Chasing the Moon, a film by Robert Stone. A Place Beyond the Sky (part 1 and 2)

gil scott heron.jpg

This six part serial set at the height of the Cold War tells us everything we need to know about the relationship between politics and technology. United States triumphalism that they had won the war, although unofficial acknowledgement some fading nations and bankrupt colonial powers such as Britain might have helped, were undermined when the USSR launched Sputnik 1 on 4 October 1957.

‘Kaputnik’ was one American newspaper headline. By 12th April 1961 the USSR was a man and a dog ahead. I can’t remember the name of the dog, but Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was a Soviet pilot, cosmonaut, and national hero. As well as being a test pilot he was small, which meant he could fit inside the capsule. He’d be on the front page of every newspaper in the world and he was discovered to be photogenic, which helped. What makes this documentary watchable is we also get the Soviet perspective. Sergei Khrushchev, whose father Nikita, led the Soviet Union during this era, gives us some insider information on what was the right stuff from over there.

Newly elected President John F Kennedy was looking for that big idea that would win the ongoing propaganda war against Communism, in general, and the USSR in particular and reasserts the dominance of Capitalism and its superior technology that had produced the atomic and hydrogen bombs. Lyndon B Johnstone then a senator had bemoaned the fact that the Soviet had taken four years to produce an atomic bomb of their own and a mere nine months to produce a hydrogen bomb. He made no mention of the helping hand of Soviet spies stealing their blueprints. Now with Sputniks in the skies, one commentator remembered drills and practicing hiding under school desks. Soviet satellite technology was aligned with the threat of nuclear capability to create a moral and existential panic.

Congress approved an initial budget of $1.7 billion, or $10 for every man, woman or child in America, on the understanding that the flag flying on the moon wouldn’t be the hammer and sickle but the stars and stripes.

NASA were reliant of an team of German scientist and former Nazis, led by Werner von Braun who developed the V1 rocket that bombed London. The Saturn rocket that successfully launched astronaut on 20th February 1962, a marine colonel named John Glenn and orbited the Earth was a bigger, souped-up version of the V1. Rocket flight hasn’t changed that much. Essentially it’s a pencil nib on top of a three or four storey casing of highly explosive fuel. The trick was to keep the astronaut, and later astronauts that went to the moon alive, and bring them back. Even with national prestige at stake, with budget overruns JFK was considering scaling back NASA’s budget and America’s ambition. He even proposed a joint mission to the moon with the USSR.

As we know this didn’t happen in his lifetime. And a new word entered our consciousness, software. Programmers such as Margaret Hamilton designed the on-board computer system that allowed the Neil Armstrong to utter those immortal words, ‘The Eagle had landed’. A computer system and memory so basic it wouldn’t power a modern calculator.

‘Whitey on the moon’ was Gil-Scott Heron’s take on it. Captain Edward J Dwight test pilot and a black kid didn’t make the grade. No accident. No malfunction. Not much has changed in fifty years.  The moron’s moron and friend of the KKK in the White House is keen on picking up Ronald Reagan’s hyperbole and aborted Star Wars programme. The military industrial complex that swallows sixty-percent of the US budget, but can’t find a nickel or cent for welfare, for the poor.  Different planet now, same rules apply.



BBC 4 iPlayer Storyville, The Internet’s Own Boy

aaron swartz

You have 19 days left to watch this. I suggest you do. It says a lot about where we are. Aaron Schwarz committed suicide 11th January 2013 in Brooklyn, New York. He was aged 26. Aaron’s girlfriend, Tarren Stinebrinckner-Kauffman, claimed that he wasn’t depressed, rather his suicide was the direct result of a vindictive prosecution and prosecutor out to make a name for himself. Perhaps it was something more than that. Perhaps less.

Aaron was arrested in January 2011. We see his clear image on a camera placed in a cupboard at MIT. He’d been playing cat and mouse downloading articles from JSTOR, avoiding their paywall, and saving them. His purpose for this remains unclear. But he had previous. He had downloaded a cache of medical journal’s research papers and shown a clear line between pharmaceutical firms and the authors of articles in prestigious journals. The implication being what you pay for is what you get. He also showed the commercial link between court records and the company providing this service for a fee was a lucrative scam. Those with money could and would pay. Those without would be relegated to a substandard form of justice which prejudiced the inherent rights to a fair trial. He helped set up a software system were public documents could be copied and accessed. Perhaps his greatest success was mobilizing support to prevent internet censorship explicit in legislation the Stop Online Piracy Act going through the Houses of Congress. This is the equivalent of stopping and re-directing a fully-laden oil craft tanker with quant poles used by barges. One of his two brothers remember FBI agents driving up to their house to check if Aaron was in and driving away again. Aaron was a remarkable man the ‘go-to’ man for news agencies wanting media friendly and savvy commentary on internet affairs.

Aaron was also a precocious child. His family were rich enough and middle-class enough to make extensive home movies. Even as a toddler its clear how articulate Aaron was. His elder brother talks about Aaron wanting to teach him algebra. The child had an inquisitive questing mind that wanted to know how things work. He found his nemesis in computer code. He could write and programme as easily as kids could play ball. We see the half-pint Aaron addressing a roomful of adults. He wasn’t so much their equal as their better. He co-designed tools such as RSS and Markdown. His coding prowess made possible the sharing of many of the images we take for granted such as the one I accessed ten minutes ago in IdeasTap. Creative Commons gives copyright law to ordinary people, not to make money but to share ideas. Aaron dropped out of Stanford and with three others developed the site Reddit. They sold it for millions. Aaron had $1 million. Traditional storylines show young go-getters turning that million into $100 million, or more, and being successful. Aaron was smarter than that. He wanted to do something useful with his life and it cost him his life.

Why you find yourself humping the internet -and being humped.

humping the machine

Remember the internet in December 1983? Morphing about the place with floppy-disk hair talking about equality, freedom and changing the world. How we laughed loading up computers like washing machines. We’d go to bed, get up in the morning and it would be making that strange noise as it dry humped data, trying to get its insides out.

We’d explain comparing a computer to an electrical typewriter was the wrong analogy. One worked by electricity. The other didn’t work but when it did it was by the strange alchemy of binary code. Nothing was no longer nothing. One had to mean something.

Then the internet hit puberty. Boy did our trouble begin. Not just viruses. Porn discovered the internet or the internet discovered porn. It was messy and mousy. Something hard was always getting stuck in the hard drive. We thought it would be just a passing phase.

People no longer saw eye to eye. They seemed quite content to wave their wands and touch their screens. Everybody became somebody. Selfies and selfie-sticks were the latest cool tool to let your neighbour know you were the latest show. Dinner was in the cloud, delivered from Asda by the son of a boy whose name you vaguely remember from school. You google him. And of course it’s him. You need to google yourself, check out what’s being said about you. It might even be true.