Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Redistribution of Power through Asymmetric Means

The spike shows reaction to the tweet through the Dow Jones Industrial Average

Tuesday saw the Associated Press Twitter account hacked, with a fake tweet breaking the news that Barack Obama had been injured by an explosion at the White House. Within minutes, $136 billion dollars had been wiped from the Dow Jones stock exchange. Laura Smith-Park's article on CNN has linked the attack to pro-Syrian government hackers, the 'Syrian Electronic Army'. The group have targeted those who have criticised the Syrian government and its role in the current civil war.

The use of automated High Frequency Trading (HFT) algorithms which track news feeds and micro-trends of the market have been blamed for the volatility of the situation. The British Government's Office for Science published a report in October 2012 examining the effects on the international trading market and the implications of HFT. They pushed for the application of 'circuit breakers' which could prevent trades being carried out in times of imminent collapse. The weakness of such a system was highlighted by Tuesday's attack and shows the power of unconventional means in disrupting global power.

This method of affecting international powers is part of a broader change in the current climate of unconventional targeting of private individuals. Greenpeace and their splinter group Sea Shepherd have developed sophisticated means of tackling non-state actors in their attempts at promoting environmental protection. Asymmetric tools have been employed by the World Wildlife Fund for over a decade in challenging threats to the environment, such as their employment of mercenaries to track poachers in central Africa. Sea Shepherd have begun using increasingly sophisticated drones to track the Japanese whaling fleet to considerably impact on the fleet's capability.

The MV Meister, a coal carrying cargo ship travelling from Australia to South Korea along the Great Barrier Reef was boarded by Greenpeace protesters on Wednesday morning. Such a protest requires prior knowledge of a ship's route and the capacity to board a ship in a hostile environment, physically and politically. The military style tactics of Greenpeace are in response to the deeply embedded coal-culture of Australia, which relies heavily on coal exports and for power provision.  The decision by Gina Rinehart's company to develop the Alpha Coal Mine in Queensland has been protested by the group because of fears increased carbon emissions and environmental degradation.

Asymmetric means are becoming increasingly available to private individuals through global news networks, information dissemination and the increased role private security firms in international issues. They allow for greater publicity and funding opportunities. The increasing utilisation of unconventional tactics can allow this redistribution of power and challenges capacity of governments and multinational corporations to adapt, but more fundamentally, modern perspectives on the environment and development.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

"That's Weird!"

Shared knowledge has been the binding force of human civilisation. Information, passed from generation to generation allows for the accumulation of information, learning from our parents' mistakes and our ancestors' skill. The accumulation of a digital legacy is a social dynamic that's never occurred before. Within this framework of digital media, a societal anomaly is occurring. How we work as humans, in combination with technology is allowing 'living by proxy': experiencing life vicariously. Never before have technology users been exposed to as much content about others' lives. It's the portrayal of what is normal, and how we watch others that modern society will become a pasteurised version of life.

Through post-event analysis and dissection, a perspective of what is normal is promulgated. From our mental short-cuts and selective bias, the most common features of what appears in your news feed become the status quo and repeated exposure normalises it. Acceptance follows. Behaviour outside of this experience is a surprise. Before the existence of social media, behaviour outside of the norm would be met in reality or through a closer physical context, requiring an attempt at understanding and rationalising on a personal level, internally. It's digital media that's placing a barrier to experiencing and questioning, person-to-person.

Human psychology gives an inherent trust to behaviour that we recognise. It's our psychological evolution that's made us xenophobic. While it was probably an advantage when we were still determining that snakes aren't fun and everything in nature is trying to kill us on a first-hand basis; it's not so useful in modern society, where confrontation with the unknown can damage our social fabric if the unknown is met with prejudice. Social media's contribution to this is that our digital consumption is constantly embedding certain messages about what we should value, how we should behave in public or what cultural consumption will gain acceptance from our peers. Experiences outside of this are met with our embedded psychological fear of the unknown and only through conscious challenging of our prejudices can we come to learn more about and accept foreign and alien behaviours.

Cultural homogenisation has taken place historically. The difference today is that it's never had the capacity to be global, instantaneous and personalised just for you. Never before in the genealogical journey of man has it been possible to be exposed to Norwegian soldiers doing the Harlem Shake one week and K-Pop the next. The memeification of culture ensures that our attention span is short, media is "digestable" and has the power to be shared. Information outside of this trend, such as reading a book or painting something becomes less preferable: it's harder to share.

Even the word 'sharing' is couched in the safety net of mitigated speech for studying the behaviour of others. Trying to find the difference between 'sharing' and the Orwellian dystopia of daily exercise in front of the telescreen is difficult.. Society doesn't need to be forced if it can be massaged into thinking that 'sharing' is enjoyable. It's through this practice of contributing to the plethora of content about our lives that we subconsciously participate in our own self-critiquing.

Google personalises search results, regardless of whether you've signed into your Google Account or not and has been doing this since 2004. It aims to provide information that "you might be interested in". There is the advantage that access to some resources becomes more efficient. However, the ability to find information that disagrees with your opinion becomes increasingly more difficult. The process of learning is based on the premise that what you already know is wrong. It's occurring for every user of Google. Future policy-makers will have grown up in a society where the digital world has agreed with their opinion, forever.

Impartial, open-access information empowers democracy. In editing our digital lives, are we engaging in our own Newspeak? When we engage in a practice that's systemically harmful to human knowledge, we limit the access to truth and reality. How we each individually participate in the fulfilling of this harm promotes an acceptance of those with control. The camera used to be on the front of every telescreen; now they're in our pockets.

"The best books...are those that tell you what you know already."
George Orwell, 1984.