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The non-linear 2020 election

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I just read an NPR interview with journalist McKay Coppins (thank you Lex Alexander), where the topic was what Trump and his campaign will do to win this fall. It covers the waterfront pretty well, with serial focus on the powers of incumbency, preparations for a multi-pronged disinformation campaign, and social media advertising as a campaign/ratf*cking tool.

But when it touched on what interviewer Terry Gross called “censorship by noise,” I recognized that what she was describing is not only the same thing described by Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon (“flood the zone with shit”), but a cribbed facet of a far more sophisticated concept developed by Vladislov Surkov, the architect of Vladimir Putin’s Hall of Mirrors Russian empire. Surkov calls his approach “non-linear warfare.”

To introduce you to this idea — and to ground it in the Soviet society from which it emerged — I’ve transcribed passages from two films by documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis.

The Soviet Union became a society where everyone knew that what their leaders said was not real, because they could see with their own eyes that the economy was falling apart. But everyone had to play along and pretend that it was real, because no one could imagine any alternative.
One Soviet writer called it ‘hypernormalisation:’ You were so much a part of the system that it was impossible to see beyond it. The fakeness was ‘hypernormal.’


— Adam Curtis, BBC documentary “Hypernormalisation,” 2016

And…

(Surkov) came originally from the avante garde art world, and those who have followed his career say that what Surkov has done is to import ideas from conceptual art into the very heart of politics. His aim is to undermine people’s perception of the world, so they never know what is really happening.
Surkov changed Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of political theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups: From neo-Nazi skinheads, to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.
But the key thing was that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing. Which meant that no one was sure what was real, and what was fake. As one journalist put it, “It’s a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.” A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable, because it is indefinable.
This is exactly what Surkov is alleged to have done in the Ukraine (six years ago). In typical fashion, as the war began,
Surkov published a story about something he called “non-linear war.” A war where you never know what the enemy are really up to — or even who they are.
The underlying aim, Surkov says, is not to win the war, but to create a constant state of destabilized perception, in order to manage and control.


— Adam Curtis, BBC Documentary “Oh Dear II,” 2014.

Why talk about Surkov? Because while London-based Cambridge Analytica certainly built “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool” for the 2016 elections in the UK and the USA, most of our focus on 2016 election interference has been on the foreign source of the interference and whether or not Trump “colluded” with it. We still haven’t come to grips with the nature of the interference, which means we should anticipate conservative SuperPAC-funded troll farms in St. Petersburg, Fla., instead of merely Kremlin-run troll farms in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Unlike Putin, Trump is an easily distracted idiot, and none of the people from his 2016 campaign — not even Bannon — can match the dark genius of a Surkov. Yet Trump’s dysfunctional, eternally collapsing psyche seems preternaturally suited to this sort of campaign. It is, all by itself, a sort of chaos vortex, now hyper-amplified by mass media and the trappings of power. Putin needed an amoral conceptual artist to destabilize and overwhelm public perception. Trump needs only to wake up and unleash his 5 a.m. id on Twitter.

Unlike Putin’s previously demoralized post-Soviet society, that may not be enough to sneak Trump past the American electorate a second time. He’ll have to get back to something approaching 46 percent of the popular vote to win re-election (he has recently surged back to 42 percent approval), and that will only work if there’s a Libertarian option, plus a third-party challenger to divert Democratic votes on the left, a la Jill Stein.

So we should anticipate a Democrat mounting a third party run, too. We should anticipate engineered crises abroad — not one, but several. We should anticipate invisible micro-targeting campaigns aimed at depressing Democratic turnout, but also Trump rallies in which the insanity is cranked up to 11. Basically, we should anticipate wave after wave of chaos.

What should we do in response? Well, nobody pays me to advise on such things, so all caveats on free advice apply to what I’m about to say. But here goes: Whether the Democrats pick a nominee from the center or the left, the 2020 election is all about voter turnout. Ours needs to be up, and theirs needs to be down.

Trump won in 2016 by depressing and suppressing our voters. How do we withstand the messages aimed at keeping us divided, angry, mistrusting, depressed, and away from the polls on election day 2020? By whatever means necessary. I have no insight into that psychology.

But here’s the point: We need to turn Trump’s bespoke voter-discouragement strategy into a social media firehouse pointed right back at Trump voters. Not with lies or distortions, mind you, but with the same — perfectly legal at the moment — micro-targeting techniques that worked for him last time.

In other words: MICROTARGET THE TEA-TOTAL FUCK OUT OF TRUMP VOTERS WITH NONSTOP VOTER-DISCOURAGEMENT MESSAGES. It’s not enough to defend against Surkov’s chaos. We have to take the fight to the enemy.

Why? Because Trump’s GOP is a minority of the electorate, so they need every single one of these people to show up the polls. We don’t need them to vote with us. We just need a few more of them to stay home. And yes, negative politics are distasteful, but when it comes to Trump, there’s no need to tart up the truth.

So let’s pester conservative women with Facebook reminders about the President’s history of rape, sexual assault, adultery, and sexism. Pound the 30 percent of the Hispanic population that votes Republican with pictures of immigrant brown kids in cages. Put white evangelical criticism of Trump in front of white evangelical Christians who haven’t seen those words repeated on Fox News. Remind those mythical “moderate free-market fiscal conservatives” about Trump’s trade wars and budget deficits.

Don’t appeal to them. Depress the fuck out of them! Make them feel bad about voting for him last time.

What about the stunts they’ll pull, like sending troops to the border in 2018? I suppose I’m moderately less concerned about this than others. There are public opinion risks involved in Trump’s abuses of power — remember, American voters didn’t grow up in an overtly hypernormal Soviet system. There may yet be limits to our cognitive dissonance.

Surkov would counsel Trump to distort our reality so that no one is sure what’s true, and Fox is all on board for that. But here’s the truth, and it won’t change: They can’t win without cheating, because we outnumber them by millions.

Which means they’re going to cheat. Plain and simple. Plan accordingly.

We can still beat them, of course — but it might not be pretty. So get your mind right, y’all. Shit is about to get weird.

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rosskarchner
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Bulletin Board Systems: The VICE Exposé

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By now, you have almost certainly heard of the dark web. On sites unlisted by any search engine, in forums that cannot be accessed without special passwords or protocols, criminals and terrorists meet to discuss conspiracy theories and trade child pornography.

We have reported before on the dark web’s “hurtcore” communities, its human trafficking markets, its rent-a-hitman websites. We have explored the challenges the dark web presents to regulators, the rise of dark web revenge porn, and the frightening size of the dark web gun trade. We have kept you informed about that one dark web forum where you can make like Walter White and learn how to manufacture your own drugs, and also about—thanks to our foreign correspondent—the Chinese dark web. We have even attempted to catalog every single location on the dark web. Our coverage of the dark web has been nothing if not comprehensive.

But I wanted to go deeper.

We know that below the surface web is the deep web, and below the deep web is the dark web. It stands to reason that below the dark web there should be a deeper, darker web.

A month ago, I set out to find it. Unsure where to start, I made a post on Reddit, a website frequented primarily by cosplayers and computer enthusiasts. I asked for a guide, a Styx ferryman to bear me across to the mythical underworld I sought to visit.

Only minutes after I made my post, I received a private message. “If you want to see it, I’ll take you there,” wrote Reddit user FingerMyKumquat. “But I’ll warn you just once—it’s not pretty to see.”

Getting Access

This would not be like visiting Amazon to shop for toilet paper. I could not just enter an address into the address bar of my browser and hit go. In fact, as my Charon informed me, where we were going, there are no addresses. At least, no web addresses.

But where exactly were we going? The answer: Back in time. The deepest layer of the internet is also the oldest. Down at this deepest layer exists a secret society of “bulletin board systems,” a network of underground meetinghouses that in some cases have been in continuous operation since the 1980s—since before Facebook, before Google, before even stupidvideos.com.

To begin, I needed to download software that could handle the ancient protocols used to connect to the meetinghouses. I was told that bulletin board systems today use an obsolete military protocol called Telnet. Once upon a time, though, they operated over the phone lines. To connect to a system back then you had to dial its phone number.

The software I needed was called SyncTerm. It was not available on the App Store. In order to install it, I had to compile it. This is a major barrier to entry, I am told, even to veteran computer programmers.

When I had finally installed SyncTerm, my guide said he needed to populate my directory. I asked what that was a euphemism for, but was told it was not a euphemism. Down this far, there are no search engines, so you can only visit the bulletin board systems you know how to contact. My directory was the list of bulletin board systems I would be able to contact. My guide set me up with just seven, which he said would be more than enough.

More than enough for what, I wondered. Was I really prepared to go deeper than the dark web? Was I ready to look through this window into the black abyss of the human soul?

The vivid blue interface of SyncTerm. My directory of BBSes on the left.

Heatwave

I decided first to visit the bulletin board system called “Heatwave,” which I imagined must be a hangout for global warming survivalists. I “dialed” in. The next thing I knew, I was being asked if I wanted to create a user account. I had to be careful to pick an alias that would be inconspicuous in this sub-basement of the internet. I considered “DonPablo,” and “z3r0day,” but finally chose “ripper”—a name I could remember because it is also the name of my great-aunt Meredith’s Shih Tzu. I was then asked where I was dialing from; I decided “xxx” was the right amount of enigmatic.

And then—I was in. Curtains of fire rolled down my screen and dispersed, revealing the main menu of the Heatwave bulletin board system.

The main menu of the Heatwave BBS.

I had been told that even in the glory days of bulletin board systems, before the rise of the world wide web, a large system would only have several hundred users or so. Many systems were more exclusive, and most served only users in a single telephone area code. But how many users dialed the “Heatwave” today? There was a main menu option that read “(L)ast Few Callers,” so I hit “L” on my keyboard.

My screen slowly filled with a large table, listing all of the system’s “callers” over the last few days. Who were these shadowy outcasts, these expert hackers, these denizens of the digital demimonde? My eyes scanned down the list, and what I saw at first confused me: There was a “Dan,” calling from St. Louis, MO. There was also a “Greg Miller,” calling from Portland, OR. Another caller claimed he was “George” calling from Campellsburg, KY. Most of the entries were like that.

It was a joke, of course. A meme, a troll. It was normcore fashion in noms de guerre. These were thrill-seeking Palo Alto adolescents on Adderall making fun of the surface web. They weren’t fooling me.

I wanted to know what they talked about with each other. What cryptic colloquies took place here, so far from public scrutiny? My index finger, with ever so slight a tremble, hit “M” for “(M)essage Areas.”

Here, I was presented with a choice. I could enter the area reserved for discussions about “T-99 and Geneve,” which I did not dare do, not knowing what that could possibly mean. I could also enter the area for discussions about “Other,” which seemed like a safe place to start.

The system showed me message after message. There was advice about how to correctly operate a leaf-blower, as well as a protracted debate about the depth of the Strait of Hormuz relative to the draft of an aircraft carrier. I assumed the real messages were further on, and indeed I soon spotted what I was looking for. The user “Kevin” was complaining to other users about the side effects of a drug called Remicade. This was not a drug I had heard of before. Was it some powerful new synthetic stimulant? A cocktail of other recreational drugs? Was it something I could bring with me to impress people at the next VICE holiday party?

I googled it. Remicade is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.

In reply to the original message, there was some further discussion about high resting heart rates and mechanical heart valves. I decided that I had gotten lost and needed to contact FingerMyKumquat. “Finger,” I messaged him, “What is this shit I’m looking at here? I want the real stuff. I want blackmail and beheadings. Show me the scum of the earth!”

“Perhaps you’re ready for the SpookNet,” he wrote back.

SpookNet

Each bulletin board system is an island in the television-static ocean of the digital world. Each system’s callers are lonely sailors come into port after many a month plying the seas.

But the bulletin board systems are not entirely disconnected. Faint phosphorescent filaments stretch between the islands, links in the special-purpose networks that were constructed—before the widespread availability of the internet—to propagate messages from one system to another.

One such network is the SpookNet. Not every bulletin board system is connected to the SpookNet. To get on, I first had to dial “Reality Check.”

The Reality Check BBS.

Once I was in, I navigated my way past the main menu and through the SpookNet gateway. What I saw then was like a catalog index for everything stored in that secret Pentagon warehouse from the end of the X-Files pilot. There were message boards dedicated to UFOs, to cryptography, to paranormal studies, and to “End Times and the Last Days.” There was a board for discussing “Truth, Polygraphs, and Serums,” and another for discussing “Silencers of Information.” Here, surely, I would find something worth writing about in an article for VICE.

I browsed and I browsed. I learned about which UFO documentaries are worth watching on Netflix. I learned that “paper mill” is a derogatory term used in the intelligence community (IC) to describe individuals known for constantly trying to sell “explosive” or “sensitive” documents—as in the sentence, offered as an example by one SpookNet user, “Damn, here comes that paper mill Juan again.” I learned that there was an effort afoot to get two-factor authentication working for bulletin board systems.

“These are just a bunch of normal losers,” I finally messaged my guide. “Mostly they complain about anti-vaxxers and verses from the Quran. This is just Reddit!”

“Huh,” he replied. “When you said ‘scum of the earth,’ did you mean something else?”

I had one last idea. In their heyday, bulletin board systems were infamous for being where everyone went to download illegal, cracked computer software. An entire subculture evolved, with gangs of software pirates competing to be the first to crack a new release. The first gang to crack the new software would post their “warez” for download along with a custom piece of artwork made using lo-fi ANSI graphics, which served to identify the crack as their own.

I wondered if there were any old warez to be found on the Reality Check BBS. I backed out of the SpookNet gateway and keyed my way to the downloads area. There were many files on offer there, but one in particular caught my attention: a 5.3 megabyte file just called “GREY.”

I downloaded it. It was a complete PDF copy of E. L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey.

If you enjoyed this post, more like it come out every four weeks! Follow @TwoBitHistory on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed to make sure you know when a new post is out.

Previously on TwoBitHistory…

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rosskarchner
16 days ago
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I don't know guys I don't think this is vice at all
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The 10,000-Year Clock Is a Waste of Time

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a $42M monument to techno-utopianism inside a mountain owned by Jeff Bezos
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rosskarchner
19 days ago
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Pretty savage attack on 90's Wired, from 2020 Wired.
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acdha
19 days ago
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Washington, DC
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Brainglass

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Given the right geological circumstances, brains can become glass. During the 1st-century eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, for example, one victim’s brain was allegedly vitrified, its soft, thinking tissues transformed into “small, glassy black fragments that were just attached inside the skull,” like shards of a broken window.

[Image: Brainglass, via the Washington Post.]

These reflective fragments—little black mirrors—“contained proteins common in brain tissue, researchers found, and had undergone vitrification and transformed into glass.” That made this “the first time brains from any human or animal have been found fossilized as glass.” This, of course, could be because we haven’t been looking: what other deposits of obsidian lying around on the Earth’s surface are actually fossilized animal brains? Vitrified neurology.

In any case, I was reminded of an exhibition last summer at the Getty Villa here in Los Angeles called Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri. Among the artifacts on display were these incredible “carbonized papyri,” or scrolls—ancient books—that had been turned into seemingly useless lumps of charcoal.

[Image: Carbonized papyrii on display at Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

The amazing thing was that, by using advanced medical imaging equipment to peer inside the lumps, researchers discovered that these previously illegible objects could be made readable again, virtually unrolled using X-ray tomography and character-recognition algorithms, to reconstruct the scrolls’ lost content. They were “able to use the medical imaging technology, which is usually used to examine soft human tissues, to detect the tiny bump of ink on the surface of a scroll without damaging the fragile artifact.”

To be honest, this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen—the “noninvasive digital restoration of ancient texts… hidden inside artifacts.” Otherwise mute objects given technical legibility. (A similar technique inspired one of the greatest New York Times headlines of the past few years: “Scanning an Ancient Biblical Text That Humans Fear to Open,” combining, at a stroke, H.P. Lovecraft, X-ray imaging technology, and possible Christian apocrypha.)

Stepping away from realistic technical applications for just a moment into the world of pure science fiction, it is fascinating to imagine a team of future researchers using 21st-century medical imaging techniques to scan, Jurassic Park-style, for lost thoughts lodged inside pieces of obsidian, black glass fossils of animal brain tissue, almost like the reader of unicorn skulls in Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

The idea that some of the rocks around us might, in fact, be glass brains—brainglass, a new mineral—neurological apocrypha awaiting decipherment, suggests a thousand new novels and storylines. Neurogeonomicon.

Black and ancient brains dreaming inside what humans mistook for geology.

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rosskarchner
24 days ago
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PinePhones Start Shipping – All You Need To Know

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Welcome to 2020. I expect this will be a productive year and one of exponential growth for our community. It was a busy beginning to the year and I expect that the pace will remain high with shipments of the Pinebook Pro and PinePhone Braveheart edition as well as FOSDEM announcements. Following this period there will be downtime due to the Chinese New Year. The past 12 months have been so intense...

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rosskarchner
34 days ago
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Ordering a Pinebook Pro has been an emotional rollercoaster
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JPEG2000

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I was actually a little relieved when I learned that JPEG2000 was used in the DCI digital cinema standard. I was feeling so bad for it!
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rosskarchner
36 days ago
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2 public comments
Cognoscan
35 days ago
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My favorite image standard! Dynamic quality loading could've been so useful, but computers didn't have the memory to run it when it first came out, and the benefits of dynamic quality proved difficult to realize with the way browsers downloads images... alas, what could've been. Now we're moving on to JPEG XL, I guess.
alt_text_bot
36 days ago
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I was actually a little relieved when I learned that JPEG2000 was used in the DCI digital cinema standard. I was feeling so bad for it!
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