Starfish and censorship

The Spider and the StarfishI’ve started reading Ori Brafman’s excellent The Spider and the Starfish and came across an article in the New York Times relating the use of services like Googlebait YouTube to post uncensored video from conflicts around the world, primarily from Afghanistan and Iraq.

There are a few key quotes that I think are telling, and sets up rather well the contrast that Ori illuminates in his book. On the side of the decentralized starfish:

Russell K. Terry, a Vietnam veteran who founded the Iraq War Veterans Organization, said he had mixed feelings about the videos.

“It’s unfortunate there’s no way to stop it,” Mr. Terry said, even though “this is what these guys are over there fighting for: freedom of speech.”

Emphasis mine.
On the opposing side, illustrating what Brafman describes as the second principle of decentralization: “it’s easy to mistake starfish for spiders”:

Geoffrey D. W. Wawro, director of the Center for the Study of Military History at the University of North Texas and a former instructor at the United States Naval War College, said the erosion of the command structure of terrorist and insurgent groups had led them to increase their reliance on the Internet and videos to gain recruits.

Emphasis, again, mine.

That a military person would suggest that terrorist and insurgent groups actually ever had a centralized, or coercive, chain of command smacks at being ludicrous, given recent experience. You’ll note, for example, that even with terrorist “leader” snubbed out, the terrorist threat is as potent as ever. Taking him out wasn’t taking out the head of the spider, as Wawro would probably argue; rather, according to Brafman, we succeeded only in chopping off a leg of the starfish:

Cut off a spider’s leg, and you’ll have a seven-legged cripple. Cut off its head, and you’ll kill the spider. But cut off the starfish’s arm, and not only will it regenerate, but the severed arm will actually grow an entirely new body. Starfish can achieve this remarkable feat because, unlike spiders, they lack central control—their organs are replicated across each arm. Starfish are decentralized.

Just like in nature, there are also starfish on the battlefield. Starfish forces don’t have a leader, clear structure, or defined hierarchy. These seemingly chaotic qualities make Starfish unexpectedly resilient.

So, for one thing, censorship, on the part of YouTube and/or Google is a losing battle (no pun intended) and one that makes matter worse, since it keeps the US citizenry ill-informed and naive to what’s really going on overseas. It strikes me that not all “graphic violence”, is created equally, as Julie Supan, senior director of marketing for YouTube, seems to think:

In an e-mail message, Ms. Supan said that among the videos removed were those that “display graphic depictions of violence in addition to any war footage (U.S. or other) displayed with intent to shock or disgust, or graphic war footage with implied death (of U.S. troops or otherwise).”

Perhaps the argument is that graphic violence masquerading as entertainment should be censored — well, in private media collections, okay, sure; but, when the same kind of information is also more informative than what our media is allowed to show, does it take on a purpose that should invoke the protections of journalism?

Hard to say, but the lesson Ori offers to the military is one that YouTube and others should also heed: Our military is discovering what happens when a spider takes on a starfish.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

4 thoughts on “Starfish and censorship”

  1. Interesting. Isolation and censorship reminds me of a PBS episode on the ancient Greek Peloponnesian War that I saw. Athens dominated the area around 430 BC and issued economic sanctions. Sparta attacked by land and the Athenians felt they would be protected behind their walls. Their isolation led to plague which decimated them and Athens eventually sued for peace.

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