Monday, October 14, 2013

Notes on a Conspiracy

I recently watched the excellent documentary-- well, excellent story, and serviceable as a documentary-- Resurrect Dead, about the hunt for the creator of the Toynbee tiles, the odd messages that mysteriously appear embedded in streets, primarily in and around Philadelphia. The story eventually focuses on one person, suspected of communicating through the most indirect of possible means: messages in the street, pseudonymous letters, short-wave radio, intercepted late-night television broadcasts.

Which leads to my own conspiracy obsession of late, the so-called Cicada 3301 sequence of events.

An apology before I further elaborate. Embedded citations are a symptom of an attention-deficit society, and I'm normally loathe to use them, but this seems to be one of the few cases where my writing really does call for them. I recognize that most, normal people aren't especially bothered, but I do feel a certain need to apologize to myself.

We, the public, know next to nothing about Cicada 3301, the big who behind it, or even the what of its existence. Certain leaked documents have suggested it to be a group of hacktivists, or a self-identified "think tank." Obviously, these documents are of questionable authenticity, but that's about all I have to work from. But I can say, with relative certainty, that if it's a lark or a prank or a viral marketing scheme, it is perhaps the most sophisticated in human history-- suggesting it actually is an organized, directed effort of global scope.

On January 4th, 2012, an image of white sans-serif text on a black background with a dark-gray watermark of a cicada appeared on 4Chan, saying that an organization was "looking for highly intelligent individuals." Hidden in the background, a steganographic message revealed to a Caesar cipher, which in turn led to an Imgur-hosted JPEG. Later puzzles involved mysterious phone number, encrypted Twitter feeds, haunting guitar music, and flyers pasted up in cities in seven countries. The full story has been told in detail and with greater journalistic flair in an article on Mental Floss, so I won't elaborate further here.

I spent some time looking at the specific puzzles, without taking up any of the challenges myself. I discovered Cicada well after both their 2012 and 2013 puzzle series. Furthermore, I rather doubt I'd be able to complete most of them. When I go through the technical details of each puzzle, I can summon forth some understanding, but I lack both the cryptographic skill set and the computer experience to really examine such problems lucidly.

So mostly I run into dead ends. A wiki, Uncovering Cicada, covers the Cicada mystery as it is known (which is to say almost exclusively through its puzzles that were solved by devoted Internet users), but a great many of the webpages that relate to Cicada seem to be dead links. The usernames of those who took part in the Cicada puzzles reportedly disappeared from the Internet after each month-long series. And as of a week ago, on October 6th, the Wikipedia page pertaining to Cicada was unceremoniously deleted.

This near-complete lack of documentary evidence seems perfectly in-line with the nature of the modern Internet. Rumor abounds, and the activities of Cicada take place almost entirely in the non-searchable, so-called "deep" web, a vast space orders of magnitude larger than the web we see every day. IRC users claim to have heard Cicada winners talk about activities, but these are obviously unreliable. And 4Chan and Pastebin, where much discussion has taken place, are specifically designed for high turnover of content.

One leak intrigued me. It seems to have been written by a native Korean speaker-- the author refers to the game of go as "baduk" and the letter's most glaring syntactical error places the verb at the end of the sentence, indicating a writer who is used to communicating in subject-object-verb word order, a characteristic of the Korean language-- but, dealing with this much opaque information, one begins to think that these are deliberately placed decoys to make the author's identity. There is something oddly compelling about it, though, with its paranoid evangelical-Christian jargon referring to "Jesuit thinking" and the "left-hand path." And while the ideas that the writer links to Cicada are presented as shocking, they frankly seem like rather normal quasi-anarchist thinking, suggesting the writer as one of those right-wingers who can't go to bed at night without checking under the bed for atheists.
After hours of reading and searching, and hours and hours of failed attempts at finding meaning, I have to wonder why I care so much.

Most people use the Internet for purposes ranging from the mundane to the imbecilic. We plug ourselves into the emotionally hollow world of social media, shopping socially, reading socially, thinking socially, our thoughts expressed in the devolved forms of the hashtag and the selfie. We are steamrolled by the major idiocies of the present zeitgeist: mushy confessionalism, a mass genuflection to the masters of marketing and advertising, a submission to the surveillance state in exchange for a false sense of security.

The appeal of the Cicada concept lies in its negation of all of these three, at least in its outward appearance. Instead of being confessional, it is terse. Rather than marketing itself, it hides. It has been speculated that it is in fact an espionage organization, but if so, like all espionage, it largely functions in a world that, for most entities that operate there, is shrouded in mystery. It emphasizes all that is cryptic and tenebrous within the web, and it emphasizes the hermetic, the baroque, the irreal, the cavernous, and the sublime in an Internet landscape that by and large emphasizes the opposite.

And for that, I'm waiting for something from them to surface again.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Find Me at the End of the World

There is a reverie I keep having, one that I can trace to the memory of a summer day, the spin of a dust-covered and yellowed fan, a scuffed wooden floor, and myself as a boy with a globe and a well-worn atlas, afternoon light streaming in through the twelve-paned windows, highlighting neatly typed Italic fonts next to impossibly small islands scattered, like unnamed constellations, across what seemed to be the uniform, turquoise plane of the world's oceans.

The names alone were an endless source of fascination-- Tristan da Cunha and Diego Garcia, Howland and Jarvis, Palmyra and Clipperton. There were, of course, better-known places-- Easter Island, the Galapagos-- whose names have become bywords for remoteness and exotic lifeforms and bizarre histories, and which have become havens for adventure tourists. At this point, they are part of the media-driven myth of the desert island, a place where us "civilized" people can escape from the angst of modern existence. But these tiny islands, along with the icy granite massifs of the polar regions, fascinated me because they didn't conform to this fantasy. They were null spots, uninhabited or inhabited by only a few hundred people, claimed by incidental nearest nations-- Chile, Mauritius, Colombia-- or by the remnants of the French, American, and British empires.

And so many of them carry the scars of those imperial endeavors. There are the islands pocked with the remnants of phosphate mining. Ghost towns with Yankee and Aussie names haunt the atolls of the Pacific, rusted railway tracks running down to decrepit harbors, gravel airstrips overgrown, fresh water fouled and root-colored.

And there are the islands that bear the remnants of war, rusted fuselage and unexploded ordnance littering the idyllic beaches. A great many continued to have remote naval operations through the Cold War, and some do even today. Others were used for secretive negotiations. Yet others had the misfortune to be targets for bombing missions, nuclear and conventional, now transformed through imperial whim into red zones of shattered hillsides, uranium-laced soil, and malformed chromosomes.

After economic disaster and military conflict, the few remaining residents of the world's remoter islands have largely been displaced. Some are native. Others are the descendants of old colonials. And others, huge numbers, are the descendants of the slave- and coolie-labor forces that carried out the imperialist project, Africans and Chinese and Indians. As the smaller islands of the world slowly depopulate, the only people left are the military personnel that maintain the islands' connections to the metropole, and the scientific personnel that chart the motions of waves, magma tubes, schools of cuttlefish.

For the human story is only one of the many of each island. There are the odd flora and fauna that have emerged in geographic separation from the mainland, there are the underwater jungles of coral, there are the nesting sites and the seabirds' routes that cut invisible lines in the noonday sky.

My sights these days, are set especially on Kingman Reef, adrift in the Pacific, a few degrees above the equator. It's technically an American territory, although it barely rises from the surface of the water, a calcitic gravel boomerang as low in profile as an abandoned railway grade in a small town.The life all lies underneath. A single coconut palm sapling attempts, with absolute futility, to rise. It is a beach without a land, a single point where the whorl of the Pacific Ocean gives up. And I see myself on the end of that strip, looking out at the endless and unforgiving vastness that extends all the way to Hawaii, a full thousand miles to the north.

As climate change claims more and more of the world, these last isolated freeholds will, in all likelihood be snuffed out, along with the cormorants' nests, the travelers' trees, and the ruins of churches and lighthouses.

Part of me, the part of me that's been reading a lot of Rosa Luxemburg lately, wants to deem this to be the logical end result of capitalist expansion-- discover, enslave, exploit, vacate, destroy-- but most of me knows that I'm imposing a fairly tenuous narrative on something far subtler, more complex, more difficult to pin down, less attributable to any one social or environmental force.

But I know, more or less for certain, that I will never go to those little black dots on the atlas page that I used to dream about before the sun sets on them one last time and they disappear beneath the tides.