Yasha Levine: Silicon Valley and “Communication Weapons of War”

Yves here. A little walk through Memory Lane shows how even on the propaganda front, Silicon Valley is relying on old wine in new bottles.

By Yasha Levine,the author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. Originally published at Substack

What a Western Electric advert from 1944 can teach us about Google and Facebook


I was in the New York Public Library recently doing research in the archives when I stumbled on a 1944 pamphlet from Western Electric, the old American techno-telephone monopolist. It’s called “Circuits for Victory” and its 40 glossy, slickly produced pages are dedicated to one thing: celebrating all the ways that the company’s telecommunication technology helps the United States government fight and win wars.

The pamphlet is a historical document, but if you squint at it right and replace “Western Electric” with, say, “Facebook” or “Google” or “Amazon,” you actually get an accurate sense of what Silicon Valley monopolies are today: privatized extensions of American Empire.

Since the dot com boom, Silicon Valley has been selling itself to the world as a new breed of global corporation — neutral platforms that sit on top of the world, unconcerned with and totally removed from American geopolitical and national security interests. The public believed it. Even Silicon Valley people believed it. It was the dawn of a new depoliticized corporate internationalism. It was all about a utopian technological revolution that would connect and empower people, regardless of their nationality or language. Indeed, Silicon Valley was supposed to make “the nation” obsolete.

Of course, this was always a transparent sham.

And perhaps the one positive thing that’s come out of RussiaGate — and the ridiculous mainstream belief that Russia attacked American democracy with Internet memes — is that no one believes this Silicon Valley global utopianism anymore.

RussiaGate forced Silicon Valley to publicly admit something that I’ve been saying for years — something that is at the core of the thesis of my book, Surveillance Valley: American Internet companies are not abstract global platforms, but privatized instruments of American geopolitical power.

It’s out in the open now. Even Google CEO Sundar Pichai admits it — and Donald Trump blasts it out to the world:

These days, the industry’s corporate utopian internationalism is being gradually replaced with something much closer to the politics that have always been in the background: a politics of patriotism and militarism.

And our political and media class is right along with them, and driving this change:

Democrats, Republican, diplomats, intelligence officials, journalists, and thinktankers of all types are now in full agreement: the Internet is a dangerous weapon that needs to be restricted. It is too dangerous to not be regulated under a National Security regime.

Not that long ago, Senator Dianne Feinstein berated attorneys from Google, Facebook and Twitter for allowing “the Russian” to turn the Internet into an anti-American weapon: “What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election … You bear this responsibility. You’ve created these platforms…and you have to be the ones to do something about it.” And she followed up with a threat: either Silicon Valley finds a solution voluntarily, or the government will.

Or, as Fred Kaplan — Slate’s national security man — put it: “Openness allows the free exchange of ideas and expression of dissent but also leaves the system, and everyone in it, prey to criminals, terrorists, and, in this case, foreign spies and propagandists: all of them shrouded in anonymity … It may be time to impose some regulations on this system.”

Censoring the Internet because it’s too free and doesn’t protect us from “the Russians” — this is the acceptable elite opinion in American politics today.

And Silicon Valley has done exactly that.

On top of racking up military contracts, they’ve started opaquely self-regulating and policing their platforms like the geopolitical tools that they are. They’ve increased cooperation with intelligence agencies and are now partnering with all sorts of shady national security thinktanks and outfits — including New Knowledge, Atlantic Council, and the German Marshall Fund. They censoring and “moderating” their platforms in defense of American “national security” — which, in today’s political reality, means going after “the Russians” and silencing voices that oppose America’s corporate and military power. That includes American anti-fascist groups:

So that’s where we are today.

It’s pretty clear that the way things are trending, it won’t be long until Facebook and Google start putting out public relation materials filled more and more with the proud militarism on display in Western Electric’s “Circuits of Victory.” And they should. It would be the honest thing to do.

Today, in the full tide of victory, men and women of Western Electric are engaged in their greatest job—producing the communications weapons of war, the radios, radar, the switchboards, telephones and cable that help our fighting men win battles, help save American lives and help maintain the vital home front communication network. … This book tells you something of what we of Western Electric have contributed toward victory in this war.

—Western Electric’s President, Clarance G. Still.

Check it out:

“Communications — One of the Foremost Military Tools”

Replace “COMMUNICATIONS” with “THE INTERNET” — and you basically get Google, Amazon and Facebook.

“The Telephone — Basic Communications Weapon of War”

When I interviewed former ARPA Director Stephen J. Lukasik, who oversaw the build-out of the ARPANET in the 1970s, he explained to me the meaning of a military command and control system: “Command means you will do what I say. Control means don’t do what I don’t want you to do.” And you can’t do either of those without a telephone! Now, you can’t do any of that without the Internet.

“How Military Communications Works”

This is actually all about radio and telephone communication, but it might as well be a chart of the secure Internet that the Pentagon uses today to link up into a single fighting force. Looking at this chart, you could see why the military began to develop digital networks not long after WWII and why the Internet was ultimately built and deployed. How else you gonna run a complex modern fighting force?

“Cable — Heavy-duty Word Carriers of War”

Today, it’s Internet backbones and satellites.

“Switchboards — Nerve Centers for War Messages”

This is what a pre-Internet router looked like. Two shirtless recruits punching cables.

“Radio — In the Air …On Land …At Sea”

A hint at why the U.S. is fighting China on 5G tech deployment.

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  1. Shonde

    “A hint at why the U.S. is fighting China on 5G tech deployment.”
    I doubt anyone who has been reading NC for any period of time has any need for this “hint”.

  2. Rickey Gard Diamond

    Militaristic thinking dominates all economic “competition,” when leadership is male–which it is in big corporations and certainly in Silicon Valley and Washington (and china and russia, etc., etc.) I have hopes that more women leaders like Jacinda Ardern and AOC will bring us more peaceable thinking and cooperation, quick, quick, before more dinosaur leadership destroys all with simple-minded war-think. Corporate diversity programs that urge women to become more like men is the opposite of what we need–but I note the women CEOs are being put in place at weapons-makers as a kind of show, when we need motherly thinking that tries to make peace, with men given social permission to care and smartly make amends.

    1. Sanxi

      I’m sure you want all women to be whatever it is they are, right? The basic purpose of the military is to kill other people, no getting around it. Civilian policy determines the on/off switch. In theory. My daughter is a one star she is very good a what the military does. Motherly, isn’t in her make up and I wouldn’t try shaming her into it or the reverse. My son founded Dads Who Stay at Home. Go figure.

      1. Harrold

        The goal is to wound, not to kill. A wounded soldier requires more resources than a dead soldier.

    2. laughingsong

      Then how does one explain Albright, Clinton, Nuland, Feinstein, Haspel . . . I can go on.

      I do think I know what you actually mean but it is a hard thing to express. Not so much more women in power, but perhaps a more feministic ethos surrounding how business and government is run?

      I don’t even know enough about gender psychology or how we group certain traits, and how much is nature or nurture. I have read a few books that distill the difference in approach as how we divide power wielding: power over as domination-control, or power as responsibility for others’ lives. One is authoritarian (the “father”) and one is care-taking or stewardship (the “mother”).

      Does that seem like what you meant? Thoughts?

  3. urblintz

    I was recently locked out of my Faceplant page and have no intention of jumping through the hoops required to unlock it. They claim it’s because of “security concerns” because I use a Kaspersky proxy (which supposedly hides my location… I have my doubts) but over the past year or so I have been posting, almost exclusively, articles critical of the military and its wars of choice and aggression, and most importantly, the never-ending Democratic congressional support for the ever-expanding Pentagon budget.


    1. Svante Arrhenius

      Before Bitdefender’s “partner” decided one iteration of it’s software we were running had an unchecked “auto-update opt-out” dialog box (totally invisible to me) to take $98 out of glorious PayPal. I’d also encountered issues where the simultaneous anti-tracker/ VPN type features preventing spooky stuff, running unknown in the background kind of negated the value of paying for an Anti-Malware/ antivirus from Romania, Russia, or Amsterdam or whatever. Any imput for us perfectly-timed-onset demented boomer cretins would be appreciated? Mind you, this is all on a Hauwai ‘pooter!

  4. Randy G

    I’m about 3/4 through Yasha Levine’s ‘Surveillance Valley’ and recommend it highly to anyone wanting an unvarnished and politically astute history of the internet– particularly its linkage to the U.S. military, corporate and ‘State Security’ surveillance, and population control.

    This history is fundamental to understanding how we got to where we are today. Most popular histories of the internet avoid or downplay these associations so Mr. Levine has written an important book.

    (Hoping to pickup ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ by Shoshana Zuboff very soon as well.)

  5. thesaucymugwump

    There’s little in common between the Bell System and Silicon Valley oligarchies. Bell System equipment was designed to last for forty years (it was darn difficult to destroy a Bakelite phone). The Bell System was a managed monopoly, answerable to the government. Land-lines are usable except in earthquakes and other major disasters, but cellphone systems fail for all sorts of reasons.

    But Bell Labs absolutely partnered with the military on all sorts of projects. WWII would have been much more difficult with Bell Labs as a partner.

    Not to mention that Bell Labs was the origin of Unix, which led to DOS, Windows, Linux, MacOS, and many other things.

    The Internet is performing pretty much as designed. All of the naive creators, e.g. Tim Berners-Lee, are shocked at how their creation has been used for nefarious purposes, but they should have consulted a psychology text before embarking on ther great adventure. An anonymous Internet was always going to be used by predators of various types.

    1. thesaucymugwump

      “WWII would have been much more difficult with Bell Labs as a partner.”

      Correction: WWII would have been much more difficult to win without Bell Labs as a partner.

  6. Summer

    “in today’s political reality, means going after “the Russians” and silencing voices that oppose America’s corporate and military power. That includes American anti-fascist groups…”

    And don’t think for a second it’s not full of the types that are just a breath away from openly embracing their fascism. It’s a way of thinking that is over-concerned with “superiority” over others.

  7. eg

    My father was a communications officer in the RCAF, including a stint with NORAD in Colorado before he left in ’68 (upon the advent of the triservices model so reviled by old timers). He ended up working for Northern Electric shortly thereafter, which became Northern Telecom, and then NorTel before completely imploding (with predictable damage to his pension). Northern Electric was owned by Bell Canada and Western Electric.

    So, yeah, telecommunications and the military have always been deeply intertwined, though I doubt my father could have foreseen the surveillance implications while programming PDP-8s and the like.

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