Urbicide, cybercide and living memory

Is revision of history, so thorough that it is impossible to prove it, possible? The short answer, of course, is yes. In the past such revisions would take generations and coercion. In the future, as the bigger and bigger part of our lives relies on digitally stored information such revisions could be done in stealth and take less than a year.

Reality is that we rely on our digital extensions for long-term memory. We are constantly bombarded with new data and in order to cope with the data flood we need to use digital extension of our memory. And that digital extension is more prone to deliberate modifications and integrity attacks than the memory stored in our brains. (link to psychology study that shows people’s memory is unreliable)

Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s cyber department recently posted a link to a thought-provoking post with a slightly misleading and loaded title: “In cyber-war, you could change history at the touch of a button”. I initially put it into the “cyberwar hype” category, but the curiosity got the better of me, so I read further and got pleasantly surprised.

The article starts with a simple but succinct premise: Not all violence in war and conflict is simply strategic. And not all the destruction that takes place is a consequence of territorial or geopolitical objectives. Simple and obvious: the violence war leaves on people’s psyche is longer lasting than any demolished building. War ravages the mind more than it does the body.

The degradation of the urban environment, or urbicide, is one such action. This is the destruction or desecration of buildings, the eradication of public space, the attempt to erase history and memory through attacks on libraries and sites of historical importance.

This obviously mostly applies to armed conflict, but erasure of history is also prevalent when one culture tries to replace another and has been going on in peace as well as war. Some of it is more subtle and long lasting, such as when Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and reinvented pagan holidays with new, Christian names. It was a masterstroke, simultaneously keeping tradition and thus appeasing the conservative stream as well as making “new” holidays and thus ensuring the more revolutionary (Christianity) religion doesn’t clash too much with the old.

What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Roman adage ‘Nomen est omen’ (name is everything) runs deep.

Urbicide is not just about physically removing people from a territory, it is an attempt to erase any trace of their existence in that territory. It is rewriting the history books to justify one side of an argument.

And it happens with regularity over the course of human history. A lot of it is only via indirect recordings or via archaeological findings now. In peace time it is often retold through proverbs such as “History is written by the winners”. There are more or less cack-handed approaches to this blatant rewriting of reality, the most recent one being Japanese history schoolbooks revising WWII history. Such blatant revisionism is obvious and easy to counteract.

Of course as more and more information becomes digital-only, a new term needs to be coined. So why not Cybercide, defined as

the cyber-crime equivilent to [urbicide. It] is a relatively new concept but could prove to be an equally powerful tool as we become more dependent on digital services in our daily lives.‘

I often argue that the distributed nature of at least some of the information keeping nowadays makes us more resilient to most accidents and even some deliberate acts, but it’s still true in general that

In the race to digitize more and more aspects of our existence we might be failing to grasp the potential accidents and vulnerabilities on the horizon.

There’s a subtle approach preferred by eastern Europeans and typically known under Russian name of ‘dezinformatsiya’ (disinformation). In involves spreading deliberate lies with a core of truth through supposedly independent bodies in order to tarnish the target and shift perception. The west has latched on to this but too often mistakes true disinformation with Schopenhauer’s Art of Controversy or misinformation. The difference doesn’t stop there, but that’s for another post.

But, digital era makes old-fashioned disinformation all the more easy. Together with revision of history: >What if the aim is not to destroy a whole piece of literature, but to subtly alter the text, say of a school book to change its meaning or remove passages from disputed literature. These changes may not be noticed in time to prevent them from becoming conventional wisdom or perception. They could change a whole generation’s understanding of a historic event or specific social group.

If you think this isn’t already happening, you obviously haven’t paid much attention to the rewrite of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”. Of course it’s been happening for a long time, to wit Grimms’ Fairy Tales now are a pale shadow of what they were originally.