The DARPA/IAO REMIX (unauthorized)
by David Goldberg

The Department of Defense has finally learned how to use Photoshop along with Powerpoint. The result is a frightening hybrid of large, bullet-pointed, sans-serif text and lurid multi-layered backgrounds[1] born for large scale digital projection in Reston VA hotel ballrooms and archived in bloated PDF files. Their project logos have evolved from old-school hand-illustrated ovals with circumscribed totem animals and lite-Masonic American colonial symbolism (stars, lightning bolts, arrows) to the quality of late 80's motion video graphics: embossed chrome letters, specular highlights, transparent extruded forms. Finally the web face of the Military Industrial Complex has abandoned gray or white backgrounds, black Times text, and blue links, for the somewhat more contemporary dynamics of framesets, rollovers, and persistent menu bars. In short, the .mils and more obscure .govs have undergone the same process of evolution that pornography sites went through almost ten years go, including the practice of giving "tours" as an invitation to membership.

The masterpiece of this New Pentagon Aesthetic is the oft-changed DARPA Information Awareness Office website. Here, drop-shadows and a consistent color pallette present the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's latest half-fantasies of power and domination, this time refracted through the lense of extreme information technology. The DARPA/IAO logo brings it all together. An all-seeing green eye gazing down through its own golden radiace at the top of the American pyramid and illuminating the "heathen" parts of the globe: generally the Muslim world from North and East Africa to Southeast Asia. This part appears to be a collage of clip art and hand illustration ringed by a Photoshopt polished black chiseled edge with the title of the office running all the way around in clean, gold, block capitals. The latin inscription "Scientia Est Potentia" gives the whole thing a Founding Fathers Revived Roman Empire feel.

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The IAO logo is rich in depth and posesses a legibility that communicates to the entire spectrum of viewers from Mindless Patriot Robot ("I feel so safe now!") to Deeply Paranoid Freak ("I TOLD you so!") to the Frankly Jaded Bourgeois Visual Critc ("I told you so."). It is a perfect expressin of Brand Identity. Too bad John Poindexter and his boys got shook by the power of their own magic and in a politically superficial move have stripped the site of some of its mystique [2]. Nevertheless, they have left the bulk of their advanced project advertisements intact, allowing any indivdiual with a web browser to peruse fantastic projects that will translate spoken language in real time (Babylon and Communicator), automatically assemble evidence of terrorist behavior patterns (Genoa and EELD), and basically check out everything that goes on in the world (Poindexter's own controversial Total Information Awareness project).

It is fascinating and a little scary that these project descriptions are not hidden behind the bureaucratic complexity of a freedom of information act request. Apparently the Bush 2.0 adminisration's tactics of telling the "truth" at the beginning of a crisis to avoid future muckracking ("yes, we have a shadow government in place," and "yes, this is going to be a long war") are being adopted across the entire defense complex. Government information that was once protected by its sheer dryness and density is now protected by weird, bold, distracting, and sometimes laughable visual seductions... like Vegas.

On the DARPA/IAO site each project is illustrated by a collage that is somewhere between an actual explanation, a promotional flowchart, and digital outsider art. Cobbled together from Powerpoint presentations, these graphics condense multi-million dollar projects into heiroglyphic fields that are literally overloaded with mixed messages and visualized fantasies. When the Babylon project's clip-art Farsi woman and Negro Warfighter speak across a "militarized PDA" we are reminded more of Get Your War On[3] than the goals of hardliner military strategists; FutureMap's dartboard probability graph representing "market-based techniques for avoiding surprise and predicting future events" is no more comprehensible than the text descriptions below it (note how program accomplishments are "to be determined"); while Project Genisys's "ultra-large, all-source information repositories" are visualized in terms of primitive arrows, basic geometric shapes, and text boxes. In many cases, DARPA graphics would give visualization god Edward R. Tufte a heart attack, but we should probably be grateful that he was not contracted to do DARPA's graphics. Nevertheless, many of these graphics do indeed explain what the American Intelligence Community intends to have at its disposal from here on out. They are undoubtedly tax-payer financed, ridiculously expensive and more ambitious (in terms of technology and narrative) than a lot of contemporary science fiction (though you will find many early cyberpunk prognostications).

This project, the DARPA/IAO Remix, looks at four DARPA/IAO projects: Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery (EELD), Human Identity at a Distance (HumanID), and versions I and II of Project Genoa. When I first saw the explanatory graphics for these projects I was enamoured by the bold naivete of their bureaucratic aesthetics. Finally, here is an American visual tradition that possesses the same weird charm as the Mexican and Indian urban street graphics that are making their way into expensive little Phaidon editions. Though Jazz is the Classical archetype of the "Only Truly American," these digital images are from the Hip-hop era of sampling and graffiti... here are the chrome arrows, characters, and text-crowded fields to prove it. Naturally I tried to click on them as if they were image maps, hoping that such interactivity would yield elaborations on icons like the woman in the red dress who operates a lathe at a uranium plant, the sometimes grinning caucasians getting their faces "recognized," and the "policy makers" and "analysts" working with the Genoa Projects. The DARPA/IAO Remix implements those image maps and fleshes out the narratives, explains or comments on the technological processes behind the faces, and "exposes" those who hide behind sweeping titles like "policy makers."

As these visual explanations are already collections of samples, I have attemped to "mine" them with Public Enemy's Bomb Squad sonic production strategies as my inspiration. As the user clicks on the project graphics, windows containing additional imagery (some being image maps themselves) will pop up, sometimes accompanied by additional text. It should be noted that all of these images are altered only in terms of size or cropping, and were found on the internet using their descriptors in the "source" graphic as search keys. Each image has a link to its actual source on the net, exclusively in the .mil and .gov domains whenever possible, but also from DARPA-related .edus and a few serendipitous links to sites that were totally unrelated to the goals of my search. I have also added additional commentary to the Program Objective, Program Strategy, and Planned Accomplishments section of each project; these comments are in red.

I have decided to riff on the IAO's original web aesthetics to honor those anonymous Microsoft Frontpage and Photoshop jockeys that have given a face to the most intimidating collection of technological proposals ever seen.


[1] |>img src<| [from DARPATech2002 presentations, PDF] |>BACK<|
[2] [props to YodArt] See, politechbot, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. |>BACK<|
[3] Check the Get Your War On website. |>BACK<|