Tinker, Tanks, Social Media, Spy

By Cassie Tanks

Spy Dreams

My nose hovered above the glass. 

I leaned so close that the faintest traces of my breath condensed, gently distorting my view of erstwhile Cold Warrior and leader of the former Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. I wanted nothing more than to gently shimmy the case and watch the head of the man barred from Disneyland wobble to-and-fro. 

But I behaved myself. And the toy bobble-head Khrushchev remained still. 

Instead, I contented myself with studying the comically stout features and gleamingly bald head of the doll until… “Ma’am. Ma’am. MA’AM!”, a kind but insistent voice said to my left, “the museum is closing, thank you for visiting.” 

A cheeky Khrushchev bobble-head with an even cheekier quote.
From a Khrushchev-Kennedy exhibit at the International Spy Museum.
Photo provided by Cassie Tanks.

As I exited the International Spy Museum in the United States capital, Washington D.C, I retraced my steps past artifacts and documents of spy craft- fake passports, document and media forgery kits, disguises, and duplicitous gadgets. I spent more than six-hours absorbed in the exhibits and still planned to return someday. This museum tickled my childhood fantasies of being a spy and a curiosity that commanded a fair amount of space in my personal library (this book, this book, and this book are heavily dogeared examples). 

But the museum of deceptive information gathering and clandestine PSYOPS touched on something that affects both my chosen profession (I’m a “card-carrying” information specialist with an MSLS) and future academic-professional endeavors (I’m also an aspiring historian pursuing a PhD in World History): the continued weaponization of media and information.  

WNMs: Weapons of New Media

This weaponization of the mass availability and “democratization” of digital media and information that is happening not in the shadows of the internet, but in the full brightness of our screens. 

And this is nothing unique to the “information age.” In 2001, Lev Manovich grounded the understanding of “new media” (which many- especially those dear readers unburdened with a birth year that starts with “19”- would now just consider “media”)- in a compelling historiography of media that has evolved at the intersection of computing and emerging technologies to create media.

Ah yes- new media is equated with computing! So, we are talking way back in the 1960s, right?  

More like the 1860s. 

Manovich (and Audrey Watters’ in her equally fascinating/alarming book, Teaching Machines), explore the complex history of the intersection of media technology and “computing” machines. What appears to me though, especially when I reflect upon the Spy Museum and spy craft, is that the histories presented by both present a third element at that intersection- the manipulation of the psychological impact of media. 

Around the world, people clamored to consume (and be consumed) by new media. Audiences “who were facing an increasingly dense information environment outside the theater, an environment that no longer could be adequately handled by their own sampling and data processing systems (i.e., their brains)” and they found relaxation in the media which “became a routine survival technique for the subjects of modern society.” Here, Manovich is writing about Cinematographie audiences in the 1890s, but it could easily be an observation about any one of us.

The awareness and concerns of the mass psychological impact of media also massively predates Facebook’s psychological mood-manipulation experiments and alarm over media’s impact on democratic processes. In discussing “variability” (one of the five aspects that Manovich uses to explain what makes new media new), Manovich writes that new media is built upon a post-industrial model of “production on demand” that caters to the consumer’s desires and whims. He grounds this in the 1930s, when Theodor Adorno wrote of the dream of a “Culture Industry” in which “a customer might determine the exact features of her desired car at the showroom, transmit the specs to the factory, and hours later receive the car.”  

This has been made real by algorithms. By media-manipulation and editing software. By memes. 

This immediacy, the bespoke nature of new media, when combined with the psychological impact of media that has been weaponized (more on that in a moment), begs questions about both the work of contemporary (i.e. late 20th and 21st century) archivists and historians preserving and historicizing this media raised by Roy Rosenzweig. Will the overwhelming abundance, variations, and modes of media that society (and as memory workers) nearly drown in require careful culling and selection to create a “manageable” historic record? Or will the sheer volume of “new” new media lead to a critical scarcity in the historic record that requires the preservation of everything

What of the historic record?

I do not know.

The issues that arise with saving as much modern new media as possible is its usability, its searchability, and its contextualization to future researchers. Here, I am not advocating for the field of archiving to regress to a purely custodial approach to the field. But perhaps to address this issue by selecting what aspects of new media to preserve for the future, archivists, librarians, and other memory workers need to empower individuals and organizations to save and catalogue their digital historic records, and archivists instead can be connectors of these databases. (And, if I may have a “get off my lawn” moment: for the love of whatever you find holy, re-embrace the analog and print things out when possible because the digital is so much more fragile than the physical). But this can be seen as a similarly naive-optimistic view of society and the promise of the digital as what was being imagined at the turn of the millennium.  

Your girl sure does love the analog, despite interest in the digital. This aspiring archivist-digital humanist is pictured in the stacks of the UNC special collections.
Photo provided by Cassie Tanks.

And the flip side of this abundance? The concern of an impending cliff into nothingness in the historic record? Personally, I find this to be more of a concern.

If my intense nerd-out at the Spy Museum did not reveal this, I am a bit fascinated by power. And, as a result, reading the work of Manovich and Rosenzweig raised concerns about a black hole in the historic record of how the levers of society are being pushed, pulled, twisted, and bent by capitalist and government powers via new media. Thankfully, there are those interested in saving as much “new” new media as possible because that will yield important contextual information that can be examined using valuable digital humanities methods. 

But my concern is the algorithms. The board meetings. The reports of how adding a notification or a little “heart” like have tickled the addictive and self-gratifying parts of our brains to manipulate us into posting more. Scrolling more. Generating more data that can be used to fatten profits. In my opinion, this is what the “dream” of a “Culture Industry” in which showroom and factory are one and the same that has since been made a reality by modern computers has become.

While government archives and records management schedules are far far from ideal (how many government archives have had fires?), there is at least the chance that, in a state that strives towards a democratic process, that files will become declassified and available.

But corporate archives? Here is where I believe the scarcity, the empty moonscape of information and “new” new media archives, will really reveal itself. 

There is much to be said about this subject, and I am hopeful that the working thoughts that I have articulated above will deepen, grow, and become more nuanced. 

Information, new media, and democratic values

I want to end with this. I do believe and hold true to the belief that availability of, and ready access to, information is a cornerstone of a democratic society. And, I agree with Rosenzweig when he wrote that “the vision of democratic access also promises direct and unmediated access to the past”. 

New media propaganda? “New” new media memes?
A display of 20th century propaganda at the International Spy Museum.
Photo provided by Cassie Tanks

This is where my concern about the coming scarcity arises from. “New” new media is not unmediated, it is highly mediated and manipulated. This is nothing new to historians. Errol Morris articulates the danger of assuming only digital and digitized media can be weaponized, pointing out that human involvement in any media- extending back to the very first still images- needs critical skepticism. Morris turns to John Heartfield as an example of the long history of the concern over media weaponization, which in turn brings to mind the manipulation of U.S. Civil War still images

The weaponization of media and information is not new. We are at risk of being spied upon, duped, and tricked every time we wade into the bitstream. In the “information age” of “new” new media, the spy’s button camera and shoe-heel recorder have been replaced by proprietary algorithms, the sensual “honey pot” work of “Mati Hari” has been replaced by memes and “bot” accounts, and “black” propaganda campaigns are now viral digital media that can circle the globe in moments. 

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