By: Ross Sempek
To the top-brass of the late-century US military, the modern Internet and its connected devices wouldn’t appear as a mind-numbing culture shock. In fact they would likely beam with pride to see their ideas refined, and applied to a scale that was beyond their capabilities. They would pine for its utility in warfare, assured that it would have favored US operations in the war-zones of 1960s southeast Asia.
In Surveillance Valley, Yasha Levine employs journalistic grit and extreme thoroughness to expose a history of the Internet that is at once frightening and familiar. The cogent narrative ferries the reader from the humid, embattled jungles of Vietnam to the technological opulence of the San Francisco Bay Area. Careening through the forgotten canals of history, Captain Levine makes the absolutely incredible sound totally obvious, and in doing so prepares readers for revelations that might seem absurd had they not already read the first two-thirds of this book.
So what’s the secret? Well…on the surface it’s not that secret. Many people are likely aware that beginning in the 1960s, a civilian outfit at the Pentagon called the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) funded the development of what we now know as the Internet. These varied projects were outsourced to enterprise and academia alike, and later field-tested by the armed forces in the Vietnam war. Levine shrewdly begins here, and gradually introduces more esoteric facets to these stories, including a glimpse into the lives and ethos of military engineers.
The devil is in the data, and they fit together to form a story of greed, ego and escalation.
A few of the ARPA higher-ups shared creepy dreams of a technological utopia – a future in which society would be programmed into its ideal form by machines and mathematics; a cybernetic society devoid of crime, centralized-government, and suffering. It’s this deceptively idealistic brainchild informs the sheer brutality waged by these very same minds. One ARPA-funded project was part of the counter-insurgency activities in Thailand. US forces artificially induced famines, assassinated leaders and forced relocation of Thai villages in order to break the peoples’ spirit. What’s more, those who ideated this program spoke of these practices’ viability in a domestic setting. This eventually gained traction as psychological-operations that aimed to subjugate disenfranchised populations.
While these tactics in Thailand satisfied the military’s combat operations of snuffing out communism, the real aim was to collect, and analyze data. The knowledge gained from prisoner interviews, experiments, and banal personal details promised to be a fountainhead for efficient military operations. The ultimate goal was to build a sort of “left-wing radar” to predict and snuff communist uprisings. But there was so much data that it was difficult to realize an omniscient war machine in real-time. The need for an efficient means for sharing information between disparate locations presented itself to the problem solvers of the pentagon. All of these worldwide computerized nodes, these silos of classified information, had to be connected by a network.
This network would become the Internet, and despite its decades-long funding from public coffers, back-door deals awarded private companies access to and control over these vertebrae of worldwide communication. It now comes as no surprise that US legislators have been sluggish to regulate internet enterprise, allowing companies to violate users’ privacy with impunity. The surveillance capabilities employed by Facebook, Google, and Amazon is much too convenient and valuable for the government to decry its partners in business.
Levine’s skill as a storyteller is exemplified by his craftsmanship. He seamlessly weaves a remarkably detailed collection of references into a coherent narrative, all while making you feel really smart. This is no small feat considering the breadth of citations; scores per chapter, one with nearly 160 endnotes. But the minor reading-adjustment necessitated by the references is well worth the effort. Levine has done all of the heavy-lifting, and you get to reap the fruits of his labor.
Given that his arguments grate against a popular ideation of the Internet, Levine runs the risk of sounding like an intense conspiracy-theorist. However his tone is measured and he delivers novel concepts as a peer. He strays from overtly divisive language, and bolsters his arguments with solid academic research. The depth of resources is staggering; the ones of which that can be accessed online are worth checking out. You’ll see the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal cited in the same chapter, as well as articles from verge.com, arstechnica.com, interviews, ex-employee tell-alls, and laudatory biographies.
And here’s another tightrope Levine walks: in a book that profiles the military’s warmongering and surveillance, it would seem easy to take a left-leaning, anti-war slant. But besides an underlying humanistic plea for cooperation and communication, the narrative doesn’t take a stand for the sake of politics. In arguing for the right to privacy in today’s milieu, Levine names Democrats, Republicans, commune hippies, private enterprise, and Libertarians whose actions contribute in some way to our contemporary lack of privacy. Even Barack Obama, and Al Gore (known as “Big Al” to some Google execs) are complicit in perpetrating privacy violations.
Being such a broad and critical treatise, it even challenged my perspectives on intellectual freedom as a sacrosanct pursuit. A freedom-loving citizen of the US, I balk at the internet censorship in China and Russia. But Levine’s perspective adds some rationale to these free-speech crackdowns. These countries enacted such measures, in part, to resist US propaganda like Radio Free Asia from infiltrating the porous borders of the Internet. It got me to wonder: are measures like The Great Firewall, and Russia’s recent internet legislation really that different from Facebook and Twitter deleting fake news? The border between the good guys and the bad guys evaporates and national allegiances arise to demarcate the optics of domestic policy. Freedom of inquiry also gets muddled by the fact that engaging in internet-connected information seeking only widens the profit margins of surveillance capitalists. They’d be totally OK with you unabashedly seeking and sharing information – your dossier only gets more detailed.
Having just finished the incendiary accounts that make up his secret military history of the internet, I craved perspective on where we go from here: Yasha! I’m all fired up, what do I do?! But those looking for a map to navigate this quagmire of a landscape are out of luck. Levine notes that, in addition to the daunting ubiquity of it all, the problems that plague the internet are the very same ones that plague humanity – this is no coincidence. The tools in our hands can be used in the name of civility and respect, or they can be employed to exert national control by blackmailing its citizens. The choice is up to us, and I’d like to think that being conscious of this torrid history is a necessary first step in the right direction. To quote the beginning of chapter 3, Spying on Americans:
Historical mythmaking is made possible only by forgetting. – Nancy Isenberg, White Trash
Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate as well as a volunteer for the Multnomah County Library System in the beautiful state of Oregon. As a makerspace program assistant, he facilitates a weekly gaming club for local teens. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.