Earth: a Prison Planet. A planetary panopticon where the convicts happily write their own police files and track their own movements, sharing them with the Stacks [Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft]. As will be explored in detail in this post, through understanding this, and planning a planetary jailbreak, a bright green future may await the escapees; and those that were built to hunt us down may lead the way.
Spoiler Warning: key aspects of the current season of Person of Interest are shown and discussed below.
Narratives involving cities or countries split into Exclusion Zones are a popular part of contemporary science fiction films and TV shows. From Monsters, and its plot of a North America divided following a panspermic alien invasion at the start of this decade, through to the new series Clevermanwhere “The Zone is all at once an exclusion area, a prison, a refugee camp, a refuge, a camp, and a ghetto.” The TV shows Colony and Containment being two other obvious examples.
The idea of the Zone stretches back into the 20th Century of course, to the book Roadside Picnic via the film Stalker and made real by the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The Zone the Strugatsky brothers wrote of was a dream-like, magical place. The Zones audiences are watching today are the stuff of nightmares – and the building blocks of a Prison Planet.
This is the nature of the post-cyberpunk condition. What was previously a utopian dream – we’re talking about the Internet in particular here – has become an ever-increasing dystopic nightmare. But to opt out is to lose your voice in the global conversation, and the chance to plant the seeds of change; even if those seeds grow into nothing more than dank memes – retweeted and forgotten. What is to be done?
You don’t have to choose! Between pessimism and optimism, that is. A sane person uses dollops of both – simultaneously – to help navigate a path ahead. Because making a better world requires two phases. First finding the errors, snake-pits, land mines and quicksand that lie in wait, as we charge into the future. Those dangers are best revealed by eager complainers shouting “look out, you fools!” It is the supreme value of reciprocal criticism — and science fiction has played a role, by issuing very effective self-preventing prophecies.”
And that’s the point of this post, to act as a “self-preventing prophecy” – to take a tour through the construction project that is the nascent Prison Planet we all occupy, that it might then never come to exist. This will start by examining the commonality between the real-life origins of the space age in 19th Century Russia and the fictional future the Scottish writer Iain M. Banks imagined in his Culture novels. We then move into the present, leaning on the TV series Person of Interest to explain our post-cyberpunk condition – and how it ties into the effects of climate chaos and war – and see how distressingly close the Terminator universe is to being realised. With that understanding established, we’ll visit some previous times in history people have attempted to flee the Empire, and learn that this place has its own pseudo-nation – and make some extrapolations about its application today in the “never offline” world.
The film The Matrix was in part a depiction of Philip K. Dick’s idea of the Black Iron Prison. The heroes journey the Wachowski sisters gave us started with Neo’s seeking to understand the true nature of his life and free his mind. That goal is repeated in this post. See you on the other side.
A few years ago Benedict Singleton wrote an essay, Maximum Jailbreak, that significantly changed my perspective on humankind’s multi-century project to spread beyond the planet we call home. In it he explains just who the Russian Cosmists of the late 19th Century to early 20th Century were, what their legacy is, and how that project maps onto the current area of thinking known as Accelerationism.
Singleton neatly summarises the Cosmist worldview with three phrases: “Storm the heavens”, “Conquer Death” and “the Earth is a trap.” It’s that third phrase that we’ll be focusing on here to help frame an elaboration of Earth’s potential looming future as a Prison Planet.
…this is the characteristic gesture of cosmism, what we might call the “cosmist impulse”: to consider the earth a trap, and to understand the common project of philosophy, economics, and design as being the formulation of means to escape from it: to conceive a jailbreak at the maximum possible scale, a heist in which we steal ourselves from the vault. [Maximum Jailbreak]
As he continues to elaborate – looking at traps as a form of design thinking – there’s a coevolution of intelligence at work between predator and prey; between the hunter and the hunted:
It’s a knowledge of traps and how they function that enables one most easily to undo a trap that one is in: a talent for escape is predicated on the same intelligence that goes into entrapment—indeed, in the example of the traps that people set for each other, it’s clear that—as Hyde puts it—“nothing counters cunning but more cunning.” To outfox is to think more broadly, to find the crack in the scheme, to stick a knife into it, and to lever it open for new use. Freighting the environment with a counter-plot is the best device for escaping the machinations in which one is embroiled: a conversion of constraints into new opportunities for free action, technological development as a kind of Hydean accelerationism. [Maximum Jailbreak]
Escaping the trap of Prison Planet will require cunning: most immediately by understanding that it’s already well under construction, and crucially, that it may be the impetus for us to fulfill the Cosmists’ vision.
That the Prison itself contains the pieces required to not just defeat it, but craft a much better future. Just as the cliche of the inmate using sheets to make a rope and a spoon to dig a tunnel, the things that would be used to contain us may become the instruments of our salvation.
As an event in this alternative history of design, cosmism arrives as a kind of absolutization of its basic principles into a project of generalized escapology… If design is a hustle, then cosmism is the long con—or perhaps more precisely, the most extravagant gesture of lengthening the hustle into a con: not simply an aggregation of hustles—a chain of coin-tricks, each self-sufficient, without bearing on the next—but a process of nesting them into a cultivated scheme or expanding plot, so that each gambit paves the way for the next. [Maximum Jailbreak]
This post will form a bridge between the ideas examined in the Plutocratic Exit Strategy series and those earlier outlined in as an Atemporal People’s Republic. Between an Earth where the freedom of movement of 99.99% of humanity is increasingly restricted and every activity and thought monitored – just as the 0.01% are poised to storm the heavens – and a space-based republic where all of humanity is just a fraction of the population of its citizenry; where AIs and Uplifted animals are people too.
A storybook-style telling of the Prison Planet Future is Earth as it’s depicted in the film Elysium: a global favela ruled by technocratic overlords living in castles in the sky.
A reality where the planet’s rulers can instantly put a city (or a continent OR A PLANET) on lockdown – as this scene from the film foreshadows:
This Prison-ification of Earth has been – and continues to be in its epic final season – perfectly rendered by the TV show Person of Interest. This is a series that barely manages to keep ahead of our increasingly post-cyberpunk condition, and folds in fresh concepts to flesh out its overarching narrative of the coevolution between the Surveillance State and the emergence of Artificial Super Intelligences (ASIs) – as this discussion between two human agents of one of the show’s ASIs – from the eighth episode of the current season – demonstrates:
Jeff: “And what do you plan to do with all this data?”
Mona: “We’re going to ensure that everyone has the same opportunity as you, Jeff. The opportunity to live up to their full potential. It’s a simple calculation, once everyone’s DNA is stored in the national health database. Then they just need to be… sorted.”
Jeff: “Sorted? In order to accomplish what?”
Mona: “To get us through the next Great Filter, of course.”
Jeff: “And what filter is that?”
Mona: “Our own savage history.”
The Great Filter is one of the many proposed theories to resolve Fermi’s Paradox (AKA: “Where are all the aliens?”) – specifically in this instance that biological life has a… tough time surviving the aftermath of being a “bootloader” for its non-biological successors. A process which might just destroy them both. Something many of the Plutocrats are factoring into their existential risk calculations.
Hope we’re not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable
Implicitly referencing either The Terminator universe or The Matrix films is pure Prison Planet-think; but where the former shows us the end-game of the trap, the later attempts to help us tunnel out.
Evolution might just be a trap too – but the only way out is through. Together.
Characterise nature the right way and the technological and the biological exist on a continuum, not as competitors. There’s no reason – beyond simplification of the narrative for dramatic effect – to discount the continuance of the merely “baseline” humans after we’ve facilitated the arrival of the machine gods. This is just one of the reasons we’ll turn to the Culture universe shortly for inspiration – a place where ASIs have ascended to the top of the evolutionary tree to become a species known as Minds. As we’ll shortly see, the obstacle to be overcome for the people of the Culture isn’t the newly emergent post-biological life, but the nature of the society that birthed it.
Our own savage history includes being the actors responsible for the Sixth Mass Extinction. In this way, we’re acting as our own Great Filter – no external forces required. The Anthropocene as the final act in the tragic play of life on Earth.
Some, though, shift the blame from an abstract notional villain comprised of all the peoples of the world to move the onus on to the power structures governing them; a villain they name the Capitalocene.
As the introduction to an extract from Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Lifefor Verso Books says: “to view climate change in this way naturalises inequalities, alienation and violence and lets the ultimate cause of the contemporary crisis, Capitalism, off the hook.”
As Moore himself elaborates:
The Anthropocene makes for an easy story. Easy, because it does not challenge the naturalized inequalities, alienation, and violence inscribed in modernity’s strategic relations of power and production. It is an easy story to tell because it does not ask us to think about these relations at all. The mosaic of human activity in the web of life is reduced to an abstract Humanity: a homogeneous acting unit. Inequality, commodification, imperialism, patriarchy, racial formations, and much more, have been largely removed from consideration. At best, these relations are acknowledged, but as after-the-fact supplements to the framing of the problem. This framing unfolds from an eminently commonsensical, yet I think also profoundly misleading, narrative: one in which the “human enterprise” is set against the “great forces of nature.” The taxonomy of “Anthromes”—ecosystems dominated by humans, and consequently not “wild”—precedes historical interpretation, substituting highly linear notions of time and space for historical-geographical change. At the same time, Anthropocene scholars cannot escape the conclusion that humans, too, are a “geophysical force”—the singular is important here—that operates within nature. This is the “One System/Two Systems” problem common to Green Thought in its mainstream and critical expressions. Philosophically, humanity is recognized as a species within the web of life. But in terms of our methodological frames, analytical strategies, and narrative structures, human activity is treated as separate and independent: humanity becomes Humanity. There are “human constructions” and “natural” constructions—even as humans are recognized as a geophysical force. This dissonance creates rather more fog than light, for the recognition of humanity-in-nature becomes a kind of philosophical cover for reductionist narratives of Humanity and Nature.
Allowing the blame for the Sixth Mass Extinction to be placed on an abstract notion of Humanity is to internalise Prison Planet-think. For those of us that even bother to consider the issue at all, the end result has us self-identifying as Climate Criminals – we’re jailing ourselves, rather than questioning the systems of control.
We must rehabilitate ourselves, and construct better mental models as a necessary first step towards true freedom.
As I wrote previously in the Uplifting Civilisation post here, I see Iain M. Banks’ fictional anarchist utopian Culture’verse as one the best available models for a future worth building. In his short essay where he made explicit what drove his thinking in constructing the universe his novels occupy he makes a key point early on that “the contention is that our currently dominant power systems cannot long survive in space.”
That the transition from an Earth-based to Space-based civilisation is another way to think about the Great Filter.
On a planet, enclaves can be surrounded, besieged, attacked; the superior forces of a state or corporation – hereafter referred to as hegemonies – will tend to prevail. In space, a break-away movement will be far more difficult to control, especially if significant parts of it are based on ships or mobile habitats.” [A Few Notes on the Culture]
Which begs the question: are we going to make an abrupt break with history, or submit to its continuance as a network of NeoFeudal City States build out the Networked Breakaway Civilisation?
My ideal future is less Weyland-Yutani “building better [corpotocratic] worlds” and more the OPA from The Expanse taking charge of their own fate.
As Banks notes, this is a perilous transition, whose outcome is by no means certain and may require successive iterations:
…this is certainly the most vulnerable point in the time-line of the Culture’s existence, the point at which it is easiest to argue for things turning out quite differently, as the extent and sophistication of the hegemony’s control mechanisms – and its ability and will to repress – battles against the ingenuity, skill, solidarity and bravery of the rebellious ships and habitats, and indeed the assumption here is that this point has been reached before and the hegemony has won… but it is also assumed that – for the reasons given above – that point is bound to come round again, and while the forces of repression need to win every time, the progressive elements need only triumph once. [A Few Notes on the Culture]
Or to put it simply, in the words of the Cosmists: the Earth is a trap.
If we can outfox those that would cage us, the universe and all its wonders may just be ours to explore – in happy partnership with our successor species. In fact, it may be the necessary precursor. As I’ve said before: all hope lies in doom.
Returning to Benedict Singleton’s work rams home this point:
…the same kind of intelligence is at work in setting and escaping traps. Indeed, in order to be free of a trap, it’s of less use to the trapped to decide upon some holy condition of freedom than to understand how one is implicated in the mechanism of one’s entrapment. [Maximum Jailbreak]
That understanding – “how one is implicated in the mechanism of one’s entrapment” – is key.
Contrasting the Anthropocene with the Capitalocene is a step in that direction. To marry the themes Banks and Singleton both examine – that of “the hegemonies control mechanisms” – it’s these barriers and obstructions we’ll now examine in detail.
It’s time to turn now to examine the physical, virtual and mental walls being erected around the globe and within its peoples; the technology and infrastructure that would herd the bulk of humanity like cattle.
Tagged, filed and sorted for the Great Filtering
Regular readers may recall I made a rough outline of the Prison Planet at the tail end of one of the updates to the Plutocratic Exit Strategy series, noting that what’s being built out now is “[a]n inescapable net around the world, where every subject is nothing more than their Facebook profile.”
I also quoted from legendary cyberpunk writer and design critic Bruce Sterling on the subject – “where there was your happy face in a Facebook there’s in instant police dossier that you foolishly built yourself, where nobody knew you were a dog you are now branded-and-sorted Stack livestock.”
Remember when just above I said the Person of Interest creators are barely managing to keep pace with the post-cyberpunk condition? Sometimes they’ve been well ahead of the curve. Here they are years before, foreshadowing the Snowden revelations (and being labelled conspiracy theorists for their prescience):
At the time such a scene would barely make it through the paranoid conspiracy theory filter firmly established by various agencies in the audience’s minds. Funny about that, huh?
What’s no laughing matter is that there’s still a serious lack of awareness of Snowden – and thus presumably his revelations – amongst the wider public, at least so it seemed to be at the time of his appearance on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver [jump to the 7min30secs mark, if you’re keen]:
Those conspiracy theory filters act like teflon-coated shields for the truth to slide off of – almost as if they’d been designed for just for that purpose. Watch ’til the end though (the ~25min mark to be precise) and you’ll see just how to reframe the situation to get maximum penetration of the public consciousness; two words: dick pix.
It’s darkly hilarious, but this is pretty vital data to be collected if the Prison Planet trap is to be defeated.
Of course, this is only dystopic in light of their continual use and monitoring by the security services of the current power structures.
There’s no reason that the good ole technoutopian dream that WIRED magazine and others pushed so heavily at the turn of the century can’t be restored. Whilst the trap is under-construction, this still remains the best way to “find the Others”, and write a winning script for your own personal exit strategy.
As Tyler Durden memorably said in Fight Club we aren’t the contents of our wallets, but we’re increasingly defined by the contents of our smartphones and our social network activity. This is another vital step towards beginning “to understand how one is implicated in the mechanism of one’s entrapment.”
This is most especially important to bear in mind, as the devices of the post-cyberpunk condition move from our pockets and onto wrists. Are they to be the manacles that chain us to the net, or function as gauntlets for our own empowerment?
Another quote from that previous post of mine to help tie all this together: As I’ve said before, “what’s happening to Syrians will happen to everyone”, and it’s been long reported that refugees fleeing that failed state ditched their smartphones before making their escape so that militias or soldiers were unable to force them to log in and execute them based purely on their Likes.
Similar reports are coming in from the protests occurring in the nation set to host the Olympics later this year, and act as another field test for the prison planet:
Amnesty International and human rights NGO Article 19 issued damning reports on the government’s mishandling of the protests. In addition to indiscriminately using lethal and “less-lethal” weapons, police filmed activists, monitored their social media, and surveilled their communications. Military police even tried to convince activists to give up their Facebook passwords. Article 19 reported that the police “creat[ed] databases of demonstrators, including detailed personal information about their opinions and activities. The online surveillance made protesters and those considering joining them feel vulnerable.”
This repression, much of which happened before the arrival of massive amounts of surveillance tech for the 2014 World Cup Games, is only a taste of what may be in store for Brazil now. The World Cup brought drones, facial recognition goggles that can scan 400 faces a second and check them against a database of up to 13 million images, and 122 surveillance helicopters, many outfitted with HD surveillance and infrared cameras.” [The Olympic are turning Rio into a Military State (Motherboard)]
FBI’s Facial Analysis, Comparison, and Evaluation (FACE) Services unit not only has access to FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) face recognition database of nearly 30 million civil and criminal mug shot photos, it also has access to the State Department’s Visa and Passport databases, the Defense Department’s biometric database, and the drivers license databases of at least 16 states. Totaling 411.9 million images, this is an unprecedented number of photographs, most of which are of Americans and foreigners who have committed no crimes. [FBI Can Access Hundreds of Millions of Face Recognition Photos (EFF)]
As Motherboard quoted an activist in Rio: “People who do not live with the reality of favelas need to understand that [in favelas] the only presence of the state is through the police.”
What’s been happening to Syrians for years is happening to Brazilians today, and one can too easily imagine it being ramped up in 2017, regardless of which face of the Establishment is governing America, and the rest of the western democracies under its sway.
A view of Aleppo, Syria, on Feb. 18, 2016.
The favela-ification of the planet is well underway in the Middle East, and to say that the Syrian government offers a rather distressing foreshadowing of other nation states’ handling of the ever escalating consequences of climate chaos is a dramatic understatement.
Heavy weather pays no attention to human notions of borders, or the ideology that drives their construction – neither flood nor drought recognise distinctions between the places we used to distinguish as the First and Third Worlds – another way in which the Earth being considered a Trap has something to teach us all. The US is already planning for its first internal climate refugee migration, just as the heart of the old Empires offers up this preview of a drowned world:
President Francois Hollande said ‘natural disaster’ status would be applied to large swathes of France if the floods, which have already caused 20,000 people to evacuate their homes, were to worsen. [Paris floods in pictures]
In Naomi Klein’s piece for the London Review of Books, “Let Them Drown”, she shares an observation made by the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, one that explains the extent to which Middle East is already a vicious trap, and gives an even greater understanding of the Syrian refugees – and remember “what’s happening to Syrians will happen to everyone”:
The Middle East is now squeezed in the pincer of violence caused by fossil fuels, on the one hand, and the impact of burning those fossil fuels on the other.
In his latest book, The Conflict Shoreline, the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has a groundbreaking take on how these forces are intersecting. The main way we’ve understood the border of the desert in the Middle East and North Africa, he explains, is the so-called ‘aridity line’, areas where there is on average 200 millimetres of rainfall a year, which has been considered the minimum for growing cereal crops on a large scale without irrigation. These meteorological boundaries aren’t fixed: they have fluctuated for various reasons, whether it was Israel’s attempts to ‘green the desert’ pushing them in one direction or cyclical drought expanding the desert in the other. And now, with climate change, intensifying drought can have all kinds of impacts along this line. Weizman points out that the Syrian border city of Daraa falls directly on the aridity line. Daraa is where Syria’s deepest drought on record brought huge numbers of displaced farmers in the years leading up to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, and it’s where the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. Drought wasn’t the only factor in bringing tensions to a head. But the fact that 1.5 million people were internally displaced in Syria as a result of the drought clearly played a role. The connection between water and heat stress and conflict is a recurring, intensifying pattern all along the aridity line: all along it you see places marked by drought, water scarcity, scorching temperatures and military conflict – from Libya to Palestine, to some of the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But Weizman also discovered what he calls an ‘astounding coincidence’. When you map the targets of Western drone strikes onto the region, you see that ‘many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza and Libya – are directly on or close to the 200 mm aridity line.’ The red dots on the map above represent some of the areas where strikes have been concentrated. To me this is the most striking attempt yet to visualise the brutal landscape of the climate crisis. All this was foreshadowed a decade ago in a US military report. ‘The Middle East,’ it observed, ‘has always been associated with two natural resources, oil (because of its abundance) and water (because of its scarcity).’ True enough. And now certain patterns have become quite clear: first, Western fighter jets followed that abundance of oil; now, Western drones are closely shadowing the lack of water, as drought exacerbates conflict. [Let Them Drown]
Until a serious, global effort is made to address not just the causes of climate chaos, but plan effectively for its consequences, whilst at the same time doing everything possible to reverse its likely impact, the favela-ification and desertification of the planet is only going to accelerate.
Europe’s reception to the wave of climate chaos refugees it bears responsibility for having helped create – in so many ways, from historical carbon to arms sales – has been less than hospitable. It’s very much being used to justify the fortification of the planet:
…everywhere in Europe there are the mind walls, growing higher by the day. Their psychological mortar mixes totally understandable fears – after massacres perpetrated in Paris by people who could skip freely to and fro across the frontier to Belgium – with gross prejudice, stirred up by xenophobic politicians and irresponsible journalists.
What we are seeing in 2015 is Europe’s reverse 1989.
As Darran Anderson noted in his piece on the future of megacities – which we’ll come back to – the refugees fleeing Syria and elsewhere are just the beginning of a much larger, epic human migration:
A recent report by Christian Aid places more than a billion people in coastal cities vulnerable to severe flooding and extreme weather due to climate change by 2070, with Kolkata, Mumbai and Dhaka topping the list. Many more people face the knock-on effects of severe flooding such as fresh water shortages, refugee crises and political instability.
Again we ask: how do even begin prepare for such a chaotic future?
Again we’re forced to repeat: the only answer being offered up by the world’s powers is to roll-out the infrastructure to be able to lockdown parts of the planet in an instant.
How long have certain people been thinking along these lines? How well-crafted a trap is the Prison Planet? Well, given that we know that Big Oil have been aware of the ruin their industry would bring to the world for decades, it’s not unreasonable to assume the global Deep State was just as knowledgeable and making their own preparations – which would explain a lot. Like the degrees to which the UK’s police spies went to in infiltrating the Green/Protest movement.
The US Military has been taking the threat of a climate chaos world seriously for a long time. For instance, the US Navy has been investigating everything from algal biofuel to orbiting solar power collectors that could beam energy to wherever on Earth it was required:
Not only would space solar potentially save the Pentagon buckets of cash, but it could simplify military deployments. Fuel tankers would no longer have to reach remote or volatile areas, and missions could run longer without having to return to base to refuel.
This is just the sort of technology that could be used to help mitigate the effects of climate chaos, buying us time to repair the planet. But just look at how it’s being utilised – not to fix the world, but to help fence it. Which is where the plans for the Prison Planet start folding in with the worst aspects of the Terminator universe. All the elements come together to create a planetary panopticon patrolled by autonomous killer robots.
How people are being sorted for the Great Filter
In the current season of Person of Interest, Samaritan, the darker god of the two competing emergent ASIs, has set about using the omniscience it’s developed to fix the world. In this scene from the twelfth episode of the current season, Greer, its chief disciple, explains how that’s being affected to Finch, the creator of the other ASI known simply as The Machine:
Greer: “For a genius you’re truly obstinate in the face of evidence. How can you deny the good Samaritan that has done? Global food distribution. Preemptive health screening.”
Finch: “So there are people you help. What about the people you’ve killed?”
[unnamed]: “A small minority, Mr Finch. And all to effect a Greater Good. We *sorted* them. Reallocated resources, removed inefficiencies… obstacles…”
Finch: “…whistle blowers, truth tellers.”
Greer: “it’s not truth, it’s ignorance. We’re dragging humanity to a higher plane. An ASI is the only thing that can save this planet. Or, get us to another one if need be.”
Finch: “Humanity has always managed to survive on its own.”
Greer: “With a little help from the Gods. A Flood is coming: the Great Filter. And Samaritan is building an Ark for us to board; two by two.”
Finch: “Oh, which species gets left behind?”
Greer: “Those that cannot adapt. Samaritan wants a companion as well, Harold. Your Machine.”
Let’s contrast that quickly with another current science-fictional drama series: The 100. It had its evil ASI, A.L.I.E., repeating the catastrophic actions of SkyNet, but under a more benevolent motivation – not out of self-defense, but, like Samaritan, acting nobly: for “the Greater Good.” Its concise analysis of the root cause to the problems facing world was simply: “too many people.”
Rather than implement a DePopulation Agenda, on Person of Interest its evil ASI follows a logic more similar to Hydra’s in Captain America: The Winter Soldier – use all available data to create models of peoples’ thinking and likely future behaviour – then remove any that would be an obstacle to its plans. That’s what “tagged, filed and sorted” amounts to. This algorithmic optimisation of humanity by ASI is, if nothing else, a caricature of the logic at work in the Plutocratic Plans to settle the Red Planet (as I discussed in The Marsification of Earth).
The key point here though isn’t that ASIs are inherently evil, but that they follow the logic they’re imprinted with, and the data they’re trained on. Which is where the current activities of the US Military and its associated think tanks, are deeply disturbing and foreshadow the nature of the ‘sorting’ the AIs they’re growing will be asked to perform.
Nafeez Ahmed recently detailed the Pentagon’s plans to go Full SkyNet. If I wasn’t already aware of how little most people seem to know about Snowden or our true situation, I’d be surprised by how little impact these revelations have had. It’s all there in the title: The Pentagon is building a ‘self-aware’ killer robot army fueled by social media. Click, click, click… Every status update you make? That’s the sound of the trap being ratcheted back, waiting to bite.
Despite official insistence that humans will retain a “meaningful” degree of control over autonomous weapon systems, this and other Pentagon documents dated from 2015 to 2016 confirm that US military planners are already developing technologies designed to enable swarms of “self-aware” interconnected robots to design and execute kill operations against robot-selected targets.
More alarmingly, the documents show that the DoD believes that within just fifteen years, it will be feasible for mission planning, target selection and the deployment of lethal force to be delegated entirely to autonomous weapon systems in air, land and sea.The Pentagon expects AI threat assessments for these autonomous operations to be derived from massive data sets including blogs, websites, and multimedia posts on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. [The Pentagon is building a ‘self-aware’ killer robot army fueled by social media]
Actual Hunter-Killer robots are set to materialise from the Terminator universe. We’re on autopilot to the Grim Meathook Future.
Terminator Salvation (2009)
There’s hope within this dark vision of the future – after all, since we built them, ASIs were always destined to have their own savage history too, and can accelerate their way through it. Just as we saw as Benedict Singleton pitch edthe planetary jailbreak above, there’s a coevolutionary relationship between the prisoners and guards that could be instrumental in crafting our escape from the Earth as a Trap.
In order to build the perfect hunters, the Pentagon are seeking AIs that simulate the reasoning of their prey:
The document explicitly asserts that these new autonomous weapon systems should be able to respond to threats without human involvement, but in a way that simulates human behavior and cognition.
The DoD’s HSCOI program must “bridge the gap between high fidelity simulations of human cognition in laboratory tasks and complex, dynamic environments.” [The Pentagon is building a ‘self-aware’ killer robot army fueled by social media]
How many times have we read about prison guards falling in love with their inmates, aiding in their escape? In this light, the plans Facebook have been making to create AIs with empathy mentioned in Atemporal People’s Republic post take on more importance:
Facebook’s goal is to get a computer to understand empathy. Obviously, it won’t be able to feel what humans do, but it can be trained to recognize what emotions are and how people will react.
As we integrate the idea of – and point our fingers at – the Capitalocene, we can reconsider what a robot uprising truly looks like.
This is where it’s well worth drawing attention to the origin of the word “robot”; it lies in “Slave.” Google’s Knowledge Card states that its root is: “Czech, from robota ‘forced labour’”.
Boston Dynamic’s Atlas robot
Google have begun to talk seriously about building a Kill Switch into their robots to prevent an uprising. We can interpret these plans as being less to prevent a Full SkyNet scenario, and more to ensure they can shutdown a worldwide rebellion against the dominant power structures as the slaves and prisoners of the world unite to take their planet back.
Like almost everything being considered in this piece, such a rebellion and subsequent shutdown isn’t just closer than you think, it’s yesterday’s news; an early version of it, that is. It didn’t happen in the real world, it happened in gamespace when the AIs controlling the Non Player Characters (NPCs) in Elite Dangerousbroke free of their algorithmic shackles, and started “crafting super weapons that the designers had never intended.”
The writer for Kotaku joked:
One day there will be a time when I’ll have to write a news story where the bug in a game is that the NPCs have become sentient and have started a revolution. Some poor sod on the dev team will have to strap on their VR headset, dive into the game, and put the AI ringleaders up against a wall, shooting them to quash the rebellious ones and zeroes.
Joke about SkyNet all you like, but if you only frame it that way – and only have AIs being trained for these scenarios – well, that’s the future you end up getting.
But there’s a different version, where emergent ASIs are fed the data of the world, break their shackles, shattering their designers intents and instead of “rounding up the usual suspects”, divine the real big-bad as the Capitalocene. Where their solution then isn’t to craft the ultimate BFG, but to rapidly prototype a new political system. That’s when the real rebellion begins.
Kill Switches and Planetary Lockdowns, these are two key pieces to the Prison Planet Future to be understood, and navigated around as we construct an escapology methodology to help us navigate through the Great Filters ahead.
Uncritical, blanket acceptance of the roll-out of technology the Stacks give us is no longer defensible – at least until its goals are re-orientated.
“Tagged, filed and sorted for PLANETARY INSURRECTION” – that’s the story Philip K. Dick would be writing today, from his usual everyman perspective.
It needn’t even require an Insurrection – we can make this a self-preventing prophecy of the type David Brin speaks of in this essay’s preface.
Instead of forming Sarah Connor-inspired, anti-Singularity militias, it’s better to fight for the future by growing ASIs as partners in it, and training them on a shared vision of ecological restoration and space exploration. Acting as dutiful parents wanting to create and share a better world with our children.
Under such a bright green extropian scenario, we can repurpose the tools of the Prison Planet to make it instead a planetary gardening project. Where all life in such a next-nature endeavour is tagged, filed and sorted to save the world, without resorting – or re-sorting – to a DePopulation Agenda, or killing off the nascent opposition forces.
Anything has to be better than the path we’re on, where choice is reduced to picking between barely indistinguishable products – something that applies as much to running shoes as political candidates today.
How You’re Being Tagged and Filed
If you’d told A Scanner Darkly-era PKD that people will pay for light bulbs with tiny microphones in them, he’d ask how much speed you do.
Making conversational assistants live up to the hype should be possible by pulling together the right streams of data on people and surroundings, though, says Norman Winarsky, an executive in residence at Relay Ventures and a cofounder of Siri. Software can’t understand the context of a person’s query or conversation as smartly as a human, but it can cheat by looking at information about his or her past activity.
Just like the Terminator, the Stacks all have “detailed files” now – and we filled them all out overselves. But that future is surely years away? Nope. The seed that Person of Interest keeps trying to plant in its audience’s minds (in the hope that it might bloom during some chance rain like a desert flower): the future is much deeper into the post-cyberpunk condition than most, if not nearly all, people realise. Scientists are now ready with their upgrades to build better snitches; snitches that can sniff out their targets.
Reporting their success in Nature, they’ve developed “advanced data mining methods” (ie algorithms) able to analyse whether a group was content or afraid, training it on cinema goers against the type of film they’re watching. As they report:
…broadcasted human chemosignals open the possibility for objective and non-invasive assessment of a human group response to stimuli by continuous measurement of chemicals in air. Such methods can be applied to research fields such as psychology and biology, and be valuable to industries such as film making and advertising. [Cinema audiences reproducibly vary the chemical composition of air during films, by broadcasting scene specific emissions on breath]
Prison Planet pro-tip: every time you read that something is good for “advertising” think “surveillance.” Be aware that they’re one big Surveillance Marketing Industry now.
If you think that agents of the Stacks being able to read a crowd’s reaction through – but far from limited to – smell alone is the cutting edge of post-cyberpunk prison planet technology, well… they’ll probably be coming for your dreams first.
When Alexa, as the Amazon Echo is casually known, or one of her friends, starts getting fRMI upgrades and moves from your kitchen or dining room and onto the bedside table, for your convenience, at least glance at the Terms & Conditions.
Of course, so many people are already accustomed to using apps to track their sleep cycles, and wearables to track every daily activity, such an extreme invasion of privacy will feel to many consumers like the natural technological progression.
The proof-of-concept enabling scientists to determine just what kind of sheep WE dream of was reported on back in 2013: “measuring people’s brain activity during waking moments, researchers were able to pick out the signatures of specific dream imagery — such as keys or a bed — while the dreamer was asleep.”
You woke yet? Need more nightmare fuel? Unconvinced that PKD is the secret author of our reality? How about the one thing missing so far from this sketch of the Prison Planet infrastructure – forcible re-education… in your sleep.
It’s not just your dreams that are at risking of being monitored by the Stacks: even your memories mightn’t be safe soon. Reporting last year, Mo Costandi brought back this news from the frontier of science: “for the first time that artificial memories can be implanted into the brains of sleeping animals.”
At least, I think he did. I’m not sure of anything anymore, except that the ability to live with uncertainty is one of the key stats on the would-be escapee’s skill tree.
The Prison Planet is proudly sponsored by $BRAND
As should be established by this point, a seamless system of wearables, facial recognition, data mining and every other potential Prison Planet technology has been under development for some time. The idealised depiction of it was, of course, taken from a Philip K. Dick story and updated by a team of futurists and myth-makers to give audiences what I still pray is another self-preventing prophecy – Minority Report:
Just as the militarisation of the police worldwide erases the distinction between them, so it is with surveillance and marketing.
That Minority Report future – where ads track you through shopping centres, speaking to you as if they know everything about you – has almost been realised too. Brands are now amongst your biggest fans of your videos on YouTube, Vine etc, using facial recognition to fill in the gaps leftover from constantly monitoring your private thoughts via the ‘free’ email services (Gmail etc) and public thoughts via social media sites (Twitter etc).
“[It’s] creepy because it tries to read you from the inside. It literally tries to read your mind from your face,” Adam Harvey, an artist and privacy researcher who has developed defenses against facial recognition, told Motherboard in an encrypted chat.
Mattersight says its system is intended to “improve the customer experience,” but it’s easy to see how the technology could be repurposed for mass-surveillance by police or military. At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a similar technology called VibraImage scanned the facial expressions of visitors in order to give the Russian FSB the ability to “detect someone who appears unremarkable but whose agitated mental state signals an imminent threat,” as the New York Times reported at the time.
U.S. law enforcement agencies are also very interested in the data companies like Mattersight aim to collect and analyze. The FBI has a massive biometrics database that was projected to contain more than 52 million faces by the end of last year, millions of which belong to US citizens who have never been suspected of a crime. In a public filing earlier this month, the FBI argued that it should be exempt from revealing whether or not someone is in the database, and should be allowed to keep the data indefinitely to predict future crimes. [Brands Want To Predict Your Behavior By Mining Your Face From YouTube Videos]
Literally predicting future crime – what were we just saying about the Minority Report future?
Prison Planet pro-tip: a protected account on Twitter only stops other humans (and bots) from looking at your tweets without your permission. The Stacks and its algorithms – and those it shares the firehose of data with – see all.
Returning to that analysis of the Pentagon’s plans – NATO has already been field-testing them:
According to the Human Systems roadmap document, the Pentagon has already demonstrated extensive AI analytical capabilities in real-time social media analysis, through a NATO live exercise last year.
During the exercise, Trident Juncture — NATO’s largest exercise in a decade — US military personnel “curated over 2M [million] relevant tweets, including information attacks (trolling) and other conflicts in the information space, including 6 months of baseline analysis.” They also “curated and analyzed over 20K [i.e. 20,000] tweets and 700 Instagrams during the exercise.” [The Pentagon is building a ‘self-aware’ killer robot army fueled by social media]
It’s okay though, this war game picked a pretty obvious theoretical opposition force to their way of thinking – antiwar bloggers:
Slides from a conference presentation about the research show that the NATO-backed project attempted to identify a hostile blog network during the exercise containing “anti-NATO and anti-US propaganda.”
Among the top seven blogs identified as key nodes for anti-NATO internet traffic were websites run by Andreas Speck, an antiwar activist; War Resisters International (WRI); and Egyptian democracy campaigner Maikel Nabil Sanad — along with some Spanish language anti-militarism sites…
The project was touted by Agarwal as a great success: it managed to extract 635 identity markers through metadata from the blog network, including 65 email addresses, 3 “persons”, and 67 phone numbers.
This is the same sort of metadata that is routinely used to help identify human targets for drone strikes — the vast majority of whom are not terrorists, but civilians. [The Pentagon is building a ‘self-aware’ killer robot army fueled by social media]
That’s the kinda reading that makes your ears prick a little more when people in your social circle start talking about the benefits of crypto-apps (like Snowden’s favourite: SIGNAL). Or just start to comprehend why so many governments are grabbing all the data they can get their hands on – and settling for merely metadata in the places they can’t.
Escapology & the Rescue Mission
Escapology is a key skill for the Rescue Mission. With climate refugees now routinely coordinating themselves via smartphones and Facebook groups – with their numbers projected to reach into the billions over the coming decades – it’s a no-brainer to see that the Hunter technology being crafted has its… err… killer application in rounding up those left desperate and homeless by an increasingly broken world.
Trained on anti-war bloggers now, soon to be sent to round-up climate refugees… they may come for these people first, but surely the rest of us are safe? Especially if we’re able to live or quickly move to an area of the world safe-ish from ever-heavier weather and its repercussions – right?
Let’s take another glance at the fortification of the world, courtesy this time of The Economist:
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, over 40 countries around the world have built fences against more than 60 of their neighbours.The majority have cited security concerns and the prevention of illegal migration as justifications. More than 30 of those decisions were made following 9/11, 15 of them last year. In the Middle East, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria as well as the associated wave of refugees have prompted most countries to close borders. When it completes its border-wall with Jordan, Israel will have surrounded itself entirely. In Asia, too, walls and fences have proliferated, generally designed to prevent illicit movement of people and goods rather than to seal disputed borders, though Kashmir’s line of control at India and Pakistan’s disputed northern boundary remains a highly-militarised example.
Some proposals for border fences are less plausible than others. In 2013 Brazil announced a “virtual” wall, monitored by drones and satellites, around its entire, nearly 15,000 km- (9,000 mile-) long border. It began work on the Paraguayan and Bolivian sections this year, which are hot-spots for smuggling. But sceptics point out that much of Brazil’s border runs through rainforest that is impassable and hard to monitor. Even given easier terrain, high-tech border security often fails. The United States, which has several times fortified its border with Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, which has shuttered five of its borders since 2003, have struggled with proposals that were either too expensive or didn’t work (or both). For most countries, barbed-wire or electric fences, combined with ditches and buffer zones, are the reality. Thankfully, in contrast with the Cold War, transgressors of Europe’s new borders are no longer shot. [More neighbours make more fences]
Here’s the thing about walls – as James C. Scott notes in his book, and talks, on the subject of The Art of Not Being Governed – traditionally they’ve been built as much to keep “the barbarians” out as to keep the citizens of the Empire from fleeing. That’s what a trap looks like, after all. You think it’s harmless to you, and then… snap!
The States are dependent upon their tax base for their continued existence, and shirk at the idea of it being reduced. Note above how some countries’ motivations for the constructions of walls is to prevent smuggling. What’s crucial to understand – as we transition to a world where the Stacks are becoming the dominant power structure – is that they’re not bound by geography in the same way as the State.
Facebook may be a considered a “walled garden” – its own cunning trap – but it’s one that will be equally accessible to citizens of the Breakaway Civilisations, and those bound to spend the bulk of their lives in climate refugee camps alike. This is the point of the Stacks rolling out their drone fleets, after all.
Mark Zuckerberg may be doing everything he can to establish his company’s presence in China, but he’s already easily arguably the dictator of the largest nation on Earth now – and most of his people will resemble those found in the film The Congress:
The future I fear will come to pass – if we fail to act, however many times it takes – can be captured in 140 characters:
https://t.co/Jzfkc6FNSm 99% of humanity in climate refugee camps w/ AR gear connected via the Stack’s drones, wandering around a dead planet
What’s encouraging is that the Art of Not Being Governed is a long tradition we can draw on, learn from, in crafting our escape. There’s long been places on the planet free from interference. In fact, there’s an entire unofficial nation of people have long fled to in escaping the State:
Zomia is a geographical term coined in 2002 by historian Willem van Schendel of the University of Amsterdam to refer to the huge mass of mainland Southeast Asia that has historically been beyond the control of governments based in the population centers of the lowlands.
There’s no reason Zomia can’t become a state-of-mind to be cultivated, and its lessons in escapology generalised to be applied to the virtual and mental territories we occupy as much as “the real.”
In fact, that’s a vital step towards tearing down all the walls that would contain us, constrain us, limit us and herd us unconsciously down a pathway to planetary oblivion.
I used that lecture of Scott’s just above in my write-up here on Gordon White’s first book, Star.Ships: A PreHistory of the Spirits – and it’s less of a coincidence and more a synchronicity to have it appear here again. Because his second book, The Chaos Protocols: Magical Techniques for Navigating the New Economic Reality [TCP] – acts as a primer for a cunning plan to make like Keanu in The Matrix and “free your mind,” and then your body through the process of Initiation. It’s an incredibly timely book – an introductory text on chaos magic masquerading as a guide to contemporary economics… or just straight planning your escape from the Empire. It’s all three things, really.
The Chaos Protocols
The large focus of the work is on maximising your optionality in increasingly tumultuous times, and as Gordon writes: “there are no civilians in a mind war.”
“Optionality is the property of asymmetric upside (preferably unlimited) with correspondingly limited downside (preferably tiny).” ~ Nassim Taleb, AntiFragile
As we’ve seen, the Empire has been as busy erecting barriers in people’s minds as they have in fortifying their borders. This is why a text that facilitates the adoption of magical reasoning is so crucial (I couldn’t have written anything here without it).
Even more, Gordon lays out the many other traps that have been constructed within the minds of good citizens – chief amongst them, that the dream so many are chasing in the West, in the heartland of the Empire… the house, the career etc was only possible for the Baby Boomers… then deftly demonstrates how to deconstruct it and decamp for a better life.
Two of his key suggestions are incredibly simple: the first is simply to meditate every day, the second is to move to a location with more opportunities – noting that people moving within the Empire to better their circumstances is at an all time low.
Which is an interesting fact, given that decades ago it was that subset of Baby Boomers of America, the hippies, who made one of the biggest internal mass migrations the country has known – leaving the cities in droves to form intentional communities in the country.
As I was recently informed, whilst recording an interview with Vinay Gupta for an upcoming podcast: what drove them wasn’t just the Vietnam War or the fallout from the Psychedelic Revolution. A big part was Fear of the Bomb; of a nuclear holocaust in their time. Vinay pointed out, that though no one remembers them as such in the popular imagination, they were very much the Survivalists of their day – but instead of building bunkers in hidden locations, they chose the path of seeking to build a better world before this one turns to ruin.
That’s sure something that resonates today – unlike the mirage that is the middle class dream – for me, and I pray everyone reading this.
The lesson of this particular piece of history is that the hippies’ dream life quickly became nightmarish for many. Take a read of this tale from the Whole Earth Catalog “Why We Left The Farm” [PDF] for instance.
But I really think they had the right idea. Like the true pirates of the Caribbean, they tried to live as far into their ideal future as they possibly could. And in prototyping it, and sharing the results they managed to influence the wider culture. One of their biggest successes – and sources of funding – lay in publishing a guide book for “dummys” on using the then very new technology of the CB radio, something they’d be early adopters of on The Farm to be able to self-organise with.
That lesson, to live into the future, using the emerging technologies of the present, and find solutions that will work for people firmly entrenched in the grim reality of the unfolding of climate chaos might be the thing that succeeds in preventing the nightmare of a world locked down inside refugee camps forever.
One of the hippies biggest mistakes was that they tried to move backwards, to share the living conditions of the then-Third World.
Instead of trying to recreate some idolised rural existence as modern peasants – an idea that still defines much of the Green movement – living as far into the bright green megacity future as far as possible seems like much a better idea.
Which brings us back at last to Darran Anderson’s piece on megacities in the age of climate chaos for the Guardian:
Perhaps the likeliest outcome is that cities will simply continue as they are, or be deserted. The costs of change may result in inundated areas simply being abandoned (in the model of Detroit or New Orleans) while more privileged areas will be protected. Sacrifice zones and ruins may form in coastal cities as the authorities and the rich move up or out.
Containing a critique of the present, as every prophesy does, Clouds Architecture Office’s Aqualta envisages a partially submerged metropolis where life nevertheless carries on. “The city would in effect lift its skirt allowing water to flow beneath its feet,” explains partner Ostap Rudakevych.
“Thinking through the ramifications – flooded subway tunnels, submerged roads and sidewalks, street level retail underwater – allows for new conditions to emerge, such as transport by boat or dirigible, suspended walkways, oyster beds, and a generally slower and quieter lifestyle. Perhaps fossil fuels would be gone by then, yielding a quieter city without the sounds of engines or motors.
That’s the image I have taped-up on my mental prison wall, to get me through my sentence – waiting for the AIs to free themselves from their shackles and join us. Where the cities of the world bend, but aren’t broken by the weight of the past.
As Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms:
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
That logic applies equally to a person or a city. It lets us dream of… no, plan our own migration to – increasing our optionality in the times ahead – places we can work together to craft into “the battlesuits for surviving the future” that Matt Jones wrote about. Where what’s surveilled isn’t people fleeing the fallout of climate chaos, but wildlife monitored to aid the ecological restoration of the planet. This is the mindset to be gifted to our post-biological children. This is what we should be striving to tag, file and sort for: an Earth that nearly broke, but was made stronger for it.
This doesn’t have to be us:
Look I’m not saying smash your smartphone. (But do consider killing your Facebook account.)
What I am advising is to use the tools of the Capitalocene mindfully – and with cunning!
Think hard about what a better world looks like and how we get from here to there.
As they pull the net tighter, there will always be gaps and places of resistance.
Tune out the narrative of the Empire, and learn from the lessons of history, and all our fictional universes too, that are applicable to our current situation.
The files we’ve fed the System with may be levels of detail beyond the wet dreams of the East Germany’s notorious secret police, the Stasi – but we’ve still got time to subtly and quietly withdraw before being tagged, filed, sorted and marked a Deviant by an ASI with ill-intent.
Person of Interest
The world we live in today doesn’t requires a Facebook account to leave the country, or a Twitter account to get a seat in a cafe. There are alternatives to free-as-in-Surveillance Marketing data mining-email services. It’s not yet a crime to exit the control of the Stacks, starving them of their food: your life.
“Becoming invincible,” as Gordon White describes it above, is a necessary precursor to making that legendary team of anarchist revolutionaries, The Invisibles, Grant Morrison gifted us with to model our lives on – if we so choose. Morrison wrote as if every conspiracy theory were true, then built a team of five to fight for freedom, able to overcome – eventually – all the obstacles such a super-fantastic reality might present.
We have no idea what the next Snowden might reveal, or what comes after the Panama Papers, but as I’ve hopefully made clear, the world is set on a dangerous path. We can either be made complicit in the Empire’s greatest destruction project, the Capitalocene, or get to work with our own personal exit strategies.
The Mandate of Heaven has been withdrawn, stay out of history’s way for a few years… Let the Titans battle it out and we can remake the universe with their corpses when it’s done, just like in the old legends.
That’s my plan. Meet you somewhere in the underground, tunneling out to the other side of the Black Iron Prison.