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11 February 2006

Emerging media

It is not often such a “perfect storm” of events comes to pass: during the cartoon jihad, we are seeing are radical shift in the importance of new media’s role in helping to understand the dynamics of the crisis, particularly as the events have spread so rapidly to involve so many countries and institutions in difficult and damning choices. The level of intimidation caused by a few carefully stage managed events, synchronized not in time or space but through cascading effects in the information environment, is frankly from an amoral, strictly technical standpoint something to behold indeed. However, from all other rational points of view it is grave and troubling harbinger of things to come.

More interestingly, this crisis has forced a number of once-venerated media and political institutions into verbal and ethical contortions in order to justify actions suppressing what is entirely a question of free speech, for good or ill. Among the fascinating arguments that have developed is one that makes explicit what many analysts and commentators have long realized: that some major media organizations have assigned to themselves the role of gatekeepers in the information environment, and no longer being concerned with the reporting of information are actually the arbiters of truth.

The argument is one that is very familiar to those in the intelligence community, however shocking it is to now observe in journalists and news organizations which once trumpeted their objective approach to “just the facts”, let alone within supra-national entities such as the EU. The community has for so long grappled with this issue largely because it is a fundamental dilemma of those that possess unique sources must resolve, and it is not always an easy question. The role of editing and coordination is in the authors experience often akin to Dante’s vision of the damned, and in one agency in particular was generally referred to as the “Seven Layers of Hell” even in the presence of senior managers. One of the reasons, beyond politics and turf and rice bowls, that editing is such a painful process is this burden of gatekeeping, demanded of the community due to its role as close partner to the policy-maker and guardian of his (or her) scarcest of commodities – attention.

Again, nowhere is this better illustrated than in Proteus: Insights from 2020 (Copernicus Institute Press). We quote once more:

In whatever way these ancient peoples saw themselves and the world around them, most anthropologists agree they were as "modern" physiologically and intellectually as we are today. However they conveyed the knowledge they acquired, and the manner in which knowledge arose for them, was the same as it is for us. For untold millennia, epistemology has held that knowledge arises from three sources:

  • From authority (the leader says it is true)
  • From empiricism (the mammoth is bigger than I am)
  • From revelation (God says it is true)
Proteus showed us a number of frightening prospects, but none more shocking or perplexing than the possibility that, for the first time in human experience, a fourth kind of knowledge may be arising. In our work, we found that the use of complex, interconnected global networks can lead to the spontaneous creation of knowledge. This discovery is significant for two reasons:

  • First, the speed with which new knowledge was created and disseminated in our worlds was nothing short of remarkable.
  • Second, the new knowledge was silent on intrinsic truth or falsehood.
In other words, we were startled to discover that what was demonstrably true could become demonstrably false if enough people believed in it, and if the knowledge moved across the globe fast enough. Thus, knowledge in our worlds took on a set of changeable "states" that were mutable in a wired world.

We struggled as a group to understand Veracity, recognizing as we did the implications to the Intelligence Community. In the end, we could grasp it only by example and metaphor. Some of us came to understand Veracity in terms of knowledge and anti-knowledge - a parallel with the ideas in physics of matter and antimatter. For others, the best examples were from economics: the idea that if favorable (or unfavorable) information on a company circulated far and fast enough, it might become true even if the information was completely fabricated. There is, however, a subtlety to this example that belies its initial clarity. Unlike propaganda or deception, with which we have much experience, here the illusion actually becomes reality.

The study goes onto describe findings that emerged from the participants attempts to grapple with this question.

During the "insiders" workshop, significant debate arose not only about the Community's core mission, but also - on an almost metaphysical plane - whether the world, in fact, was knowable. For not a few - and to the surprise of the rest - the world was indeed knowable, if not quantifiable, and the mission of the Intelligence Community was to be the "arbiter of truth," a phrase that stunned the opposing, more philosophical camp. In one instance, a very senior former intelligence officer left one of the workshops after making the point that U.S. intelligence inevitably would "know” what had gone on in the ensuing years from the present to the scenarios of 2020. So, any vagary was, in his view, unlikely. "We would know it," he said.

He was not alone, and this is not surprising. In fact, it is chipped in stone in the marble foyer of the CIA's Original Headquarters Building: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:32

The idea of Veracity, its nature, and its achievement in the pursuit of intelligence collection is a core issue. Not only did we find the frightening prospect of new kinds of knowledge divorced from either truth or falsehood, but also we uncovered a fundamental fissure in the bedrock of the Intelligence Community's view of itself.

The painful level of self-realization that comes with admitting that one has for so long played the role of arbiter under other auspices, perhaps to our detriment, is one that still haunts a number of professionals. That soul searching is part of the burden which was imposed after 9/11, when the magnitude of failures both personal and collective came to rest on the shoulders of those thrust into the Long War. To this day, the media has all but ignored its own role in shaping the public information commons, and perception of the threat, that also played a key role in leading up to that day, and continues to impact the conduct of the war. The increasing number of media professionals admitting and even embracing their gate-keeping roles can only lead to such questions and must inevitably produce pressure for accountability.

Equally interesting from your author’s perspective is the manner in which this commentary was “authoritatively” briefed – through a new “Current” program segment available through Google’s video service. While not new, Google Current bears closer examination.

Leaving aside all questions of authorship, intent, and the politics of personal identity behind the attack on Michelle Malkin which mar this particular segment; the entire concept is stunning. We are watching a current information product, briefed through distributed online video, driven by the zeitgeist of aggregated individual attention. The deeper meaning of its content is nearly secondary to its form. This is the kind of innovation which will erode not only the mindshare currently owned by the 24/7 news organizations but will utterly destroy staple segments of the intelligence community’s product base, especially as the techniques for sampling the zeitgeist become more widespread and refined and the delivery systems customized and automated – perhaps through a virtual avatar, perhaps through something we have not yet envisioned. In short, this will turn from information into intelligence in short order. Couple this with a mobile delivery system that integrates well with the customer’s lifestyle with the same ease as a podcast or a Blackberry, and it may well be the daily brief for the new millennium.

This is not something that the traditional community is even positioned to create or even to influence. The only way to build such a capability belongs entirely to search engines, not classic SIGINT organizations, and it is likely that a specialized search shop like a Cyveillance or a Technorati or a Blogpulse could better exploit and analyze such data in any event.

And it will be up to an entirely different kind of professional at the policy and operational levels to utilize such a capability in support of efforts to wield soft power in the national interest.