Bruce Sterling's Distraction, the Internet, and Media Manipulation

Distraction by Bruce Sterling

Who would ever have thought that internet bots could be programmed to spread disinformation, especially to sew political dissent? Oh yeah, Bruce Sterling did a couple decades ago in Distraction. In the context of the 21st century, it doesn't seem like much of a revelation,  an alarming number of people have a mixed-up read on reality, judging what's real as fake and what's fake as real. Sterling had it right, people are equally impressionable and manipulable, and email, a message delivered right to you, is a perfectly engineered medium for social engineering hacks. People have been falling for mail fraud ever since the pony express took to the trails, accepting as truth messages that forecast the end of the government or the end of Christianity, morality, liberalism, whatever.

You Do What they Tell Ya

Why? Because most people are wired to believe what they're told. Our long genetic history has selected toward those who accept a herd mentality. If you do what everyone else is doing, you've got a better chance at survival. So, when most people get a letter in the mail that tells them to send money to keep the evil whoevers at bay, they do it! In Distraction, Sterling takes media manipulation to what at first seems a ridiculous level, with political activists manipulated by spambot messages to assassinate political figures. But rather than ridiculous, internet radicalization has become part of our reality. Americans regularly check out of the democratic experiment to join ISIS, of all things. Some people find ISIS recruiting videos and feel solidarity with the desert-dwelling militant terrorists, finding purity in a political movement qua religious extremism.

Bruce Sterling

Disinformation Campaigns

ISIS spreads disinformation the same way that Sterling depicts the United States spreading disinformation in Distraction, waging a war as a publicity stunt against the Dutch, because the Dutch are "provocative . . . radical" (Distraction 63). Sterling understands that the politics game is often played to create certain perceptions, to maintain control over optics, to stay ahead of the narrative. New technology will never change the game. It just changes where the game is played.

Hack the Hackers!

In the '90s, it didn't take long to figure out that the internet wasn't some paradisaical zone free of society's bottom feeders, predators, grifters, perverts, zealots, and the like. In The Hacker Crackdown, Bruce Sterling discusses the FBI's frenzied response to the threat of hackers at the beginning of the '90s, an often misguided focus, like raiding the offices of Steve Jackson Games because of their GURPS Cyberpunk roleplaying game that was somehow mistaken as a legitimate threat to the communications and power infrastructures of the United States. At the early stages of hacking, the FBI was mostly worried about the wrong kind of hackers, hobbyists and kids copying data as digital trophies.

Wait, we can Make Money Through the Internet?

Even though the effete hackers of the '90s were happy to break past the security systems of telephone companies and print out their Kevin Mitnick was here messages deep in company territory, other entities viewed the internet as a serious place to further their agendas. Corporations picked up on the internet as a medium for impressing their brands on fast. Even if most corporations were long myopic to possibilities for eCommerce, they got there eventually and turned the internet as information and entertainment space into a more complex grid with stores layered throughout. The internet became a digital mall. Governmental sectors were slower moving and are still not properly harnessing the power of our instantaneous global communications and information network. One wonders, for example, why voting doesn't take place on the internet.

It doesn't, because it doesn't have to. Our plutocratic government employs all of the Oscar Valparaisos it needs to strategize and employ systems of distraction to keep the sheep looking anywhere but up to those responsible for continuing to defraud the population in return for corporate payouts.

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