Now that America will soon start its “withdrawal” of troops from Afghanistan, the brainiacs over at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, have developed Nexus 7, which, “aims to tap that data [“exabytes” collected by American troops during the war] to find out more about the U.S.’ alleged friends: the people of Afghanistan, and how they interact with their government and with one another.” Much of this data also comes from America’s amorphous and ever growing intelligence apparatus:
On the military’s classified network, however, Darpa technologists pitch Nexus 7 as far-reaching and revolutionary, culling “hundreds of existing data sources from multiple Agencies and Services” to produce “population-centric, cultural intelligence.”
They boast of Nexus 7’s ties to special operations and to America’s most secretive surveillance groups, and its sophisticated tools to “perform automated cross-correlation and analysis of massive, sparse datasets — recomputing stability indicators within minutes of new data updates.”
In practice, that means Nexus 7 culls the vast U.S. spy apparatus to figure out which communities in Afghanistan are falling apart and which are stabilizing; which are loyal to the government in Kabul and which are falling under the influence of the militants.
As if this does not sound frightening enough, tracking the movements and actions of an entire nation some 7,000 miles away, someone with intimate knowledge of the project ominously asked, “Let’s take that God’s-eye view…Instead of tracking a car, why not track all cars?” Such a mindset is a cause for great concern. Following the deadliest month for Afghan civilians in the history of the decade long war, has American imperialism become so cold and calculated that the Afghan people are not only shown a disregard for life, but their liberties as well? And if this project can be done halfway across the world, how much longer until Americans are mere cogs in a “population centric” model?
Just another sign of imperialistic indulgence, Nexus 7 does such things as gathering data on “exotic vegetables — those grown outside a particular district that have to be transported further at greater risk in order to be sold in that district — can be a useful telltale marker.” In the progressive spirit of new-American nation building and counterinsurgency tactics, “old-school metrics like body counts” were being focused on too much, said Major General Michael Flynn. A better indication of hatred for an occupying force, and therefore stability, than the price of exotic vegetables would be the number of innocent civilians killed. Amazingly, seeing one’s friends and family blown to unrecognizable bits is not conducive to stability. Yet such statements are not all that shocking coming from a man responsible for sending boatloads of innocent Afghans to Guantanamo Bay while maintaining that “we were sending the right folks” despite being proven otherwise.
The problem with Nexus 7, besides the premise of the decade long occupation itself, is that it is quantitative in nature. Then again, this problem seems to be permeating the social sciences everywhere: whether it be “forecasting” the American economy 10 years from now or predicting the Congressional breakdown in 25 years. People are not static: their thoughts and opinions, motivations and actions, desires and wants, are constantly changing. All it takes is one black swan to make a complete mockery of the modern day School of Quantification of the Cogs. Perhaps what is most frightening about all things quantitative is that the human element of just about everything disappears. It’s no longer about helping the devastated Afghan community, but about ensuring a quality cost-benefit analysis.
This is precisely why the Nexus 7 project is flawed at it’s core: if it can’t be neatly plotted on a graph, out the window it goes, no matter how valuable the information:
Step one was to dive into SIGACTS, the military database that contained accounts of nearly every firefight American troops fought. (The information later formed the bedrock of WikiLeaks’ “war logs.”)
Drizzled between the gun battles were occasional accounts of villages stabilized and town elders met. But, written as random notes, the accounts were hard to insert into a database. There was nothing consistent, nothing you could plot as a trend over time.
“These were intelligence reports, not measurable data,” the source says. “The population-centric information wasn’t to be found there.”
These “technogeeks” and the military-intelligence establishment’s disregard for the basic dignity of the Afghan population can effectively be summed up in a self-addressed question and answer,
Why bother holing Nexus 7 up at a stateside test bed, one person familiar with Nexus 7 asks, “when you can give it to a company in Afghanistan and get 1,000 times the number of observations? It’s not like these are weapons. If it doesn’t work, the worst that happens is it doesn’t work.”
How empowering it must be for the Afghan people to have the all encompassing “God’s eye-view” watch everything that they do, from vegetable prices to car routes to meetings with tribal elders. But if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Data must be collected at any and all costs for a science fair winner on steroids that just happened to tickle DARPA’s fancy. Any dissent from the Afghan people will promptly be ignored, unless it is quantifiable, of course.
Perhaps desperate for some accomplishment, the military-intelligence establishment is making a last ditch effort at turning around the war in Afghanistan. Rather than acknowledging the difficulty, if not impossibility, of turning a country stuck light years in the past into a thriving Western democracy hostile to al-Qaeda, the blame has been laid on human intelligence. And while the intelligence community’s performance in Afghanistan has been lackluster, a computerized model will not do much better. Like all hubristic empires on their way out, hope still remains:
“If you get transparency [Nexus 7], you don’t need boots on the ground.”
But you will need some drones in the sky.