Burrowing birds. Making holey spaces in the ground.
This is a long essay in English that I am submitting to the Apocryphal Machinery of Ciphernautics, which also you can contribute to by using the Gitorious archive, just like any other software project.
It is another average day and you boot up you computer. Lately a certain worrisome feeling has started to creep into your mind. It is the feeling of someone watching you. Every move, and every conversation, seem to disappear out on the networks. Perhaps there is someone copying your messages, then reading them, and to you anger there seems little that you can do about it. A common reaction is then to build a burrow.
Earlier this week you wanted to tell your friend something secret. It wasn’t really anything big, just another thing that you wanted whisper instead of saying it out loud. Also, there were some files on your hard-drive that you wanted to keep secure. What if someone stole my laptop? What if someone tried to copy my files? In the corporate networks of today, under the jurisdiction of States willing to listen in on the bits and bytes sent across the networks, this emotion is for everyone and nobody. You will have to deal with it, one way or another. Paranoia will enslave you or liberate you, depending on how you handle it.
To understand the future of the Internet and how to cope with its problems, we need to consider at least three different modes of thinking. Actually, they don’t necessarily have to be three, but could be multiple. Reality has an infinite number of modes; modi multiversum – practica ciphernetica.
First we draw from literature and philosophy, then we move on to zoology and biology, to finally return to the computer science of ciphernetics to revise and refine our tools of enciphering the world.
Kafka and the burrow – the political literary model
In his short story der Bau (the Burrow), Franz Kafka describes the productive element of paranoia, through a burrowing animal that devotes its life to building a secure home in the underground. The animal spends most of its waking hours building and securing an fortress, through walls, tunnels and passages. The burrow must stay hidden at all costs, and nobody else is allowed to know the existence of the secret passages. One day, the animal starts hearing noises in the ground, as if another animal, maybe even a monster, was digging a competing system of tunnels, which would breach the security of the Burrow. The poor animal becomes obsessed with the noise, and even though there is no conclusive evidence of a terrible monster, the threat becomes very real in the paranoid mind of the animal.
From time to time, the burrowing animal reflects upon its life. From the English translation of the Burrow:
I almost screw myself to the point of deciding to emigrate to distant parts and take up my old comfortless life again, which had no security whatever, but was one indiscriminate succession of perils, yet in consequence prevented one from perceiving and fearing particular perils, as I was constantly reminded by comparing my secure burrow with ordinary life.
First and foremost, paranoia is something that will consume a lot of energy. It is a whole psychic machinery of obsessive emotions, fueling themselves recursively without any type of finite rationality. There can always be another escape-tunnel, another fortification in the walls, another exit point hidden from the wild beasts of the surface. There is never enough. The paranoid machine of the unconscious connects it flows to your hands, your whole body only enjoys silence and satisfication as long as you keep improving the safety. From time to time you are able to imagine the ”ordinary life” of the surface dwellers. The first symptom is however a lack of trust in others. Who are they? Where did they come from? What are really their intentions?
The second iteration of paranoia is that you stop trusting your own senses, your own body. You start asking yourself whether your memory was right. Desperately you start writing down things. You never know, sometimes you might have to check. You start double-checking the quality of the tunnels, then triple-checking, then all of a sudden you find yourself chokingly checking over and over again until you get too tired to check once more. On the Internet, this ritualistic behavior goes by way of checksums, certificates, encryption passwords and constant lookups of your IP-number. There can be no mistake, one insecure connection and you are trapped! You slowly march into a state of solitude. Kafka again:
If I only had someone I could trust to keep watch at my post observation; then of course I could descend in perfect peace of mind. I would make an agreement with this trusty confederate of mine that he would keep a careful note of the state of things during my descent and for quite a long time afterwards, and if he saw any sign of danger knock on the moss covering, and if he saw nothing do nothing.
The loss of your friends is the reason for why the paranoia of the burrowing and solitary animal will always fail. There is no longer anyone out there to break the flows, the repetitions. You slowly end up digging tunnels for yourself only, and while you isolate your mind it slowly turns inwards. There is a black hole inside your own mind, which slowly consumes all the little particles of yourself into a point of no return. There is no longer chaos, but a slow order, brought about by your own gravity field. No matter how safe your tunnels are now, no matter the strenght of you ciphers or the depth of your secret passwords, paranoia has a power takeover.
To flee the solitary paranoia, we must find a model of thought which is collective in nature. Thus we turn to the multiverse of the animal world.
Burrowing animals – recordings from zoology
Rabbits are burrowers. So are frogs, amphibians, reptiles, even some birds and dinosaurs. There are burrowers of the sea, burrowers of arborescence, and burrowers that live in entire queendoms. Burrows have the primary function of protection against predators, but may also include the building block of societies, shelter for reproduction and storage facilities for food. There are even cases of burrowers in human bodies; The scabies may use your flesh to burrow, causing a major itch.
Burrowing animals may be divided into two major psycho-political categories; suicidal and kamikaze. These two modes of operation are wholly different in nature. While Kafka’s animal turned inwards, only to be trapped in the black hole of paranoia, there are other species willing to offer another model of death. Death-drive, this concept of a final solution, is the cutting edge of paranoia, and must be understood before we are able to move on again.
There is an absolute difference between foxes, which may become may become an heroes, while termites self-sacrifice:
In cases where the intrusion is coming from a breach that is larger than the soldier’s head, defense requires special formations where soldiers form a phalanx-like formation around the breach and blindly bite at intruders or shoot toxic glue from the nasus. This formation involves self-sacrifice because once the workers have repaired the breach during fighting, no return is provided, thus leading to the death of all defenders.
Arborescent termite tunnels. Your protection on the vanilla Internet.
Far beyond the lonely mammal-burrower, the termites organize their tunnels according to various functions, a multitude of milieus, creating whole societies on infrastructures that are not only witty and clever, but also include a division of labor, and a hierarchic mode of organization (we even call some of their structures ”cathedrals”).
You can kill all the foxes on the countryside of England, yes, you can even make rabbits an extinct species. But you can not get rid of termites, no matter the poison you apply. Because of their intrinsic structures, the propagation of a hive-mind in a collective assemblage, their communicative adaptation, they have rendered themselves near nuke-proof. The exit nodes of their tunnels are protected by soldiers willing to take their lives in order to keep the network up an running, without breaching security. The burrow is composed of an absolute trust, and paranoia is counteracted with a much stronger emotion of de-subjectification. We are no longer individual termites, we act as one and thus we take over the forest and the desert!
Rabbit burrow. The exit node is a dangerous place.
The Technological burrow
Let us return to the notion of the panspectron: It entails three types of data for surveillance; content data, traffic data and meta-data. These are all a threat to the burrow.
By content data the actual payload of our traffic is designated and targeted. It consists of files. To prevent anyone from reading our files we encrypt them, for example with GPG. Cryptography comes in various shapes, strengths and weaknesses. The method of deciphering is called cryptoanalysis, and is a task for the mathematician. Cryptos may also have flaws in security that depends on key- exchange, human error and sloppiness, or other design errors and unforeseen events. When burrowing a file in crypto, it is not to be confused with burial of a file. To kill a file you need to shred it, not merely delete it. Alternatively, you destroy the storage medium.
By traffic data we mean the additional data used in computer networks to navigate where content data is supposed to go. In distributed packet-switched networks such as the Internet, traffic data is defined in the Requests for Comments for the TCP/IP suite. Traffic data reveals parts of your identity when moving around in the plain-text open networks. It is a very handy tool for the technicians and engineers of the networks, since it makes analysis, debugging and statistics an easy task when automated. However, traffic data is hazardous for the burrowing internaut, since it produces an entire cartography of its setups, movements and destinations.
Surveillance of traffic data is circumvented by the tunnel system of the burrows. The most basic setup is to hide your actual location with an escape tunnel that exits elsewhere. An old corporate product, the Virtual Private Network is one method, another one the proxy server. Single tunnel escape routes pave way for a primitive burrowing, and their downside is the fact that a single tunnel may be compromised by the wolves of the vanilla Internet. Also, clever predators may listen in on several locations of the Internet, and slowly finding out to where the tunnel leads by analyzing traffic patterns.
A more refined way of burrowing is to join in on an already existing meshwork of tunnels. Tunnels inside the tubes, which almost randomly and with additional stealth technologies provide a network inside the network. Such examples are the TOR and I2P darknets. They allow internauts to create hidden burrows called ”hidden services” or ”tunnel destinations”. The burrows are protected by network algorithms that produce tunnels that begin and end with ”hops” which are irreversible in nature. This way, you are not able to trace exactly where the burrow is located, since you instantly keep forgetting the path that took you there. All you need to navigate is a mathematical number, consisting of an encryption key, or a hash-sum of the encrypted key.
The third form of data is the meta-data. It consists of descriptive data which is always added to existing data. Lets say that there is a file consisting of an image. If you add a description to the image, lets say the name of the person on the photographic picture, you have added meta data. Meta-data modulates analogue traces into digital constants. It gives names to the world, just like the system of nature of Linneus, who created an entire cartography of the animal kingdom.
Designating meta-data can be performed my humans and machines. The computer is unable to initially know the name of a person on a photograph. However, if this information is added by a human, the computer can then calculate the properties of the persons face, and then recognize him or her in another photograph by statistical variations and mathematical associations.
As computers are rapidly becoming more and more ubiquitous, larger quantities of the spectrum is becoming attached with meta-data. Every day hundreds of thousand of images, maybe millions, are designated with proper names on facebook.com. The names we were given by the family or the pack offline, in modern states also by States, are in turn over-coded by the gigantic human-machine assemblages of the web 2.0 economies. Your face is now a unit of measure, a distinct absolute in the vanilla networks. You are supposed to feel comfortable about it since it now has become very easy to associate you with others. The picture no longer shows plain waves of light in the spectrum, but entire associations of communities of people. The name-tag is not worn on clothes, but worn in databases. ”On December the 1st Jane Doe attended the housewarming party of James Doe. Also attending were Cameron, John-Henry and Catherine”.
The smiling faces on the picture are baptized in the river of data. In a near future more things will be modulated. The brand of the sofa, the location of the party via GPS satellites, the place to buy the music online which is played in the background. Still, it is not a question of realism. It is not about providing detailed representations of an event. It is rather on the conditions of accumulating the lives of consumers, collecting their little traces of living, consuming, associating. Meta-data adds information, it takes nothing away. It captures by copying and generating. It starts to know by means of prediction. When will Jane and James throw another party? Based on previous patterns sometime in February. If we know this in advance we have captured the moment of proto-consumption. What wines are they planning to buy? Maybe they would like to eat roast chicken? A targeted advertisement in the flow of information hits the rabbit in flight on the vanilla Internet. Only a burrow can save it now!
Burrows must be built and expanded. However, burrowing in solitude is never a good idea. It sooner or later leads to the black hole and implosion. Instead, burrows should be built as infrastructure. On the vanilla networks, users are unprotected and have little chances of escaping the wolves of data retention, data mining, data wiretapping, etc. Then we need to build entry- and exit holes, a collective assemblage of tunnels, for the safety of netkinds.