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Book Review: The Imagineers of War

By (March 29, 2017) No Comment

The Imagineers of War:

The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World

by Sharon Weinberger

Knopf, 2017

Any normal person who’s ever asked a group of tech-geek friends to perform a simple fix on some computer glitch will have an instant, intuitive grasp of much of Sharon Weinberger’s fascinating new book The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World.

Your computer develops a little hiccup: it will no longer produce italic script. This annoys you a bit, although you admit even to yourself that it’s a minor problem. You eventually decide (with much trepidation, since you know as well as anybody that such people are generally best avoided) to take the computer to that group of tech-savvy friends you keep in touch with mostly through Facebook. They’re happy to see you (it’s a long time between class reunions). You carefully explain the problem: your computer no longer produces italics. They nod eagerly, assuring you it should be simple to fix. They huddle around your machine (does it cringe? You’d think it wouldn’t, since they’re computer geeks, but you could swear it does, just a bit). They begin checking things like algorithms and sub-routines. They chatter eagerly amongst themselves.

Eventually, one of them declares that the computer not only doesn’t produce italics anymore, it doesn’t seem to understand italics anymore – not just the font, but the concept. Another picks up on this idea and excitedly declares that this must mean your computer has been messed with, by some very skilled external source. A lively debate ensues about what that source could be. The best way to figure that out, they decide (it’s been five hours this point – you’ve cancelled the dinner plans you’d made with your normal friends), is to do a system-wide search to see what ELSE your computer may have been forced to forget. They find numerous such blank spots, and soon they’ve got six of their own computers hooked up and keeping track.

At four in the morning, the group has reached the conclusion that the Vatican was involved in a secret plot that in 1515 assassinated the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, the inventor of italics, and that a) the present-day Vatican is almost certainly behind your computer’s inability to produce italics, and b) you and your tech-savvy friends have all got to go into hiding immediately and for the rest of your lives, to avoid the Vatican hunter-killer teams they’re now sure are headed straight to you, in unmarked black vans.

As dawn slowly infiltrates their basement apartment, you manage to disconnect your computer from the informal network they’ve set up, and you make your excuses as they’re packing bags with emergency rations of Cool Ranch Doritos and Red Bull. The next day, you take your computer to the Bengali guy who runs a kiosk in the local mall. He says, “Oh yeah, I see this all the time,” fixes it in under 3 minutes, and doesn’t even bother to charge you.

In a nutshell, that’s the story of Advanced Research Projects Agency, the – to use the term very generously – think-tank established under the aegis of the Pentagon by President Eisenhower in the days when the Russians were launching Sputnik and, or so it seemed at the time, looking to threaten the entire world with orbital death-weapons and other terrifying aspects of cutting-edge technology. The agency came to be known as DARPA, and its always-vague remit was to employ America’s own cutting edge technology to counter the Soviets and advance the art of war – or, failing that, to create that cutting-edge technology.

Weinberger, already well-versed on the topic from research for her earlier book Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon’s Scientific Underworld, incorporates more interviews with Pentagon apparatchiks past and present than have ever been assembled in one place before, and in a lucky break, the Pentagon recently de-classified large chunks of DARPA’s budget for the agency’s first two decades (the rest is silence, for now). As a result, The Imagineers of War is a bigger and more thorough narrative of DARPA’s fretful early existence than we’ve ever had before.

And it can make for titillating reading. Weinberger sniffs out all the Vatican-conspiracy-type stuff you might expect from a coven of nerds suddenly given a vague mission and a theoretically unlimited Pentagon tab. There are cybernetic bugs; there are invisibility cloaks; there are periodic attempts at developing telekinetic drone-soldiers; there are stabs at weather control. There was a primitive version of the Internet, ARPANET, initially connecting only four computers. And there was the more baleful stuff, the chemical weapons and prototype drones that DARPA developed for use in the Vietnam War. Dangerous or quirky innovations came semi-regularly down the agency’s conveyor belt, and the Pentagon was always a willing buyer.

It’s a colorful story, and in order to tell it well, which she unfailingly does, Weinberger oversells it. This almost always happens when writers come in contact with DARPA, as can be seen in examples as far apart on the spectrum as The X-Files and The West Wing; it’s easy and dramatically effective to imagine the agency as nebulous instead of scatter-brained, all-knowing instead of clueless, darkly rogue instead of a wholly-owned and much-mocked subsidiary of the Pentagon war machine. Weinberger’s account is all in favor of the one characterization over the other, the better to enhance the drama of DARPA’s long partnership with the other departments of the government.

But virtually all of the more outlandish projects dreamed up by DARPA were self-evidently nonsensical on paper and total failures in application (telepathic cats trained to detect nuclear weapons? Nobody’s really doubting that cats can read minds, but thinking they’d bother? Madness). Saying the agency “invented” the Internet because it cobbled together a handful of computers into ARPANET is like saying the local Florentine pigment-crusher “invented” the Mona Lisa. And even the darker innovations that had tangible results (in the form of body-counts) were quickly whisked away from the lab-boys in their earliest stages and developed by the military, not the techies. Breakthroughs in surveillance, data-mining, electronic scanning, digital face- and voice-recognition, encryption, and a dozen other things our author might like to credit to this wonky agency were turned into functional realities not by DARPA but by non-government companies working on commission, or by other, more accountable branches of the Pentagon. As Weinberger herself asks about DARPA, both in the past and today, “Is it a sanctuary for crackpots? A genius factory? A Pentagon boondoggle?”

The Imagineers of War is clearly written to answer these questions … and it does.

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