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Big Data, No Thanks (2015)

Linked by Paul Ciano on August 18, 2017

James Bridle:

…there was another splinter group within the Committee of 100, who didn’t think nonviolent sit-down protests were enough, and in 1963 five of them left London and travelled to Warren Row near Reading, which was the location of something called RSG-6, which was one of a nationwide network of bunkers built in secret by the government to govern the country following an explicit breakdown of society following the exchange of nuclear weapons. The five activists broke into RSG-6, photographed the buildings and copied down documents. They printed four thousand copies of this pamphlet containing everything they’d found and posted it to newspapers, politicians, universities and activists, under the name “Spies for Peace”. And then they threw the typewriter they’d used into a canal and disappeared. The identities of several of them are not known to this day.

The pamphlet was released just before the Easter weekend of 1963, and it included complete maps of the locations of the RSGs. RSG-6 was just a few miles from the route of CND’s Aldermaston march, and on the day hundreds of protestors broke away from the march and picketed the site. But the real damage was to the reputation of the government, and its public statements about nuclear war. Up to this point it had been stated publicly that a nuclear war was defendable and winnable, while secretly preparing for its devastating aftermath. This duplicity was unmasked by the Spies for Peace, and had an incalculable effect on changing the narrative around nuclear weapons – from a weapon of the state which was controlled in the service of the citizenry, to a weapon which was essentially uncontrollable, and which could be used by anyone, to destroy everyone.

As Trevor Paglen has said: Wikileaks and the NSA have essentially the same political position: there are dark secrets at the heart of the world, and if we can only bring them to light, everything will magically be made better. One legitimises the other. Transparency is not enough – and certainly not when it operates in only one direction. This process has also made me question my own practice and that of many others, because making the invisible visible is not enough either.

It’s easy to feel, looking back, that we spent the 20th Century living in a minefield, and I think we’re still living in a minefield now, one where critical public health infrastructure runs on insecure public phone networks, financial markets rely on vulnerable, decades-old computer systems, and everything from mortgage applications to lethal weapons systems are governed by inscrutable and unaccountable softwares. This structural and existential threat, which is both to our individual liberty and our collective society, is largely concealed from us by commercial and political interests, and nuclear history is a good primer in how that has been standard practice for quite some time.


The engineer Harry Reed, who worked on it, recalled that the ENIAC was “strangely, a very personal computer. Now we think of a personal computer as one which you carry around with you. The ENIAC was actually one that you kind of lived inside. So instead of you holding a computer, the computer held you.” I’ve always liked that because it seems to describe the world we live in now, living inside a giant computational machine, from the computers in our pockets, to datacenters and satellites, a planetary-scale network.


This is IBM’s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC), the computer which became the IBM 701, completed in 1948 and housed in a glass-fronted former shoe shop next to their world headquarters on Fifty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue in New York. Unknown to all the passersby with their noses pressed up against the glass the computer was employed to run a programme called HIPPO, which calculated hydrogen bomb yields. That’s the first full simulation of a hydrogen bomb detonation, being run on a computer in a public showroom on 5th Avenue. Visible, but not legible. Unparseable.


This is a photo of IBM’s BlueGene/L supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, California, USA, used to design and maintain America’s nuclear weapons now that physical test explosions are no longer permitted. The photographer Simon Norfolk made this image as part of a series which documents supercomputers, but as part of a larger project documenting war and battlefields. The space within these machines is as much part of the battlefield as any tank or gun; it is a war machine, but it looks like any other computer stack.

This historic capacity and inscrutability has its parallel in a contemporary infrastructure, that of surveillance and data-gathering, an infrastructure which occupies a similar landscape: from the Los Alamos mesa to the Utah datacenter being built by NSA. The inscrutability of the machine co-produces the inscrutability of the secret state, just as critique of the state is shielded by the complexity of the technology it deploys. And it goes far beyond the secret state – this model of technology, of information-gathering, of computation, of big data, of ever-increasing ontologies of information – is affecting, destructively, our ways of thinking and reasoning about the world.

As an attraction part-funded by GCHQ, it is depressing but unsurprising that Bletchley Park makes virtually no allusion to the post-war activities of those whose skills and techniques were developed here.

…I firmly believe that the other main reason that surveillance is tolerated – particularly in the UK – is to do with a nostalgia for the patriotic efforts of codebreakers – that its history is part of the “good war”, with clearly defined enemies, and a belief in the moral rectitude of one side over the other, “our side”, which should be trusted with these kinds of weapons.

This thing we call BIG DATA is The Bomb – a tool developed for wartime purposes which can destroy indiscriminately. I was struck hard by this realisation at Bletchley, and once seen, it can’t be unseen.

Just as we spent 45 years locked in a cold war perpetuated by the spectre of mutually assured destruction, we find ourselves in an intellectual, ontological dead end today. The primary method we have for evaluating the world: MORE DATA – is faltering. It’s failing to account for complex, human-driven systems, and its failure is becoming obvious. Not least because we’ve built a vast planet-spanning, information-sharing system for making it obvious to us. The NSA/Wikileaks example is one example of this failure, as is the confusion caused by real-time information overload from surveillance itself. So is the discovery crisis in the pharmacological industry, where billions of dollars in computation are returning exponentially fewer drug breakthroughs. But perhaps the most obvious is that despite the sheer volume of information that exists online, the plurality of moderating views and alternative explanations, conspiracy theories and fundamentalism don’t merely survive, they proliferate.

As in the nuclear age, we learn the wrong lesson over and over again. We stare at the mushroom cloud, and see all of this power, and we enter into an arms race all over again.

Paul Ciano

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