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Reading About APEC

Then we heard bangs from away down left down the boulevard, over by the Invalides, and a muffled roar. We looked at the television screen and saw the Eiffel Tower, all lit up. They had set up fireworks so that they began at the base of the tower, exploding in gold and violet around its piers, and then dramatically in gold bursts and haloes, working their way up to the top. As the fireworks reached the top, the entire tower turned on; twenty thousand or so small flashbulbs that had been wired to the tower went off at once, blinking hyperfast. The tiny constant explosions of the little bulbs made the tower look as though it had been carbonated, injected with seltzer bubbles. It was a beautiful sight. I thought of going out to see it firsthand, like a responsible reporter, but it was late -- hey, come to think of it, it was after midnight -- and anyway, the children were asleep. So we watched the whole thing on TV and were proud anyway, one last virtual CNN experience, but with a living room window open, and the cold air coming in, and one ear at least hearing the muffled bangs of the real thing taking place a few blocks away.

Adam Gopnik. Paris to the Moon.

September 4, yesterday, was the day that George Bush arrived in Sydney. I waited for the time to shift to September 4 in America so that I could listen to a preview of Bruce Springsteen's new single, Radio Nowhere, available only on for twenty four hours. It was also the day that William Gibson's new novel, Spook Country, was released in Australia. So I bought it and put aside Paris to the Moon for the moment. Spook Country is set in February, 2006, and one of the strands of the story is surveillance and tracking systems being used for "locative" art pieces.

"How did you get into this?"

"I was working on commercial GPS technology. I'd gotten into that because I'd thought I wanted to be an astronomer, and I'd gotten fascinated with satellites. The most interesting ways of looking at the GPS grid, what it is, what we do with it, what we might be able to do with it, all seemed to be being put forward by artists. Artists or the military. That's something that tends to happen with new technologies generally: the most interesting applications turn up on the battlefield, or in a gallery."

William Gibson. Spook Country.

I'm not reporting on the Asia Pacific Economic conference meeting of 21 world leaders that George Bush is attending; I'm living in Sydney and reading about APEC in the Sydney Morning Herald while the events happen in my proximity.

"I believe we are writing one of the great chapters in the history of liberty and peace." So said George Bush during a brief writing break to have lunch with a collection of Australian military personnel at Sydney's Garden Island naval base. The President and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice helped themselves to snags and barbecued corn in the company of hosts John Howard, wife Janette and a very pleased looking Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, who was very attentive to Dr Rice at the salad bar.

I have no context of my own for APEC. I've read too much science fiction perhaps, watched too many Star Wars movies and episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation so what I've read about the arrival of the world leaders leans towards the fantastic. The American delegation, at 650 people almost twice as large as the home delegation in Australia, seemed like Darth Vader swooping in on the Death Star with his own vehicles and own weapons, and declaring "sovereign immunity" to avoid having local quarantine officials board his plane. Leaders of some tiny nations, New Zealand, for instance were more like Luke Skywalker and his couple of robots hot-rodded from spare parts, flying in on commercial flights and accepting protection from Australian security.

Photograph of Sydney Street during APEC by Dan Patmore

The newspapers and television need chaos and drama but I've only seen quiet things, the efficient business of security being handled as if it were event management, the fences and concrete barriers and elaborate system of passes and restricted access reminds me of the fortification of Albert Park Lake, in Melbourne, for the running of the Grand Prix.

On September 3 the city was a ghost town, like something I'd read on page 4 of Spook Country, "The street was as empty as that moment in the film just prior to Godzilla's first footfall." Today I did the things I'd normally do. I went to the library in Customs House at Circular Quay, walking past rubbish bins wrapped up like a Christo installation in Martin Place. There were sweetly industrious black Labrador bomb sniffing dogs, their tails wagging as they circled cars pulling into the car park of the Bligh Street entrance of the Sofitel Wentworth Hotel (where the Chinese delegation is staying.) As I ate bibimbam from a Korean takeaway in the building next to Customs House I was looking out over George Bush's hotel, the Intercontinental, which was entirely fenced in, with rows of police spanned out along the fences, an ambulance, some police cars, and a paddy wagon blocking the driveway. A minor motorcade for a minor dignitary (one police car, one limousine) sped through traffic, towards midtown.

It was only while I was reading the blogs I always read and checking photographs on Flickr that a more alarming view of the APEC security was offered to me, that could have emerged from the pages of Spook Country. I'm an avid reader of Bldgblog in which Los Angeles-based writer Geoff Manaugh writes on architecture and urban design. I've subscribed to his bookmarks through delicious, often being equally fascinated by reading what he's reading as well as what he's writing. He's saved "We can build you APEC, the Rise of Military Urbanism" by Stephen Smith.

We can define military urbanism as the way in which global power works to inscribe political violence and war into the planning and design of cities. It is more than an APEC like pause to business as usual. It is the marking of the city as a permanent zone of conflict. What they learn from APEC's laboratory in the CBD they can apply to Sydney's more 'feral' postcodes. The disruption leading up to and during APEC raises this question. Might strategic parts of cities such as Sydney be developed or redeveloped for militarised readiness? If so, architects and planners would be coopted to design fast emergency access routes and entry points. Of course, none of it would be obvious until they deploy their units next time. But the whole process would be at the cost of public space. Long after the walls come down, the road show that travels with APEC might not so easily depart. Rather, it hovers and waits over the 'hotspots' it has already mapped out. If terrorists and their cells are invisible for long periods, then military urbanism treats entire communities as 'the enemy'. Events such as APEC divide and quarantine areas by means of walls; and these walls look the same as the images we are already familiar with in terrain such as the West Bank or Baghdad.

On the radio I heard that tourists were asked, by police, to delete photographs of the fences from their digital cameras. It seemed unnecessarily careful, but what the amateur and tourist photographs posted on Flickr show is a more sinister aspect of the security than the young police trying to be helpful and relaxed at street level. The snipers on the rooftops present an extremely serious side of the security. Tomorrow, Thursday Australian time, is when the main protests are about to begin. The police have gone to court to draw march boundaries as far as possible from the main action (around the Sydney Opera House area) and some protest groups have vowed that they won't abide by the restrictions. The police will deal with the protestors on foot as the police horses are in quarantine after an outbreak of equine flu in Australia.

On a florist's stall and bus shelter at the Circular Quay end of Pitt Street, on the edge of "the zone" there's a federal government poster advertising its terrorism hotline, urging people to call in with observations of strange packages arriving late at night, or downloads of suspicious documents because "every detail helps." For all of the colossal security apparatus and military r&d, chaos is often caused, as William Gibson writes, by individuals taking new, sharp technologies into their own hands -- "the street finds its own uses for things" is a famous Gibson saying -- while governments and the military are slow in recognising the new social texture of emerging technologies. The New York Times last Sunday Scott Shane wrote about the espionage industry only now beginning to embrace social networking online.

In December, officials say, the agencies will introduce A-Space, a top-secret variant of the social networking Web sites MySpace and Facebook. The “A” stands for “analyst,” and where Facebook users swap snapshots, homework tips and gossip, intelligence analysts will be able to compare notes on satellite photos of North Korean nuclear sites, Iraqi insurgents and Chinese missiles. A-Space will join Intellipedia, the spooks’ Wikipedia, where intelligence officers from all 16 American spy agencies pool their knowledge. Sixteen months after its creation, officials say, the top-secret version of Intellipedia has 29,255 articles, with an average of 114 new articles and more than 4,800 edits to articles added each workday. A separate online Library of National Intelligence is to include all official intelligence reports sent out by each agency, offering suggestions: if you liked that piece on Venezuela’s oil reserves, how about this one on Russia’s? And blogs, accessible only to other spies, are proliferating behind the security fences. “We see the Internet passing us in the fast lane,” said Mike Wertheimer, of the office of the Director of National Intelligence, who is overseeing the introduction of A-Space. “We’re playing a little catch-up.”

Photograph of APEC fences in Sydney taken by Dan Patmore and offered under a Creative Commons License. The opinions of the publisher of this article/website/blog do not necessarily reflect those of the photographer.

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