Your orders have come in. You are tasked with building five thousand libraries. This is an idea that sounds reasonable to you. You get to work. You’re going to need some coffee, and about three days of ground-network time. In your head, you begin to analyze the potential mirror list. You need trusted hosting, not just volunteers. Bit Torrent and a few targeted tweets would get the job done, but not well enough. These libraries have to stay up. It may just be a single compressed file. But as they found out in Portland last week, even digital libraries can be burned to the ground.
* * * * *
You receive your orders backward, coming up to your position of responsibility from the units you command. You open the video feed, and you can see them running through traffic, the wrong way up a one way street, dark jackets dodging amid stalled cars and trucks, stopped in gridlock from the units’ action in the traffic lanes. You don’t need to read the text, because you know what’s next. There’s a term for this: Simultaneous, Epi-Navigation Street Occupation Response. You could call it SENSOR, but you don’t. Only New York Times reporters call it that. Ahead, in the limits of the jerking video feed, you see the orange glow of vapor-lamps glistening on a rising cloud of tear gas.
* * * * *
You have broken it down and set it up countless times, and this will not be the last. You plug in the extruder. You make sure the broken cable plug is fully set into its socket. You attach the heating element to the battery to let it start warming. As the bioplastic cable feeds forward, you can see the camera housing already, as you have seen over four hundred fully finished pieces emerge in the last three days, since the beginning of the Battle of the West Side. It unfolds up from the base of the printer, as the plastic builds up, cooling, slowing inhabiting the outline of the idea. In the brief pause when the extruder head comes back to rest position before starting its next run, you pluck the webcam out of the 3D printer, insert the sensor chip, attach the battery, and put in the waiting hands of one of your newer recruits. “You have a SIM card?” “Yeah.” “Well, that’s it then. Good luck.”
* * * * *
“Shoot him. SHOOT HIM.” The order urges in your ear. You push the inevitable emotional response backward, and you raise your weapon to your shoulder. Through the eye-piece you gaze, infrared light illuminating the target. As the police officer’s baton falls once more, you squeeze the trigger. A blaze of strobe-lighting staccatos thirty times a second from the pair of drones hovering above you, setting the officer and the protester he is beating on visual fire in the night street. Shadow is vaporized. Somewhere within your video gun, an HD light sensor writes to disk. When the shot is uploaded, the editing van will be able to see not only the QR code of the officer’s badge underneath the black marker he has used to obscure it, but a single drop of blood, frozen in the air, Matrix-style, as they used to say, ejected from the wound on the forehead of the protester.
* * * * *
The kid kicks the battery again, sending the van into darkness. Everyone groans, as the screens auto-adjust their brightness to their battery settings. “Sorry!” The lights come back on, and knowing his duty by this time, the kid slides open the door and reaches up to the roof to power-cycle the modem. While you and your fellows wait for the signal to be re-established, you stretch, and make small talk. The sound of helicopters returns, though you cannot see them from inside the parking garage. “Did you hear that DC is distributing a new distributed communication app? All the GA nets can now connect, and it runs off of satellite servers, so it can’t be DNS blocked.” “DC is distributing it? They don’t have any good developers there. None that work with consensus development, anyway. Did you check who’s on the project? It’s probably a Google co-opt play, if not a straight-up honeypot.” There’s debate, but soon the network is back up, and the voices fade, and the streams of information begin to flow again. Like water through a weir.
* * * * *
I would call these scenarios fiction, but fiction is such a dirty word. Fiction is a thing that has no possibility of actually existing, because it is created with that specific fantastical aim in mind. Fiction is a beautiful thing of freedom–the freedom to imagine what will never be. It is the domain of American dreams, in which wanting badly is somehow enough. It is the core instinct of democratic idealism, in which we are actors born on our feet in the public square, rather than as workers in rented quarters walled by constant surveillance. It is the notion that national narratives of fear and war always end eventually, so that we can close the book and go back to whatever it was we were doing before. Fiction is modernism–it is the only place where things make sense, because “reasonable” is its only construction spec. Reality, on the other hand, is no such simple circus.
These scenarios are built from facts. They are not things that have happened–not yet, anyway. But they are things that are possible. For these things to occur only requires that the elements of things that have happened come together in particular ways. These are distributed nodes of fact: libraries of digital information as mirrored political capital, distributed leadership with oscillating order giving/receiving, flash mob-like protest tactics, 3D printers, open-sourced communications equipment manufacturing, video evidence as a weapon, QR codes, crowd-piloted drones, mobile internet hubs, open-source secure communications software, DNS blocking, and so forth. They already exist, but are distributed–and have not been unevenly consolidated yet. Google search any of these, if you want to adapt these patterns into your daily life. It won’t be too long before most of your friends are using at least some of these on a daily basis.
As the arc of innovation becomes a branching, radical network rather than a cutting edge, we don’t need to look to the future anymore, but to our unfolding interfaces for things that already exist. We need not wonder if someone will invent drone flash photography–we instead speculate on when someone will get flash photography and drone technology talking to each other in a usable way. And then, possibly donate to their Kickstarter.
The downside in the ongoing human-Powerpoint slide deck that is the always-insufficient attempt to speculate on the future is that we also lose the comfort of that fiction, and gain the cold uncertainty that comes with facts. When flying cars were to be invented, it was clear that those would make our lives better–or at least, faster. What will SENSOR protests (color me a patronizing NYT reporter, needing a coined word to understand the kids these days) do for our lives? Will this be a more effective form of protest? Will this aid the fight for public free speech? Or will this evolution in protest tactics, as a response to police attacking the media and blocking whole swaths of city, merely engender a new, more brutal response from the police? Where does all of this end? Will it be better or worse? Will it prevent a worse catastrophe, or stall a better outcome? No one knows. No one even knows when it would be possible to say whether or not this technology or that tactic worked out as well as we hoped, or worse. There’s a lot of uncertainty. There are too many facts.
We might call this “the uncertain ethical implications of atemporality.” In only a few years, the span of history and the calm, orderly narratives it wove were effectively collapsed into a multi-dimensional space most closely modeled by Google Instant results after typing a single character in to the search bar. The moral futures market will never recover. In that vacuum, atemporal ethical behavior becomes consensus-based media protest tactics. The livestream of Occupy Wall Street videographer Tim Poole arguing with anarchists about whether or not to film them while filming them is not just our allegory or fable; it is the practice of ethics while attempting to determine what those ethics are, as you talk about it out loud, as the whole world watches. There is no time for symposiums. If you blink, that might have been the opportunity for ethical action that you missed.
Media seems to be the new ethical public arena. Even though it is less a public square than a multi-dimensional space, blocked in some areas and hollowed out in others. It is riven by an virtual and actual architecture of fences, smart phones, paywalls, trending topics, human mics, press passes, and politicians. In the absence of a static history, we simply press the record button. If we get it wrong, at least we got it transparent. Share the notes online, take the minutes. If you can’t be there, watch the livestream. We don’t know what democracy is anymore, since the rule of law comes to us only in subpoenas, in SOPA, in the end of a baton. But we do know, that whatever it is that this is, it’s going to be digital. Even if it takes some doing to search out where it’s still available online. In a year or two, it might take a shadow network, or a SSL tunnel. More nodes, coming together.
That our consistent drive, despite it all, to be ethical people now appears fully entrenched in media doesn’t come as a surprise. Why, for instance, are we so concerned about whether or not the revolution might be inscribed to some sort of cinematic process, and by which technology said media will be distributed? Perhaps it is because in a world where we decreasingly have any idea about what to do about the future, the best we can manage is to at least tell other people about our quandary. Expression is one of the most important of human actions. If the public square cannot be occupied for the purpose of democracy, at least the conversations of such a space have media-space in which to proliferate.
And even though it may be fully entrenched in the world of facts, it is uncanny that expression is not simply a secondary fruit of democracy, but precisely one of the most political acts we are still comfortable making. Democracy does not produce speech, but vice versa. Art, especially art that traffics in the interface of technology and media, finds it more difficult to divorce itself from politics than ever before, creating political space in the act of being art. How can a drone be a toy, if it is equipped with a camera? How can a QR code be only an advertisement, if it can conceal information? How can performance art be apolitical, if it must occupy public space in order to be performed?
And what of the parallel by opposite questions: can a videographer only be protesting, when he or she allows the camera to pause in its pan to capture an aesthetically-appealing unfurling cloud of tear gas? Where is beauty, when protesters in Tahrir are suffering from PTSD? Does it exist? And what if we are forced to go beyond expression, for the sake of politics? What lies beyond the camera? The gun? What does that mean for art? For history? For our daily lives?
Too many questions to pose, as the facts of media complicate the former, fictional “freedoms” of art and politics, that might have thought they could act alone sometime in the recent past. The innovation arc has too many potential interfaces and its surface is too fractally diluted to say that it is capable of pointing in any one direction. Mere hypotheticals no longer have a square to stand in. There is no place in the hyper-urbanization of our technocratic environment left for us to pitch such a solitary tent. There are only more scenarios, stretching on as far as the mental search engine can spin. And with them, the possible ethical imperatives spread outward. The age of atemporal, open-sourced ethics is now.