Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Informational Wars in the 21st Century: the Collapse of Creativity

I should be packing for my upcoming Singaporean trip but instead, I re-watched the finale of Star Trek: Next Generation, and the material still captivates. As any Netflix subscriber will tell you, one good show often leads to another, and the 1987 premiere didn't seem dated, either. It got me thinking: why do I enjoy older movies and older dialogue, whether Hitchcock or Hepburn (Audrey, not Katherine)? Why do I often find the old superior to the new? And how is it possible the American intellect has declined so precipitously over the past 30 years? 

Growing up, I loved libraries and bookstores. Any random selection would do, and within minutes, I'd settle into an incredible story. Later, I discovered college bookstores, and within them were even more incredible stories that challenged my brain and entertained my soul. I knew I would never find myself being bored

In 2001, a few years after graduating college, I visited Singapore and experienced an anomaly in the world-literature continuum. A few books displayed never-before-seen admonitions: "For Sale Only in Singapore/Malaysia." Standard operating procedure assumed all governments control their reputations through "information boosting," i.e., ensuring their version of events is placed at the top of the shelf, but I didn't know about trade agreements or intelligence tactics and couldn't have told you the difference between MI5 or MI6. Although SEO wasn't yet a priority for private and state actors, its concept was present in that tiny bookstore, revealing the possibility of artifice. 

It was also in Singapore, a former British colony, where I first learned the power of international designations. An NUS professor revealed Singapore had been designated as a "developed," not "developing," country, excluding it from numerous international grants, even though most of its land mass could be called rural in 2001. After two years in one of the West Coast's most expensive and most diverse law schools, tiny Singapore is where I received my first international perspective. Singapore couldn't help itself; as a port-focused city-state, it had to embrace globalization before the term became fashionable in Western academic circles. 

I returned to the United States for my final year of law school wiser but not warier. 9/11 would happen shortly afterwards, and my next seven years would be spent eliminating over 75,000 USD of student loans during a severe recession. Only later would the issues of globalization and informational warfare return to my mental purview. They arose not willingly, but when I finally noticed no bookstore challenged me, no magazine captivated me, and the new could not compare with the old. I was starting to become bored. 

Today, I googled an unfavorable but famous event in a foreign country that should have been easily found. Instead, my search results contained fake news links designed to capture exactly the search terms I'd used, but in ways that concealed the actual event--and therefore the truth. The links included most of the event's general details, but the female protagonist had been replaced by a fake male one, and none of the names were real. During various hacking episodes, I'd suspected we'd progressed from geographical content restrictions to online bleaching, but de facto censorship of legal activities in America was new to me. Only Yahoo--allegedly one of the worst search engines in America, saved from obsolescence by its investments in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan--had the "right" result in the middle of the first page, a single link surrounded by deliberately engineered fake news. Incredibly, SEO manipulation had, in this instance, made my limited analog brain more powerful than one of America's most valuable technology companies. 

"Everything you see is propaganda," I once told a middle school class, and my opinion hasn't changed. Information wars and actions in furtherance of those wars are more obvious when a book's cover discloses geographical limits or when the most prevalent story about another country involves chewing gum, but unbiased information has always been an endangered species. I am young enough to remember Silicon Valley's battle cry, "Information wants to be free," but they never promised accuracy or context. 

In Star Wars, the engineer's revelation of a design flaw in the Death Star gives the rebels hope. Similarly, once we become aware of the informational flaws we receive daily from public and private news sources, perhaps we, too, can recognize "hidden" manipulation not just in search engine algorithms, but in social and mainstream media and even in the very people elevated into positions of power. If we achieve this higher level of understanding, humanity's hope wouldn't be founded on false optimism but upon the realization our species has evolved in the past and can continue to evolve beyond its self-defeating patterns of scapegoating, wishful thinking, and hyperbole. 

Gene Roddenberry, a military veteran and the creator of Star Trek, built his entire life around the inevitability of human progress. He declared, "The strength of a civilization is not measured by its ability to fight wars but by its ability to prevent them." Sadly, by this metric, the United States has failed its citizens, children, and veterans continuously since Vietnam. Having fought one unjust war after another--losing almost every one of them while economic competitors China and Japan focused on domestic infrastructure--America's current Establishment has little choice but to glorify militarism. Such propaganda requires economic support and job preferences to maintain momentum and, most of all, to bury past mistakes. Once activated, the machinery of militarism rarely sets its own boundaries; an enemy always exists just over the horizon, and more measures may always be taken to promote the appearance of safety. 

Few people in America see the connection between the TSA's expansion, its privatized body scanning machines, and the military's concern with employing returning veterans; even fewer realize the trillions of borrowed taxpayer dollars involved reduce not only America's economic potential but its future flexibility; and perhaps fewer still can conjure an alternative result for those same taxpayer dollars (hint: think Tokyo). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s prescience is worth remembering: "If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read 'Vietnam' ... A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." (From 1967 in, of all places, New York City.) 

Let us now return to the original question: why does the old look, feel, and read better than the new in America when the opposite should be true? Consider that in normal societies, the younger generation is apt to forgo established customs as the older generation's knowledge degrades, diminishing claims to authority. Consider too that in abnormal societies, the old maintain their grips on the future by suffocating change through laws and punishment. And finally, note that diseased societies send their young to die for meaningless purposes, removing opposition as well as potential change agents. I say to you today, if the old appears shinier than the new, it is a sure sign of authoritarianism, evidence the youth are being suppressed or their imaginations stifled. Dr. King answered correctly in 1967, but I will go further: a military/police culture of following orders is incompatible with art, philosophy, nuance--and therefore creativity. 

When little boys and girls are deluged with images linking violence and war to heroism regardless of whether such wars are just, America's adults have replaced responsibility with desensitization and irrationality. 

When the table of brotherhood can only be set if every man reserves his right to a shotgun or a rifle, the spirit of the law has perished. 

When the sweltering heat in which our troops are stationed generates no lasting regional peace but instead parched national pocketbooks, America's vision has been a desert mirage all along. 

When our soldiers claim the ethos of courage while administering death by drones, we are living in a Greek tragedy of our own making. 

When our police officers consider themselves above the law, order becomes subservient to its half-witted cousin, obedience. 

If our judges refuse to read the papers presented to them and instead rely upon secondhand memorandums, the book of justice will remain unused. 

Now is the time to reform our sacred institutions by removing the sacrilegious from their temples and pulpits in Congress, courthouses, police departments, corporate boardrooms, and war rooms. There will be neither cohesion nor stability until each citizen is assured corruption has been driven out and the exorcists given their due. 

To that end, it may surprise you to learn the Muslims had wisdom we lack. They separated civilians, merchants, and the military by placing them in physically distinct areas. The medina was the place of business and barter, and the forts and minarets stationed fighters at a distance. The mosques provided sanitation five times daily in the required act of wudu
before prayer, mixing practicality with spirituality. Such arrangements required respect for logistics and infrastructure, not just weaponry. The distance between the two spheres of influence created built-in advantages beyond the freer development of calligraphy, science, algebra, and art; for instance, complaints arising in the medina (aka city) would need time and effort to reach the forts (aka military outposts), increasing the likelihood of legitimacy and thus an appropriate remedy. 
It may not be easy for an American historian to admit, but the aforementioned separation might have been the only truly "separate but equal" arrangement in modern history. 
Ultimately, if we do not understand some of humanity's problems have already been solved, we will neglect the task of modifying pre-existing solutions to current times and invite a cycle of arrogance. If we compound our error by ignoring history and amplifying propaganda, we will pollute the intellectual waters our children require to swim. Above all, if we are to have a dream worth mentioning, it must be one that facilitates a peaceful transition from old to young as well as a transfer of timeless knowledge. If each successive generation must start the Great Global Novel from scratch, our progress will be needlessly haphazard with no guarantee of reaching the final page. 

Today, the American Dream appears to have been a lie to all but the most talented, the most lucky, and the most likely to inherit. As I seek a better life in Singapore, I hope one day, America rediscovers the generosity of spirit that made it a beacon for honest men and women of a certain character. In the meantime, I'll be in Singapore, taking my chances and charting the unknown possibilities of my existence. May we all live long and prosper. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2018) 

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