As the digital revolution was underway in the mid-nineties, research departments at the CIA and NSA were developing programs to predict the usefulness of the World Wide Web as a tool for capturing what they dubbed “birds of a feather” formations. That’s when flocks of sparrows make sudden movements together in rhythmical patterns.
They were particularly interested in how these principles would influence the way that people would eventually move together on the burgeoning Internet: Would groups and communities move together in the same way as birds of a feather, so that they could be tracked in an organised way? And if their movements could be indexed and recorded, could they be identified later by their digital fingerprints?
To answer these questions, the CIA and NSA established a series of initiatives called Massive Digital Data Systems (MDDS) to directly fund tech entrepreneurs through an inter-university disbursement program. They named their first unclassified briefing for computer scientists “birds of a feather,’ which took place in San Jose in the spring of 1995.
Amongst the first grants disbursed by the MDDS program to capture the birds of a feather theory towards building a massive digital library and indexing system – using the internet as its backbone – went to two Stanford University PHDs, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who were making significant headways in the development of web-page ranking technology that would track user movements online.
Those disbursements, together with $4.5 million in grants from a multi-agency consortium including NASA and DARPA, became the seed funding that was used to establish Google.
Eventually, MDDS was integrated into DARPA’s global eavesdropping and data-mining activities that would attempt total information awareness over US citizens. Few understand the extent to which Silicon Valley is the alter-ego of Pentagon-land, and even fewer realise the impact this has had on the social sphere. But the story does not begin with Google, nor the military origins of the Internet, it goes back much further in time, to the dawn of counterinsurgency and PSYOPs during the Second World War.