The new book, A History of the Internet and the Digital Future, is due in September 010. While I’m waiting for that I’ve been wrapping up my PhD work. And I think I now have answers – at least, almost final answers. Or at least some pre-almost-final answers.
Since 2005 various Governments of EU Member States have been increasingly concerned about the Internet and its role in the radicalisation of young Europeans to adopt violent ideologies associated with al Qaeda. Although we do not appear to have definitive information on the Internet’s importance in this phenomenon, concern at the political level has at times grown so severe that censorship has been loudly mooted[and argued against], and even rolled out in some countries. So, officialdom is concerned. The problem is that there is entirely too little data available on the Internet’s role. Nor is there useful data on how violent radical ideas spread on the Internet. This is the gap into which my PhD fits.
I am arguing that the Internet has three distinctive characteristics that are relevant to the spread of militant Islamist ideas: the Internet is centrifugal, fecund, and hazardous. This is the first time that it has been so described, and the impact of this theory, particularly since this thesis goes on to prove that atomization occurs as a result, could have profound consequences for the future of policy. But first I should explain those words, centrifugal, fecund, hazardous, and atomization.
First, CENTRIFUGAL. The elemental technology on which the Internet is built is ‘packet-switching’, a system in which messages are broken up into small packets of information, each of which is sent by one node on the network to find its own way to a different node some where else. The various packets are then passed along, node to node to node, by various other nodes along a route determined on the fly according to each successive node’s record of which next node had recently reported the quickest response time. The packets eventually arrive at their destination and are reconstituted into a consistent message. The benefit of the system when Paul Baran conceived it at RAND (and Donald Davies at the NPL) was that the Soviets could drop a nuke into part of the network and it would still work because the messages would route around the damage as each surviving node would quickly adjust. In credit to Baran, not only did he conceive this idea, but he explained how the nodes would learn in a single double spaced page of a 40 page memo.
Thus from its very first conception the technology was “centrifugal”. I can think of no better word. It intentionally avoided placing power and control in the customary position at the centre, where virtually all previous systems had kept their centres of control. Instead the new technology distributed control through out the network, literally in every node. This centrifugal tendency is the defining characteristic of the Internet, and of the norms of behaviour associated with it. It transfers technological and social emphases away from central hierarchies, and shifts authority from established hierarchies to informal meritocracy.
Such a centrifugal network could allow amorphous communities to gather, irrespective of their geographic proximity. The uncool could find soul mates in another state, as the phone phreakers began to do in the 1960s. The subversives could find likeminded fellow travellers. Because censorship is an impossibility in such an environment (at least in the jurisdictions in question, and arguably elsewhere as well) the Internet is necessarily FECUND for the spread of subversive – and any other viable – meme or set of ideas. The various metrics of network effects (Metcalfe, Reed’s 3rd Law, etc.) suggest that this fecundity might be very significant indeed, even for a niche idea at the skinny end of the long tail.
So, the Internet is centrifugal, which means it is apparently unpolicable – if one were minded to do so. Because it is centrifugal it is also fecund, which means it is a fertile medium for violent, or any other, ideas. But it is also HAZARDOUS. By virtue of the increasing user-dominance of Internet content and a phenomenon known as ‘the perpetual beta’, which effectively means there is no last edit on the Internet, all ideas are subject to the challenges and scrutiny of Internet users.
So the real question is, and this applies to all ideas online, to what extent does this hazard act on the consistency of the militant message? Does the core narrative of al Qaeda get ATOMIZED online? To answer this I data mined a sample of approximately 200 million words, provided by colleague who will be fully credited when the final product emerges shortly. What I was looking for was a simple, very crude indicator of skewing.
The rhetoric of the core militants and thinkers associated with al Qaeda has certain reoccurring elements that, when broken down to their most simple elements, can be summed up as referring to piety, persecution, and precedent. The same applies to militant republican rhetoric of the IRA et al in the 1960s-90s. Taken together these elements make up compelling stories of righteous perseverance in the face of violent injustice. By mining the enormous dataset at my disposal I could calculate whether these 3Ps were fragmenting over time. Initial results from my statics suggest that the memes of militant Islamist campaigns associated with al Qaeda are being atomized by the perpetual beta. The answer, it seems, is in the network rather than in censorship or control from the centre. The individual users of the centrifugal Internet, my skewness stats say, are atomizing the militant message.
All this and more in moving picture form… at vimeo.