Cultural Heritage, Conflicts, and the Map

On the 27th of July at 6 pm, I will speak as part of GeoBLR at the Mapbox office in Bangalore about Cultural Heritage, Conflicts, and the Map.

For the past 15 years I have been working in the promotion and revitalisation of cultural heritage and practices in countries in conflict. Mapping can be an important device to support locating archeological remains as well as living traditions.

The talk explores the challenges and opportunities of mapping in this context. It further addresses the issue of the value of (cultural) objects on the map. As there are many questions and no definitive answer, I hope that the presentation will turn into an engaging collective discussion.

Find the Mapbox office here on the map.

Heritage and Politics in Kashmir

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This text was originally published on Kashmir Reader on the 6th of May 2016

Indian-occupied Kashmir is one of the most densely militarised corners of the world even though it is not officially a country at war. With over half a million troops stationed within its boundaries, the ratio between Indian armed forces and Kashmiri civilians is even higher than that between foreign military and civilian population at the peak of the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the promise of a plebiscite, the region has been denied the right of self-determination and has seen the criminalisation of organised forms of dissent. Movement is regulated and the right to public space curbed under the pretence of maintaining law and order. In such a climate, the struggle over the control and definition of territory assumes a fundamental role. Within this context, therefore, the management and articulation of heritage assume a loaded political meaning. Whose history is preserved and promoted? By whom and through which political allegiances? What messages and agendas are championed through heritage? What are the meanings and reasons for reclaiming cultural roots through fabricated notions of tradition?
After the 2008 and 2010 uprisings, the Indian government has associated systematic repressive violence with a renewed public discourse on the beauty of Kashmir – a pristine landscape devoid of people. To strengthen its propagandistic effectiveness, the central government started providing financial incentives to tourism and pilgrimages as devices to normalise the conflict. This whole political apparatus is mostly articulated in religious terms with an emphasis on the indivisible sacrality of Indian land since ancient pre-Islamic times. The same strategy is adopted in relation to the border, where Hindu shrines are installed within the premises or in the vicinity of Army check-posts. These newly established religious sites, which become collective yet segregated places of worship, indirectly sanction the Army’s presence as well as the quintessentially Hindu nature of India as a country.
In the decades that followed Partition, India and Pakistan sat at the negotiating table several times to try and solve, among other things, their disagreement over the management of Kashmir. These talks did not achieve much, but sanctioned the “question of Kashmir” as aterritorial dispute – an empty land on a map where the issue was how – rather than if – it should be divided.Almost seventy years and several UN resolutions later, the situation has not changed. The articulation of the discourse is still framed in bilateral terms and continues to exclude the political voice of Kashmiris. Through a narrative that reinforces the idea that the “solution” for Kashmir has to come from India and Pakistan, Kashmiris themselves are sidelined and not acknowledged as equal, let alone indispensable, interlocutors. It is the fate of the land that is at stake, not the fate of those who belong to it. This unchanged perspective perpetuates the legitimacy of a “mystical” tone whereby Kashmir has come to symbolise the unquestionable wholeness of India as a country.
The first months of 2016 have seen open and rampant tensions around the oneness of India. The central government and its supporters are undeterred in their attempt to promote such unity and reinstate the intrinsically religious nature of Indian nationalist loyalty founded on the centrality of the myth of Bharat Mata. The reinforcement of the identification of the Indian land with the body of the mother collapses political and religious categories, turns the nationalist struggle into a religious duty and charges political claims for self-determination with an almost blasphemous and hence seditious connotation. Incidentally, by reciting the Bharat Mata ki Jai, the Indian Army finds a religious justification to their brutality: their mission is to protect the integrity of the land thus turning into the uncontested custodians of a dominant interpretation of belonging and heritage.
In order to be able to grasp the complexity of the notion of heritage and the intertwining between the sacralisation of the land and a sense of belonging in Kashmir, it is fundamental to grasp the relevance of the events of the 1990s and the displacement of the Kashmiri Pandits. Much of their pledge has been in fact appropriated by a chauvinist nationalist agenda and their desire to return to their homeland has been manipulated to reinforce the Hindu nature of the wholeness of India.
The recent revival of the Amarnath Yatra is an important example of how people’s mobilisation around cultural memorialisation can be used to interpret the political implications of the promotion of immaterial heritage. Located 140 kilometres North East of Srinagar, at an altitude of almost 4,000 meters, the cave of Amarnath, with its ice stalagmite, has been for centuries the site of religious pilgrimages. At the end of a steep climb in a pristine forest, the cave is blocked by snow for most of the year and it is only accessible for a short period of time during which pilgrims challenge altitude and asperities to pay their respect to the god. Legend has it that this is the secluded place that Lord Shiva chose to reveal to Parvati the secrets of immortality and of the creation of the Universe without being heard by any other living being. The cave is therefore revered and considered among the most important religious sites for Hindus. To corroborate its sacrality, it is believed that the ice stalagmite, which is thought to be waxing and waning in accordance to the moon cycles, is an embodiment of the Lingam, the phallic representation of Lord Shiva himself.
After being forgotten for centuries, the cave was “miraculously” rediscovered around the 1850s by Buta Malik, a wandering shepherd during the reign of Gulab Singh, the first Dogra ruler of Kashmir. The Maharaja was all too happy to encourage pilgrims to visit the site. Since its modern inception, the Yatra was a relatively small event that lasted no longer than fifteen days and included twenty to thirty thousand local Kashmiri Pandits. Between 1991 and 1995, the pilgrimage was suspended because of political instability; it was then resumed in 1996 after assurances by the militants that they would not harm the pilgrims. That year, however, a sudden change of weather and unexpected snowfall caused the death of more than 250 people. In response to this tragedy, the government decided to impose stricter regulations and set up the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB).
The institutionalisation of the pilgrimage and the definition of the religious pre-requisites for the eligibility for the SASB represent a momentous turning point in the significance, promotion and political connotation that the Amarnath Yatra has acquired. It is after this transition, in fact, that the Sangh Parivar has shown a proactive interest in the pilgrimage, radically changing the narrative around it, thus escalating the politicisation of the initiative and hence its divisive nature.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm defines the process of the invention of tradition as an intentional way of using material from the past to serve novel purposes. This perspective resonates with an interpretation of heritage as a contemporary cultural use of the past, thus highlighting its political dimension. Hobsbawm’s definition of “invented traditions” can provide a useful framework for the understanding of the shift in meaning and political significance of the Amarnath Yatra. Even though there is no academic analysis of the Yatra, the debate around it is quite heated at the level of civil society. Positions are deeply polarised and mostly see a split between the government bodies, militant Kashmiri Pandits and Hindus from mainland India on one side, and moderate Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri civil society organisations on the other.
Over the course of several interviews with Kashmiri Pandits living both in the Valley and outside it, it emerged that there was a shared agreement around the preposterous notion of “reclamation of Kashmir” utilised to justify the scale of mobilisation around the Amarnath Yatra. In a phone interview, S. – who spoke on the condition of anonymity as he feared that his positions would upset the community – told me: “Amarnath has no relation whatsoever with Kashmiri Pandits, we as a community have nothing to do with the shrine. Those who will tell you that the tradition is ours and Muslims are trying to destroy it, hold false and biased views that are fuelled by their anger at the displacement they underwent. This reactionary narrative is not inherent to Kashmir, it is the result of Indianisation and the media are contributing to exacerbating a narrative that is more important to Indians than it is to us.”
Sanjay Tickoo, a Kashmiri Pandit social activist, who decided not to leave his native Srinagar during the 1989 exodus and has lived in the Valley his entire life, highlighted the deep religious connection with nature in Kashmir that characterises the Pandits’ religiosity and framed the relation with the Amarnath Yatra in the same terms. He also expressed his discontent towards the fact that the pilgrimage was taken over “by those who claim to be the real custodians of Hinduism”. While dissenting from the interpretations of the Yatra as a form of political oppression, Tickoo criticised the composition of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board where currently only one member, Bhajan Sopori, is a Kashmiri Pandit. He told me that this detail can be indicative of the politicisation of the pilgrimage and its disconnection from the Pandit community. Even though he did not seem too preoccupied with the implications of such adevelopment, his main concern had to do with the terrible environmental consequences the massive expansion of the Amarnath Yatra has caused over the years. He was highly critical of the great numbers and of the extension of the pilgrimage time from fifteen days to almost two months.
The effect that hundreds of thousands of people can have on a fragile mountainous environment is a general reason of concern. For many civil society activists, however, the ecological preoccupation is framed in broader political terms. Khurram Parvez, a member of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), lamented the detrimental effects that the Amarnath Yatra has on Kashmiri culture in terms of “its impact on our natural resources, its absolute lack of sustainability and the fact that it has become an alibi for an even further militarisation” Parvez was adamant in calling the Amarnath Yatra as a “military project run under the patronage of the State” and accused the SASB of being complicit with the State-sponsored narrative of reclaiming Kashmir.
As the BJP, RSS and other extreme right-wing Hindutva organisations appropriated the narrative around the Yatra, they started aggressive fundraising campaigns gathering large sums of money from diaspora Hindus across the world so as to be able to sponsor increasingly larger numbers of pilgrims entirely free of cost. This process changed dramatically the demography of the pilgrims who for the most joined the Yatra for opportunistic or ideological reasons. This tension is further heightened by the fact that pilgrims consider the Army to be there to protect them from aggressions by locals and terrorists alike, whereas for Kashmiris the military presence is an obvious disruption of their own lives.
Moreover, as the number of pilgrims grew exponentially, Kashmiri civil society organisations started denouncing the visible deterioration of the fragile Himalayan ecosystem around the cave. Scientific research shows the increase of waterborne diseases and water shortage in villages in South Kashmir during and in the immediate aftermaths of the pilgrimage. Yatris neither show any respect for the natural environment, by throwing all sorts of waste in the Lidder River and by defecating in the open, nor are they provided with the necessary facilities for a more considerate behaviour, despite it being one of the main tasks assigned to the SASB.
The tension between civil society organisations and the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board reached a peak in May-August 2008 after the state government granted the transfer of 40 acres of forest land to the SASB for the construction of temporary structures for the accommodation of pilgrims. The announcement that this would represent a permanent transfer created public outrage as Kashmiris saw the transaction as a blatant violation of article 370 of the Indian Constitution. One of the provisions of such article is that only citizens of the state can purchase and own land in the Valley. Khurram Parvez defined the land transfer and the plan to build on forest land permanent structures to host pilgrims as “an ecological disaster and yet other manifestation of the Indian occupation.” Street protests erupted across Kashmir and clashes between civilians and Indian Army determined the withdrawal of the transfer. This in turn triggered a wave of unrest in Jammu – where the majority of the population is Hindu – with Hindutva parties and organisations were up in arms calling for a comprehensive agitation to fight and take back the land of Kashmir defined as “the paternal property of Hindus”.
The 2015 Amarnath Yatra counted more than 350 thousand participants and several deaths. The 2016 edition is scheduled to begin on the 2nd of July and will last for 48 days. In an ostentatious attempt to regulate the Yatra, the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board announced that it will “only” allow 7,500 people per day on each of the two routes, therefore bringing the estimated attendance to 720,000 people. Violence and unrest are ebbing again in Kashmir following various episodes of brutal military responses to critical voices that dared questioning the indiscriminate acceptance of the oneness of India. In this climate, the forthcoming Amarnath Yatra may acquire further ideological connotations and be instrumentally used to serve chauvinistic Hindu nationalistic agendas. Leveraging on sentiments of belonging and the right to reclaim their own land through the construction of a well orchestrated invented tradition, the Amarnath Yatra is an important, if little known, example of the ways in which heritage movements can serve political purposes. Heritage activism in this particular case shows a dark and antagonistic side where the promotion of a carefully fabricated continuity to a selective sense of the past serves the Indian hegemonic discourse and indirectly legitimises both the presence of the Army and their deeds as custodians of the sacred unity of Bharat Mata.

To Resist is to Exist

images50 years ago, the revolutionary masterpiece The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. To mark the anniversary, the film has been restaured and CG Entertainment launched a campaign to published this new edition (in Italian). To support the initiative, they asked me to engage in a conversation with this great work of art. My thougths are below and this is the link to support the campaign.

 

We live in dark times, in a precarious equilibrium between fear and inurement. The big engine of the empire huffs and puffs, hit at its core by lone wolves and organised terrorists. The chasm between us and them grows wider, defined by shortcuts and superficial understandings that seem convincing because are worded in the incontestable language of reassuring populism. We live in dark times that are nurtured by historical courses and recourses: History does not teach, human kind does not learn from past mistakes, the thirst for revenge is more satisfying than the desire for transformation. The dystopia of the present builds isolating and fragmentary geographies, designed in the negative and founded on divisions. In this grim picture, instead of the possibility of encounters, the only thing that seems to multiply are separating devices and mechanisms of exclusion: concrete walls, thousand-eyed drones, coils of barbed wire.  

Read the full article on With Kashmir 

In search for words

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Photo by Kevin Frayer / AP

Yesterday Afghanistan has lived through yet another bloody day: three attacks in three cities (Lashkar Gah, Kabul, Kandahar) and tens of casualties. We had barely managed to process the horror of one event that another followed. It has been a difficult time and our thoughts were once again with those whose only fault is to work in the wrong place.

At a personal level, days like these add doubts to the emotional tiredness of being an indirect witness of a war that never seems to end. On days like yesterday it seems more difficult to give myself a convincing answer on why not only is it important but also necessary to work on art and cultural production in a country like Afghanistan in a moment like this. The uneasiness that this hesitation generates is difficult to manage both for myself and for those who are close to me. Silence in these circumstances is never productive neither is indulging in the malaise. The frustration, however, is there and needs an outlet.

Yet, I’ll never cease to be surprised by the fact that answers always come when you least expected them.

I met an old friend, K., who told me a story. Last November I organised a training for 120 artists from various disciplines coming from different corners of Afghanistan. K. took part in the training and since then he has been telling me what a unique opportunity of exchange and encounters it was. I really don’t like flattery so more than once I told him that he was exaggerating and was being so kind only because we are friends.

Sipping his tea, he told me that, without me knowing, one of the artists participating in the seminar was illiterate: a musician who can play wonderfully, but cannot read and write. The participatory and inclusive method that characterised the seminar, as well as the fact that it was conducted in local languages rather than in English as it is generally the case, allowed him to take part in it and draw from it great motivation.

In order not to waste the possible fruits that could come from this achievement, K. told that he made a deal with the musician since for the first time his work could be promoted and supported irrespective of the fact that he cannot read and write.

The deal is this: K. offered to help the musician to fill the form to apply for the grants that my project offers on the condition that he would enrol in an evening school.

The musician, whose name I don’t know, has started attending a literacy class at the beginning of January.

Moments of hope like this one give me strength and are an unexpected gift that provides me with the words to give an answer, however temporary, to my doubts and questions.

On the table – Thoughts about Kashmir

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Two weeks ago I was making dinner: pasta with lamb as in the tradition of the part of Italy I come from and doon chettin, a walnut chutney typical of Kashmir. I wanted on our table the rough but heartwarming flavours of both his mountains and mine.

That evening, after dinner, we got to know that Khurram Parvez, a Kashmiri human right advocate who has been working for decades to denounce the brutality that his people has been subjected to, had been arrested (with accusations devoid of any legal justification). The day before his arrest, he was disallowed to board on a plane to Geneva where he was meant to speak at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission.

I can’t stop thinking about the flavour of that dinner, about the comfort that comes from the food from home. I also can’t stop thinking about Khurram Parvez’s wife, who does not know when she’ll share a meal with him again, and about all those women in Kashmir who are crying while preparing the favourite dish for their sons who have been killed in the past three months.

After 84 days of crackdown in Kashmir, winds of war blow between India and Pakistan. On both sides, armchair strategists invoke the power of a nuclear attack. Inebriated by nationalistic fascism, they do not consider that the border that separates them is only a fictional line traced on paper and that the possible consequences won’t stop at the frontier to ask for permission to cross.

Newspaper headlines and the occasional international attention, have used this chance to concentrate on the abstract dimension of the conflict sweeping aside what this actually means for the people. Yet again Kashmir is discussed as an expanse of land on either side of a line drawn on a map rather than as a land that belongs to a people who has been fighting for decades for the right to decide for themselves and their future. The abstract geopolitical discussion becomes the excuse to ignore that the armed forces destroyed the yearly apple harvest and burnt the cultivated fields; to look away from the seized ambulances, the night raids and the undiscriminated arrests.

How many more empty places at the dinner table, how many more meals full of absence are going to be needed before we recognise that the right to self-determination is inviolable and sacrosanct? How many more mothers will have to cry for the loss of their sons before we understand that violence and brutality will not eradicate the quest for freedom?

A tavola – Pensando al Kashmir

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Due settimane fa preparavo la cena: pasta col sugo d’agnello come da tradizione abruzzese e doon chettin, una salsa di noci tipica del Kashmir. Volevo che a tavola ci fosse tanto il sapore delle sue montagne che delle mie: sapori ruvidi che scaldano il cuore.

Quella sera, dopo cena, siamo venuti a sapere che avevano arrestato (con accuse prive di giustificazione legale) Khurram Parvez, un attivista per la difesa dei diritti umani che da anni lavora per denunciare la brutalità di cui è vittima inascoltata la gente del Kashmir. Il giorno prima di essere arrestato, gli era stato impedito di imbarcarsi sull’aereo per Ginevra dove avrebbe dovuto partecipare alla riunione della Commissione per i Diritti Umani delle Nazioni Unite.

E’ da quella sera che continuo a pensare al sapore di quella cena, al conforto del cibo di casa, ma anche alla moglie di Khurram Parvez che non sa quando potrà condividere di nuovo un pasto con lui e a tutte quelle donne che in Kashmir in questi giorni piangono mentre preparano il piatto preferito dei propri figli che sono stati uccisi in questi tre mesi.

Dopo 84 giorni di scontri ininterrotti in Kashmir, tra India e Pakistan tirano venti di guerra. Da entrambe le parti, gli strateghi da salotto cantano le lodi di un attacco nucleare. Inebriati di nazionalismo fascista sembrano non considerare che il confine che li divide è una linea immaginaria tracciata sulla carta e che le possibili conseguenze non si fermano a chiedere il permesso di varcare la frontiera.

I titoli dei giornali e la poca attenzione internazionale hanno raccolto al volo l’occasione per concentrarsi sulla dimensione astratta del conflitto lasciando passare in secondo piano quello che questo scontro significa per la gente. Ancora una volta il Kashmir ritorna ad essere discusso come uno spazio conteso al di qua e al di là di una linea sulla mappa invece che come il luogo di appartenenza di un popolo che da decenni lotta per il diritto a decidere per sé e per il proprio futuro. La discussione geopolitica diventa la scusa per distogliere lo sguardo dai raccolti di mele distrutti e dai campi coltivati bruciati dall’esercito, dalle ambulanze sequestrate, dai raid notturni e dagli arresti indiscriminati.

Quanti altri posti vuoti a tavola, quante cene piene di assenza ci vorranno prima che ci si renda conto che il diritto all’autodeterminazione è inviolabile e sacrosanto? Quante altre madri dovranno piangere i propri figli prima che ci si accorga che la violenza e la brutalità non riusciranno a sradicare il desiderio di libertà?

Blogging the War

 John Little is a manager of large databases with a technology background. He is the heart and soul behind Blogs of War, one of the most thorough and well respected information platforms in the field of conflict studies and reporting.

Last year I interviewed him about war-blogging, his approach to information reliability, and the fine balance between timeliness and accuracy when writing and thinking about conflicts. The conversation was first published on Muftah.

 

Francesca Recchia (FR): Let’s start from the beginning. Intelligence and national security are not immediately part of your professional expertise, yet for more than ten years Blogs of War has been an invaluable source of information and insight into conflicts across the world. How did the idea come about? And, why is it blogs in plural?

John Little (JL): I have been involved in online communities since around 1980. My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20. While many were into games I was more fascinated by the modem and the potential to connect to other computers and people. In my mind that’s what made the early computers fundamentally more exciting than game consoles.

I spent a massive amount of time exploring bulletin boards. I even ran a couple, before more robust services and the web came along and rendered the model obsolete. It was such a great time to be a hacker. The culture was different, much less destructive overall, and there were few if any hacker-specific laws to worry about.

My friends and I were “war dialing” (writing and running programs that would call sequential phone numbers until a modem answered) to find the rare receiving modem, social engineering companies that had zero concept of security, and dumpster diving for old floppy disks or discarded dot-matrix print outs. We accessed systems just to access them. We got in, looked around, and got out.

Our activity in that arena faded out around the mid-1980s when security awareness and the legal system started changing. We wisely retired well before we could get into trouble (or drive a car).

Early Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was another place that I spent a lot of time. It was a great place to study how people connect with technology and it was also something of a hacker’s playground. I ran channels, messed around with bots, and fought a few channel wars back then. It was part of the fun, but got increasingly tedious as the number of people flooding IRC kept growing.

Eventually the web came along and it slowly eclipsed all of these communities. I jumped in right away and started building web pages and web applications. I was updating my home page on a regular basis in the late 90s with completely random content when I started playing with different free content management suites. This eventually allowed me to be more productive and that lead to more frequent updates.

However, it wasn’t until 9/11 that I looked at all this and decided that it was time to bring more focus to my efforts.

The events of 9/11 aggravated two areas of frustration for me. The first was technological. Updates on news sites were infrequent. Media, with very few exceptions, was not fully invested in the web or the larger Internet at the time. Having lived with the Internet and these communities for a long time I knew how to go to multiple locations and piece together a story.

When news broke, I could go to chat rooms, forums and relevant web sites to generate a much more complete story than the media was giving me. A motivated individual could really run circles around traditional media at the time.

My other source of frustration was related to the lack of understanding in the general public about terrorism and some of the forces at work that were making the world a much more dangerous place.  International relations, intelligence and conflict had always interested me so I was surprised by how completely off the radar these issues were for most people.

My online activity very quickly became more and more focused around addressing this problem (or ranting about it). As the site became more focused, I shifted its design and changed the name to Blogs of War, which is a take on Shakespeare’s “dogs of war”. Later, in November 2002, I made it official and registered the domain name.

FR: A seemingly unrelated question. We share a love for the mountains. For me a good deal of this love has to do with the perspective and observation points they provide, with their panorama and the all encompassing views from above. It is also about a passion for challenges and the openness to reflect and learn from humbling experiences. What is the influence that being a mountaineer has in the approach to the intellectual and professional tasks that you are confronted with?

JL: The past two years have not been kind to my mountaineering ambitions. When I was training for climbs it was my singular focus. Life has been far too complicated lately.

That being said, I haven’t give up hope. I have more summits in my future. Climbing is like Zen. It is experiential. It is just not possible to share the depth of that experience with someone else. You just can’t describe the intense physical effort, the depth of satisfaction, and clarity of experience to someone who hasn’t attempted it. And I really hate to distill the whole thing down to a bunch of motivational mumbo jumbo. Those analogies just cheapen the experience for me.

Climbing has a purity to it that will never be found in the workplace or self-help class. It is real life. Before my last climb a Zen Master friend of mind sent me a koan. “Who Walks? Never give up until you get the answer….then follow that.”

At the risk of sounding a bit metaphysical the answer to that koan is the greatest gift climbing offers.

FR: One of the most interesting things about Blogs of War is that it works on multiple different levels, juggling a remarkable amount of complexity and sophistication. It is real time news and a social media monitor; it is a repository of information and points of view; and it is a cultural platform that provides readers with critical perspectives on issues of global security, intelligence, technology, and all the possible interconnections of the three. This is something that seems both conceptually and practically very complicated to manage. Can you give us a bit of a background on how the Blogs of War machine works?

JL: There is no stable process and that can be alternatively exciting and maddening. Blogs of War is, and always will be, an experiment. That means that anything, from the front end that users see to the back end processes that feed it, can change at any time.

Many people do not realize that Blogs of War is simply a personal blog. I do not have a staff. I do not have a budget. However, I do have a demanding career and a full life away from the blog.

This attempt to monitor, curate, and comment intelligently on so many topics within a framework that has so many constraints creates constant tension. It’s really a silly thing for one person to undertake and managing it all well is not something that I’ve ever really mastered. Honestly, I don’t think mastery is possible. So what you see, in the end, is just my best attempt at the impossible.

In terms of content I’m constantly seeking and evaluating RSS and Twitter sources and the software that makes managing those easier. I have also been known to resort to crudely hacking together my own tools to manage this. That is how the live Twitter streams that I rolled out during the Egyptian revolution (and later as CovertContact.com) came to be.

Over the years I’ve tried many automation schemes to help carry the load. I have moved away from the concept on the blog as people have generally stopped looking to blogs for real time news. That activity has largely shifted to Twitter and that is where much of my focus lies.

As it stands now, some of what readers see on Blogs of War’s primary Twitter feed is fed automatically from carefully selected sources or queries that I developed and some of it comes directly from me. This arrangement allows me to feed readers solid real-time news while also giving me a little breathing room to think and contribute more complex thoughts or content. It is far from perfect but it works.

As for me, I spend many hours throughout the day watching the many private Twitter lists that I’ve created and constantly edit. I do most of this through my iPhone. These lists focus on specific regions, conflicts and key subject such as intelligence or information security.

The quality of subject matter experts on Twitter is just unbelievable, so identifying and tracking them occupies a large amount of my time and energy. When important new breaks, I’ll try to get to my Linux workstation as soon as possible. I have two 24″ monitors hooked up to it and with virtual desktops it is essentially like having eight different widescreens running at once.

I can very quickly fill those up with live video and Twitter streams as I monitor both professional media sources and eyewitnesses who may be tweeting, streaming video, or uploading photos from the scene.

FR: In the domain of knowledge production, I am fascinated by the idea of speed and slowness and the achievement of a fine balance between the two – this is something I feel you have managed quite successfully. In the past, such as during the 2003 war in Iraq, you have been able to break news faster than mainstream media outlets. At the same time, Blogs of War is a slow-paced space for reflection, in depth inquiry and deconstruction – if you allow me the term – of very convoluted and multi-faceted topics. What is your magic formula?

JL: Blogs used to be the speedier mechanism for news updates, but Twitter really owns that space now and there is no sign of that changing anytime soon. It actually took me a surprising amount of time to find what seems to be a workable balance.

I think the emergence of Twitter left the old school news bloggers with very few alternatives. Twitter upended news bloggers in very much the same way that we upended traditional media. I really struggled with the divergence initially. The only reason I held onto the blog was my unwillingness to pour all my effort and content into someone else’s (Twitter’s) platform.

Eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, I dropped the notion of the blog as a real-time news platform and shifted that effort to Twitter. Now, the blog is for long form writing and a more robust exploration of important topics. Not only does it work, but it makes managing it all much less stressful.

FR: You represent a precursor of what is now defined war-blogging. Online access to information has broadened the scope of interest and debate on conflicts that would otherwise risk being forgotten or overlooked. At the same time, this has created a plethora of self-appointed pundits, experts, analysts, and strategists. This is an issue that you partly discuss on your blogpost Thoughts on Identity and Credibility in relation to how you choose guest contributors. Can you tell us a bit more about your discerning criteria? This, I think, could be a great help to many disoriented readers.

JL: The model, if you can call it that, is fluid. It changes with the culture and the landscape. If the criteria are too rigid you miss out on amazing content. We see this with organizations that refuse to treat bloggers as credible journalists. On the other hand, if it is too flexible you will find yourself falling prey to sensationalists, conspiracy theorists, and frauds.

A key factor in all of this is my desire to be accurate above all else – even at the expense of my own political agenda. When accuracy is the overriding priority it shows. When a political agenda is the overriding priority it really shows and the quality of the content takes a nose dive.

Although, it should be said that there are increasing numbers demanding their news through a rigid partisan filter. I find this troubling. It would be nice if people were both secure and flexible in their worldviews, but I guess the temptation to shut out challenging viewpoints has always been there.

I will often present view from both sides of an issue. I don’t always tell people where I stand or where I think they should stand. Most of my readers seem to value this, but it confuses others terribly.

I am a big believer in networks when it comes to identifying and validating sources. One thing that Twitter allows me to do is quickly pick apart someone’s network and get a feel for what they do and where their influence lies.

I am always looking for new subject matter experts. When I find them, I pick through their social media networks for even more experts and influences. I am constantly building Twitter lists of these experts. Once I have put them into their little boxes I can monitor their activity closely and evaluate their content and positions on key issues.

Some of these people go into my primary A-list rotation right away and others stay in my secondary tier with similar subject matter experts where they are still monitored, but with somewhat less frequency.

Of course, I am not beyond hitting the search engines to research someone. In some cases I’ll sift through LinkedIn resumes or academic publications. Only a small percentage of people get this sort of attention, but it does happen.

FR: Following up on this point, a similar question may arise in relation to the news that you report. How do you screen and monitor the reliability and accuracy of your sources? How do you decide what gets published and what does not?

JL: In terms of Blogs of War interviews or guest posts it is very simple. Those are by invitation only. I turn down almost daily requests from volunteer contributors. In eleven or twelve years, I have probably only taken up one or two authors on their pitches for guest posts. I have to have a personal interest in your story or voice for that invitation to be extended.

Twitter accounts are verified in the manner described earlier. Other content comes from a constantly maintained, and quite large, list of RSS feeds from traditional media and extremely well established individual bloggers.

FR: At the convergence between the tech and social sciences worlds, there has recently been a growing buzz around the use, potentials, and short-comings of big data. What do you think the relevance of this debate is in the field of conflict studies? Can tools like Covert Contact be considered as a context-specific response?

JL: Look data is useful. There’s no question about that. The problem, at least when it comes to conflict, is that data will only rarely alter the human condition. Even when data does offer that advance warning needed to avert disaster, the decision making process happens in what is usually a deeply political and otherwise flawed human layer.

We have a million problems on this planet that could be solved with no data whatsoever, but they persist because human beings are very difficult animals.

I don’t want to appear to be overly negative about big data and its usefulness. It is having an impact and that impact will grow. It just won’t be a magic bullet when it comes to human conflict. There are no magic bullets.

Covert Contact was extremely useful even if it was a bit crude. The initial social media monitoring tools that I developed helped me stay far ahead of the media, and apparently even governments, during the early days of the Arab Spring. Having massive amounts of data at your disposal is always a good thing providing you know how to parse through it all.

FR: Warfare has dramatically changed in the last decades and with it the way we think, talk, and write about it. Since 2002, when you started blogging, we have developed a new vocabulary, new forms of military and strategic approaches, and a whole lot of new (whether real or fictitious) enemies. How have you managed to navigate this situation and adjust to the changes?

JL: Constant hard work. Researching, reading, analyzing and engaging experts day in and day out is the only way to do it. I am constantly aware of my own shortcomings and gaps in my knowledge and I work every day to fill them. But let’s be honest it’s a losing battle. One person cannot monitor, and understand, the entire world. For this reason, Blogs of War has never lived up to my vision and it never will. I don’t have the resources to get there. What people get is best attempt at the impossible.

FR: Strategic communication through social media is a fundamental element in the landscape of new warfare. It is a powerful tool that so-called “enemies” and official players use in molding public opinion and asserting their presence in the virtual domain. In this respect, if we use Afghanistan as an example, we can think of Taliban Twitter accounts such as Abdulqahar Balkhi (@Abalkhi), as well as the increased social media outreach efforts undertaken by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). What are your thoughts on this?

JL: They all bore me, but for different reasons. Taliban, Shabaab, and their ilk do a better job of speaking with an authentic voice, but they are only speaking to the true believers. You’ll never see them effectively engage outside of their narrow world-view. I think we did see that with @abumamerican, but that didn’t go over well (for him) and he is now dead, at least in part, because of it.

On the other side, there are public affairs officers and layers of bureaucracy that are just absolute death to compelling content in the social media space. A million of them have contacted me over the years. They write up their stories about NFL cheerleaders visiting forward bases or Marines rescuing a puppy and beg me to repost it. I did that a couple of times, but won’t ever do it again.

I sympathize with these people on the front-lines of the information war, but I am not here to bore people senseless with meaningless content. I use to reply and attempt to explain to them what my audience expected. My blog was theirs for the taking if they could supply intelligent and informative content, but it never happened. Not once. Maybe they sent it elsewhere.

I believe that governments would benefit from far fewer overt accounts and many more covert ones. Every military unit and bureaucratic department has its own neglected Twitter account now. They do nothing to advance the strategic or tactical goals of their government.

If the goal is to advance a message in a battle space, then agents unrestrained by bureaucratic oversight have to be trusted to get out there and mix it up. Governments should be taking cues from hacker culture in this arena. You can legitimately criticize much of what LulzSec [a group of hacktivists who took responsibility for a number of high profile attacks, including taking the CIA website offline] did during their short time in the spotlight but at least their messaging was extremely compelling.

The same can be said about Anonymous and even the Occupy movement. The groups are all largely composed of digital natives and this stuff is just instinctive to them. You will never achieve that impact when you run your messaging through a bureaucratic filter.

FR: Kashmir is not on the list of hotspots that Blogs of War directly monitors. Is there a reason for this?

JL: Covert Contact, which grew out of the Blogs of War monitors, has been put on hold due to changes in the Twitter API that I am not currently able to accommodate. So to be clear there are no monitors at the moment. But getting to your point I can only say that it was a one-man effort and was a work in progress. Kashmir would have made the list eventually. It just wasn’t a priority in the initial rollout.

FR: One last question. When the NSA is listening to you, what does it hear?

JL: There are occasionally moments when running Blogs of War can get a little surreal. Different agencies and mysterious individuals have reached out to me from time to time and I’d be sort of naive to think that the government hasn’t taken a peek at my email over the years.

Still, personal contacts with government types have been respectful and the monitoring, if it happens, could only bore an analyst senseless. 95% of my phone calls are to my girlfriend. 3% are to my family. 1% are to close friends. I suppose the remaining 1% is composed of former spies and similar types from the Blogs of War network, but even that isn’t surveillance worthy.

I have a real life. It is tedious and mostly boring. I am not trading nuclear launch codes with drop-dead gorgeous foreign agents via Gmail – or though any other medium for that matter. Throughout my blogging career I’ve made it clear that I am not here to attack the state. I am not going to publish classified U.S. government information in search of a scoop. I am just not wired that way. I look at journalists consumed with hatred for the U.S. government and I wonder why they aren’t interested in devoting that energy to exposing government abuses in Iran or North Korea or any number of places where government power has truly horrific consequences. I know that we are not perfect but I question their sense of perspective.

So with all these years and untold hours online I am sure NSA has heard plenty. Terrorists, spies, and hackers routinely engage me online (and usually publicly). I suspect many of those conversations are archived somewhere. I would be sort of disappointed in the intelligence community if they weren’t. That being said, the value of those conversations, in terms of their mission, is minimal at best. That is why I don’t worry about it.

The world is a very scary place and the intelligence community is not going to waste its time on me.