Engineered Hostility: Materially Examining The Internet Landscape

Ashe Jaeger


Introduction

The oldest contradiction is that of death and life—born from that of spear and shield. As Mao describes in On Contradiction:


"In war, offense and defense, advance and retreat, victory and defeat are all mutually contradictory phenomena. One cannot exist without the other. The two aspects are at once in conflict and in interdependence, and this constitutes the totality of a war, pushes its development forward and solves its problems." [1]

In the modern day, the spear and the shield appear in much more varied form: the bullet and the ceramic plate (what is a bullet if not a small spear?), the drone missile and the infantry (rather one-sided), the ransomware and the backup server. We also see similar development in the Western propaganda landscape, Youtube videos and Twitter tweets supplanting radio and television; Facebook groups, Signal messages, and Discord chats now as primary medium for organizing in Western leftist circles. Even if the difficulty of introspection ever increases due to the sheer volume and complexity of all these technological advances, it remains critical to systematically study the electronic devices that we use, their history, their consequences, "For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." [2] If you are unable to identify which tools are the master's (hint: all of them), then you have already lost.


It is not that every website and every program on the Internet is intentionally hostile to Communists; just by sheer numbers the odds of that would be incredibly low. No, the problem more so lies systemically in the internet itself, a hostile hellscape corrupting any revolutionary promise daring to sprout. To conceptualize it in this regard, we must first understand it dialectically, and then materially—the purpose of this writing.


The Internet's Trail

I loosely define a network as, "a set of technological devices which allow the transmission of data that has been converted to an analog or digital format; once sent, this data is received by another device and converted back into whatever form it held before." The most notable examples of this being postal mail, the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the television, and the internet. While they all have differences in the type, amount, and direction of the data they can carry, we should fundamentally think of these things in a dialectical fashion, as they all fulfill the same core purpose. Like any good dialectic, there must be an opposing force, in this case the spear to our shield is surveillance: the opening of mail, the tapping of telegraph and telephone lines, hidden microphones and cameras, and well, the Internet as a whole.


The direction of communications is extremely important to the network's medium. If the signal is bidirectional, then the surveillance occurs with a man-in-the-middle. This applies to postal mail, telegraph, telephones, and the Internet; there must be a physical thing in the middle of the signal carrier, whether it is a person, device, or program. If the signals can only travel one way, then the surveillance can only occur with the planting of devices into locations of interest, like with microphones (radio) and cameras (television). The internet is different in this regard in that it can do either, information can either be monitored in the middle or from planted devices in the real world. To boot, there are no restrictions on what can be sent over the Internet nor any restrictions on what can be monitored. The internet enables exponentially more powerful surveillance systems than revolutionaries have ever had to contend with in the past, so it would be appropriate to rewind—to both start this dialectical process and to gain some perspective.


The first known example of a real-time electronic surveillance barrier was deployed during the Vietnam War by the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) during a project known as "Igloo White"—a distributed collection of sensors placed along trails between North and South Vietnam in an effort to detect and prevent passage by the Communist cadres. These camouflaged sensors could be dropped from helicopters into trees or into dirt, and the different sensor models could detect different things: metal for trucks and rifles, seismic activity for troops and trucks, microphones for personnel, RF sensors for radio signals, and even one chemical sensors to detect the ammonia in urine and sweat and the carbon from camp fires, called the "People Sniffer" [3]. Whenever one of these sensors was triggered, it would broadcast a signal with an identifier which would then be relayed by special planes cruising about, back to monitor stations who would manually examine the data. If the sounds or readings picked up were determined to be caused by enemy personnel, then an airstrike would be ordered on the location originating the signal [4]. If this does not particularly sound impressive or anything remotely like what we face today, here is a choice quote of a quote from Matt Novak's 2015 reporting about "Igloo White":


"Remember those huge electronic boards from the movie Dr. Strangelove that showed Russian bombers headed for the U.S.? Well, Task Force Alpha is a lot like that except with real-time displays in full color, three stories tall [...] it's the whole goddamned Ho Chi Minh Trail in full, living color. [The place is filled with] a whole bunch of civilians who look like IBM guys running around in three-piece suits all wearing glasses [...] it's Geek Central." [5]

As Yasha Levine poignantly states in his book Surveillance Valley:


"The Internet came out of this effort: an attempt to build computer systems that could collect and share intelligence, watch the world in real time, and study and analyze people and political movements with the ultimate goal of predicting and preventing social upheaval." [6]

By definition, the starting point of any dialectical analysis of the Internet must begin where the Internet did—so we must start at the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We can clearly see the development of Igloo White in the devastating drone technology of today, the latter a compressing and compacting of the former, but we must also be aware of the ubiquity of surveillance devices—even in people's homes and neighborhoods. With the advent of "Internet of Things"(IoT) technology, it is not even necessary to airdrop or plant microphones anymore if there is a smart speaker in four out of ten households and a cellphone in 97% of pockets [7] [8] [*]. Another egregious example, the popular "Ring" video doorbell, most notably partners with Police departments across the country so that the police can request video footage from any given Ring doorbell—automating snitching, one door at a time [9].


[*] Which, while we are on the subject, do not talk "shop" near cellphones, on or off; leave them wrapped up in another room.

Rationale

While the Internet is a network, as defined above, it cannot do to just leave its description as such, as it is much more than that. By combining bidirectional communication with the ability to transmit anything (and lots of it), it feels almost unfair to put it in the same category as television or telephones. A person cannot participate in a televised propaganda session, and a telephone conversation cannot have millions of participants, so how are we even to imagine and classify the Internet? This is not a novel thought, but to me the most accurate conceptualization is the Internet as terrain, due to its undue influence on the essence of everything occurring within. To elucidate: a protest online is not anything close to a protest in real life, a meeting online does not have the same effect as a digital one. The online leftist organization, typing away and unable or unwilling to meet, is an entirely different thing than the Party of old.


Because these activities occur over a different medium (digital, not analog), the nature of the activities themselves are changed. Therefore, as justification for why the following technical sections are necessary, let me draw briefly from Lenin's words:


"Marxism demands an absolutely historical examination of the question of the forms of struggle. To treat this question apart from the concrete historical situation betrays a failure to understand the rudiments of dialectical materialism." [10]

With that, let us begin our tour of the Internet.


Layman's Inferno
"Through me the way into the suffering city, through me the way to the eternal pain, through me the way that runs among the lost [...]" —Dante, Inscription above the Gates of Hell, Cantos III

Forewarning: the next few sections we'll be discussing technical topics. The following information is based on the "The Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model" of networking [11], but hopefully made actually useful and understandable.


Akin to the classical Hell of Dante, networking is split up, conceptually, into layers—each with its own hostile particularities and hazards. When browsing the internet, sending email, or even chatting online, all of the data you send and receive is packed up into a particular format and sent over the wire (for the duration off this paper, these will be referred to as "network packets" or just "packets"). After a certain point, your packet for sending email will differ from your web browsing, as these are all different network protocols which follow different formats. But the first 14 bytes of a given network packet will almost always follow the same exact format as any other, Ethernet II, a layer 2 protocol. The next 20 or 40 bytes will also have the same format between packets, depending on if it's Internet Protocol 4 or 6 (IPv4 or IPv6), which are both layer 3 protocols. While pedants will disagree, a network packet typically only consists of layer two, three, and four data followed by the application-specific data (again, email, browsing, chatting). But a packet need not traverse all the network layers to be sent; plenty of data transmitted with only layer 2 being completed, and therein partly lies the truly hidden danger of networking hell: the amount and type of requisite data transmitted before you can even view a website.


Layer 1: Limbo
"For these defects, and for no other evil, we are now lost and punished just with this: we have no hope and yet we are longing." —Dante, Canto IV

Your computer has a piece of hardware called a network card that allows it to talk to a network. This usually allows for WiFi network access, but some network cards can also have an ethernet cable plugged into them. This simple aspect of networking is called the "physical layer" because it is the physical medium over which all signals flow. More examples of the physical layer would be coaxial cable, fiber optic, telephone cables (for dial-up). Dumb phones and smart phones have a network card for their internet connection via the device's radio for 3G, 4G, 4GLTE, and 5G connections (but the measure of phone intelligence is whether or not it has a WiFi interface as well). The physical layer also takes care of deciding exactly what constitutes a "0" and a "1" over this physical medium for data transmission, which is important because each medium transmits data by flipping between two predefined states (e.g. light-on and light-off for fiber).


I would now like to put forth for consideration the actual physical layout of the Internet. Again starting from your laptop as an example, your laptop talks to your WiFi router—which might be separate from your modem. This modem—and the modems of everyone within a few blocks—is physically connected to a locked box somewhere in the neighborhood, and is probably filled with devices called switches which then amplify the signals on the coaxial cable and relay all of the traffic into one or two cables which connect further into the ISP's infrastructure. Each individual ISP is a blackbox, we cannot know the setup, but the practical revolutionary should just assume everything is logged and monitored therein. After the ISP-specific network, there is probably a fair amount of fiber connections to other ISP infrastructure.


To summarize and to simplify: imagine a multitude of copper spider-webs all interconnected by