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Social Media and Social Control: how Silicon Valley serves the US State Department

Facebook isn’t the only Silicon Valley firm with partisan oversight of what we see: the bipartisan billionaire class and their security state have partnered with tech firms since the dawn of the internet to control the parameters of users’ thinking.

by Morgan Artyukhina 

Part 13 - ARPANET: counterinsurgency computing

In the wake of the Soviet Union launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, the U.S. government rushed to close the technological gap by sponsoring a greater educational focus on the STEM fields on the one hand, but also the development of a secretive emerging technologies R&D bureau to imagine, create, and test the high-tech weapons of the future for the Pentagon to use – what journalist Sharon Weinberger in her history of (D)ARPA called “the imagineers of war.

ARPA was created the following year and quickly enlisted in defense of anti-communist U.S. puppet Ngô Đình Diệm, whose government in South Vietnam was quickly failing amid a burgeoning communist insurgency led by the National Liberation Front. ARPA’s first big operation, Project AGILE, began in 1961 with the goal of enlisting computers, then clunky machines used primarily for census-counting and artillery trajectory calculations, into helping sort through huge amounts of personal data on citizens in order to better determine when, where, and by whom a rebellion is likely to occur. AGILE’s mission statement, as noted in a 1971 General Accounting Office report, described the program’s goals in part as “Research and development supporting the DOD’s operations in remote areas, associated with the problems of actual or potential limited or subversive wars involving allied or friendly nations in such areas.”  

Project AGILE created one of the world’s first predictive behavior models, tested on Thai hill tribes and perfected in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where the Pentagon used AGILE’s methods in a deadly new pacification offensive.

By the late 1960s, the disastrous U.S. war in Vietnam and the upheavals of the struggles by Black people for civil rights had helped catapult the U.S. into an unprecedented social crisis. ARPA, too, had expanded dramatically, and just like anti-war and other social justice organizers were looking to the NLF for ideas, so too was ARPA, tasked with crushing the insurgency in South Vietnam and increasingly being enlisted to crush potential insurgency back home in the U.S. as well. The network of computers at various college campuses where ARPA research programs supporting AGILE and other like programs was first connected in 1969. Dubbed the ARPANET, the network soon matched up with law enforcement to create shared dossiers on activists from the Black Panthers to the Redstockings.

But if the first internet was such a naked, if not secretive, weapon of class warfare, how come it’s not seen that way today? Only in the 1980s did the internet acquire its present-day image of a facilitator of freedom amid governments’ attempts at control, as a furious rebranding effort sought to convince Americans that computer networks weren’t the harbingers of a technocratic dystopia, but rather a cybernetic utopia – a dynamic that journalist Yasha Levine recounted in his 2018 book “Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet.” Hierarchies would be a thing of the past, once the average person could plug into the total knowledge of humanity at will. This kind of sentiment appealed especially to hardcore libertarians, especially young techies like Steve Jobs, whose powerful Macintosh personal computers promised just such a link, complete with innovative new features like a graphic-user interface and mouse.

ARPANET and other similarly-named networks may have been spun off in privatization schemes during the 1990s dot-com boom, but despite the public image makeover, the relationship between internet-based tech firms and the Pentagon was scarcely different from the early days of ARPA.

For example, Facebook’s Building 8 research lab, which lasted from 2016 through 2018, was started up and headed for nearly all of that time by Regina Dugan, a former director of DARPA. One of the most significant products of Building 8’s work on AI and VR was the Oculus virtual reality headset, which DARPA’s Plan X program manager Frank Pound once told Wired was “like you’re swimming in the internet.” Oculus went to DARPA, which in 2017 turned the VR headset developed by Facebook over to U.S. Cyber Command.

The cyber network became a social network, too. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at Stanford University’s computer science Ph.D. program in the 1990s – one of the anchors for ARPANET, where they studied under some of its progenitors. The search engine they produced was a catalog for searching through sites on the emerging public internet, but its utility in tracking the connections made by the Google engine between people and the items they searched and predicting what someone might search in the future harkened back to ARPA’s original purpose.

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