Networked_Performance

[iDC] 10 Luftballoons

Nick Knouf wrote: 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“, 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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Dec 13, 16:24
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