity away and think of something that focusses on the liberty of its users. Take the ISPs away, the routers and switches away – take the notion of addresses away if necessary – and think of how to underpin freedom of speech, freedom to offend – if necessary, take away the notion of offense and put another notion in its place, maybe an orthogonal notion. The freedom to speak is the freedom to be heard – think about propagation and what that means. You will need to learn some philosophy.

And start building the beginning of a new age. I thought the Internet was that beginning, but it turns out it was the final flourishing of that ancient tyranny, the demagoguery of dictators translated with horrifying ease into a final Control Solution – potentially as inhumanly mortal to us as that other one.

This is a genuine challenge. It is on a par with the effort to put a man into space. It is every bit as worthwhile – in the face of the current threat to our freedom, anything else is just pissing in the wind. So get on with it.

© Stuart Beaker D&VP 2018