Boston, Snowden, and the Death of the Net

I saw the explosion on Twitter, bored in my cube on a weekday afternoon.

There were runners in the foreground, city brownstones, and a white cloud of smoke, like vented exhaust.  People stood around the office, cluttered in groups, speaking in soft whispers.  This wasn’t an industrial accident, this was terrorism.

And that strange, soul-sucking feeling came back.  One I hadn’t felt for years, since sophomore year in college, in 2001.

I used to be optimistic about the internet.  I got my first taste via the ubiquitous AOL CDs that eventually became Frisbee fodder in the late 90s.  Chat rooms, rudimentary websites, the familiar jingle of a dialup modem.  Emails banged out late in the night to old friends and new girlfriends.

But it wasn’t until college that I realized the full unfiltered truth of the net.  I learned all the technologies under the hood: IP, TCP, SSH.  Packet sniffing and header spoofing.  Implementing protocols from the lingo-crammed RFC itself.

It was the Wild West in those days.  Confine thirty teens to a drab cinder block fortress and give them an unfiltered firehose of internet broadband and watch what they do: replicate the Blockbuster library on burned DivX CDs, fire up lots of LAN Counterstrike games, and assemble legendary collections of hardcore pornography.

I knew there was infrastructure beneath all this.  Expensive switches and wires laid down by Fortune 500 corporations and government-funded institutions.  But it was almost as if the net I knew – piracy, video games, porn, instant messaging, file sharing – was a ghostly apparition riding on the coattails of institutional cables.  The net they had made was for research, sending large science-y files around, running experiments.  This thing we kids were doing – it wasn’t really known. It was hidden in plain sight.

Aside from the software, there were two things required for a strong and reliable internet: a diverse and distributed server base that was free from the control of a single entity; and a population of users that was rational, intelligent and sane.  At the time, these were undeniable truths, pillars of stone.

So there was an optimism behind the net.  We could fly under the radar, do what we wanted.

Nothing was taboo.  We would prank-scar each other with shots of gore or fetish.  We were not just above the law, we were living in another sort of realm, outside the transactional confines of commerce.  There was no human authority to the net.  There was only hardware and software, and those could be subverted and hacked.  On the outside we were greasy faced kids who were lonely and dorky, gripping mouse buttons with sweaty paws.

But on the inside, gods in a verdant Eden rendered in gleaming pixels.

9/11 came to us through television.  Iconic images of geometric towers, all perfect steel angles, the planes coming in, the blooming orange explosion, the rumbling collapse, the plumes of dust.  It was almost cinematic, like a Spielberg blockbuster, all the best camera angles to observe the destruction.  It was horrifying, but we were outsiders, observers, safely behind the glass.  We could do nothing but watch.

But the Boston bombings were like the handheld chaos of the Paul Greengrass, the Bourne films.  The notches of the plot were doled out over days, in multiple formats: television, internet news, social media.  CNN and Fox couldn’t be trusted.  So we turned to the internet, crowdsourced knowledge, all the posts and tweets creating just a feel for the truth, like pointillist journalism.

That feeling as a hopeless, safe observer vanished.  We could take action, even if that simply meant refreshing a newsfeed.  I read Facebook posts from friends in Boston, blocks from the bombs.  I pored over raw Flickr photosets, uploaded before the smoke had cleared, the concrete still stained with blood and shredded Asics.  You could zoom in on the gore and feel a horror that wasn’t there during 9/11.  The twin towers had gone down like an act of God, a biblical grandeur in the destruction.

Here there was just debris stained red, and fear.  Unedited gore and pain.  All the tropes of Middle Eastern violence transposed to urban yuppie Boston, all these white people blown up.

So we tried to pinpoint the culprit, the guys who had been carrying the backpacks.  We zoomed in on a creepy old man with a blue fleece and a backpack.  Brown skinned guys with running bags.

Once the knowledge of the backpacks and pressure cookers came out, the evidence was resorted, using homemade Photoshop wizardry to zoom in on pictures, overlay size comparisons of metal canisters, and compare backpack logos.

Kids on their computers, conditioned by the tropes of CSI to intuitively believe truth was just a matter of deduction, tracked down some poor Southeast Asian kid, a depressed runaway.  Within hours, the blame was placed on him, and the lynch mob had begun.

I was complicit.  I lurked in those threads, peering through high resolution pictures.  I stared into the faces of strangers and either empathized with their terror, or condemned them for the crime.

In the end we were all wrong.  The two bombers weren’t in any of those photos, and were found by the FBI, and their methods, via CCTV.

If anything, I’d exposed myself to the fear, gore and terror for no reason.  If anything, we’d made the terror attack far more powerful and effective than two kids and their improvised bombs ever dared.  We’d spread the fear digitally, virally.  We’d made it worse.

I was on a camping trip with some college friends when I heard about Ed Snowden.

His story was more John Le Carre than James Bond, fought with passports and documents rather than Glocks and pressure-cooker bombs.

The details were dramatic enough: a young guy making bank in Hawaii throws it all away to release some top secret PowerPoint slides to a journalist.

At first it seemed like I cared more than anyone I knew.  I’d delve into the Reddit threads and blogs with speculation on his plans, the far reaches of government tendrils, constitutional law, Snowden’s possible fate – rendered by the CIA, then force-fed in a windowless room for a lifetime.

He became a Rorschach test to gauge other’s political leaning.  Mutter Ed Snowden to a guy at a party who works for a government contractor, he scoffs.  To a Navy vet uncle, a sad shake of the head – the lack of honor of the current generation.  To a libertarian with nearly anarchist leanings – a gleam in the eye, almost envy.

And what are those programs?  Cthulu-like tendrils wrapped into and around every form of modern communication.  The automatic metadata collection of every telephone call in the United States.  Data drops and automated syncing of all traffic through most of the big internet companies: Microsoft, Google, Facebook.  Who knows what else?

And Snowden was right. It’s all a crystal clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.  This is not the stunning thing.  The government has tried its hardest since its inception to subvert or ignore the Bill of Rights.

The surprising thing is that out of the millions of Americans employed and dedicated to building and maintaining these systems, only a single guy, a college dropout, a tech analyst, had the guts to bring the details to the light of day.

Google, with its motto of Do No Evil (now rendered a poor joke) colluded with NSA cronies to provide data.  Zuckerburg and Balmer too.

The idealism that underlined those enterprises (the dorm room startup, the grad-school experiment turned billion dollar business), all those exhilarating hours hacking away, riding the packets down those fiber optic cables to carve out something new in the world – for what?  To end up a crony of Big Brother, a cog in the 1984 wheel, an Eye of Sauron.

And so on one end we have Reddit and 4Chan, and all the internet sleuths, still with the unstoppable idealism of net cowboys.

And the other, the data vacuum that is the Federal Government, its tendril arms of the NSA, CIA, FBI and hundreds of swarming consulting firms extending off the filthy fingertips.

What did the Reddit cowboys accomplish, except false accusations, misinformation, digital lynching?

And what good were the government programs? They couldn’t prevent the terror attack, but could simply mobilize afterwards, shut down a global city, amplify the fear and terror, parade out the full force of The State.

The twin pillars I’d thought so unassailable (diverse, reliable servers; rational users) were crumbling.

There was a time when the net was young, and I used it as a pure IV line into the blood.  There was a purity to the technology, even if the rendered content was often crude or illegal.  The pipes that fed the dream felt vast, open, and cavernous, with untold nooks and crannies for potential.

But now they are choked full – streaming video content, buffered with advertisements.  Uncounted billions of snapshots of drunken revelry, over-saturated Instagrams of sunsets, or cats, or porn, or vector data transmitting bullet trajectories for a first person shooter, or VPN connections to a remote server, somewhere, probably running software to stream video of cats.  The once clean metal is corroded and filthy – all those simple protocols now bloated with wrapper data, callbacks, malware, DRM.  And beneath it all, a shadowy leviathan, consuming it all to digest at leisure.

Maybe the idealism was the lie.

The internet was always an extension of both government and corporate interests.  Someone was always footing the bill for the boxes crunching numbers, the miles of wire shuttling electrons cross country.

In the most cynical corners of conspiracy, there’s this idea that a select few individual run everything.  That there’s a big conference screen they all dial into and make decisions that will shape the course of history.

I always scoffed at the notion.  If anything, the government was far too bumbling to accomplish anything so complex and coordinated.  Have you been to the DMV?

But there’s another idea that no one person is in control, but the vast apparatus of the state becomes a mindless sinister entity.  As a whole, it’s unthinking, but it’s all-seeing and all-knowing. It has the collective drives and thoughts of millions of smart people working for it every day.

The internet was one of those ideas.  So was PRISM.

But then again, so was America.  What is America but a headless amalgam of driven individuals, spreading out virulently to conquer a countryside and fill it with brimming idealism?  We’ve had our dark chapters, our villains, but also our bright spots.

Maybe there’s hope yet.

Around July 4th I was in Washington DC.

I walked around the mall with my family, taking in the sights and monuments.  The grass needed to be mown, and there was scaffolding up the Washington Monument.  The WWII memorial smelled like a community pool.  The reflecting pool was brown with runoff and goose shit.  The sky was overexposed with humid rain clouds.  A few weeks later someone would spray paint the marble of the Lincoln memorial.

But even covered with the dirty veneer of our current age, the shape of the monuments still stood.  You could see the calm wisdom in Lincoln’s serene, sad gaze.

Beneath the grime, the words were still carved in stone.

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