Upending the Utopian Fallacies of the Internet: a Review of Surveillance Valley

Highly Recommended: “Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet” by Yasha Levine

It would be a reckless oversimplification to call the internet a massive weapon of the ruling class. That may have been where it began to develop, and it may be a core component of its functionality down to today, but it is so much more. After reading Yasha Levine’s book it’s clear that one thing the internet is NOT is the great equalizer that it’s been sold as. And it’s vital that people who want to know what’s going on in the world and how to change it have some sense of the development of this major force in people’s lives today.

Growing up in the 90’s, the internet seemed as though it was a phenomenon that just emerged from the ether. It had no history but it was the future. And it was a great future: all of human knowledge at your fingertips and instant communication with anyone, anywhere. It was clearly still getting on its feet back then but it was a tool of the underdog and as it spread across the globe it would bring understanding, efficiency, and harmony as long as people made the choice to leave ignorance behind and embrace digital enlightenment.

And while that utopian vision has clearly not come to pass, the zeal with which people embrace the idea of it has only grown. For a wide swath of people, every development in the world that they see as good and just is enabled (if not caused) by the advent of the internet and social media: the arab spring, dissent against China’s rulers, the spread of awareness about the Rohingya, online entrepreneurialism, the embrace of LGBTQ people and culture, etc, etc.

But the questions of where did the internet come from and what drives its development seems shrouded in mystery. This is part of why Surveillance Valley was so shocking to me — because while there is a lot in this book which Mr. Levine has uncovered through FOIA requests, interviews, and legwork, and the book organizes all of this information in a captivating way, a lot of this has been right out in the open for decades. In fact, the main progenitor of the internet, the ARPANET, was the subject of intense society-wide discussion, debate, and protest during the clashes of the late 60’s. NBC News aired an in-depth expose in 1975 exposing the technology being developed among the repressive apparatus of the state specifically to share large amounts of information across agencies and geographic distances.

Levine’s book does two important things extraordinarily well:

  1. It describes the main junctures of the history of the internet and what propelled it forward, to an extent
  2. It takes on the political myths and delusions that surround it, up to a point

The Internet is a tool for sharing, calculating, sorting, and analyzing vast amounts of information. When you think about it this way, the value of this technology to the capitalist-imperialist state becomes clear. And Levine’s history lays out how computing technology — as far back as the 1890 census — was developed with repressive goals in mind.

He details how this technology developed in large part to meet the changing needs of the imperialist military — to track details amongst large groups of people, to calculate complex anti-aircraft ballistics, to crack codes, to integrate radar stations, to communicate across continents and deep into jungles, to strategically deploy Agent Orange and other chemical weapons across Southeast Asia, to spy on domestic dissent and crush rebellion, even to anticipate political unrest and divert its course. And as non-military scientists were brought in to develop these networks and research their potential capabilities, a conscious policy of “dual use” was developed, recognizing that almost any new advance in this field would “bring into being the technology that the military needs” in the words of J.C.R Licklider, a true visionary who put himself at the disposal of the most bloodthirsty enterprise the world has ever seen: US imperialism.

And soon this all broke wide open as a section of a related network developed (by a military ARPANET engineer) for the National Science Foundation to serve educational purposes ‘found itself’ privatized just as home computers became widely accessible. What followed, as the basic infrastructure of internet access was being divvied up, was a pre-cambrian explosion of websites, what’s come to be known as the dotcom boom, followed by the massive reorganization and re-orientation ushered in first by Google, and then subsequently by Amazon, Facebook and others all reliant on, often volunteering for, and deeply intertwined with US imperialism on numerous levels — from the Pentagon to the State Department to the NSA, and many others — all while serving their own needs as major blocs of capital.

Levine puts all of this widely available history (and much more) together in a remarkably readable and engaging way, and if he had stopped here this book would have filled a great need. But he goes on to detail how “the dark web,” the Tor Project, the Signal app, and other anonymizing and encryption technologies widely promoted as the answer to the problems of an internet dominated by large corporations and the State were developed by and serve the same masters. Through original investigative work he details how the technological impetus and the overwhelming majority of the funding for the development of Tor in particular came from the Pentagon, State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the new and ‘improved’ Radio Free Asia, a US government agency devoted to US propaganda abroad). To cut to the chase, these technologies were mainly developed to undermine other countries’ censorship tools, disseminate US propaganda abroad, secure US spies’ communications from interception and prop up US-backed “dissidents” in places like China, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba. Simultaneously they have major shortcomings, particularly in regards to their nominal function of hiding users’ activity from the US government. For example Signal’s weaknesses include:

*Requiring an active mobile phone number — which can often be linked to a person’s identity — and access to their contact list

*any security service can watch for mobile phones that pinged a particular amazon server used by Signal in order to identify users of the app

*vulnerability to the NSA’s Prism program

*the potential to be targeted with malware via being served a modified update or version of the app

While they provide certain tools, especially if used just right, for most non-expert users they offer a false (or at least over-inflated) sense of security. Most critically, however, they aim to fix a set of major political problems with technological solutions. This has been a key ideological impetus surrounding both the development of the internet and the major narratives justifying and celebrating it.

Throughout the book, Levine focuses on two interrelated utopian fallacies which have taken over the popular consciousness. The first helped introduce the embryonic internet to the world, turning the reality of a military-led program with dreams of social engineering into a mythical counter-cultural great equalizer that could melt away traditions chains and turn swords into plowshares — or more like turn napalm into LSD. This was the cybernetic new communalism of Stuart Brand, rising out of the ashes of the libertarian wing of the 60’s scene with the backing of powerful cultural institutions like Rolling Stone Magazine and forging its new identity from the inception of the civilian internet to the mid-90’s. This helped make Apple, Netscape, Microsoft and AOL household names with ubiquitous products while simultaneously introducing the “hacker” identity of individual geniuses who could figure out or undermine anything with a few keystrokes. It made “nerds” cool. It was the cultural impetus that greased the wheels of Silicon Valley. It unironically idolized Apple’s 1984 commercial. And it found its voice in Wired Magazine.

The second fallacy peaked with the Edward Snowden affair, when the former NSA contractor (and right-wing libertarian) leaked classified documents exposing much of the topography of modern surveillance and promoted as his answer to these problems none other than the Tor Network. This fallacy was embodied by figures like Jacob Appelbaum, who was simultaneously receiving a lush US government-funded salary as a Tor Network employee, reporting back to handlers in various government entities, and showing up on the cover of glossy magazines paraded as a celebrated outlaw from that very same government for his work with wikileaks. This was the cypherpunk privacy activist fallacy that re-invigorated the individualist ethos of the internet for a generation that grew up seeing the internet as a major part of the establishment itself.

Both of these narratives framed the internet as a counter-hegemonic force, where political problems could be solved without confronting people over politics, without social struggle, without changing people’s values and conscious choices, but through technological innovation. In both cases, while opening up some possibilities for others, they directly served the interests of the state and major blocs of capital and promoted their interests and their spokespeople. In both cases, through explicitly avoiding hard political conversations and through diminishing people to their base immediate interests, these fallacies spontaneously brought out and promoted the worst in people.

It’s a very positive feature of the book that the author consistently lays out that the political issues raised by the internet and it’s accompanying technologies necessitate political solutions — and cannot be solved through technological advances. But it must be said that the small effort made at proposing what those political solutions might look like are solidly reformist and idealist in the worst way. They are not based in the reality of the system that we live under. The book answers a lot of important questions, including questions i didn’t even know i had, about the internet, it’s history, it’s relationship with the state, the role of its major institutions, etc. But it also sparked wide-ranging questions in four significant areas. Given all that’s laid out here:

  • While the book digs into certain aspects of how social media fits into this whole history, I would be very interested in a deeper dive into that subject through this author’s lens. In particular, how has social media played into the state’s attempts at psychological, sociological and anthropological manipulation? Given the history of Project Camelot and ARPA’s experimental counterinsurgency initiatives in Thailand (both detailed in the book), it would be extremely valuable to understand how platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter work with the state’s repressive forces beyond simply sharing information. It would be worthwhile to know if they see such programs as producing valuable intelligence and/or results or if they view those kinds of more intellectual ventures as failed experiments, a waste of time and resources.
  • What are the implications for revolutionary work under the capitalist dictatorship? How can we use this technology in a way that maximizes its strengths (communicating ideas at different layers of complexity, engaging the masses, connecting to people who we might otherwise be cut off from, utilizing the ways that encryption is effective, etc) and minimizes the weaknesses (surveillance, wide-ranging control of the medium by our enemy, it’s ability to sink massive resources, etc.)
  • What would be the implications of all this for the internet as we know it in a revolutionary situation and in a new revolutionary state? Would we be able to pry the existing internet out of the hands of international imperialism, at least in the areas the revolution is able to take power within? Could we find a way to share the overall network but develop independent operating structures and appropriate censorship programs? Considering the ways that the internet has seen deep restructuring in its relatively short life and the ways in which different countries have been able to develop parallel structures within the confines of the imperialist set-up, this may be possible. Or would we have to or want to try to start a new network? If so, how could we maintain a separation while also bringing people broadly on board? How could we make it better? If we don’t have to or want to restart a new network, how could we keep our state and our people’s information secure? How could we transform something chock full of crass bourgeois ideology, misinformation, exploitation and degradation, and all kinds of commodity exchange into a tool of liberation without “turning off the lights?”
  • On the largest scale what has this whole experiment, even within its very tight and oppressive constraints, taught us about the frontiers of communication, calculation, information storage and sharing, creativity and networking?

Overall the book is highly recommended and deeply eye-opening.