In the Clickstream, Part 6

(This is the sixth and final episode of a piece of serial speculative fiction attempting to explore what future database composition might look like. For context, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.)

The Cadet system of communication is secure and monitored, but otherwise not much different from the way civilians use the net. Their browsers are larger, perhaps twice the size of the latest model civilian information appliance, but still small enough to slip into a cargo pocket, with the bulk coming from the weatherproof hardened frame and soldiers’ need to thumb the screen in gloves in field environments. The distributed public database that stores their compositions is the same network used by civilian universities, albeit with a firewalled secure area for Cadets’ projects for their Department of Military Instruction classes and other secure-classified topics. It’s browsable by those outside higher education, but even for those who haven’t used it, the concept is likely familiar: projects incorporating a variety of forms of information — writing, visuals, tabular data, video, spreadsheets, music and audio, interactive — are sorted and cross-indexed into various categories and tagged with keywords by authors and users. Users can add comments in a similar variety of formats and rate and rank the projects, and the database automatically creates maps — clickstreams — of the the associational trains of links between projects and tracks the traffic on those clickstreams. In a remarkable hybrid of the song remix and the debates that range across academic journals, users create their own projects building on or responding to other projects, quoting and paraphrasing and parodying and mashing-up, and tag the associated clickstreams, so that one can map over time the emerging parameters of a discussion or argument in the informational topography of the database. When used as a tool for managing information, it’s immensely complex and powerful, and Cadets have an entire plebe course dedicated to teaching them the various methods for navigating it, as well as a cow course — mine, Database Composition — teaching them the most productive ways of manipulating and adding to it.

What the military didn’t count on — what nobody counted on — was that somebody would do the same with the swarms.

The concept behind secure wireless armed redundant munitions was ahead of its time in one way: it was battlefield automation adapted to networked, distributed technologies. Tiny airborne drones, highly navigable, with wirelessly networked processors working in parallel. With reliably secure broadband wireless being line-of-sight, though, they can’t operate autonomously, and they can’t operate more than three meters apart. From a distance, they look like small, shimmering, olive-drab clouds, hovering just above the ground. They travel quickly, with enough power to operate for perhaps a maximum of five hours. The Army and Air Force impulse, of course, was to weaponize them; the airborne and automated 21st century equivalent of antipersonnel mines, set to recognize and avoid the IFF tags on friendly troops and vehicles and go after what the Air Force, in a particularly vile turn of phrase, calls soft body targets. They were designed as a counterinsurgency tool, with small-caliber weaponry to be used against unarmored or lighly armored foot soldiers, but there was an immense and deserved outcry from Amnesty International and other organizations about their indiscriminate nature. Even many of the military faculty here at the Academy expressed grave reservations that deployment of such devices violated the Geneva Convention.

Their effectiveness in the joint exercises in Northern Australia remains a matter of debate. The effectiveness of the LTTE variants against the Indonesian military does not: the LTTE versions are lighter, faster, and cheaper without the weaponry apparatus. Instead, they carry cameras, microphones, imaging IR and milirad, GPS, and an array of electronic communications eavesdropping equipment, complemented by a large-capacity hard drive: they can’t crack Army crypto, but they can monitor transmission duration and direction and signal strength, gauge movement patterns and distance, and store it all for upload back to a database two to three hours later. In effect, they’re doing what cadets do with the clickstream: shaping an immense cross-indexed evolving data picture of the military operations of their opponents, and then setting up their own insurgency operations as an overlay on that evolving data picture. And what doesn’t get used tactically as the basis for military operations gets recycled for strategic use: video and audio as the basis for propaganda messages broadcast on LTTE pirate video. The combination of these tactics — distributed management of information and affect; the automated counterpart to the Army’s use of the clickstream and service learning and community literacy projects — was brilliant, and it worked: now, for the first time in the history of the conflict, the LTTE has our ally in retreat. It’s not difficult to see why Air Force is embarrassed enough to want to try and shift the blame, and because of her high profile and public association with an ethnic Tamil, Mala’s been chosen to take the fall.

I’m getting increasingly uneasy about the passage of time, and I’m concerned about how quickly Mala can write. Three hours is about the maximum we can afford before this thing blows up. I check again, and her stream’s up to one hundred and thirty spings: most from the Academy and Indonesia and various Army bases, but nine from Washington and another fourteen from just across the river in Arlington, plus six from Colorado Springs. I use an alias to query her TAC’s chat client for a split second, and he’s in his office. Cadets are in class, but subnets from the barracks say there’s a lot of online activity coming from her Company office, which likely means that the TAC — Major Maas — is seeing exactly what I’m seeing.

I walk down the hall to my boss’s door. It’s partly open. I knock and stick my head in: “Sir?” He looks up. My boss is an O-6, Colonel Baca, and I make my request. He’s clearly fielded a couple curious phone calls from higher-ups about the emerging awareness of the situation, but doesn’t yet know the full extent. I give him the background. When I use the phrases “aid and comfort” and “how it might reflect on the department,” he stands up and takes his beret from the wall hook. We’re off to the barracks to see Cadet Casey’s TAC, but not before I’ve thumbed a coded away message on my chat clients that’ll give her a cue.

It’s only mid-morning, but in our respective duty uniforms — slacks and collared cotton shirt with tie for me; green Class B for him — we’re streaming sweat by the time we get over to the Company orderly room. It isn’t much better inside, with an air conditioning system even more antiquated than the ones in the academic buildings. Cadets Cohan and Nestor are there, and they stand up when COL Baca enters the room. In his office, we see MAJ Maas do so as well. “Carry on,” the Colonel says. “Jimmy,” he says to MAJ Maas.

“Sir,” MAJ Maas says. “Please, come in.” COL Baca motions for me to follow and I gesture at the door. MAJ Maas nods. I shut it behind us and the three of us sit down. “Sir,” he says. “Professor. We got us a mess here, and I got no idea where my cadet is. Professor Edwards was the last one to see her, and looking at what she’s got going on here” — he turns his browser screen for us to see — “well, I don’t truly know what to make of it, sir.” We look more closely. Mala’s clickstream is at over three hundred eighty spings and rising, with spikes in the last half hour from New York City and Silicon Valley and the Bay area: the tech crowd and the news organizations are starting to pick up on something happening, as well. And a string of hits from Jaffna, Aceh, Papua. “Professor Edwards?” he asks. “It looks like these here” — he points to the screen — “are things she did for your one of your classes, but this” — another point — “is for an AIAD.”

I nod. “Yes,” I say. “Old work she did for me; earned her an A in the course. And that’s the Sri Lanka wrap-up and associated research project she did for LTC Fensis.”

“That’s where a lot of the noise is coming from, Sir,” he says to COL Baca. “I won’t lie to either of you: this was looking like an honor violation, and I’ve already had three Cadet honor officers in here talking to me.” He sits back in his chair and steeples his fingers. “Gentlemen,” he says. “This is looking much, much worse.”

COL Baca stands up, walks over to the window, and looks out, his hands clasped behind his back. “We know what it looks like, Jimmy,” he says. “We know exactly what it looks like.” Nobody needs to say the word. “But you’ve seen from what you showed us that there’s doubt.”


“Considerable doubt.”

“Sir,” MAJ Maas begins, his tone a query. COL Baca turns back to face him. “There’s also this.” He points to two extremely recent nodes in Mala’s clickstream, and I’m confused: two? What’s Cadet Casey doing?

We crowd around the screen. “Let’s see,” COL Baca says. MAJ Maas expands the first one, and Mala’s MLA-formatted text fills the screen, title centered: “Affectual Engineering and Psyops Applications of Re-Purposed Secure Wireless Armed Redundant Munitions: Winning Hearts and Minds Through Automated Information Management.” The tension I’m feeling unclenches some: she’s done exactly what she needed to do. MAJ Maas points to the epigraph, centered immediately underneath the title, and asks: “What’s that mean?” I grin. It’s the line from Juvenal’s sixth Satire: quis ipsos custodiet custodes?

“It means, ‘Who watches the watchmen?'” I explain. MAJ Maas gives a blank look in response, but it’s clear from the way COL Baca frowns that he gets the idea. As we scroll through the document, it’s clear that this is some of the best work Mala’s done. She begins from the Army’s 1949 four-volume analysis of the citizen-soldier and its inescapable conclusion that “posting a stupid man to the infantry is tantamount to condemning him to death” and offers a quick retrospective of the ways that information management and what she calls “affectual engineering” — getting populations on our side — have functioned in our numerous and varied conflicts, and then turns the corner and offers the LTTE’s repurposed swarms as the ultimate extension of that impulse. In so doing, she’s quite smart: she treats the Air Force’s loss of the technology and the fact that terrists back-engineered it as a premise and a given, rather than something to be proven or disproven, and so rhetorically removes it from the realm of debate. She offers, as well, a clear chronology and uses the first-person pronoun to place herself within that timeline only inasmuch as her encounter with the Sri Lankan military on her AIAD is necessary: she can’t disprove synchronicity, so she makes it irrelevant. In so doing, she’s changed the question from whether or how the technology was lost to the uses, misuses, effects, and potentials of the technology.

COL Baca exhales through his teeth. “This is looking less and less like what we thought it was, Major,” he says.

MAJ Maas is still working on figuring out the implications when there’s a sudden clamor and hubbub outside, and then a flurry of knocks on the door. “Enter,” MAJ Maas calls.

Cadet Cohan nearly falls into the room, then catches his bearing. “Sir,” he gasps. “It’s Cadet Casey.” He glances over his shoulder and backs out of the doorway and there she is at attention: ACUs, full gear, armor, a sweat-soaked strand of hair curling across her brow.

“Sir,” she says. Two thirty-inch steps forward into the room and then halt, one heel sharply against the other, legs and spine straight, chin up, left hand with fingers curled and thumb touching the side seam of her ACUs just above the cargo pocket. Her right arm whips up, forearm and palm and fingers extended in a straight plane from elbow to eyebrow, and she holds the salute: “Cadet Casey reports as ordered, Sir.”

There’s something interesting going on with the Major’s jaw, a sort of closed-mouth elliptical motion, for a few seconds before he returns the salute and in so doing lets her drop hers.

I’m startled when he doesn’t tell her to stand at ease. I’ve seen Cadets brace and haze other Cades, but I’ve never been present at an instance of this form of TAC/Cadet discipline. MAJ Maas is the type whose fury comes across as icy, clenched, thoroughly professional. “Cadet Casey,” he states. “This interview, in the presence of witnesses, constitutes an approach for clarification.” COL Baca nods slightly: this is the way he would have done it, as well. “Are you aware that material written by you may be or has been construed as a possible violation of the Cadet Honor Code?”


His lower lip gets a little tighter. “And are you aware that you are now the subject of an ongoing UCMJ investigation” — he pauses — “of the utmost gravity and possible severity?”

I see her take the breath, mouth closed, eyes straight ahead. “I am now, sir.”

He calculates. He knows the expected next move: the thundered abuse, interrogation, demands, accusations. He’s seen what’s going on in the clickstream. Outside, in the orderly room, the phone starts ringing.

He opts for economy. “Cadet Casey,” he says. “You’ve missed three morning classes. You are not without knowledge of the trouble you’re in.”


“Stand at ease.”

She shifts her feet to shoulder-width apart and her arms snap up behind her, elbows out and open palms overlapping at the base of her back. Her head and eyes follow him as he points to his browser screen. “What is this?”

“It’s an essay, Sir,” she deadpans. Her timing is peerless: she lets it hang just long enough, and continues. “A prospectus for a senior thesis project based upon my AIAD experience with LTC Fensis.” Pause. “Have you read it, Sir?”

The three of us nod, though her words are ostensibly directed toward MAJ Maas.

“Sir,” she says. “Jihadists are constructing video essays explaining their motivations that use swarm footage as support for their assertions. We’ve been working the community literacy and service learning projects, and the one genre everyone’s familiar with are the circulating home-burned jihadist DVD narratives incorporating all this stuff. They’re winning hearts and minds and winning the war because they’re controlling the way knowledge of the conflict evolves as a social process, and all we’re doing is using these things as guns. This is the opposite of whig history, Sir, the opposite of the teleological end-state narrative” — I see MAJ Maas start to lose her, and scowl as hard as I can, hoping she sees it — “in that we’re acknowledging there are things we don’t know and working with that not-knowing as a motivating force, as a way to make it clear we want to acknowledge the affective value that this information holds, to use it to publicly pose a solvable problem, rather than sending armed autonomous automated munitions into their villages.”

MAJ Maas doesn’t respond.

“Sir,” she says. “The way we’re using them now, armed and autonomous, is what’s losing the conflict.” The second part of her thesis doesn’t have to be stated, because it’s what we’ve just read: the LTTE’s strategy of open information distribution for the purposes of affect management is what’s winning.

He’s quiet for a moment, then turns back to the browser screen, collapses one node window, and opens the second, the one that confused me. “What’s this, then?” he asks.

I scan the first few lines. First person narrative. Historical. Moves towards exposition at the end of each paragraph, closing with implications and leading on to the next paragraph’s new portion of narrative. It jumps around: her AIAD, process writing on the first swarms piece, Tim, and her uncertainties about what she just wrote. She’s done my advice one better: she’s written the academic argument, and then she’s written the reflection on the historical and material and political implications of her struggles in composing that argument.

She’s written a personal essay about what she just went through.

“It’s reflective writing, Sir,” she says. “Professor Edwards assigns it sometimes.”

MAJ Maas turns to me. I don’t have any idea how to explain to him that reflective writing, in the form of the personal essay, can be a tool for managing information, a tool for managing affect. That it’s a local-scale equivalent of database composition. COL Baca is working through the first several paragraphs when both our eyes catch the spingcount at upper right as it turns over from three digits into four: Mala’s personal essay has more than a thousand people tracking it from all over the net. We’re rapt, and MAJ Maas sees it too. One thousand eleven. One thousand fifteen. One thousand sixteen. One thousand eighteen. And up.

“Holy hell,” MAJ Maas blurts.

Two months later, I’m pulling into the lower parking lot at 0640, trying to catch some of the pre-dawn cool, and I see Cadet Casey crossing up toward the Plain from the riverside athletic courts. She detours and smiles. “Sir,” she says.

“Cadet Casey,” I reply. “You’ll be happy to know the thesis proposal was approved. It looks like you’ll be working with me come fall.”

She grins. “Hooah, Sir.”

“Did you branch yet?” I ask.

“Signal Corps, Sir.”

We walk over to the railing at the edge of the lot. There’s the first faint light of dawn on the Hudson. We’re quiet for a moment.

“It’s a pretty ring,” I venture. She smiles.

“Is Tim’s family coming?”

“Yessir,” she says. “But not for another year, Sir,” she explains. “I mean, for the wedding.”

“Will you go anywhere?” I ask. “I mean, for the wedding?”

It’s the wrong question. It’s not the question to ask when Tim’s culture and geography have been so erased by the ongoing war.

We’re quiet for a while again.

She turns. “Gotta go, Sir,” she says. Her heels hammer up the concrete steps toward the Plain.

After a bit, I walk up to my office and put on a pot of coffee and turn on C-SPAN for the Air Force hearings.

In the Clickstream, Part 6

One thought on “In the Clickstream, Part 6

  • March 25, 2007 at 11:47 am

    …I don’t have any idea how to explain to him that reflective writing, in the form of the personal essay… That it’s a local-scale equivalent of database composition.

    Damn straight!

    Nice, nice ending to a really imaginative story.

    I hope you keep doing this kind of work so that we can all colonize it. Have you considered submitting this kind of work for publication?

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