To Chain The Beast

how’s my driving?

There is now a booming cottage industry of work on “virtual social warfare”, “hostile social manipulation”, and similar new terms for phenomena studied under previous names in the 2000s, 1990s, and 1980s as waves of informatization created new social realities. And in turn the 2000s, 1990s, and 1980s terminology recapitulated important features of Cold War denial and deception and active measures, and so forth. One might humorously conjecture that running on a hamster wheel of terminology is in and of itself a successful information attack on our collective information processing and decision-making systems. But that is for another conversation. Under whatever name, how shall we analyze it and deal with it? A big problem is accounting for what seem like competing interpretations of the same underlying events. Are they doing it for the lulz? Is it a Russian plot? And how do we know if we’re just attributing too much signal to what could just be enormous amounts of noise? Happily, there is a solution. Of sorts. Just not a terribly satisfying one. Like many things of value it comes from a long-dead Prussian, but involves significant subjective interpretation and modification for the uses of the present.

Carl von Clausewitz very memorably has a “trinity” of forces constantly conflicting with each other to produce the state of an adversarial military interaction at any arbitrary point in time. There is raw primordial violence and powerful emotions such as enmity and patriotism. Then there is the proverbial rolling of the “iron dice” that produces uncertainty and chance on the battlefield. And then there is the attempt to subordinate the aforementioned things to the rationalized pursuit of political-military aims. One can loosely link these forces to particular institutional entities. But do so with some caution and trepidation given that many have tried and only confused themselves in the attempt. It is the interplay of these forces themselves – which as one might gather are oppositional to each other – that creates the state of the interaction at any arbitrary point. Perhaps a particular force may be more operative than others at that point, but like a pendulum swinging between three centers of attraction it is forever and unavoidably shifting between the competing forces. This basic idea has much potential utility for the analysis of information manipulation campaigns, but not without some critical modifications. Let us now look at how the trinity could allow us to perform similar analysis with these modifications.

The baseline motivator of collective activity in today’s struggles over information is similar to Clausewitz’s notion of primordial passion and force. People are individually motivated by a number of powerful psychological mechanisms to engage online – but also in some critical cases physically as well. They do so individually out of anger, status-seeking, boredom, loneliness, curiosity, resentment, stimulus-seeking, etc as well as almost every conceivable condition found in textbooks on abnormal psychology and psychopathology. Collectively the simplest aggregate explanation for their behavior is the desire to be a part of a group that makes things happen. There are many books on cyberpsychology and internet sociology you can read to get a sense of this. Or you could just do “participant observation” provided you are aware that while the websites and apps you use are ostensibly free the price is actually your soul. This is a modified derivation of Clausewitz’s emphasis on primordial violence, because while there is plentiful “symbolic violence” actual uses of force are extremely rare. Fantasies of violence, right down to elaborate simulations of it, take its place and are omnipresent.

Next as a structural condition there is overwhelming volumes of error and noise. I do not use “chance” and “probability” here because I feel that there is something unique and particular about the way in which freak events manifest in heavily informatized spaces that bears some distinguishing. Large social media platforms generate algorithmic contingency. There is always a gap between what the human mind can imagine and what engineered artifacts are capable of, and this gap is most prominent when it comes to sprawling platforms whose engineers incorporate the assumption of frequent and unavoidable catastrophes as a condition of their operation. More generally, glitches, errors, and bugs are inherent to modern electronic and digital communications and fighting to extract messages from noise is central to the basics of information theory itself. Technically this is a tractable task, but if one looks at the way in which media saturation and informatization erodes distinctions between reality and representation one begins to grow more pessimistic. All of these factors generate chance and contingency, but as a function of the way in which error and noise eventually drowns out order and coherence. This is an obstacle to action, but also in some ways can be an impetus for it.

Finally, we come to Clausewitz’s emphasis on the way in which rational planning and decision-making and similar devices attempts to instrumentalize competitive behavior towards the fulfillment of a goal. As Sam Forsythe has said lately, real-time media during crisis situations creates powerful advantages for operatives that incorporate cycles of reflex and control into their planning and adaptation. They attempt to locate the filter that the adversary uses to compress reality and manipulate it. At times this requires having to model adversary behavior, not just of the adversary’s projected behavior but also how it is modeling you modeling it. At some point in the process one can operate on the adversary’s model to distort it and control it. Alternatively, one can simply just overwhelm the adversary by perpetually keeping them on the defensive, reacting to one’s behaviors, and accepting commitments one selects for them. Here the critical difference between Clausewitz’s abstract concept of rationalization is that one is seeking to impose coherence on an environment that is structurally biased towards repeatedly generating decoherence events.

To get a sense of what the would-be planner is up against, consider what Henry Farrell recently wrote about how today’s information environments stack up to Cold War dystopian fiction:

Standard utopias and standard dystopias are each perfect after their own particular fashion. We live somewhere queasier—a world in which technology is developing in ways that make it increasingly hard to distinguish human beings from artificial things. The world that the Internet and social media have created is less a system than an ecology, a proliferation of unexpected niches, and entities created and adapted to exploit them in deceptive ways. Vast commercial architectures are being colonized by quasi-autonomous parasites. Scammers have built algorithms to write fake books from scratch to sell on Amazon, compiling and modifying text from other books and online sources such as Wikipedia, to fool buyers or to take advantage of loopholes in Amazon’s compensation structure. Much of the world’s financial system is made out of bots—automated systems designed to continually probe markets for fleeting arbitrage opportunities. Less sophisticated programs plague online commerce systems such as eBay and Amazon, occasionally with extraordinary consequences, as when two warring bots bid the price of a biology book up to $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping).

It is already very difficult to control large numbers of people acting semi-independently due to the sheer variation in their interests, identities, ideologies, and inspirations. Now consider that many of them are not in fact people, and that the ecosystem that all of these entities inhabit is structurally unstable. The new information environment is one primarily shaped by the ability to detonate “information bombs”. Not cyber-attacks in the traditional sense, mind you. The emergence of a planetary system of communication that is simultaneously both everywhere and nowhere creates a virtual layer of life that coexists uneasily with the layers of life that came about before it. It cycles faster and faster through self-referential – perhaps recursive if you want to characterize it that way – loops at frightening speed and scale. Such a massive and interconnected system is prone to frequent crashes and disasters that have the objective material consequences of market crashes but also produce more subjective distortions of understanding, interpretation, and communication. Lastly, the parasites that inhabit this realm have as much rightful claim to be natives to this strange place as do anyone else.

These obstacles can, of course, be opportunities. They can be used to overwhelm an adversary and disguise one’s dispositions and intentions. Over time, even relative amateurs can develop skill at gaming the system and triggering conflict by exploiting group psycho-social scripts. But the problem is, again, that the system’s default state is to obsfucate and thwart any pretensions toward permanent control. Therefore, as with Clausewitz’s original trinity the state of any kind of competitive interaction in such an environment will always be juxtaposed between these three competing forces in a way that frustrates long-term prediction and instrumentation. Why do I say that this is not a satisfying explanatory solution? Because it does not really make us any smarter or more capable of coping with the near-term and long-term problems of analysis than we were before I pieced it together. If you think about the possibilities of something being an “op” too much, the psychological and behavioral effects of you thinking about it will be indistinguishable from it actually being a deliberate operation targeted against you. Just because they are out to get you does not mean that you aren’t paranoid, and just because you are paranoid does not mean that they aren’t out to get you. And being a James Jesus Angleton-esque conspiracy crank makes you just as vulnerable to exploitation as the ignorant “sheeple” conspiracists deride.

What can be done, then? Well, I leave that part up to Clausewitz without any other modification:

If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.

These are words that are easy to intellectually appreciate. They are extraordinarily difficult to live by. That has not changed and never will.