Wednesday, March 25, 2015

ISRAEL/PALESTINE: Apartheid is to Pluralism as Desktop Computing is to the Internet

Caterpillar tractor being used to demolish Palestinian home.
(Source: Electronic Intifada)
I've just returned from two weeks in Israel/Palestine. The trip was centered in Bethlehem, and was focused on issues of peace and justice in Israel/Palestinian. You can read multiple posts about the trip on the Faith in the Face of Empire blog.

In summing up what we were trying to get at with this trip, our principal host spoke of the Occupation by saying,

“The US provides the hardware;
the churches provide the software.”

The speaker was Mitri Raheb -- Lutheran pastor of Christmas Church in Bethelehm, co-author of the Kairos Palestine document, president of the Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture, and author of the acclaimed book, Faith in the Face of Empire: The Bible through Palestinian Eyes. (See “The churches provide the software”)

I was struck by his summary of the situation, in part because it so closely paralleled a fundamental statement in the recently released "A Global Security System: Alternative to War" from World Beyond War:

[Steps toward] dismantling the war machine and replacing it with a peace system that will provide a more assured common security . . . comprise the “hardware” of creating a peace system. . . . [S]trategies for accelerating the already developing Culture of Peace, provide the “software,” that is, the values and concepts necessary to operate a peace system and the means to spread these globally. [emphasis added]

I find the "hardware/software" analogy extremely helpful. We are dealing with big systems: war, occupation, and Empire. Let's use the insights and organizing concepts of people who have been enormously successful at bending other big systems to useful and humane ends, in order to deal with these systems of war, occupation, and Empire.

We're all familiar with the ways in which the US provides the "hardware" of occupation -- to the tune of $3 billion annually. And certainly churches -- in the US and elsewhere -- provide the "software" of the Occupation in many and diverse ways.

By coincidence, I had the opportunity to attend a public screening of the film, 5Broken Cameras, here in Chicago last night. Much of the film consists of scenes of conflict between Palestinian civilians and members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and the discussion led by Prof. Daniel Eisenberg of School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) stressed the ways that evolving technology (including, but not limited to, digital motion photography) changes the terms of engagement between parties to a conflict.

It suddenly occurred to me: "Hardware . . . software . . . yes, and something else . . . . (What is it?)"

The IBM PC 5150
Two floppy disk drives! (What's not to love?)
It came to me in a flash: the Israeli idea of "security" is embodied in hilltop settlements such as Efrat, which are lined up with other settlements in a kind of strategic necklace, using all the old paradigms of security that rely on barriers and isolation, that inevitably lead to a harsh ruler and ruled dichotomy. This is the "desktop computing" of this situation.

But desktop computing is passé. There came a time, several decades back, when the great minds of information technology realized that desktop computing would be surpassed by systems of linked computers. Bill Gates famously sent a wake-up email to his staff about "The Internet Tidal Wave." Internet server supplier Sun Microsystems made the leap with "The network is the computer" -- which in turn meant that the most important attribute of any computer or computer system was its degree of "interoperability" with other computers and computer systems. And today even the least tech-savvy among us have learned to accept that the preponderance of information technology operates communally -- through "the cloud."

So: that "something else"("Hardware . . . software . . . yes, and something else . . . . (What is it?)") is a paradigm - a way of thinking about what constitutes the system, and what enables it to hang together as a system.

The fundamental paradigm of the Internet is actually much older the Bill Gates letter, the Sun Microsystems slogan, and the concepts of interoperability and "the cloud." It was articulated by a man named Paul Baran and it actually had issues of peace and war in mind.

From "What is Packet Switching?" on the Digital fewsure site.
Paul Baran was helping to think about how to provide a communications system that would be adequately "hard" (secure) in the face of potential nuclear attack. By thinking in a new way, Baran was able to help people see that a truly secure communications system -- one that could continue to function even when subjected to devastating attack -- was not the one with the biggest concrete shields surrounding its wires, but rather one that relayed information concurrently along multiple pathways. The key was "n ≥ 3" -- that is, if every message has the opportunity to traverse three (or more) pathways, the likelihood of the entire set of pathways being rendered impassible was reduced to nearly zero. This became the basis of packet switching, i.e. the method by which messages are transmitted over the Internet today.

Robust systems -- ones that are secure and vibrant -- have multiple different ways of doing the same thing.

I don't know exactly what this implies for the desired paradigm -- the way of thinking about war, occupation, and Empire that will supplement the notions of "hardware" and "software" -- but it seems to me that it adheres roughly to the logic,

apartheid : pluralism ::
desktop computing : the Internet

And one thing is for sure: we can't begin to say what the "new and improved" hardware or software looks like until we get our minds around the overarching paradigm that we are all working toward.

Perhaps others will elaborate.