(This is the fifth episode of a piece of serial speculative fiction attempting to explore what future database composition might look like. For context, see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and Part 4. For excellent articulations of the fundamental principles underlying what might constitute database composition, see the work of Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Jeff Rice, and Derek Mueller.)
I open the door. Today’s Friday, a training day, when all Cadets should be in ACUs and gear rather than the dress gray. The uniforms of the three soldiers outside my door tell me a lot. One’s an MP, enlisted, Sergeant Restrepo, clearly uncomfortable. Like most base personnel who aren’t involved directly in some aspect of Cadet instruction, he’s in the Army’s conventional duty uniform of camouflage ACUs and black beret. Because he’s an MP, he’s got the powered composite body armor, the web belt with sidearm, and the black shoulder brassard. The two Cadets he’s with are upperclassmen, wearing their gray tunics with Cadet rank. Which means this is official, but there’s no actual officer above the Cadet chain of command with them, so that also means that on the Corps of Cadets side, they haven’t yet put everything together.
It also works to Mala’s advantage that I know both the Cadets. One, Cadet Nestor, was in a section of plebe composition I taught three years ago. Usually earnest and well-intentioned, but also a bit of a joker, she’s worked her way up the Cadet ranks to platoon sergeant status — which tells me something, as well: this has another few hours before it hits serious urgency. The other, Cadet Cohan, I recognize as well: a five-foot-tall martinet and Cadet Honor Sergeant who I’ve seen in two Cadet-run trials for violations of the honor code. I extend my hand to Cadet Nestor. “Amy!” I say. “How are you?” She shakes my hand, a bit bashful, clearly still working out how to best handle the situation. I make a show of looking at Cohan and Restrepo, then step back into the office and open the door wide. “I take it this isn’t a visit for facetime and essay help,” I say. It’s the bluff Amy would be expecting from me, and it’s also the response that gives Cohan the chance to look like a hardass. So I cut it off.
“I know,” I say. “It’s about Cadet Casey. She’s in trouble, and you missed her by about eight minutes.” Cohan gapes. Nestor regroups and nods. I make eye contact with Sergeant Restrepo. “Sergeant?” I ask. “Why are they dragging you along on a morning this hot?”
Cohan speaks quickly, before Restrepo can respond. “Sir,” he says, “It’s an evolving situation. Are you in contact with Cadet Casey?”
“Not currently,” I say. Technically, it’s not a lie: at present, Mala is low-profile and incommunicado. “Like I said, she was here not long ago, and clearly agitated over,” and I pause and borrow his word, “evolving honor concerns.” I turn to Amy. “She’s my student, Cadet Nestor. What kind of trouble is she in?”
Amy frowns. She doesn’t quite know. None of them do. “Sir,” she begins.
“Listen, Cadet Nestor,” I say. “I don’t want to waste your time, and I’ve got things to do. The three of you clearly need to find Cadet Casey. I’ll tell you what: if she’s in contact with me again, the first thing I’ll do will be to immediately send her to her chain of command, and the second thing will be to send information of that contact up the chain. Does that work?”
Cohan nods to Amy, and Amy nods to me. Sergeant Restrepo, with scant interest in the affairs of Cadet officers-to-be, is looking at the art prints on the walls of the English department’s halls. The Cadets are satisfied, thinking of themselves and the Cadet chain of command that exists primarily in the barracks as the only elements of Mala’s chain of command.
They’re mistaken. After Cadets Nestor and Cohan and Sergeant Restrepo depart — one can only assume for Mala’s B hour classroom in Thayer Hall — I sit down and relax. Faculty, both military and civilian, are components of Cadets’ chain of command, as well. While upperclassmen are deeply concerned with their own roles on the Cadet side of the chain of command and how they interact with their superiors and subordinates and their TAC officers, they sometimes forget the faculty aspect. And I’m hoping I’ve just exercised that forgetting to my advantage: I will, indeed, put Cadet Casey in contact with her chain of command, and send notification of that contact up the chain to my superior, who will likely be concerned about the allegations surrounding Cadet Casey and the way they reflect upon the department.
I open up my government-issued machine again, hoping Mala’s making progress. At this point, we don’t dare do email, but she knows a few of my civilian chat aliases, and knows the forums to check to find the others, so I window the six secure ones. After that, I go back to unsecure: the way to fight this, I know, is to make it clear what’s going on to as many people as possible; to proliferate the clickstreams, and then manage that proliferation of information to our advantage. The factor that’s giving her emerging prosecution its force is that it’s happening behind closed informational doors; that the prosecutors are relying on the classification of secrecy to limit and manage information, and thereby setting the argumentative context within which Mala’s allegedly treasonous writing rests.
Reframing means breaking it wide open. Disclosure.
The first batch is unsecure emails to six former students currently in harm’s way as lieutenants in Indonesia and Sudan. Tag this, I ask. Put it out. Distribute. It’s important. I direct them to Mala’s clickstream, and from hers to Tim’s. Another unsecure to LTC Fensis, who led the Sri Lanka AIAD. Two more unsecure to former colleagues, both majors, at the Pentagon’s planning offices. I’m hoping what might tip them off is that I’m in their address books as nonspam, but the military’s filters flag anything unsecure as dangerous, or hot. You see a flagged-hot message from someone you know in your inbox, you’re going to read it. Carefully.
In all these messages, I’m calling in favors, asking people for links, and for the proliferation of links. So doing is antithetical to the military’s sometimes paranoid style of information management and the attitude that top-down control of all information flows is the ideal.
Historically speaking, the Army has had its share of problems managing information. In June 1950, Task Force Smith lost more than a third of its soldiers in the first battle of the Korean War because of insufficient information and because of a complete failure to understand the motives and motivations of the forces they faced. Because of a failure of information and identification. It remains an arrogant and despicable failure. In October 1993, Task Force Ranger lost 18 soldiers and Somalis hundreds more in the Battle of Mogadishu. Because of a glut of information and identification. It remains a blot on the Army’s history. In March 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom began the massive and sustained loss of American and Iraqi lives, because of civilian command’s willful mis-manipulation of intelligence.
Database Composition, as a course, attempts to remedy such circumstances. It presents Cadets with immense volumes of information, some of it useful, much of it not, and asks them to publicly track their flows through that information, to track one anothers’ flows, and to make personal sense of that tracking. As public intellectuals whose work is available for all to see.
The impetus is threefold: first, the Army knows that Cadets are government employees. Any work they perform is public property. Second, the Army knows that bans on SNS don’t work: as the institutions I attended figured out years ago, you can’t keep up by banning the endlessly proliferative sites. Information will always burst its bounds. Third, and perhaps most important: database composition is a form of affectual data mining.
I finish my flurry of emails and key up my machine to download complete specs on the secure wireless armed redundant munitions. I’m assuming — hoping — that so doing will set off alarm bells somewhere. I check Mala’s stream, and she’s got sixteen new spings. So far, so good.
What’s key here, of course, is both the Cadet system of communication that surrounds Database Composition, and those secure wireless armed redundant munitions.
Which means, reader, I owe you some explanation, before I tell you what happens next.
(To be continued.)