Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Silence and Noise within the Walled Cities

-- By SkyeLee - 18 May 2022

In 1955, Science Fiction Theatre’s “Barrier of Silence” prescient episode depicted malicious forces capturing a pilot on a flight gone wrong, placing him within a barrier that insulated him from all outside sound. Within days, he was psychologically broken into hypnotic obedience to commands from the ‘Voice’, the only sound he could hear. The real estate of the Net is increasingly divided by such ‘barriers’. More corners of the ‘World Wide’ Web are declaring digital statehood and constructing their virtual city-states. China mirrored their Great Wall with their Great Firewall; Iran and Belarus have set up their own ‘walled gardens’; and Southeast Asian countries like Thailand are also trending toward severance.

The Barrier of Silence: The Foundation of it all

Each city-state’s techno-political structure is complex and unique, but fundamentally they are set up as concentric circles of protection with the opportunity to deter, detect and delay at each boundary. Almost always, they begin with a ‘barrier of silence’. Physical and technological barriers which censor the outside world, serving as the foundations of the digital state by sustaining the isolation of a part of the internet which makes construction of further internal structures of control possible.

Russia’s present changes exemplifies a barrier of silence’s evolution. Amidst the atrocities accompanying Putin’s invasion, the barrier of sound quells whatever mostly disparate and individually undertaken protests are left, insulating the majority from having to contend with their conscience. Since the 2019 ‘Sovereign Internet’ law, regulations have been passed to restrict control over the technical space. The testing of Russia’s ‘RuNet’ demonstrates unambiguously Russia’s desire for a ‘splinternet’. With the recent conflict, foreign media platforms and internet service providers are either censored (Twitter), blocked (Meta), or have willingly withdrawn (Cogent), as Russia’s digital barrier closes around the nation.

Admittedly, accompanying Russia’s digital barrier was a flurry of VPN downloads. The BBC and Twitter have also started running Tor onion services for accessing unfiltered or unblocked content in Russia. This immediate subversion of Russia’s barrier reflects that ‘barriers of sound’ in real life are rarely absolute denials of access. Like the barrier in Science Fiction Theatre, real-life barriers of silence operate just as much psychologically as they do technologically. The actual denial of access is only one part of the barrier. For instance, China’s ‘panopticon’ of surveillance and access to VPN backdoors means all communication is not only subject to the Great Firewall but each individual’s own restraint and filtering. ‘Self-censorship’ essentially equals,‘subvert at your own risk’.

The Wall of Sound: Seizing the Narrative

The controlling authority capitalises on the silent space created by the barrier to build its wall of sound, establishing hegemony over what Bernays termed ‘public relations’. When each man’s mind is exposed to the same stimuli, they all receive ‘identical imprints’. ‘External sound’ or the World Wide Web is a threat to the creation of identical, obedient imprints on a populace, but the barrier ousts the multiple voices of the internet and allows concentration on the ‘Voice’ - the narrative of authority. The wall of sound builds on the success of the barrier, forming the second layer of our digital cityscape.

Russia again provides a clear example. The wall of sound speaks of no ‘war’ or ‘conflict’, making the semantic choice to announce ‘special military operations’. Reports of Russian casualties and military frustrations are equally absent, as the wall and the barrier become accomplices in crafting a narrative of success. Disseminating disinformation has brewed a digital war to undermine Western democracy, sow confusion and retain public support. A uniform imprint is slowly but surely taking hold, evidenced by polling data showing a multi-year peak in Russian popular support. The news sources that have successfully snuck through the barrier have had limited success, the climate of war censorship stunting the growth of civic consciousness.

The ‘Zone of Distraction’: Tranquilize and Conquer

Finally, within the wall of sound is the digitization of our ‘civil society’ or the ‘Zone of Distraction’. The internet has attached parasitically to us, and its influences inseparably onto our personal and social lives. This relationship feels symbiotic - the internet allows us to do many things apparently in exchange for very little, but it is an apparent ‘convenience’ that is fundamentally parasitic. The ‘services’ that the internet provides only disservices users by entrenching us in processes of behaviour collection and control.

The ever-growing Parasite contributes to the architecture of control in two ways. First, the data it collects upgrades the walls of sound. The ‘Voice’ learns to become subversive and refined. The Obama administration followed an explicit policy to use behavioural science to ‘better serve the people’. The UK’s Behavioural Insights Team influences even the specific wording of government notices. Behaviour can now be ‘nudged’ instead of coerced. Secondly, it distracts. Its powers of distraction can stifle threats and pacify masses. China’s ‘Fifty Cent Party’ for instance is notorious for flooding social media and suffocating discussion with distraction posts following any subversive events. More importantly, perhaps, the Zone of Distraction distracts from itself. The Parasite is increasingly capable of redirecting our attention to issues and topics that divert from its parasitic leeches. It feeds our preoccupation with materialistic desires, algorithms are able to recognise higher engagement with like-minded people and push our interactions into echo chambers. The distractions monopolise our attention and render invisible the entire architecture of control. In this way, the zone of distraction completes digital sovereignty, allowing the human race to bury its head in the sand of blissful ignorance.

Recognising the concentric structure of these digital cities is perhaps more important now than ever, as existing digital sovereigns expand their borders. Hong Kong, after its recent years of turmoil, looks ripe to be folded into China’s barrier of silence as the Government currently edges toward a ban on Telegram - the preferred social media application for Hong Kong’s anti-establishment movement. Recognising the movement of these constructs of control is the first step to resisting the splintering of the internet.

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r3 - 18 May 2022 - 14:24:22 - SkyeLee
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