Terror Propaganda for the Computer Age – And for the Lazy Content Creator … I guess??

Some time ago – late 2014/early 2015 or so – there appeared a mod pack for the shooter game Arma III that allowed you to play the game as a member of ISIS. In case this needs some explanation, mod packs are software additions to computer games that enable you to change the appearance or the rules of a game beyond the things normally available. Very often these mod packs can be created by anyone technologically savvy enough and are meant to broaden the community appeal of games. Very often this creates almost entirely new games on the framework of the original one.

Screenshot from the original Arma III ISIS mod pack.

Here though, in the case of Arma III, a shooter by a Czech company, that would normally focus more on a western perspective, all the sudden became something very different. That is at least the way the media picked up on the story.

I must confess I did not follow the story back then, but from what I find on the Internet today, it seems more likely to me that at the time a group of script kiddies was merely trying to give the game they were playing a very contemporary appeal. To me that makes sense. Late 2014 saw the emergence of the Islamic State as it swept through huge chunks of Syria and Iraq. It still had a lot of sex appeal to it – so much so that even Vice Magazine reported on it in their fancy style. I have even found a quote in a forum that discusses this mod, where someone comments: “The IS units on the other hand are based directly off of footage from VICE News.”.

The true terror was not fully revealed and neither was the true extend of the oncoming struggle. It just must have seemed like something that was out there and that was new. I might be completely wrong, but from the way I have seen ISIS propaganda develop, 2014 seems to be too early for them to produce this kind of mod pack. But it would have been a great story, since this would have perfectly followed the narrative that ISIS is a highly-sophisticated organization, that follows the US Military in its footsteps.

The US military has indeed quite a history of using computer games as a means to recruit young men (mostly men). The game “America’s Army”, that in 2002 started a whole series that continues up to today, would be a classical example. Targeting young men through computer games – they definitely know their audience!

It certainly would make sense for ISIS and Co to utilize similar mechanisms and I am quite sure that you would find plenty of people who ended up fighting in Syria or Iraq, that indeed did play with the ISIS mod pack, but most people who played it would have since then just moved on to other games.

That does not mean that these groups do not utilize digital techniques, beyond video and photographs, when it comes to the creation of their propaganda. For instance, groups close to ISIS have, in the past, released at least two apps that were aimed directly at children. So maybe a full-scale computer game might be too big of a task, but relatively simple apps are certainly within reach.

Very crude example of CGI been used in older propaganda videos.

The thing that brought me to write this brief text isn’t something interactive, but rather a 6 ½ minute long video that is entirely computer generated. I have seen other examples before, where these visuals appear, but so far these made up only parts of the video and were always of a very questionable quality.

What is fascinating about this new video is, that it tries to resemble closely a common type of propaganda videos, that makes up quite a big part of the propaganda output at the moment. These videos show attacks by little remote controlled drones on soldiers and fighters in Syria and Iraq. The parallels drawn to these videos are striking. The first scene shows two soldiers launching a drone. This drone flies through a dessert landscape and carries out a series of attacks.

Drone flying into the sunset.

It is already striking that the way these attacks – the ones in real life – have spurred an iconic way to depict them. Shot from straight above the first shot shows the bomblet being dropped, then the scene same scene is repeated with the image zoomed in to show the target more clearly and give an idea of the result of the attack. Naturally, since the zoom is done digitally in retrospect, the footage of the second part is quite grainy and shaky – even this is reproduced in the animated video. That I find quite fascinating.

Real attack.
The CGI version.

Even though this video looks quite sophisticated – and to some extent this certainly need some skills –, upon closer inspection it becomes clear, that this is very much related to the example of the Arma III mod pack. Similar story, different game. It is quite clear that the basis for the video is the latest edition of the Grand Theft Auto series of games. The landscape shown therefore is not originally meant to represent the Middle East, but rather a fictitious Island that is modeled after California. A clear hint is given when a truck is shown and the license plate reads “San Andreas”. This is the name of the main city in the game.

Still, even though much of the work was done using a preexisting game that provides many of the graphics, it would have taken quite a bit of work to create this video. Why bother? Especially, when it tries to copy many of the scenes available as real-life footage? I can only provide some guesswork. One detail worth mentioning is that the Telegram channel that uploaded this video. Was none of the “more official” ISIS channels. And even though it uses the flag ISIS uses as a logo, this flag is on the left side of the image (as far as I have encountered it is always on the right) and the name “Al-Haqq Media” does not ring a bell. I have never heard of this media outlet (please remember that there are in fact different “official” media outlets in the ISIS sphere of influence), nor does a quick Internet search provide much information.

So, the source might be just an enthusiastic individual, or a group of people who have little, if any, real connection to ISIS. But that is so important to me. I find it fascinating that the propaganda that emanates pot from the Middle East has already become iconic in itself. I have mentioned quite a few examples before (the way people are executed, the way suicide attacks are filmed, etc.), yet here, the whole genre of Islamist propaganda, is copied into another medium. The way the storyboard of this short film is developed could serve as the blueprint for a huge chunk of storyboards found in terror propaganda at the moment. True, there are also different types of videos, but the one this resembles (Preparation – Drone Strike – Car Bomb shown – Suicide Attack – Execution of a Prisoner in Orange) is extremely common at the moment.

Even an execution is included in the video.

But then it also reveals the bigotry of people involved in the creation of this kind of propaganda. Of course, whoever has created this video has also played the game. That is just something you do. You are not going to buy or download Grand Theft Auto V as if it were a video editing program with the sole intention to produce a ISIS style propaganda video. You have to play the game first to see its full potential. And the worldview represented by such a video game – love it or hate it – certainly has little to do with the world view of ISIS. And no, I am not going to agree with people who are going to say: “That makes so much sense, ISIS calls for violence and Grand Theft Auto calls for violence, therefore both are related.”. Games like GTA are about violence, they let you envision violence. That is nothing new. The medium is, yes, but there have always been tales of violence and brutality been told within our cultures, very rarely were they meant to incite violence.



The Stuff that is wrong with Intelligence

I have listened to the latest podcast by Sam Harris earlier today. I am not following him that closely, so when he was talking about the heat he was getting on the Internet recently that was new to me. I did not spend too much time looking into it but merely rely on what he was telling on his podcast, but that I take as an excuse to write about something that bothers me for quite some time.

So, Harris seems to have drawn a lot of criticism for talking about research that links intelligence to genes – more specifically genes that are linked what is classified as race. The second cause for outrage seemed to be that he was talking about this with Charles Murray, a right-leaning researcher that talks maybe slightly too much about this connection to be considered open minded about the topic of race – to be polite. Harris complains about the debate culture today, that prevents researchers like him, to talk about certain findings in certain fields, that cannot be addressed without facing criticism on the basis of political correctness.

I have serious issues with the idea of political correctness as it is enforced by some groups and individuals today and would be the first to protect Sam Harris in that respect. I think this has become a curse, that makes a badly needed public discourse in these fields unnecessarily hard and plays in the hands of groups on the right. The left had always had a wonderful talent to tear itself apart, rather than focusing on it’s real opponents.

That aside, I do believe that Mr. Harris is badly wrong in many ways.

Let us just assume that there is no issue with the general concept of intelligence – I’ll come back to this point later, since this would be my key theory. So, let’s assume that intelligence does exist and it can be measured, since this is definitely a prerequisite when arguing that intelligence and a selection of genes are somehow connected. To say that changes in certain genes have a positive or negative effect on the level of intelligence, one has to define what would be counted as intelligence.

The problem I see with this is one that has to do with the general nature of human beings. Humans tend to form groups and associate themselves with others that share interests and traits. In a professional environment that seems quite logical. Physicists have more in-depth interaction with other physicists than say with janitors. But this lumping creates little echo chambers. Not only are you biased on your own towards what your interest is in, but the people around you give you the impression that these biases might be valid. Conferences are a good place to see this in action. I went to a conference, where archivists all agreed that their field was the most crucial for the development of society and I went to another, where historians claimed the same about their trade. I guess that this might explain why many janitors share some prejudice against “learned people”. The janitors know something we have missed – that is that the world would fall apart without them. At least that might be the stuff janitors agree on.

Maybe you get my point.

I believe that a similar thing is at stake once we look at how intelligence is measured. If the definition of what intelligence is and the development of adequate tests would be left up to the combined force of janitors, the outcome might be different from what we have in place now. But they are not the ones to decide. It is another sub-set of society that has taken on this task. Still, the problems are the same. Whatever group plays the most important role in developing the definition of intelligence, social science relies on mostly, there are certainly a lot of similarities between its members. And these members – knowingly or not – are biased to include those things in their classification that are skills needed to be successful in their own trade. If they even work on a classification of intelligence, well they have certainly to be included – right?

Sam Harris, in his podcast, talked about quantum physicists as a group that certainly excluded people of average intelligence. Ok, I have rarely met quantum physicists, but the physicists (more of a macroscopic kind) I have met would have a hard time holder a hammer at the right end. Not saying that this would be a skill that best defines intelligence; I am rather trying to make the point that any definition of intelligence might be tailored to include certain groups and exclude others.

Of course, this is oversimplified. These definitions are not developed with a group of people having some beers and musing over what it is that makes them so amazingly clever. It is far more subtle and I have no doubts that most of these researchers have the best intentions. They work hard to make their definition as waterproof as possible. Still, the bias, it always finds its way.

Even if one could come up with a virtually bias-free setting, this still would be no solution for the issue I am having.

The fundamental problem with the concept of intelligence

A certain level of intelligence is something we attribute to each and every individual. And I believe that herein lies the problem. Humans have never existed outside a group structure. Even if you would end up – Robinson-style – on a remote desert island, you would still rely on every knowledge society has bestowed upon you to that point. But not only our practical knowledge relies on the knowledge already in existence within the society that surrounds us, but so is every last concept of abstract things, such as logic.

I think we ought to look at intelligence as something that is inherit in our society as a whole rather than something that could be coped with on an individual level. I find it very amusing, when people freak out about the rise of intelligent machines. “Oh my god! Computers are going to be more intelligent than humans!”. That is the fear. If we just look at humans and the idea of intelligence, we should realize that even though there might have been a person with the highest IQ amongst them all, this person was always just a speck within the bigger group. No matter how intelligent you are, you are insignificant compared to the group you are in. This way, Computers are merely going to add their intelligence to the group total – as was true with the very clever hunter in the Stone Age.

This way, intelligence is derived from diversity. The more diverse a group is, the better it is able to tackle new problems. This reflects back to the basic concept of intelligence. If we test individuals for their IQ, we tend to look at how well they react to different kinds of problems. In a group of people, this is somewhat related to genetics. When a new disease appears, a population that is genetically diverse has a better chance of dealing with the new threat than one that is genetically very homogeneous.

The question of which way to look at intelligence – on an individual level or on the level of the group as a whole – isn’t merely one of a certain perspective. Rather, I would argue, judging intelligence on a person to person basis is highly dangerous.

It is tempting to judge every individual based on his or her intelligence. This way, it is very easy to alter the intelligence of a group by adding more intelligent people or removing less intelligent ones. Sounds familiar? Sure, this is Eugenics. Something that was very much en vogue in the late 19th and early 20th century. Then it lost a little bit of favor due to the work of wee men with concentration camps. But with the promises made by genetical engineering, it is once again gaining ground. It is strange to see that, once more, scientists and racists are combining their forces.

But of course, the “intelligence” they want to enhance is shown by skills they tend to cherish in themselves. Maybe it should be classified as a cloning operation, rather than one that is aimed at improving the average intelligence of our society.

Again, I am arguing that the average intelligence of a given group rises with every different member that is included. This is why, multicultural societies are going to prepare us much better for things to come that the Easter-Island-style of culture racists dream about. Having handicapped people, people with mental problems, healthy ones, old, young, gay, straight, religious, atheist … this is the stuff that raises our intelligence – and don’t forget janitors for gods sake! And if the machines are raising? We’ll just invite them in. They will certainly be able to add their share.


The ghost of van Gogh’s ear and the wonders of being misunderstood

I was at a big event conference recently and during one talk there were two people on stage complaining about the fact that many of the issues they were addressing were taboo and therefore had little exposure in the media and in society. And yet, there they were. On stage, in a room with a couple hundred people, at a conference with some thousand attendees and having their talk recorded to be shared on different websites. And journalists everywhere. Somehow the fact that there seemed to be an audience for their talk did not dawn on them. Even though there were a couple hundred people right there. Just in front of them. I find that amazing. Maybe, just maybe, art could be able to teach us something here.

Ever since, on December 23rd, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear, failure plays a weird role in the arts. Of course, I am aware that at the time no one took notice of this mentally ill man in a small French town, especially no one in the art world – which is part of the whole issue. I am just mentioning this one event for the sake of my argument and to make things slightly more funny. Years later, when van Gogh posthumously started to be sold for huge wads of money, the world finally took notice of his plight. The ear and the fact that he was financially unsuccessful during his lifetime became the material for 500 Euro questions in TV shows and answers in beginner’s crosswords puzzles. And it became a curse.

The story that society fails to see the real genius that hides in plain sight isn’t merely the stuff that keeps untalented hobbyists painting, it rather might form the basis for much of what is understood as “avantgarde”. Every new avantgarde seems in part to feast on the idea of being misunderstood within the surrounding society. It is almost as if this has become a measurement for the real success. Even collectors and gallerists have fallen in love with this mechanism. “Outsider Art” is an ever-changing sub-genre that carries those who are handicapped in a multitude of ways. Once an outsider starts being valued by the market, new kinds of outsiders appear and take over the classification. And then there are bullshit artists like Jonathan Meese, who make lots of money from being “outsiders”.

This might explain the arrogance that comes out of many art schools. Much of what is created is hard to understand – even for me and I studied fine arts. Some time ago, I went to an “photography” exhibition with works from current students at a big art school. There, I tried desperately to explain some of the works to an architecture professor I met there. Desperately, since much of it remained unexplainable to me. I think that this is problematic. If a professor at the same school does not understand what the stuff is about … well, the works seem to lack something. Not necessarily from the perspective of the young artists though. I believe that there is the curse of the misunderstood artist at work here. To them, not being understood might not be an issue at all, but rather a weird sign of success.

Being misunderstood or mishandled, underrepresented or underreported has become almost something like an accolade, not only in the art world. Of course, the world is full of people who are underreported or victims of a multitude of mistreatings, but these are the people we are not hearing about, because they lack a voice. I am rather talking about complaining on big stages that your ideas are underrepresented – that seems weird to me. Reading or seeing statements publicly that begin with “No one talks about ….” almost feels like theatre of the absurd. And the Internet is full of it.

Sure, if you want to be a revolutionary, you should distance yourself from whatever mainstream there is. That is not new. What is new is the sheer number of people, groups or organizations who simultaneously claim to be “the revolution”. Even a billion dollar news-network like Fox News chips in, by trying to pretend not to be “mainstream”. Everyone wants to be an outsider, since only as such you can be a true revolutionary. So, there are millions of little revolutions with little – or no – agenda in place. Who needs an agenda, if you get your justification from the fact that you are misunderstood? The idea that you might not be represented to the full extend, because your ideas are just not worthwhile, almost never occurs. Everyone just smells a conspiracy theory directed against them.

As we have seen with Fox News, today, even representatives of the status quo claim to be the victim and thus demand the role of the revolutionary.

Yet drowned are the voices that really deserve to be heard. But how to find them, since everyone is so much better connected than those who are truly desperate? Now, this might cause anger, since every little group of equal minded people always comes to an agreement that their cause is the most valuable – or certainly amongst the most valuable. This way journalists, bankers, white nationalists and feminists meet for once on a similar playing field.

Interview with Arte Tracks

This is just a video still. To watch the video, please follow the links below.

Last month, the team of Arte Tracks came for a visit to my studio. The short piece they have produced has been released to YouTube. Unfortunately embedding the video is blocked, so I just post a link to YouTube.

The German version is here

There is also a dubbed version in French

Sorry, no English version available.

One way to look at terror propaganda: Grab a beer and laugh your ass off!

Twice the guns, double the scariness? No, it is just ridiculous. The fact that he shoots two guys at the same time? Even more so!

After a recent talk at the Re:Publica 17 conference in Berlin, some people criticized I was criticized that I was trying to get cheap laughs out of the audience. The topic of the presentation was about the visual culture of jihadist groups. To some extent, I was certainly carried away by my presentation – as I normally are -, so I am guilty in that respect. Do I believe that ISIS videos are funny? Well, I absolutely do. More than that, many of the videos and many of the scenes shown are just hilarious. Does that mean that they are not terrible? No, they are terrible and brutal and disgusting – yet hilarity and brutality do not necessarily live in separate spheres.

I could come up with many examples for both, the brutality and hilarity – and even for as many examples, where both extremes meet directly in an environment of absurdity -, but counting or comparing is really not important here. How many funny scenes would equal a terrible on? Treating it this way makes little sense to me. And it would completely miss the point, why I believe that it is very important to treat these videos and documents lightheartedly.

Talking about these videos as if they would be just one homogeneous entity is somewhat simplifying; I am aware of that. Sorting them into different categories under different themes, and analyzing the different goals they might aiming for, is very tempting and as a matter of fact, I do this quite extensively; but here, I would look at these videos, as if they were aiming for just one goal. Instilling fear. And since I am writing this from a Western perspective, I am focusing on the attempt to instill fear in the West.

Judging by the political climate and media reporting in many European countries, Islamist terror groups are currently quite successful in that regard. Having the occasional terror attack certainly helps in the creation of fear, but the propaganda is plays an important role. I am even making the case that the terror attacks themselves should be classified as another form of propaganda.

Terror, pretty much by its definition, feeds on our fears; it needs us to be afraid to work at all. Killing people does have an impact, but this impact is very limited. Propaganda tries to extend this reach. I have mentioned this on this blog very briefly before, but I think that propaganda itself is a sign of weakness. It is the attempt to extend the reach into otherwise unreachable realms. Systems, who heavily rely on propaganda, reveal that they have little influence on parts of the world or parts of our minds, they are trying to occupy. If the words Fascists or Stalinists struggle to make people happy by providing them with the basic needs, to fulfill their urges for freedom or prosperity, they are always relying on propaganda to reach them by other means.

In this respect, terror propaganda, that merely tries to instill fear, is much cruder. Spreading fear, when there is little to be afraid of, is much simpler, than spreading the idea of a wonderful life that is contradicted by the harsh reality that surrounds you. Scaring people is much easier than to make them happy.

There are different ways to let terror propaganda suffer. The simplest way would to just ignore it. Stop reporting about it and that would be it. But in our current 24-hour media cycle, this could never be implemented. Hour long news shows have to be filled. Breaking news must constantly flash our screens. And in-depth analysis has to be written. Plus, not reporting on the propaganda that is aimed at us, would in fact be a kind of censorship.

I am not saying that this constant reporting on the slightest bit of propaganda or any attempted terror attack somewhere is a good thing. It is not. In fact, this over-reporting is the stuff of nightmares, since this is precisely what fuels the fears within our societies. I am saying that, blocking the reporting is not feasible and blocking it might backfire in unintended ways.

But, besides being noticed and reported on, another key element that is necessary for terror propaganda to spread fear is that it is taken seriously. Apparently, this is something that can be quite easily achieved. As a society, taking pity in the suffering of others, is a key element for the functioning of our social structure. This is what many of the terror threats and terror attacks aim for. While showing people suffer in their videos, while making them suffer during their attacks, terror groups grab our undivided attention. We have come to accept that, once suffering is involved in an event, we must block out all the other aspects that might be visible.

Once people are grieving, right response is to join in and grieve with them – that is the rule.  That is true and important. But prohibiting ourselves from finding another narrative for these violent attacks or brutal videos is a missed opportunity to disable many the mechanisms that make them function.

Terror is brutal and violent and as long as we feel terrorized, it remains what it wants to be: Terror. As soon though, as we stop taking it seriously, it does not lose any of its violence or brutality, but it stops being terror.

We can already see part of this at play during some of the last terror attacks in Europe. Take for instance the Christmas market attack in Berlin. The mood in the city did not change all that much. Or, it did change, but life did not come to a standstill as had happened as a reaction to other attacks. Life went on and that limited the reach of the terror attack by quite a bit. It seems as if people did not take this as seriously as they did many other attacks before.

Humor, I argue, might drive this even further. C’mon! Many, if not most, of these videos are ridiculous. It might be tricky to see at first, with all the moral blocks in place, but once one manages to overcome some hurdles, it becomes obvious.

It is the stuff I would have come up with as a teenager, when someone had asked me to scare the shit out of people. There are so many funny and absurd elements and we should wet ourselves laughing, while watching them. There should be enough room to grieve with the victims and the ones they have left behind, but I truly believe that it is our civic responsibility not to take this shit seriously. Because if we did, they would have achieved their goals and terror and fear would continue to spread.


Why is it easier to explain the Holocaust than a work by Joseph Beuys?

There is this group of Syrian refugees that I know, that are mostly part of an extended family. Since they are all – on very different skill levels – struggle somewhat to cope with the German language and culture, I take them to different museums from time to time. I find that this is a far better way to teach them some German words or basic concepts than have them cook me some delicious Syrian food and stick with them in their regular environment. There is a huge number of museums in Berlin. And that is great, since it might take a while for us to run out of opportunities.

A work by Joseph Beuys

But whenever I think of taking them somewhere, I also think about the fact that I would not take them to any of the contemporary art venues, like the Hamburger Bahnhof, KW or HDKDW. When talking about this to a friend, I phrased it this way: I could easily explain them the concept of the Holocaust, or why Germans hated the Jews, while visiting the Jewish Museum; but explaining the shit Joseph Beuys has done is beyond my grasp. So, the Holocaust is a much easier concept than contemporary art, and that, I believe, is an issue.

That does not necessarily mean that I myself do not grasp some of the ideaspresented in the Hamburger Bahnhof. Keep in mind, I studied the topic quite extensively and I might even have gained some level of expertise. It is the fact, that much of it is so far beyond the reach of someone less qualified, where the problem lies. It might be that the topics many of these artists work on are just too complicating for mere mortals to understand – I don’t think that this is the case. On the contrary, most of the artists presented in a contemporary setting deal with extremely basic issues and ideas. Yet, the artists and the museums often fail completely when trying to make things accessible.

Other museums, like those who deal with science or history, manage it quite well to make hard to understand topics accessible to a huge fraction of the society – even to people who did grow up in a different country and culture. Sure, they are very often overdoing it in a Disney-theme-park kind of way, with a lot of fancy buttons and lots to touch and awe about. On the other hand, contemporary art functions in a way like “understand it or get the fuck out”. This approach is extremely elitist. It might have to do with a misunderstood concept of Avantgarde. Artists seem to believe that to really be revolutionary, one has to be constantly out of line with society. This is sad.