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Where Will the Big Red Balloons Be Next?

December 4, 2009

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched a $40,000 competition ostensibly to see examine the way communication works in Web2.0. The competition will see whether disributed teams working together online can uncover the location of large red weather balloons moored across the USA.

The ‘DARPA Network Challenge’ “will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems”.

All the headlines for this story have been verging on the amused (even The Guardian). Words like ‘whimsical’ and ‘wacky’ have been common. But it seems to me that this project has many underlying aims apart from those outlined in these superficial write-ups, not least of which are: how easily people in a culture of immediate gratification can be mobilised to state aims and in particular to do mundane intelligence and surveillance tasks (following the failure of simple old style rewards to work in the tracking down of Osama Bin Laden and other such problems), and 2, the prospects for manipulating ‘open-source intelligence’ in a more convenient manner, i.e. distributing military work and leveraging (a word the military loves) a new set of assets  – the online public, which is paradoxially characterised by both an often extreme scepticism and paranoia, but at the same time, a general superficiality and biddability.

DARPA, of course, was one of the originators of the Internet in the first place (as it continues to remind us), but the increasingly ‘open’ nature of emergent online cultures has meant that the US military now has a chronic anxiety about the security threats posed not so much by overt enemies as by the general loss of control – in fact, there’s been talk for a while of an ‘open-source insurgency’, a strategic notion that in one discursive twist elides terrorism and the open-source / open-access movement, and the CIA has recently bought into firms that specialize in Web 2.0 monitoring.

It seems rather reminiscent of both the post-WW2 remobilisation of US citizens in things like the 1950s ‘Skywatch’ programs (which Matt Farish from the University of Toronto has been studying) or more specifically, some of the brilliant novels of manipulation that emerged from that same climate, in particular Phillip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, in which unwitting dupe, Raggle Gumm, plots missile strikes for an oppressive government whilst thinking he’s winning a newspaper competition, ‘Where will the Little Green Man be Next?’

So, who’s going to be playing ‘Where Will the Big Red Balloons Be Next?’ then… ?

DARPA's Big Red Balloons (DARPA website)

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