Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Twitters and Echelon and Iran and Planetary Management, Oh My!

Yes, I've avoided commenting on the Iranian elections for a week now, even after the State Department credited the always-annoying Twitter with enabling street protests. And I've ducked a lot of comments on the National Security Agency's growing problems with Congress until the NSA made the front page in The New York Times today. Then, with members of Congress expressing faux-shock at NSA, even as Jeff Pulver's 140 Character conference told us this week that Twitter will make us smart and strong and free forever, I simply melted down. AUUUGGGGHHH! Here, some related observations on all topics.

First, Iran: Obama is right that Moussavi's record as PM during the Iran-Iraq War doesn't raise a lot of hope that he'd be that much of an improvement over the lewd and rude Ahmadinejad. But the shout-mouth tendencies of the latter is precisely why he probably won the election fair and square, albeit not with the percentages claimed. One dependable tendency that applies globally is that people like dumb loud-mouthed populists more than they like democratic reformers. When the populist claims that the world is picking on Nation X, the people of Nation X will roar their approval. Funny how Kim Jong Il isn't trying this in North Korea, though his people are too cowed and starving to respond to the "us against the world" rhetoric.

I love seeing young Iranian demonstrators sacrifice all for the sake of a pseudo-reform. And it is indeed great to see them use tools like Twitter to bypass state censorship. But they can often forget that rural, unconnected and highly traditionalist people in Iran (and in Thailand and in Venezuela and even in the good ol' US of A) are often the ones that determine elections, and they like to hear strong messages from their jingoist daddy. And unfortunately, they often cheer when some group like the Basij starts cracking the heads of the demonstrators. The plain fact of the matter is that Iran will never have democracy until the Council of Guardians, the Basij, and the Revolutionary Guards are destroyed, and the clerics are hanging from lampposts. I don't see that happening very soon.

Now, to the role of Twitter with democratic forces in Iran and Gaza, and with repressionist forces within the Israeli Defense Forces and the US Defense Department: Yes, Twitter can be a tool of liberation. But, as always, the Twitter network is now dominated by messages from corporate PR headquarters, Wall Street monetizers, and the power brokers who control the large armies of the world. Just as the al-Qaeda terrorists realized quickly that they had to stop using satellite phones, those who say they are in opposition to the planetary powers will quickly learn that they cannot tweet without providing information to those that would keep them down. Meanwhile, Jeff Pulver tells attendees at the 140 Characters conference that Twitter is a tool for transforming our lives. Puh-leeze. Twitter is a temporarily-interesting social network that will be replaced by another social network soon. And its underlying technology, like that of SMS or simple e-mail, can be monitored by the good old National Security Agency.

Which brings us to the front-page NYT article on NSA. Its one relevant point is saying that few in Congress are intelligent enough to understand NSA's underlying technology. Hell, few in Congress are intelligent enough to write a freaking bill on any topic. The NSA relies on a worldwide monitoring network called Echelon, that is managed by the five members of the UKUSA Treaty, who truly are a "white boys' club": US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand. No NATO, no anyone else. Echelon operates largely from space on a 24/7 basis, and its default state is "on." Satellites do not recognize national boundaries. The NSA is always intercepting analog voice traffic and digital TCP/IP traffic (including email, Twitter, packet voice, etc.) on a global basis, and has to figure out ways to filter out the US citizen traffic. And it claims to "mistakenly" collect this traffic? Really? Seriously? Please don't insult our intelligence.

If there is any advantage to decentralized, short-message systems like Twitter, it's that widespread use will flood the NSA's capabilities, making it harder to implement planetary management. Unfortunately, the NSA will use that as an excuse to build gargantuan new storage facilities like "Storage Station Freedom" near Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. And Congress will be dumb enough to give NSA the funding. And US agencies will cheer the brave decentralized use of Twitter even as NSA scrambles to intercept the messages. And pundits will cheer the use of Twitter even as it is twisted around for nefarious purposes, while encouraging more ADHD-style thinking in the populace. And we will watch faux battles for democracy played out between populists and faux reformists. And little will change. And since Echelon has been around for nearly 60 years now, we can truly say we've seen this movie before. And we will see it again and again and again. And sorry, Jeff, we will not be transformed by Twitter or anything else, though we will certainly be monitored.


Ruth said...


From the little I know, you hit it on the head about the Iran election.

Excellent observations about Twitter from our star wars expert. You are so right that this will be so 5 minutes ago one day soon.

wretch said...

Some people just don't get it.

Twitter changes everything.

Twitter is the killer app.

With Twitter, the fundamentals of economics no longer apply.

Twitter just wants to be free.

Twitter is the wind beneath my wings.

Death, taxes, and Twitter.

I'll give Pulver one thing: he has a thorough grasp of the fact that there is money to be made by carefully timing jumps onto bandwagons.

the other Brian

John Donovan said...

OK Loring, now tell us what you REALLY think!

I agree that Twitter can be a black hole that leads to ADHD. But in this case it's serving the same purpose the fax networks served in the aftermath to Tiananmen Square--keeping the locals connected and charged up and the rest of the world informed. Twitter can be a great organizing tool, like text messaging used to call out flash crowds.

Personally I agree that there's a giant boot heel about to come down but you never know. As someone said, revolutions always seem inevitable in retrospect but impossible in prospect.

Loring Wirbel said...

Well, that's the point John. The advantageous issue is the communications medium, not its trappings, and those can't be monetized. Twitter is a glorified SMS, and people will always use its equivalent in some form, but the useful aspects of such networks cannot be monetized, and Pulver knows that even as he's raking in the bucks.

As for real bootheels, I doubt it, those are for tea-party attendees and Glenn beck to worry about.

John Donovan said...

Re. Twitter and Pulver, I completely agree. But even without a viable business plan it will probably continue on in some form because it's so popular (v. Wikipedia).

The Internet was a huge money sink in the mid-80s when I first got on, but companies subsidized it heavily because it was so useful. In Twitter's case make that "irrational exuberance" VCs or post-IPO investors. It's fun, but you'd have to be crazy to throw money at this thing.