The Revenge of Cybernetics?

If the “medium is the message” then the message in the age of the Internet is that everything we now do and say and think is interconnected; cybernetics has come of age, meaning that the interconnections include feedback loops that generate further interconnected messaging processes. Moving from the linear worlds of mass communications dominated by news print, radio and TV to the user-generated world of smartphones, tablets, apps and cyberspace opens the path to… algorithms! This is, at last, the brave new world of data analytics where algorithmic bots can spider these webs of interconnectedness to detect, correlate, analyse, classify and pigeon-hole almost every living person.

Public reactions range from “Oh Hell!” to the “So What?” The oh hellers seems to divide between the ‘this is the beginning of the end’ and the ‘here we go again!’ schools of thought, while the so whaters hold to the ‘been there, seen that’ point of view. But, if as Hamlet says to Horatio, “there is nothing new under the sun” then what’s all the fuss really about?

If there is a common view it is that the revelations by Edward Snowden of US government spying has given a new twist to the expression ‘infotainment’. Edward Snowden, to whom the US Government apparently outsourced their cyber-spying, has been a God-send and diversion to the news media who have some of their own peccadillos to contend with in this regard.

Rather more intriguing, however, than the “shocked, absolutely shocked” reaction of Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca when his discovers that illegal gambling has been going on in Rick’s café (and just before collecting his winnings: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjbPi00k_ME), are the implications of how intelligence gathering will take place in the future. In the linear world of telephone calls and snail mail, a top-down orchestration of phone tapping and postal mail opening was the well-established practice. It went without saying that each time a new submarine fibre cable was laid it would, with astonishing frequency, get snagged by a ship’s anchor requiring a “repair” to take place. As a student working my vacations in the local Post Office mail room I was never allowed to see the machine that opened letters and resealed them, making them miss one postal delivery at most. And at least one European airline regularly bugged its business class cabins to pick up conversations between business and political leaders. In the linear world these standard practices required only a simple command and control approach.

Today it looks like the turn of the nerd. Data analytics is never going to be just about the use of algorithms, it will also require the non-linear imagination and energy of youthful IT specialists. And much of the raw material for the data collection will come from a myriad of user-generated social media connections. This calls for a shift towards a more bottom-up approach to intelligence gathering. Governments are not good at bottom-up approaches. So outsourcing is one way over that hurdle. And of course the outsourced are almost always the weakest link in any chain of activity. Thriving on interconnectedness, the network of activity becomes vulnerable to its own capabilities. In this light Edward Snowden may well come to be seen as the agent of change when the social network bites back. Let’s call it the “Revenge of Cybernetics”.

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