Stars and Bar Code Galaxies

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
5 February, 2019
Editorial: 279
Fecha de publicación original: 7 agosto, 2001

He who is without shame, all the world is his.

At the end of May US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, in one of those speeches worth casting in bronze, stated gravely at a press conference that, “US control of space is under threat from rogue states and terrorist groups which could attack our satellites at any moment endangering our national security”. Instead of giggling, journalists, with a cynicism that says very little in the profession’s favour, continued to seriously write down what he was saying. Rumsfeld went on to explain the object of his paranoid words: over the next few years, the US, and his ministry, plan to spend vast sums on armed satellites aimed at preventing attacks up there that might endanger the lives of people in, say, Connecticut.

Bush is selling this new turn of the military screw as an anti-missile shield, “Star Wars II”, after the one that helped Reagan dismantle the Soviet Union. But this time it might just backfire on him and wipe the electoral smile off his face. The US military machine is trying desperately to find a place in a post-Cold War world, where its air force deals with the hot wars and it no longer knows how to sort out military from civilian instrumentation. The fact that information, as far as infrastructure and content are concerned, has become the most important asset for all nations, means that virtual space has been reduced and more and more people sit down at tables previously reserved only for the industrially privileged.

There is a real problem here. The only empire still in existence after capitalism first made its appearance two centuries ago, is finding it more and more costly to go it alone. Since it refuses to sit down and talk to the rest of the world (a typical symptom of metropolis culture), it invests in security to protect its own territory. But this promises to open up a considerable social, political and economic breach not only between it and the rest of its allies (if they exist), but also within its own social fabric, which will be the first to suffer the consequences of these preparations for a non-existent threat.

Whatever the case may be (too many movies, pulp fiction or fantasy journalism?), the military say they are convinced and want to convince the rest of us too that there are powers in the world prepared to go to war against the US in space. Not just an occasional crack at a satellite mind you, but a full-on space war. This excuse just highlights the fact that the US, the only state in the first place with, for the moment anyway, the power to liquidate satellites in orbit, is trying to increase this capacity via “Star Wars II” after the debacle of the first version. Reagan’s programme didn’t develop any weapon worthy of its grand title, although investment in networked computers did bring the USSR to its knees. But things are different now: the Information Society stands on its own foundations in the sky. And this is where the imperial policies, doomed to create friction among the whole international community, are aimed.

The basic difference between the Information Society and the Industrial is precisely the fact that information, in the former, is contained in virtual spaces which it is impossible to fence off and is distributed via intricate and extremely complex technological frameworks. The tools for creating and operating in cyberspace are the same for everybody. And everybody in cyberspace has the same capacity for expression, exactly the opposite of what happened (and still happens) in industrial spaces, where the power of the media protects the privileges of those who control and direct it as well.

Despite this, it looks as though the US, and possibly some other states, are determined to go ahead and waste thousands of millions of dollars on the most futile military exercise in history. In the first place, everything we put into space, either to attack other satellites or protect them, is vulnerable from earth by attacks on communication centres, on telecommunications operators or the switches for the billions of fibre optics carpeting the planet’s subsoil or sea beds. In fact, the worst disaster of this kind so far in peace time has not yet been measured in economic terms.

Neither a terrorist attack nor the action of a “rogue state”, as the White House puts it, was needed. A simple mistake by an InterNic operator, the company that controlled registration of .com, .org and .net, while updating data bases, was enough to “blind” the e-mail traffic of millions of users one disastrous day in 1996. The problem was solved thanks to the Universidad de Los Andes de Venezuela. This institution was a node of the backbone network of the Internet via Comsat (linked via satellite) and redirected the e-mail traffic and restored the service. The US has never said what this “little favour” represented in economic terms.

This tiny slip could point to another category of potential enemies: hackers. But, given the way they operate, it is difficult to imagine them getting involved in the costly business of sending satellites into space to attack those that are already in orbit there. It would be much cheaper to send them off course via a cheap computer, something, which according to unofficial British sources, has already happened to one of her spy satellites. What use would it have been for it to have been armed to the teeth with particle beams or canons of neutrons? What neighbourhood would it have fired on when it detected its guiding system being palpated? If this story is true and those responsible have yet to be found, then what are the most efficient safety measures in a world where there are more and more interconnected computers which are more and more dependent on satellite communication? What would prevent the knock-on effect in the information structure which exploding one of these artefacts would result in?

In the second place, then, the most efficient cautionary measure –and the most peaceful– would be for all of us, countries, institutions, companies and citizens, to form part of the same communications infrastructure, both up there in the heavens and below here on earth. We would all share the same interest in protecting it because we all depend to the same extent on the way it works. This is obviously not what concerns those at the Pentagon. The fundamental preoccupation there is that, “If they can’t attack us with their tanks and planes, then they will definitely try to destroy our space system”. This is the logic underlying the financing of the missile shield and the numerous initiatives this involves in space.

If he carries on down this path, the main weapon Bush will construct is a boomerang that will fly straight back at him. The money that asphyxiated the Soviet empire, could now become the noose around his neck (as well as those that follow his lead), because the Cold War is over and the world, one way or the other, is taking on a multi-polar form, both in terms of its powers, as well as the different layers of politics that are becoming part of the Knowledge Society.

In an interview published in the Spanish newspaper El País a year ago (25/8/00), Vernon Walters, former head of the CIA and US ambassador to Germany when the Wall, which was meant to last a century, inexplicably came down, described the debacle of the USSR like this, ” Shortly after being appointed president, Ronald Reagan called a number of meetings to discuss, let’s call it, the state of the world. I attended these meetings as vice-director of the CIA. When his assessors talked about Russia he asked, “Could we use nuclear weapons against them?”. His assessors, as one would expect, advised him against this course of action: too many people would die in the process. Then Reagan asked, “Would we win a conventional war against them?”. The general consensus was that the conventional Soviet army was extremely powerful and that victory could not be guaranteed. Then Reagan asked what it was that the US had that Russia didn’t. And he answered that question himself: money. And it was money that brought Russia down. […] That was how the Star Wars project, which turned out to be extremely expensive, and other parallel projects, got underway.”

The question now is, who will get their fingers burnt by this new attempt to fill the galaxy with the stars and bar codes of such an imperial flag?

Translation: Bridget King