Eleanor Saitta is a hacker, designer, artist, writer, and, according to her bio, a barbarian. She is Principal Security Engineer at the Open Internet Tools Project (OpenITP), directing the OpenITP Peer Review Board for open source software. Saitta is Technical Director at the International Modern Media Institute (IMMI), a member of the advisory board at Geeks Without Bounds (GWoB), and works on occasion as a Senior Security Associate with Stach & Liu. She is a founder of the Constitutional Analysis Support Team (CAST), and works on the Trike and Briar projects.
Two of her recent writings, Networks and Nation States and Islands of Resilience, prompted us to interview Eleanor Saitta. In the first, she argues that “The remnants of the state exist only to ratify the desires of the body corporate and to exert social control.” In the latter, together with IMMI’s executive director Smári McCarthy, a sophisticated framework for the evaluation of cloud computing possibilities in Iceland is developed. For more on Iceland, we previously interviewed Smári McCarthy for Volume, and are collaborating with Smári and IMMI on 0., a government transparency project we founded together with the artist Jonas Staal. This interview with Eleanor Saitta is part of the research for our essay series, Captives of the Cloud, and our forthcoming book, Black Transparency (Sternberg Press, 2013).
ON ISLANDS OF RESILIENCE
The typology of the island is recurrent in the cyber-anarchic universe, both as internet practice and as science fiction vision. Your recent study (with Smári McCarthy) is titled Islands of Resilience. Does Iceland’s current compound information policy entail a continuation of the cyber-anarchic offshore tradition, or is it a fundamentally new typology?
While Sealand may be a romantic vision of the world, scale represents a qualitative difference, not just a quantitative one. The Internet is a $11 trillion US economy, globally. It’s a largely post-national economy (to a degree that quantizing it in the currency of a single nation feels mildly ridiculous), but the effects of that economy touch specific people, on specific pieces of ground. What Iceland is becoming is a nation deeply integrated with the Internet at an economic level. There are ways in which that resonates strongly and typologically with the notion of the “island” — it’s a resonance we use at IMMI, sometimes, to explain our work. However, the fact that it’s happening in a Scandinavian country also makes a big difference. Iceland has obviously seen its economy turned upside down by the massive financial looting of the past decade, but the fundamental collectivist nature of the country remains. This stands in stark contrast with the hyper-libertarian, “damn anyone who can’t keep up” attitude common among crypto-anarcho-capitalists.
Building a data haven means something very different when you do it in a place where people live and have lived for centuries, in a place where it is a national project, not an also-ran that at best injects a little cash and at worst exists only as network colonialism. The notion of resilience is critical here, too. While some large hosting companies are tentatively approaching sustainability as a concept, they’re doing so to get punishing energy budgets down to something manageable and to comply with regulatory forces. Resilience is much more than sustainability; it meshes very closely with left-information politics, and in doing so, combines to provide a basic political platform much stronger than each alone. Hence in Europe, the limitations of the Pirates as (until their recent initial steps) a single-issue party; likewise, the Greens, mostly working from a relatively obsolete sustainability-only platform.
Financial infrastructure, energy and other fundamentals should be considered part of a resilient future cloud. How should future clouds create political and legal enclaves of exception for such infrastructure—as ethics, or business models, or both—while honoring the global interdependencies that such fundamentals represent?
The notion of an enclave of legal and political exception is deeply problematic when one considers it as a thing created by a specific cloud-as-commercial-hosting-stack. While Smári and I spoke of clouds directly in our report, we did so in the context of speaking about a space of exception created both within the context of Iceland as a community and of the Internet as a human network, a collectivity of nodes-who-are-people. As translated into the material context of neoliberal capitalism, this provides guidance for some specific corporation to decide where they wish to host servers, but the creation is an act of the commons. I think we’ve had quite enough of transnational corporate-driven politics.
Now, as to how network culture can create its own room in which to breath, I think that’s a much more interesting question, one where I think we will see networked post-institutional political non-state actors continuing to take a lead, to see that their politics leaks out from the Internet into the real locality in which they may live. In creating room for themselves, they are in part looking at their place in the web of mutual obligation and stepping up to take their part in the deeper polis as much as they are drawing on and reinforcing the obligations of their localities to them.
I think we’re going to (necessarily) see a shift over the next fifty years in the kinds of energy interdependencies that we see in the world. We must; the old way will not hold. One way or another, we must anticipate a lower-energy future with little or no fossil fuel movement.
Finance, is composed of one part politics, one part extortion and violence, and one part coordination. The network does coordination and politics very differently, in ways that make more sense for it. While I’m not talking about some kind of mythical post-monetary future, I do think the territory there will change just as much in energy. We may not have (mass) global energy flows, but we will have global trade, global coordination, and global politics, in the service of the network whole. What the violence of finance means in a network context is still to be determined; we have some hints, though.
There will be resistance to this shift from those empowered by the old order. There is already resistance, and it will only get worse. However, the past has already lost its war with the future; it doesn’t understand this yet, but it will learn. Now, what remains to be seen is whether or not this network future is any kind of improvement for actual human lives caught in the middle. Some good changes will likely happen, and there is a vast potential, but it’s unclear if that potential will become real.
Does the construction of myriad resilient ‘friend-to-friend’ clouds present a pragmatic approach to the problem of both internet censorship and infrastructural resilience?
Yes. Centralization of networks is poisonous to their network-nature and must not be permitted to continue.
What is your take on the role of sovereign geography (Westphalian nation-state) vis-a-vis distributed networks, internet, and cloud? This is quite a large question I realize…
A full treatment of this issue is obviously beyond the scope of this discussion, but I think we can indicate the general shape of the issue when we observe that the Internet, as a post-national entity, can be seen as a single, continuous border, occurring between all places at all times. The cables may be buried in Westphalian dirt, but the photons moving across them are not. The Internet interprets nation states as damaged and dissolves them where they attempt to limit it.
The Internet is a social entity. It is made of people. Nations are also made of people; the same people. All people, once become digital, have a split identity; they will act at once for the Internet and for the State. This conflict will play out inside them. As they realize their inner-network, they will remind the state of its constitution, and the state will change.
Sukey issued several press releases which at times seemed to display an apparent declaration of complicity with the police—“Our work coincides entirely with the police goal of preserving public order.” The more ‘radical’ constituent of the student mobilization from which Sukey emerged found this problematic. Rather than a liberating force, it seemed to be an act of enclosure—protocological limits on possibility. Is this a design flaw, or a question of interpretation?
There are a few different layers here. First, Sukey, at the time, was an entirely centralized service. To my knowledge, this is still true — I’ve had limited involvement with the project while I’ve been working on Briar, a secure decentralized transport protocol that will make, among many other things, a much more free Sukey possible. I think many people who saw those press releases had little or no understanding of what it means to run a public centralized service that tracks police movement in a public order situation in the UK today. There are two ways of doing it; one is to have some degree of communication with the police, and to focus mostly on public safety, and the other way is to go to jail for a very long time. Period.
The PR situation that this reality caused was poorly handled at best (I wasn’t involved), but there is only so much handling that could be done. All Sukey data, once analyzed and de-attributed, was public, to everyone, police included. Maintaining any significant quantity of private data under such conditions would merely guarantee a police raid, either during or after an event.
A decentralized system that is built on the real trust networks already existent within an activist community, one where there is no single cache of data, no insecure communication, no single public analysis team to suborn, and, ideally, no true dependence on state- or corporate-controlled infrastructure, is a very different thing, presenting very different possibilities for action. Technologically, though, that’s not what was in play.
There is no question that Sukey did a lot of good, especially in some of the early protests in which it was deployed, before the current metropolitan police policy of “Total Policing” was enacted (seriously, someone at MetPol has rubber bullets for gonads for that slogan). The events of those protests still stand as a signpost showing that, with sufficient and decentralized coordination, the most modern police forces in the world are largely futile unless they’re willing to apply a significant measure of directly lethal violence that would be as or more disruptive than any protest they might be attempting to dispel.
Instead, the tactics of response used have shifted toward the slow oppression of ubiquitous surveillance, cell tower dumps, and surprise raids months or years after the fact. They have, in fact but not in appearance (yet) ceded the streets. As austerity and financial oppression continue in Europe, we have not seen the last large-scale public movements and gatherings, even in relatively prosperous countries. The technology of protest, which is to say, in part, the technology of tactical socio-infrastructural resilience, is not standing still.
How can one design tools to be used in a context beyond one’s own designation?
One talks to people and asks them what their problems are.
One must interpolate on the basis of the technically probable, and, in the manner of any designer, figure out what the potential solutions are to a given problem, whether they make sense in the real to be deployed context, and then test those potentials in the real world.
In product design, this is a fairly well-understood process, albeit a still evolving one. Hackers are many things; “designer” is (generally) not on the list. We’re just starting to see people in the loosely-defined liberation technology world taking user experience seriously. The miserable, useless tools will continue until we all get this.
ON THE STATE
You’re seemingly unafraid to work “in the belly of the beast”, so to speak; to work with the state or at least speak to it on its own terms. Popular currents on the radical left propose that the state is essentially coercive and unrecuperable; and that its ‘dissolution’ is the prerequisite of radical emancipation. Where do you stand on this?
I work where I think I can continue without compromising my ideals and where I can make a real difference. Many people do amazing, yeoman work, year after year, chipping away at very slow moving issues. I pick projects where a small push can cause things to shift into a different state, projects where I think I have a potential force multiplier.
Similarly, as someone who works with structures, I tend to be a relatively good translator between different the different cultures and languages different kinds of organizations. The network has many things, but one of the things it doesn’t have is single-lump resources on the scale required to do serious technical development. Getting at the places where those resources exist requires speaking to institutional structures in their language. That said, a project can mean one thing in a network context and another in an institutional context; managing that multiplicity of meaning falls back into the notion of force multiplication.
I joke that my ten year stretch goal is to kill the nation state, but really, I don’t think that’s particularly necessary. There will always be territorial organizational structures, but they’re only one possible structure among many that can interact. I favor building up new alternatives, starting now. If we somehow magically did manage to destroy the nation state before there was anything to replace it, we’d all, quite frankly, be fucked. I’m a road fetishist. I really like roads. And power. And food. Those are all currently mostly provided by or coordinated through the state. Kill the state now, and life looks grim.
That said, waiting until you’ve got a fully functional alternative before taking any kind of political action aimed at common emancipation is equally dumb, as is investing more effort in actively hostile systems when you can’t actually change them. I’m a realist, in the end. I want less suffering, for everyone, in both the short and long term, and that doesn’t come out of the barrel of any one ideology, just as surely as it isn’t going to come by sticking to the straight and narrow of our status quo handbasket.
“The remnants of the state exist only to ratify the desires of the body corporate and to exert social control; it will not act. We require a fundamental downshift in society, and while there will be many new technical opportunities, many new kinds of venture along the way, if something we would recognize as “civilization” is going to survive the century, it will require a dramatic wealth redistribution of wealth, a radical and global social equality. It will not be a profitable century. Sooner or later, this truth will be inescapable even for the current structures of control, but by then it will be too late. With the shift from an institution-centric society to a network-centric society, we have a moment in which we may be able to make a different decision, take a different path, as the tools of control are momentarily caught on the wrong foot.” (Networks and Nation States)
If we are to assume that for the current cloud, the state’s monopoly on violence and authority within sovereign borders is the eventual guarantor of the stability and security of the data center facility, how is a large-scale global cloud going to survive in an era beyond institutions, and in a sense, beyond the state?
The cloud, and the corporation, already exist beyond the state. The fundamental guarantor of violence is financial, not political. This is as true at the individual scale as at the nation-state level. Yes, there is still physical violence, but it’s almost always deployed in the service of capital, in a manner that is more transparent and direct than ever before.
Networks do two things very well: scale and speed. We are already seeing the networkification of violence, on many levels. Stability is an emergent property of protocols, something that the network can create for itself as the institutions and markets currently assailing it give way, slowly, lose their agency in the world and are replaced by other, newly harmonious versions of themselves.
Will, in the scenario you picture here, the corporate cloud (in the longer term) cease to grow or even exist, and give way to other/new infrastructures? If so, how should we picture a transitional period between one and the other?
The wonderful thing is that the Internet is made up of people. People can move from one system to another, online, fairly quickly. This is what open protocols do for us. Don’t like your email provider? Get a new one, and set your old address to forward. While there are many closed systems that don’t work this way that are intent on entrapping us in their sickly-sweet flypaper walled gardens, we don’t need to listen. Conversation can change venues quickly; we’ve seen this happen before, and I hope we see it happen again.
There are services that work well centralized — search is one; naming is another. Neither of these should be left to commercial entities, because they’re both far too important. To the extent that we’re going to be stuck with a centralized search index (or more than one), I’d very much like to see it away from both state and corporate control, in the hands of the Internet as a collective entity, somewhere the privacy, neutrality, and integrity of search can be guaranteed.
The transition is as much a cultural one as it is a technical issue. It will happen slowly in places, and stunningly quickly in others, and illegibly as a rule. Just as we looked up from our terminals and realized that they’d turned into smartphones and that the Internet wasn’t Usenet any more, it was all of society, we’ll look up and realize that we live on a re-decentralized planet.
This interview with Eleanor Saitta was conducted by Metahaven / Daniel van der Velden, Vinca Kruk and Michael Oswell via e-mail in October and November, 2012.