PRISM, Secrets, Internal Liars and the New Aesthetic

The other week I made what I could contingently call a 'reckless' purchase.  I bought a patch from the 432nd Wing Hunters from ebay. The one with drones one and the four horseman of the apocalypse. At the time I thought that if I didn't get it, then I'd miss the chance at an artifact that exists at a point of the normalisation of drones.

James Bridle has published a defense of the New Aesthetic. Roughly two years one from its inception (and remember where we were two years ago) it's interesting to see an idea so founded on the roaring breaker of technology defend itself still. There are many much more indefensible things out there. Bridle has always framed his vision that he wishes to observe pattern, to spot the points where the network amplifies itself into the physical and becomes briefly visible in short-lived artifacts and images. To him, his drones are the loudest amplification and it's easy to see why. 

The New Aesthetic is not superficial, it is not concerned with beauty or surface texture. It is deeply engaged with the politics and politicisation of networked technology, and seeks to explore, catalogue, categorise, connect and interrogate these things. Where many seem to read only incoherence and illegibility, the New Aesthetic articulates the deep coherence and multiplicity of connections and influences of the network itself.

Suddenly, the human error of mistaking pattern for reason comes to mind. But I suspect Bridle isn't looking for reason, I'm not sure there is a single reason for the patterns he observes and I wonder how he might elevator pitch the project in those terms. Perhaps the New Aesthetic becomes about disassociating pattern from reason. Slightly earlier he refers to popular protest's obsession with the face and individual of the cause, the Mannings, Assanges and more recently, Snowdens. In this itself is a critique of the 'crowd' looking for the reason in the pattern while ignoring the idea that the very content of the disclosed secrets is the reason.

It's in the secrets that the New Aesthetic becomes interesting for me. My fascination has always been with power, where power lies and how it shifts and moves. Secrets are a tool of power and one of the oldest but they're bi-lateral.

I was struck by multiple thoughts watching the NSA's revelations unfold. First was total lack of surprise. After all the NSA is for secrets, why should we be so appalled that they kept them from us? With decades of fictions of sinister plotting and international espionage should we be surprised? Every film from Batman to the Bourne Identity has some giga-network in play. So, perhaps there is a sense here that we knew what the NSA were doing and the content is not exactly what inspires ire but the fact that it was released. The fact that it became explicit. We were happy for it to be implicit, shady and grey because it implies that we have a certain power over them. With secretive operations, all parties are aware that there is a reason for their secrecy - their moral, legal or political 'wrongness.' Once they're released, they become real and no longer wrong, defenses and marketing campaigns can be mounted to turn that wrong into a necessity - into a 'right' or blame can be offset, to terrorists, fear and necessity. The Cold War of Complicity between state and citizen erupts into a hot war that we cannot possibly win. We have more power in the Cold War, there's an imposed limit on the amplification of secret activity where it cannot become 'real' in the eyes and ears of the crowd. A secret is safe to everyone as long as it remains a secret.

To analogise what I mean, think back to the early Iraq war. Before the invasion was mounted it was easy for Hussein - whom we can equivocate to our ego - to boast that he could crush any invasion, that he was armed to the teeth, that his followers were loyal. To his people - which we could equivocate with our own internal baying mob - he could win, he was better. Once the invasion began - the secrets are released - the illusion falls away, Hussein is exposed as a weak deception and the people are forced into reactionism and fear.

This is, I think, the root of the outrage at the PRISM revelations. Not the fact that we were being spied on (which we knew already) but the fact that our own lie - that we have power over the state has been exposed. 

The second thing to happen, and go relatively unnoticed, was very surprising. The NSA admitted to the program within days and Obama went on the defensive. In the UK, Hague tried to distance the government from it and defend the freedom of UK citizens. GCHQ came under attack and again started trying to re-frame the program much as would be expected. But the tech companies, who were really at the heart of the secret, simply flatly denied it's existence.

Despite world government recognising the program and scrambling PR machines to make it palpable and definitively win the war of power over the secret, world tech and business stood, po-faced and smug and assured us that no such thing exists. There was initially a confusion of trust. Where the government should be the one in denial and these role-model stacks championing our own cause against the authoritarian tyranny of government, they broke the expected pattern of behaviour. With the stacks accusing and the government denying we would have a clear vision of the truth. The resources and connections of the stacks mean that whatever they say can become a truth to the crowd, and equally we know to distrust government spin at this stage and so the argument began to feel a little like the governments trying to tease the stacks into admission only to receive a flat 'no' in response.

I've said a few times that there's a reformation going on with the balance of power, one not of faith, state and money but of technology, state and power. This marks a decisive turning point at which the stacks can leapfrog the international community's line and draw their own, higher narrative. Not only that, but it shows the nature of that higher power. Government has learned over the last hundred years that it no longer has the power to effectively deny. Even the most denied secrets (think JFK) are constantly berated up the decades to look for cracks. Government does not hold the monopoly on weapons in the 'information war.' But the stacks do. And perhaps this is where we can draw back to Bridle's aim. The pattern, the mechanisms, the machine, the network is so well embedded and so well hidden and so unreadable and so inscrutable that Google simply can stand there and go 'No. This is not True.' And they write that truth as they go. They control the very framework within which the secrets and the lies are hung and I think with PRISM we've seen that partly exposed, not for the first time, but certainly in what of the most unsettling shows of power.