Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet
By Yasha Levine
Icon Books, £14.99
As accusations continue to swirl through social media around foreign meddling in Britain’s Brexit referendum and the last US election, Yasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley is a timely intervention in revealing how undermining democracy has always been the modus operandi of the internet since its inception.
The book’s subtitle makes clear its aim to recover the true origin story of the worldwide web as a technology of counterinsurgency, via a potted history of its pivotal innovators.
Among them is director of the US’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa), JCR Licklider, presented as the forward-thinking architect of what became Arpanet. This is a network of remote state databases established in 1969 designed to record and share information about potential communist insurgencies abroad and then against insurgencies at home. Its packet-switching and protocols technologies were the foundations on which the internet was built.
After the disintegration of the New Communalists movement, Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and high priest of hippy libertarianism in the 1960s and ’70s, visited Arpa and saw that the freedom that the counterculture sought could yet be unleashed by the network. He made it his mission to spread this gospel.
The narrative of the recuperation of the ’60s counterculture by a nascent neoliberalism is a well-worn one, whether it be from the documentaries of Adam Curtis or the paranoid fictions of Thomas Pynchon.
What is refreshing is Levine’s highlighting of how all of these intrusions on civil liberties have always been resisted, sometimes even by those who initially developed the technology.
In the book’s second part, Levine seeks to expose the duplicity of the utopian rhetoric of Silicon Valley doyens and their actions, using Google as his representative case study.
As it marketed its innovations of indexing the vast multitudes of the online world, Levine shows how this was always with the intent to meticulously index our own worlds and then be able to sell it on to third parties or, if need be, governments.
Levine’s background as an investigative journalist often makes the book feel more like a long read, complete with cloying journalese that occasionally gets bogged down in turgid bureaucratic detail. It is most enlightening when it becomes truly investigative, uncovering the murky truths about the Tor Project and the Internet Freedom movement.
That one enclave of freedom from governments and corporations is revealed to have originally been initiated by the US government.
Levine’s narrative comes full circle — a technology of counterinsurgency was rebranded as the technology of counterculture to bring about a new world order. Instead, it ends up propping up the old one and the new frontier in human relations becomes the new frontier in capitalist accumulation and social control.
For those on the left, such as British writer Paul Mason, who see hope in disruptive networked technologies flattening the sclerotic institutional hierarchies of the present, this book punctures such naive beliefs in the emancipatory potential of the internet.