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Searching for Big Data in Sharon Weinberger's "The Imagineers of War"

These days, I often feel like I’m using Big Data to figure out the history of Big Data so I can better understand how Big Data is making me obsessed with Big Data. There are a few things I know for sure about this often perplexing pattern:

1. The history of Big Data and the rise of the Internet appeals to me in part because I know it is inextricably tied to the history of American National Security and the rise of the military-industrial complex, 1950-1990, which also feels super consequential.

2. The plethora of data-driven archival databases and the precise search methods within them make it possible—in ways unimaginable even fifteen years ago—to pin down the corporations, figures, and products that made possible both the incomprehensible vastness of our government’s worldwide surveillance state and the incomprehensible vastness of the Internet.

3. The metamodern elements of searching for origin stories of the Internet using the data systems provided by the Internet has been making my head spin and leading me to do kind of unreasonable things, like using the myriad ProQuest historical newspaper databases conglomerated within Harvard’s HOLLIS library system to collect and post on Flickr the graphics from 175 defense contractor recruitment advertisements (ProQuest search: “COMPUTER” and “MISSILE” w/ Document Type: Advertisement, Date Range 1950-1990, as contractors pretty much stopped making these kinds of alluring doodles once the Internet emerged and could call them on the dissonance of using pop art to locate missile technicians), or spending eight hours on Wikipedia jumping from Raytheon to MITRE Corporation to Bendix to Varian Associates to...well, you know.

4. Trump’s warhawkery probably makes these collection binges feel more justified—if we are going down, we might as well understand how we got here, right? And if we aren’t going down, then it may be in part because Trump & Co. are consulting with some forces who have a deeper knowledge of recent national security/big data history. Our world’s survival chances just might go up if everyone knows when Martin Marietta became merged with Lockheed or how Agent Orange ended up all over Vietnam’s jungles.

5. I am far from alone in these proclivities, as Thursday, March 23rd suggested…

I got out of my History of Big Data seminar—taught by the oracular History of Science professor Rebecca Lemov—at 4 P.M. and half-jogged to Café Pamplona, taking my iPhone 6s out of my pocket and feeling an acute anxiety-pang in my neck when I realized I had no reason to consult my Anything-Phone. I then put my phone away and got it out again to make sure the meeting really was at 4:05 P.M. Of course the meeting was at 4:05 P.M. But a quick look at Gmail as I crossed Bow Street couldn’t possibly hurt. I was probably in a particularly vicious cycle of phone-checking because our seminar that day had focused on visions of the “Data Soul,” attempts by conceptual artists and social scientists to conceptualize the financial and social worth of their collective data footprint. Professor Lemov had introduced the class, whose members are split between skittish philosopher-historians and far more stoic computer programmers, to the plight of Steve Mann, the “father of wearable computing.” Mann was assaulted in a Paris McDonald’s in 2012 by three men trying to grab his digital eyeglasses. Mann's device, which has been pretty consistently affixed to his head for 34 years and is not removable without special tools, captured the beatdown on its camera. It was a scary and violent scene. So I was already feeling a little bit protective of Farquad (my iPhone’s name) and also concerned existentially that Farquad is already permanently affixed to my left hip.

I was to talk with Sharon Weinberger, an author whose work on the intersection between science, society, and national security in First Look Media’s (see: Citizenfour) magazine The Intercept and in her new book The Imagineers of War speaks directly to my numbered points above. Her book is an almost 60-year history of DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the Department of Defense sub-organization whose ARPANET became the foundations of the Internet and whose other diverse defense projects range from the retrospectively pretty practical (nuclear test detection, GPS), to the depressingly problematic (counterinsurgency methods lifted from British Malaya, Agent Orange and strategic hamlets in Vietnam), to the utterly mind-melting (mecha-elephants, telekinesis, super advanced artificial intelligence drones).

I am more than a little bit intimidated by Weinberger’s general knowledge of national security and of her ability to weave such an informative and surreal narrative out of DARPA. So when I sat down at the table and ordered my large Americano in a put-on bass-baritone voice, I was probably very clearly nervous. Café Pamplona also played a role in my quasi-dissociation, as its red quaintness and partial submergence makes it feel like the kind of inconspicuous place where really crazy, under-the-table, Harvard-MIT-affiliated National Security dealings have occurred. Which they probably have.

When I asked Weinberger if she also felt the hive mind coming together in some sort of Big Data self-reckoning, she responded emphatically: “We’re definitely at an interesting inflection point right now, and one that I didn’t necessarily expect. There are a number of scholars and journalists right now who are asking the question, ‘What happens when you have a big chunk of your science budget funded by national security?’” Weinberger also quickly tied in this renewed fascination, which she believed faded from the public discourse after the Berlin Wall came down, to Trumpian intrigue. “If you saw the news on the Trump budget, they are proposing cutting things like climate research, National Institutes of Health, a lot of civil science, but not military science.” And although the specific allocations of defense spending are still obscure, Weinberger revealed that there has always been a correlation between military spending and spikes in the budget for DARPA and other military science-based organizations. “I absolutely bet that DARPA’s budget will go up."

Weinberger is remarkably forthcoming, amiable, and rhetorically agile. While I was by no means trying to be annoying with my questions, they were often sort of half-baked and unnecessarily wordy, the kind of queries I could imagine a respondent brushing off as try-hard profundity and then offering the back-cover synopsis of their book. Weinberger not only comprehended my garbled prose, she also responded with answers full of strategy, reference, and demystification. On the question of the meta-search for the Internet on the Internet, for example: “The Internet is great for finding rabbit holes. You now have libraries that are pushing their archives online. The American Institute of Physics had a large number of DARPA-related interviews that I used to have to go out to College Park to retrieve. We were only allowed to copy one-third of each interview. It was very weird. And then at some point I think they asked, ‘Why are we trying to make access to this historical material harder?’ So they put them online.” Where before I had only seen the media, she gave me the message: Research institutions were recognizing the importance of their Internet histories and were meta-uploading them as a result.

Weinberger’s book, which at a spry 375 pages still feels somehow authoritative and expansive, is a deft mix of household names for people interested in this stuff (Sputnik, famed computer pioneer J.C.R. Licklider) and totally obscure material. Weinberger places the figure of William Godel, an almost un-Googleable DARPA ‘imagineer,’ at the center of Operation Paperclip, the famed Score I launch, and much of early 1960s Vietnam policy. How did Weinberger find this guy and the several other extremely significant figures she recovers from true erasure? “I’m a collector and hoarder of information. I love archives. I love interviews.” By this point I was feeling a great degree of self-centered kinship and was having trouble resisting the urge to mention my crazed military graphix side-project. “Especially with the people from the early days of DARPA, the name that kept coming up was this guy William Godel. And I did the same thing. I Googled him. And, you know, there are a few references. But everyone kept saying, ‘He was this critical guy.’” Weinberger’s persistent search for Godel’s lost legacy led her to Atlanta, where hundreds of pages from his 1965 depositions are stored. “He was accused of fraud and went to jail and got written out of history,” Weinberg explained with a tone of real empathy for the guy. “He would probably have been the head of the NSA...he was the star.”

The scenes in The Imagineers of War detailing Godel’s conviction are truly depressing; Godel, who had been accustomed to a loose spending leash in Vietnam, got dragged into the far more explosive scandal of his Pentagon colleague John Wylie, who was actually embezzling funds for glitzy cars and boats. Despite the obvious differences between Godel and Wylie’s crimes, both men ultimately got five years and ruined reputations. It’s not exactly easy to feel bad for the man who introduced Agent Orange, but Weinberger’s access to the Atlanta depositions allowed her to paint Godel with such complexity that he becomes hard to condemn. Godel was by no means a gung-ho killer. His counterinsurgency tactics were designed to limit the Vietnam War, and he watched in horror from prison as, in his words, “we ended up trying to win the war with technology.” “He was a thinker,” Weinberger concluded. “He thought about how to fight the wars of tomorrow...He was a flawed figure, but a fascinating one.”

I Googled my way through the entirety of Weinberger’s book and in doing so the 375 pages stretched into a Megillah of YouTube videos, declassified documents, articles from all manners of open-source journals, and dead ends on several other Godel-style figures. I asked Weinberger if she thought about this kind of ulterior research in her writing—was she able to limit the page count because she knew that particularly interested readers had an encyclopedic domain to which they could turn? “It’s very rare that you read a book and find something that just doesn’t exist on Google,” she agreed.

Although Weinberger acknowledged that it is jarring to live in an age of narrative history in which the transference of information is less crucial, she also sees a new opportunity to work on craft: “The answer is not brevity, it’s how you write that story. For narrative history, the arc of the story you want to tell is what matters. Even if that information is out there, it’s out there in different ways.” Through Weinberger’s inclusion of obscure historical actors and willingness to jump over less important filler (“Not every DARPA director is’s the fertile facts you need to choose,” her editor suggested), she steered clear of creating an information dump.

By this juncture in our talk, we had both finished our legendarily caffeinated Pamplona drinks and were talking—I’m listening to this on Voice Memos and cracking up—at a far faster and more exhilarated pace than when we began. I hope some of this freneticism was also a result of the intensity of our discourse. I relayed how I keep thinking I'm stumbling onto something super-secret in my own ProQuesting and data-dives (“If I could only connect the dots between this 1976 Halliburton Report and this Baltimore Sun mention of Dick Cheney…”). I told Weinberger how astonishing it was that she is actually having to make immensely difficult judgment calls on a daily basis about the impact of releasing classified information, both in her book and in her national security reportage. In the final chapter of The Imagineers of War, Weinberger explores DARPA’s work in Afghanistan’s data mining up until 2013. “I was interviewing a development worker who had helped with this DARPA program to collect data,” she told me with a new gravitas in her tone. “She was describing how they were giving smartphones to Afghans claiming that they were collecting humanitarian information and in reality it was for military intelligence. And I was really torn by that, because it was wrong. They were putting these Afghans at risk without them knowing they were at risk. And writing that potential you put the development worker at some level of risk, potentially you put Afghans at risk.”

The dilemmas only got more wrenching. Although Weinberger was not able to talk about her day-to-day journalism for reasons that will become obvious over the course of this hypothetical, she offered me a situation indicative of the choices she often has to make. “Suppose one had documents about drone strikes in Country X and the U.S. government says, ‘Please redact. If you give this information, it will be easier for militants to avoid the drone strikes, and thus you’d be helping terrorists.’ Well, what if it’s your belief that drone strikes are illegitimate? Or that the drone strikes are also killing civilians? You get into all these theoretical conversations. I don’t know what you say. You make the best decision you can.”

Despite how much I’m fascinated by Weinberger’s work, empathizing with that kind of burden of responsibility terrified me, particularly after Weinberger asked a series of questions so difficult to answer that I produced a series of groan noises for thirty seconds: “Are we advocates for the U.S. government? If we listen to those requests from the U.S. government, what if it were from Iran? Russia? France? Are there legitimate and illegitimate governments?”

Weinberger and I talked for thirty more minutes about the unexpected utility of her own defense consultancy work after graduate school. “If you oppose having a Department of Defense and everything a Department of Defense does, then you should not work for a defense contractor. I believe personally that countries have a legitimate right and role to conduct national security affairs,” she told me, adding that the work she accomplished working with Systems Planning Corporation (look them up) gave her a unique perspective into the “weird logic” of the myriad outsourced defense analysis firms that are sprinkled all over Northern Virginia. We also discussed the under-researched military contractor Sierra Nevada (look them up, too), and the YouTube profile of an incredibly mysterious man (Men? Many people?) named Jeff Quitney, who has somehow uploaded several thousand retro promotional films from the defense establishment. If you know anything about Jeff Quitney and how I may join him in whatever it is he’s doing, please, please get in touch.

I left my conversation with Weinberger with a new steely determination not to let the surreal nature of the relationship between Big Data and the military overwhelm me. Clearly, as Weinberger’s whole career illustrates, there are ways to engage critically with the behemoth and retain some degree of sanity and autonomy. Ultimately, Weinberger appears fueled by a genuine love for the game. As we finally rose from our Pamplona think tank, she explained how the true melding of science and national security journalism had clicked for her : “For me, it was a special, under-covered area of national security science that just fascinated me....Science journalists weren’t used to calling the Pentagon asking for an interview with no answer. I’m used to making 10 calls and then harassing them and threatening to sue them under the Freedom of Information Act.”

I’m sure I’m still going to have paranoid triple-phone check moments or go one too many steps down the rabbit hole of a defense contractor’s history and end up pacing through the library for hours wondering if we would have gotten the Internet without DARPA or its shadowy defense contractor brothers and sisters. But Weinberger’s determination to accurately historicize our government’s endlessly confusing inner workings gives me hope: maybe one day I can contextualize all this stuff and tell neurotic Harvard kids at Café Pamplona how the puzzle fits together.