You go about your life unaware of the digital shadow you cast… and it reveals more than you know. We know who you are. We know what you care about. We know who you care about. We know how much you make. We know your passwords. We know how to find you.
Algorithms can predict your interest, you desires, and even your fantasies.
You are not an individual.
You are a data cluster.
What does it mean to be an individual?
The simplest answer is to hold an identity. Some sort of sense about who you are. Defined against who someone else is. There’s you, and there’s everyone else.
The viral marketing campaign (digitalshadow.com) for Watch Dogs suggests something similar to the intelligence apparatus used to quantify and qualify agents worldwide:
You are not an individual. You are a data cluster.
Absolutely, there is some truth to this. People tend to think in patterns and act in patterns. They tend to believe certain narratives about who they are, where they come from, and where they are going. If you can, in a sense, quantify those patterns you can, in the same sense, qualify who that individual is.
Your identity, in a large way, is comprised of patterns which are very basically a data set. As in what you think and how you act is recognizable in the way that any pattern is recognizable. Think for a minute of your average thought. What is it?
Maybe you remember something from the past, imagine something from the future, or try to qualify what you experience in the present. There are probably certain images and thoughts which come up in your mind regularly and qualify the narrative of who you are.
Think of how we interpret other people for a second. It’s a snapshot of who they are really. We know what we’ve experienced of that other person through our encounters, the things they’ve said, the things we believe about them, and other things like this. Of course, that’s not who they are in full but it’s who they are to us. Essentially, we are abstracting a data cluster we have personally gathered and, with that same logic, qualified who we think they are.
Watch Dogs is a game coming out for most current and next-gen systems later this month. Though it’s being met with controversy from the gaming community for various misrepresentations and downgrades, I still have a lot of hope it will be a really cool game. And also that it will have very interesting commentary on our current situation.
From some of the trailers you can abstract a sense of this near-future Chicago setting. There is a grid wired by some high-tech system. It is called ctOS, which stands for Central Operating System.
ctOS is an interwoven electronic network which is, as they say, “dedicated to protecting you and your family.” I’d imagine this intelligence apparatus, being from the future, is pretty high-tech. It probably makes life in Chicago (and other major metropolitan areas) stream your digital shadow into the physical world. It also qualifies who is in the system and who is out of the system.
It arose in a few major metropolitan areas after the Northeast blackout of 2003 was revealed to be done by hackers. In this fictional retelling of the events, it spurred an obvious and necessary need for a heightened sense of security and a grid which catalogues everyone in it.
If you’ve seen any of the gameplay you know that Aiden Pearce, the protagonist of Watch Dogs, is able to use his cellular or mobile device to gather intel on various citizens, such as their name, occupation, and income. These things signify to Aiden who they might be and how they might be useful in whatever escapade the story will take him on.
But Aiden Pearce is an enemy of the state. Or so it seems anyway.
Pearce is what is called a grey hat hacker. Not exactly malicious, but not working for the security complex either. Possibly up to illegal activities, but not necessarily for the sake of personal gain. He is also an unassuming looking man. He is what might be referred to as a grey man, someone who can blend into surroundings without being seen, hiding his skills and intent.
There are some implied motions in the trailers which flag to us Aiden is out of the system, but acting within it. As in, he has broken free of ctOS and is essentially operating as an outsider. There is a group in the Watch Dogs narrative which seems to be held as a catch-all for those who have removed themselves from the grid and are acting as agents outside of it: DedSec.
DedSec is clearly based, at least in part, on Anonymous.
They are said to be a “secret society of hackers, serving [their] own brand of justice” and are basically those rogue agents who are in some way opposed to ctOS. Because the story has yet to be revealed in full, we don’t necessarily know how this dynamic plays out. Like Bane, they ask you to “take control of your city.” It is unclear what exactly that means. But one thing is clear:
Aiden Pearce is not DedSec.
He is Nobody.
A group of “patriots” are occupying Washington, D.C. in order to call for the immediate removal of a “tyrannical” government led by President Barack Obama and held in power by various other political players such as Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Hillary Clinton (who is expected to be the next President).
Their charge isn’t particularly new. In fact, if you were paying attention to the Bundy Ranch incident last month, it’s not a dissimilar narrative we are hearing from these people. These so-called patriots are part of a broader movement which sees the current government as lawless, corrupt, and effectively not representing the interests of the American people or acting within the bounds of the constitution.
They are calling this movement “Operation American Spring.”
Using similar language to the Arab Spring from early 2011, these people believe—or at least are hoping—that the first phase of their movement will be an unarmed, constitutionally based, and legal protest of the government. They plan on staying in Washington, D.C. until their demands are met.
If there is any modicum of success, this will be an interesting phenomenon.
Of course, there is much to wonder about here. Will they achieve any critical mass and be able to gather any serious media attention? Probably not at first.
An example of this was the Occupy Wall Street movement which started in New York City on September 17th, 2011.
After putting out the call for a mass civil protest and occupation of a public space, exactly like Operation American Spring, it took a long time for anyone to take notice. On July 13th, 2011 a group called Adbusters put out a call for some 20,000 people to “occupy” Wall Street. Realistically, there were many less in attendance on the first day, the second day, and the days which followed.
But in time, it grew.
It grew to a point where there were literally thousands of grassroots, independent occupations of various capitol buildings, public squares, churches, and general spaces all around the world. It resulted in thousands of arrests, much media attention, and also much opposition from people both on the left and the right of the political spectrum.
Interestingly, it was also suspected that Anonymous, the real-life hacker collective, had a hand in these events. Some, such as Andrew Breitbart, suggested Anonymous organized it in the first place.
Whether they did or did not doesn’t really matter. What matters is what it actually achieved.
Depending on who you ask, Occupy Wall Street either failed totally or somewhat succeeded in changing the political discourse. People compared it to the Tea Party Movement which started a few years earlier and gained its critical mass in the 2010 midterm elections. Frequently, people say that Occupy failed to achieve and political results, failed to put anyone in office, and failed to actually change anything.
A lack of a coherent message.
The first posters for Occupy Wall Street have a simple question on them: “What is our one demand?”
This question is stirring because if you follow anything serious in the world and don’t just care about the various entertaining distractions, there are almost too many issues to quantify and therefore put into a hierarchy. Is it inequality? Is it the climate? Is it corruption? Who really knows.
Regardless of anything else, it was an interesting social phenomenon which did, in fact, achieve something very tangible. I’ll get into that later.
First, let’s talk about DedSec for a minute. What exactly is it and who are they? Are they a threat to ctOS or just jokers having fun with technology in Watch Dog’s fantasy universe?
Al-Jazeera recently reported that heads of United States Intelligence agencies recently ranked the three biggest threats to national security. What are they?
1.) Cyber attacks on infrastructure
2.) Unauthorized leaks of classified materials
3.) International terrorism
Terrorists, Hackers, and Spies… oh my!
Indeed, this is a scary prospect to imagine. Characters such as Osama Binn Laden have been chief in our popular imagination as the enemy. But that image is evolving, perhaps slowly, to include new characters such as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and other whistleblowers such as Julian Assange.
Beyond that, we are also being told that people like those at the Bundy Ranch are “domestic terrorists.” It reminds me of the language used in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom when he called The Tea Party the “American Taliban.”
But these two still don’t account for the top-spot on the list. They are more or less the other two. Terrorists and spies. Who, exactly, are the hackers who will commit cyber attacks on our infrastructure?
That’s generally what’s so scary about DedSec.
Who exactly are they? What do they want? And even more nefariously, who do they work for?
It will be interesting to see how Watch Dogs tells this narrative. How they link DedSec to the broader culture and their fight or relationship with ctOS, and why they do the things they do. Perhaps there are things left unseen we simply don’t understand in our general discourse.
For all intents and purposes, I don’t get the feeling that our intelligence agencies see Anonymous as the top security threat to our nation. Mostly, Anonymous types are rogue jokers who “do it for the lulz.” They might hack Sony and other corporate entities, they might tag various government websites or shut them down for a little while, and other things of this nature. But I don’t get the feeling they’re the real security threat which bests Al-Qaeda and major security breaches such as the recent NSA revelations from Edward Snowden.
The question lingers. Who are they? I suppose that’s what it means to be truly anonymous.
Anonymity is what’s at stake with the recent revelations into our national intelligence apparatus. It has been revealed that our government is able to quantify who we are through metadata and essentially gather intel on any citizen anywhere in the world qualifying their identity and determining whether they are a threat. While you might be able to hide certain things about your identity you are, in sum, a data cluster—not an individual.
The average citizen, at least within the system, is being catalogued through metadata collection. To me, this is a very useful tool and I suspect will help us create a much better system design in the future. We will be able to move things like education, health, and wealth in a way which is measured not solely along individual lines but civilizational ones.
That said, I understand and even empathize with the fear many people share. In fact, I can even sympathize with the people who either wish it did not exist or want to fight against it.
With that in mind, there are a few things which are important to bear in mind. We are in a globalized economy which shares resources and distributes them in an ineffective way; we are on one planet and the resources we have are finite; and, most importantly, we are an interconnected species which should not hold to class, race, and creed distinctions that keep us separated. All those things are an illusion and all those things can be bridged with better systems designs.
So why exactly are there groups like DedSec in the Watch Dogs universe?
My guess is they are afraid of and wish to expose the corruption of the source of authority. Not at all unlike the American Spring and the patriot movement who refuse to recognize the validity of the federal government, there is something deeply wrong with the world and the design which is being imposed for future citizens (like their children and others).
It’s a scary world we live in currently, and if you believe the world is moving towards something more like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and less like Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, you might want to fight before it’s too late.
I subscribe to the latter position personally, but I certainly see where the former is coming from.
When we look back on the Occupy Wall Street movement, it’s easy to say they failed. But Russell Brand (of all people) made an interesting and true point. He said, “for the first time in a generation, people are aware of the idea of the 99% versus the 1%.”
Yeah, of course, who is Russell Brand to have an opinion on this? He’s just an actor, right?! Wrong.
But even Bill Clinton said something similar closely after the start of Occupy Wall Street. He said something to the effect of the protesters doing more in six months than he did in his whole tenure but that they also need to get more specific. By this, he means something similar to Brand. They changed the discourse in a major, substantial way.
The Young Turks, one of the most popular online news sources, recently did a report which talked about how the mainstream media has been discussing income inequality. Even in spite of the financial collapse in 2008, commentary on inequality between Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC was essentially at zero until after 2011.
Today, it’s talked about constantly. 2014 is the year in which the gap between rich and poor became a substantial talking point. We hear our politicians, media, and general talking heads discuss it every day.
All this in mind, who cares? What’s this matter and what’s it got to do with Watch Dogs?
Interestingly, a lot. To me it looks like the system set up in ctOS is sometime in the near future and it also looks like it’s after some sort of recovery and major growth spurt in which our societal design met serious technological advancement.
So the commentary in Watch Dogs seems to be taking into consideration the changes in discourse and the demands of the public to increase security and also progress facility. It’ll be very interesting to see how we get there.
That’s why I’m so curious about this game. It seems to be an interesting social analysis in ways that I think might go overlooked to many consumers. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit, but it seems like the creators were pretty smart in how they designed the plotline and I expect it will reveal a lot about their imaginations and their visions of the future. Their realities might be telling us something important.
In a world where we can abstract a person’s identity and fantasies through metadata, it’s fun to peak into their reality and see what they think is interesting. Consider my curiosity piqued. I want to know what DedSec is, who Aiden Pearce is, what ctOS is, and why there seems to be so much discord even in a hypothetical future with better systems designs.
Are you interested yet? I think you should be.
As an anonymous spokesman for DedSec says in the trailer:
“Citizens of Chicago, you have been told enough lies. It is time to hear the truth. You can be hacked. We have seen him. He is not DedSec and we do not defend him. He is proof that the ctOS network is flawed and you are vulnerable. One man has done exactly what we have warned you about.”
Is Aiden Pearce a terrorist, hacker, or spy?
“Now is the time to wake up.”
After all, who watches the watchmen?