A Tower of Babel

tower of babel

Tower of Babel, by Marta Minujín

The Book of Genesis relates the story of a time when the world shared a same language. With this common language the people of Babel attempted to build a tower to reach heaven. The account reveals that by divine design, or a mysterious ingrained mechanism, no single earthly power gets away with building an echelon system: In biblical terms, of reaching heaven and playing God. As soon as an earthly power does, there is a built-in mechanism that sets in motion a dynamic to destabilize any totalitarian endeavor. The story shows that the Lord’s intervention resulted in multiple languages, confusion and eventually division.

In today’s world, Edward Snowden’s revelations about global surveillance presents a comparable paradox: That any totalitarian endeavor is pointless. And that the biggest threat to national security will not come from a foreign enemy but will be the result of an internal agency’s efforts to establish a global data gathering system. Such an attempt will inevitably foster a multitude of firewalled networks all over the planet. This will lead to growing confusion, protectionism and economic chaos.

The definition of language does not limit itself to human speech, but to any signs or codes used as  means of communication between two or more entities. One example of a global language consists of codes making up the hypertext markup language (html, http, etc) that allows computers and other devices to communicate between each other in order to create the World Wide Web’s interface. These codes are subliminal, they are nonetheless a language. Unfortunately, the development of this omnipresent language has made it possible for political powers to monitor the whole world.

Prism and the Unfolding Schism

Timing is everything. And necessity is the mother of invention. As a result the Web became the most pervasive communication interface in the world. However, its global popularity does not mean that other protocols could not be developed and adopted by different corporations and states in the future.

The attempt to collect and store all data, including secret communications of foreign countries, companies and individuals has created an atmosphere of distrust. Many countries and organizations that have had their sovereignty violated will undoubtedly take some measures to counteract any further spying. Some countries may have already done so. Some organizations will no doubt go as far as create a separate network. It is rumored that the military has already put in place a communication system similar to the original ARPANET, parallel to the current Net.

Among the democratic countries affected by the spying that is more likely to take steps to neutralize the pervasive data gathering is Germany. A majority of Germans still remember the Berlin Wall that divided their nation between an eastern block and the west. Angela Merkel who is the current Chancellor of the country lived in the Soviet controlled East Germany. She witnessed firsthand, has did millions of other Germans, the horrors of a surveillance state. This system eventually collapsed. Nonetheless, the memories of massive surveillance and spying and the fact that the European Union has strong privacy laws will inevitably weigh toward an enforcement of these laws, and perhaps a bolder move to change the shape of the Net.

If Germany’s past is any guide for what might happen in the future then the current violation of the country’s sovereignty may hold some answers of what might unfold. Julius Gutenberg who invented the printing press was German. At the outset, the tool was used to print copies of the Bible. The spread of the Good Book was in part responsible for the rise in popularity of Martin Luther, another German, who stood up and rebelled against the centralized control of the Church in Rome. The rise of German nationalism and Luther’s Protestant rebellion brought about the greatest schism in the Church’s history known as the Reformation. It was followed by the Church’s own Counter-Reformation.

More recently, the 30th Chaos Communication Congress was held in Hamburg, Germany on December 2013 –the first congress was held in 1984, a year that has proven to be an eerie omen. The meetings have been organized by German based Chaos Communication Club (CCC). The organization consists of as association of hackers that among other things expose the security weaknesses of online networks and popular software programs. The subject of the last congress was mostly focused on the revelations of the NSA’s massive surveillance. The discussions centered on the threat posed by the agency. Some of the goals that have been set consist on how to slow the pace of global surveillance and perhaps restore some sovereignty of the Net. Tim Pritlove, one of the organizers, summed up the feelings of the congress in these terms:

What we need to do is reinvent the Net. We have to rethink the Net.

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PS: The image  above represents a work of art by Marta Minujín, appropriately entitled Tower of Babel. The structure stands seven stories high. It is located in Plaza San Martín, Buenos Aires, Argentina. The piece of art is made of a collection of 30,000 books written in different languages donated from 50 countries.

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