The Internet and the Persian Wars

April 7, 2007

Information is power they say. I have just been watching the return of the British sailors from Iran on TV, and their stories of blindfolding and isolation. Iran of course denies all this. How does someone in Palestine know who is telling the truth ? It seems scary that the West and Iran are inching towards a crisis just as “300” is hitting our cinema screens … a garish cartoon version of the founding myth of Western Civilisation – the defeat of Persia. But we are the masters of the world .. are we not ?

So here we are at the peak of Western Power. What is our secret ? Capitalism ? Energy ? Technology ? Or Information – knowledge, infrastructure, organisation ? All these things are connected, but you could argue that information is the key. A surplus of energy allows you to organise life – to build roads and hospitals, and to pay people to do things other than fight and farm – e.g. to play with technology, design systems of law, set exams, and so on. Free market Capitalism is just a form of organisation, as is the ideal Socialist State. In one method, a highly structured system is designed and implemented top down; in the other, a network of interacting agents is left to organically evolve under a simple set of rules. In both cases a highly non-random information-rich structure appears.

The easier it is for information to flow, the more quickly a system can restructure. Hence libraries, education, and TV have also been crucial to the dominance of Western societies. Through most of history, the ruling classes have had more access to, and more control of, information than the majority of the population. During the nineteenth century, the mass production of cheap books was starting to change this, and information became very diffuse and democratic – every shopkeeper could read Dickens. The arrival of cinema, radio and TV stopped all this, along with national newspapers. Information flowed outwards from a few central points. It is probably not a coincidence that the golden age of popular revolt was from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, whereas the rest of the twentieth century was characterised by happy but docile populations. (Lets count the second world war as a horrific gap between these eras ..)

The Internet is all about information transparency. Basic protocols (TCP/IP) allow messages to pass between computers; FTP allows whole files to flow from place to place; the Web (HTML, HTTP) makes documents visible transparently from any location. Web services and associated standards like XML, SOAP and REST are about achieving transparency for data (as opposed to human readable documents). Grid middleware (Condor, GLOBUS, WSRF) is about making processing power transparent, so programmes can run anywhere.

For most people the World Wide Web is the visible surface of the new infrastructure. Sitting here on the sofa, surfing the Web, it feels like all the documents in the world are right here inside my computer. Fifteen years ago this was for a handful of geeks. Now every day my kids show me stuff I didn’t know and my sister shops on the web. The world is transparent and information is flooding to and fro at a fantastic rate. The effects are very hard to predict. Of course .. the thing about the Web is that (a) there is just too much stuff, and (b) nearly all of it is dross. How does that vast turbulence settle into an organised structure ? Web-1 answers : bookmarks; search engines; portals … mostly deliverer centred, like TV. Web-2 answers are famously more diffuse, democratic, and user centred – social networking; tags and social bookmarking; self publication; popular voting (Digg etc). These things produce accelerated spontaneous structuring at the same time as producing more and more utter drivel. Its excitingly powerful and unstable. Who knows where we are going ?

The Internet is a symbol of Western success. The Chinese are frightened of it. If war is coming, we will win for sure, won’t we ? Information is power. So was this true in the ancient Persian wars ?

My Christmas reading left me confused. I got a wonderful book called “Persian Fire” by Tom Holland. Its a popular history, the story of the war between Persia and Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. – Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and all that. Its is a riveting read. Tom Holland is a magician. When most people try to write popular history with a narrative flow, it comes out as patronising and sub-novelistic. Holland does it and its grown-up and gripping. If I can figure out the trick I will bottle and sell it.

One thing that took me by surprise was how bureaucratic the Persian Empire was. Everything was recorded. The Imperial staff knew the whereabouts of every chicken in the empire. This was not the sign of a decadent society past its best; rather, it was precisely the secret of an unstoppable war machine. Cyrus, Darius, and then Xerxes, all knew that information was power. When that vast army set off, they knew who would feed it where and when. They knew the size and strength of every city on the way, the factions it contained, and who to pay off. They captured spies and sent them back with carefully planted disinformation. They knew what was going on and the other guys didn’t.. So there we go .. information produces organisation produces power.

And yet … the Greeks won. They won against much bigger numbers and against a much better machine. So maybe it was the superior moral strength of democracy versus despotism ? Err .. don’t think so. The Athenians were in the middle of their democratic experiment, but none of the other city states were, and the Spartans were completely bizarre weirdos. Greek cunning ? Well, partly. Salamis was the real victory, a beautifully planned strategy. Technology ? Certainly important. The Hoplite Phalanx was the secret weapon – a wall of metal bristling with spears.

Or maybe there is no systemic answer. Everything cracks in the end. There are fault lines in History. As Bush lines up the battle ships in the Gulf, take nothing for granted.