DARPA: Sci-Fi Satire or Legitimately Scary?

Whatever happened to the insect cyborgs?  Or the Iron Man suit?

For years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or D.A.R.P.A., of the U.S. Department of Defense, has been developing projects that seem more at home in sci-fi action film than in reality, but recently that seems to be changing.

Earlier this year DARPA hosted a workshop entitled “Stories, Neuroscience and Experimental Technologies,” as part of a research initiative to answer the question, “What makes a story?”  Researchers hoped that by gaining a better understanding of story-telling, they could chart these models and apply them in situations “salient to security concerns.”

Now DARPA is turning its presumably robotic eye toward social media.  Wired‘s Adam Rawnsley reported Friday on the agency’s newest venture, the Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) project.

Rawnsley writes that SMISC goals are two-fold: “First, the program needs to help the military better understand what’s going on in social media in real time — particularly in areas where troops are deployed. Second, Darpa wants SMISC to help the military play the social media propaganda game itself.”

Further, Rawnsley states that:

SMISC is supposed to quickly flag rumors and emerging themes on social media, figure out who’s behind it and what. Moreover, Darpa wants SMISC to be able to actually figure out whether this is a random product of the hivemind or a propaganda operation by an adversary nation or group. Of course, SMISC won’t be content to just to hang back and monitor social media trends in strategic locations. It’s about building a better spin machine for Uncle Sam, too. Once SMISC’s latches on to an influence operation being launched, it’s supposed to help out in “countermessaging.”

DARPA’s latest projects aren’t nearly as easy to joke about as the development of killer robots, and call further into question the pros and cons of the Internet as a device of social change, of private versus public domain, and of the instantly gratifying means of media dissemination.

I think I want the killer robots back.


Constellations of Social Media

See something or say something: New York

“We are all made of stars.” Yes, I did just quote Moby; it’s a catchy song. And the phrase rings true when you look at the images from Eric Fischer’s new project “See Something, Say Somthing.” where he has created a world atlas depicting the number of Twitter and Flickr users. Fischer maps Twitter users in blue lights, Flickr in red, and users who employ both social networking sites in white. The images are stunning, making Manhattan seem akin to billion-year-old constellations.

With each one of us representing an individual star in the Internet universe, the images help put into perspective just how massive this universe has become. Check out the full slideshow on Eric Fischer’s Photostream.

Lady Gaga lives in Lagos

The video for Goldie Harvey’s new single “Don’t Touch,” opens in black and white, on a pair of bejeweled lips.  A rapid sequence of images reveal a female dancing in a glow-in-the-dark corset and frilled mask; star-shaped glasses à la Elton John; barely-discernible spiderwebs twitching around the whites of crystal-rimmed eyes.  Next we are looking into a padded room with illegible words scrawled on the glass in lipstick—the ravings of an insane woman—Goldie is shoved in, straightjacketed and dirty, with her hair teased into disarray.  It’s not hard to see why some refer to the Nigerian pop star as the “African Lady Gaga.”

In the video, which was shot in Lagos and directed by Clarence Peters, Goldie chants “don’t touch my body” to a swift electric beat while moving through a collection of unpredictable scenes, each one stranger than the last. Goldie is an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, an angel, and a circus ringleader; she sports a red feather-and-sequined headdress and then plays assistant to a knife thrower.  Several times in the video Goldie is shown wearing a leather corset and lace stockings, posing in front of what could easily have been a left-over set dressing from the last Tron film.

“Don’t Touch” is erratic and obscure but for a reason; the stream-of-consciousness style composition highlights an overarching element of insanity.  Like Rihanna’s high-speed convulsing in “Disturbia,” or Lady Gaga’s rigid fingers and white-tiled walls in “Bad Romance,” Goldie’s allusions to madness typify a common theme present in the music of many of today’s successful female artists.

In the age of the viral video, where everyone is competing for hits and shameless poise is the ultimate goal, female empowerment still comes with the caveat that the woman must be at least a little bit crazy.  Not necessarily bad nor incontrovertibly good, artists like Gaga and Rihanna have helped popularize the hot, edgy, slightly unstable female persona (“gaga” is literally a synonym of “insane”).  Goldie embodies the role with relish, enticing unseen males under the guise of seduction, she breathes “come on boy,” just before pumping the breaks.

Like “Disturbia” and “Bad Romance,” Goldie’s track is lyrically simple but visually complex, and equally fun to listen to.  Just remember, no touching.

Originally posted on Africa is a County.

Way to go George—I mean, South Sudan!

Today, South Sudan celebrates its independence.  After decades of bloody internal strife, the Republic of South Sudan officially splits from the north to become Africa’s 54th country.  There are great videos on Youtube showing the celebrations and parades taking place, of the South Sudanese trying to put into words the joy and emotion they’re feeling today, but the mainstream media can’t help themselves and are dedicating a lot of column space to talking about who gets a gold star for having saved another country in Africa.

George Clooney, God love him, is the real hero today.  Oh and the Christian groups, they get an honorable mention as well.  But it’s no secret that the Academy award-winning actor and former ER doc has spent perhaps the most time and money in his efforts to call attention to the struggles of the Sudanese—he even caught malaria during a January trip to the region!

The New York Times and the BBC ran stories discussing Clooney’s role in South Sudan’s independence; the NYT piece even quotes R. Barrie Walkley, the American consul general in Juba, as saying “Once you got someone like George Clooney, for example….George packs power.”  Mr. Walkley later questions whether the South Sudanese would have been able to achieve independence on their own without the aid of Clooney and others, saying, “I think the celebrities had a lot to do with it.”

It’s the crux of the Celebrity Advocate; how much is too much?  There are ups and downs to a celebrity—especially a high profile A-lister like Clooney—becoming heavily involved in a cause; Washington Post reporter Rebecca Hamilton writes on her blog today, “Clooneyization of the South Sudan story,” that there are two ways a story like this can go, one positive and one negative.  She writes:

I tried reporting from Abyei before anyone mainstream was doing it and my pitches kept being rejected by editors who thought, of everything going on in Sudan, Abyei was not “newsworthy” enough (At the time it was a prevention story – no one had died yet). Then George Clooney turned up late last year. And suddenly, Abyei was on the mainstream map. Now you can bitch all you like about the state of American culture that we need a movie star to direct our attention to worthwhile issues all you like, but that’s the reality we are living in. So unless you are working on a project to change that, then you should probably just be grateful that rather than chosing to spend his time on a yacht in the Caribbean, he was investing his time in Sudan knowing full well the press would follow. Good George Clooney story. The counter-story comes from the January referendum for which the worldwide media descended on Juba. And then so did Clooney. Far from Abyei a year ago, there was no way the January vote was going to go unnoticed. All adding Clooney into the mix did was to ensure that half the press pool spent their time chasing Clooney, rather than focusing on Sudanese voices.

Hamilton hits the mark with her comment on the state of American culture; diplomatic hardliners may turn up their noses at the sight of Hollywood’s elite ringing the doorbell at the White House but there’s no denying that it get’s peoples attention.  But when major international news organizations chatter on about how the West came in and saved yet another third-world country from itself, it always seems a little bit like fluff piece aimed at making us living in the so-called developed nations feel good about ourselves.  What could be better than hearing that George Clooney AND the Christians helped South Sudan become it’s own country?

So congrats Mr. Clooney, on your success today.  I mean no disrespect and still promise to pay $13 to see your next film, but maybe, just occasionally, try and keep your good deeds on the DL, make sure no one is hacking your voicemail, and avoid anyone from the BBC or the NYT (I know you and Kristof are BF’s) and then maybe they’ll get back to reporting the news in those regions.

T-Paw hearts Gaga

GOP candidate Tim Pawlenty loves Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith… this is not surprising.  But when the former Minnesota governor turns the tables on his interviewers, the ladies of the D.C.-based pop culture blog Glittarazzi, by asking them to name their favorite Lady Gaga song… well, now I’m surprised—for a minute any way.  Once I recover from the original shock, reality sets in.

Is this Pawlenty’s best effort at becoming relevant?  It kind of seems like someone on his staff thought they could make the incredibly dull Republican seem “edgy,” by going against the stereotype and having him divulge his secret love for the bisexual, outspokenly-liberal pop star.

Oh, T-Paw, try harder.  Or better yet, don’t try, just stay boring, it’s much less awkward that way.

A ‘new wave’ of African film

This is a somewhat-abbreviated version of a post I did for Africa is a Country, read the full version here.

“Sometimes I wonder: Will God ever forgive us for what we’ve done to each other?” says Leonardo DiCaprio, sullen and bleary-eyed, stoically staring just off camera.

“… I look around and I realize…” pause for emotion, “God left this place a long time ago.”

“This place” is the civil war-torn country of Sierra Leone in 1999, the setting for 2006s Blood Diamond.  Using the illegal diamond trade as the backdrop for the primarily character-driven storyline, the film carries a hefty social conscience for a big budget Hollywood action/drama.

Blood Diamond is one of Hollywood’s “message films” that allow Americans to leave the Cineplex feeling a little bit better about themselves after seeing an “educational” film about disenfranchised Africans.  And you can now impress your friends at parties with your knowledge of world events.

Don’t get me wrong, Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland, DiCaprio as the “bad guy with a heart” who helps the black man find his son—these are all good mainstream films.  Meaning they won numerous awards and only the best things win awards.

This is why I noticed Viva Riva!, the Congolese gangster film that won the “Best African Film” award at the 2011 MTV Movie Awards last month in Los Angeles, CA.

Yes, the MTV Movie Awards now has a “Best African Film” category.

I think it was presented while the stars of Twilight: Eclipse were shuffling back and forth from their seats with their golden popcorn statues. But, as Sean Jacobs pointed out on Africa is a Country last month, “That’s the kind of publicity African films can’t buy and should count for something when the film opens in [the US]…”

The folks at MTV, who also honored DiCaprio’s Inception co-star Ellen Page in the “Best Scared-As-Sh*t Performance” category, may be onto something with their inaugural Best African Film award, pointing to a larger trend among Western audiences who are finding that there is more to Africa than what Hollywood tells us about in its “message films.”

There are several possible explanations as to why Westerners have a growing and earnest interest in learning more about African pop culture.  Perhaps I could continue citing the success of critically acclaimed African cinema, or mention the growth of the Nigerian film industry, known as Nollywood, into the third highest grossing film industry in the world, behind Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.  Or maybe I could point to the inquisitive, over-zealous, at-times-inane reporting on South Africa by international media as they set out like Louis and Clark to discover the country hosting the FIFA World Cup last June.  OR I could just put up a link with a picture of George Clooney in Chad, looking ragged but smiling as he shakes the hands of children—who I assume are orphans because it’s Africa and I’m American—and someone would click on it because they’re curious or to satiate their unrequited love for George Clooney.

Simply put, it’s the internet. The digital collective experience created by the Internet has opened doors to places that previously required a passport and an expensive plane ticket to get to.  The next time you go online to watch Lady Gaga’s newest music video, your curiosity may get the upper hand and maybe you’ll actually learn something by spending an hour wandering around Youtube.

Despite my snark, films like Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda, and The Last King of Scotland are successful, but they only tell one, highly-fictionalized story from one perspective.  MTV may not be the cultural spearhead it once was but that gilded box of popcorn provides us with another link to click on, another clip to watch, and another celebrity to follow on Twitter.

In the words of Leonardo DiCaprio, in an unidentifiable African accent, “This. Is. Africa.”

It’s Sunday and this is what’s wrong with media today.

Oh, Ann Coulter, why are you allowed to interact with humans?

Right, I forgot, it’s because our media is, in the immortal words of Jon Stewart, biased “toward sensationalism and conflict and laziness.”

When The Insider asked Coulter if she ever just says things to rile folks up, usually liberals, she just grins—which I imagine is even more horrifying in person than it is on video—and says “Oh sure.”  Wow. Shocking.

In the interview Coulter also talks about how she doesn’t get the whole fascination with the Royals, and that Princess Diana was ” just this anorexic, bulimic narcissist.”  Yes, hi kettle? It’s pot, I just wanted to let you know you’re black.  Thanks.

If you can stand listening to Ann Coulter talk for two and half minutes, you can watch the video here.  In other news, Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal this morning in four sets to win his first Wimbledon title, 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3.  Djokovic’s spot in the final also secured his ascent to number 1 atop the ATP rankings.  I’m not really sure how I feel about this.  Watch the highlights here.