Total Information Awareness, Reprise

A few more thoughts on the massive NSA database of every domestic phone call, ever, in the United States…

The database actualizes what was once only theory: DARPA’s defunct Total Information Awareness project, which sought to “counter asymmetric threats [i.e. terrorism] by achieving total information awareness.”

Awareness of everything, godlike omniscience.

Is this the only way neo-cons can imagine protecting Americans from terrorist attacks?

Forget Total Information Awareness, this is Total Imagination Failure.

Another disturbing aspect of the NSA’s database is that General Michael Hayden, now Bush’s nominee for the head of the CIA, was in charge of it. Hayden is not a retired general. He is still on active status in the U.S. Air Force. So what we had here with the NSA (and what we might have with the CIA) is a military officer running a civilian organization. It is yet another chilling example of the militarization of domestic, civilian life.

There’s a reason the founders of the Constitution made a civilian (the President) the Commander-in-Chief of the military. Men with guns need to be kept in check. Because men with guns will eventually use those guns (and tanks and planes and phone records). Ironically, nobody recognizes this more than the neo-cons, who see Iran’s nuclear ambitions as de facto evidence that Iran will eventually deploy those nuclear weapons.

Again, Total Imagination Failure.

Story-Space-Surveillance Triangle

My posting the other day about DARPA’s now-defunct Total Information Awareness project inspired me to rethink a New Media course I’ve been designing, using the concept of TIA as one of the three themes for the course.

The technology that DARPA proposed in its Total Information Awareness program is an example of what Laura Marks calls “invisible media” — the surveillance-based, database-driven media of the military, the healthcare industry, and financial institutions that are ubiquitous but hidden from everyday view. ATM cameras, pharmacy records, credit card transactions, E-ZPass sensors — these and other technologies document our nearly every move. In a recent episode of FOX’s 24, one character at the Counter Terrorism Unit had a live feed from a local hospital’s operating room piped into her desktop. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

What is the relationship between these invisible media and the more “traditional” new media like hypertext and digital art installations celebrated by academics and new media theorists?

To answer this question, I first want to suggest that popular versions of new media theory have thus far primarily focused on one of two ways of understanding new media: (1) as an innovative way to tell stories (like Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck); or (2) as a space, where virtual structures are created and experienced (and often, contested, as Henry Jenkins argues).

These two terms — story and space — form a neat pair, but I think the line that runs from one to the other represents only a fraction of the power of new media. I see story and space as the two points of an inverted pyramid, a pyramid that only looks like a straight line; underneath this line the two points converge upon an upside-down apex. This is the third term, hidden beneath the surface of the other two. It is invisible media.


This Story-Space pyramid is the central image in my course for understanding new media. Very quickly it becomes apparent that each pair of terms on the pyramid generates other terms, which then become additional keywords framing the class. For example, the drive toward narration and the mechanisms of invisible media produce what Mark Poster calls “superpanopticons,” vast databases in which our identities and life stories are constructed in our absence and without our knowledge. Invisible media also map information onto space, creating “augmented space.” This is physical space, according to Lev Manovich, onto which streams of data are overlayed. And of course, the terms story and space interact with each other and manifest themselves in architecture, landscape design, urban planning, but also in software packages, video games, and so on. All of these terms in turn generate new sets of concepts with which to approach and critically discuss new media.


Twenty years after the Police’s Synchronicity, the word finally seems to have entered everyday language. One of UPS’s new slogans, which I just saw on the side of a brown truck in Philadelphia, is now “Synchronizing the World of Commerce.”

I know what “synchronizing” means, I guess, but what does that slogan mean? Why does the world of commerce need to be synchronized? Is it out-of-synch?

I suddenly began thinking of all the ways we know use the word “synchronize”—we do it with our Palms and Pocket PCs, our email accounts, our files, anything where we have multiple copies of something and one is more recent than the others. (Ignore for the moment the out-of-date and oh-so-nineties N-Sync.) Synchronicity here deals with time. Something that has been synchronized is now closer to the present (and thereby, on the near edge of the future) than something that has not been synchronized.

With the UPS slogan, however, a new dimension has been added to the essence of “synchronize.” That dimension is the dimension of space, for that is what UPS is known for: moving objects through physical space. UPS’s new slogan extends UPS’s dominance to the dimension of time. “Synchronicity” is a marriage of time and space, or really, the fantasy of enfolded space. A sort of time warp, where information travels instantly because space is folded on itself. What we have here is the dream of instantaneous information (made possible by UPS’s pioneering infrastructure). I find this vision very close the the fantasy of total complete information. The new media theorist Stuart Moulthrop has written about the “game of perfect information“—that if we possess enough computing power and access to the best available data, we can make perfect decisions. Moulthrop was talking about this way back in the nineties, and he was eerily prescient of the Defense Department’s failed Total Information Awareness Project.

The UPS slogan articulates the same cultural tendencies that led Admiral Poindexter, the “visionary” behind the Total Information Awareness program, to pursue a means to “imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems.” This mission statement is so vague (not to mention grammatically difficult to parse) that it could apply to a corporation’s strategy for dominance in global commerce as well as to a nation’s “war” against terrorism.