Archangel

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I caught up with William Gibson’s new graphic novel Archangel a few days late. Knew it was coming out but missed the Great Unveiling until people were raving about it on twitter. Gibson’s been an interest of mine for roughly two decades now and this new collaboration with Michael St. John Smith, Butch Guice, and Tula Lotay on covers promises to be no less fascinating. This post contains a few images and some storyline from the first issue, of course, so if you haven’t read it yet and want to go in fresh you should stop reading.

My content consumption is almost all digital now, so it struck me somewhat fun that I grabbed Archangel by way of a system that allows me to pay with certain magic numbers and beams the comic to my tablet after innumerable digital handshakes. I love digital platforms and it’s one of the reasons I’m so willing to pay even with a pretty low disposable income level – I want to see creators and digital platforms both thrive like hell.

I grabbed the comic and it immediately struck me as interesting. Tula Lotay’s cover hit high notes across a discordant noir theme, injecting a mass of color into what was about to be an absolutely bleak landscape in both timelines. Archangel’s beginning contrasts interestingly with a lot of Gibson’s literary work; his novels often begin with a coming-together, and Archangel kicks off with several comings-apart, from the material sense to the societal and interpersonal. Gibson’s a trickster of a deep and joyous sort who loves fucking with the baseline, so it’ll be interesting to see how this affects the story. But in typical Gibsonian fashion it also comes into focus in equal parts grit and technology but not a lot of flash.

Watching Gibson collaborate in a visual medium should be fascinating thanks to little visual cues he enjoys, bits of tangential errata accessible only by keen rememberers or re-readers. One of the first of these is a drop pistol in a drawer, trigger guard removed, grip wrapped in tape to prevent fingerprints:

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One wonders in which act it’ll be fired. Another instance of these interesting little artifacts is the mechanized, electronic insects buzzing around in the pilot’s cell – in 1945:

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Gibson also treats the story itself in interesting ways. He performs a thorough split of resources with fun implications: a crashed stealth plane from the future goes to the Brits (how will that affect the timeline?), the pilot and copilot (one alive, one dead) go to the Americans. But both sets are in a passive mode so far – British studying this new plane, Americans studying the mysterious tattooed soldiers with implanted gadgetry. But the only group native to that timeline with any agency so far are the Brits, as their intelligence officer works what lines she can to get access to the future pilots and takes some stuff for testing as the Americans don’t have the capability.

Meanwhile Junior and crew arrive on scene with agency, but they’re very visibly portrayed as alien – a smirking alien face on Junior as he’s flanked by two conspicuously massive guards. The three are imposed on that last scene as if it’s a background, rather than them being a natural part of it.

Gibson’s Peripheral involved some interesting timeline stuff but that was an open system with continuous manipulation of the target timeline. If we take things at face value the target timeline in Archangel is now a closed system. That certainly changes the game.

And to please me even further, the comic includes a damn fair amount of backmatter. I’m a process voyeur and seeing Gibson talk about the process so far, both in writing collaboration and in art, is like manna from heaven. I’d read a whole book that’s just about the process, I think. But luckily we’re getting it for free.

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So far Archangel is Gibson at his best: wrapping multiple plots around objects or visuals and letting things play out in the foreground while you’re still staring at something specific and wondering about it.

I want to know when Givens’ dodgy little revolver fires. I want to know what put Torres in a wheelchair. I want to know how a Montana research facility survived whatever everything else didn’t, and why the hell there’s a copy of the White House on-site.

Intensely looking forward to the next issue.

Re-balancing

University of Pennsylvania information science professor Matt Blaze happened upon an SUV near the Philadelphia Convention Center sporting a license plate radio and other surveillance gear not-so-cleverly disguised as a Google Street Car (the kind that roam around and produce Google Maps and the accompanying Street-level scenery). More than a few outfits picked up the story and determined that it was a Philadelphia Police vehicle but the, ahem, cunning misdirection was “not authorized.”

Many people are loading their homes with extra-smart devices, not just connected but able to do things like spoken language processing thanks to microphones and cloud software, such as the Amazon Echo. Gizmodo’s Matt Novak put in a Freedom of Information Act request to see if the FBI had yet wiretapped one and received what’s known as a Glomar Response: “We can neither confirm nor deny.” Draw your own conclusions there.

An incredible, insane investigation shows that federal agents bugged public areas around bay-area courthouses for years in the hopes of overhearing illegal conversations. And did so without warrants. In order to catch mortgage auction bid-rigging.

In public, non-public and supposedly privileged areas we are less and less able to depend on any kind of principles around privacy. In some cases (such as the Echo) we willingly surrender some of that privacy for convenience. In others we find that the privacy considered to be sacrosanct is violated without so much as due process of law. Practicality demands we enter into two renegotiations: one with ourselves regarding what privacy and self-security we’re willing to relinquish in exchange for services (Echo) or some semblance of safety (overall law enforcement); and a second with each other, on the civic level, as technology enables vastly greater surveillance powers but doesn’t seem to be enabling greater democracy. As Thomas Rid said in the excellent Cyber War Will Not Take Place, “The real risk for liberal democracies is not that these technologies empower individuals more than the state; the long-term risk is that technology empowers the state more than individuals, thus threatening to upset a carefully calibrated balance of power between citizens and the governments they elect to serve them.”

I have a deep love for subversive technologies – something that should be no surprise. Rid’s book contains an excellent discussion on technology and subversion, a discussion we need to revisit as the state and other institutions demand authority and legitimacy but continue to interfere with protected freedoms. Our technology currently empowers the state. What does the situation look like with more balance? What technologies can we promote that, as Rid defines subversion, deliberately attempt to undermine the trustworthiness, integrity and constitution of an established authority or order. Certainly they’re not all illegal and there are perhaps some of those technologies that may be illegal or treated as illegal that aren’t. For instance, use of the Tor anonymization platform is perfectly legal but, as authorities have admitted, brings extra law enforcement scrutiny to users and makes them surveillance targets (so does the simple act of encrypting your net traffic, such as through a commercial VPN). That very tension – between an act not being illegal yet prioritizing one as a target for more surveillance – is at the heart of subversion because it exposes the practical differences between the values we exalt and the operational principles we employ.

It’s not an easy balancing act. Nothing about this is simple. But the narratives that FBI Director James Comey and others keep slinging are filled with, at best, inaccuracies. The FBI positions aren’t a result of them being disempowered by encryption but empowered by a myriad of technologies – automated plate readers, better remote microphones, in-home surveillance rigs – and fearful of a re-balancing.

Technology’s primary role should be to empower individuals. Tell me I’m wrong.