Societies with secrets, security culture and online social media

There’s a post about a new Social Media Code of Conduct for Massachusetts Freemasons [PDF] (HT @Masonictraveller) over at Freemason Information, part of The Beehive series by Fred Milliken. This document mentioned is particularly interesting to me because it touches on some issues I think are important; and the reactions to the document are also interesting. (I’m also more amused than I should be that the date on the original document is May 1st, International Workers’ Day, due to the frisson between seemingly oft conservative Freemasons and the ideas of the, frankly quite often more broadly fraternal to my mind, international workers’ movement; and, also because of the connection between the ideas I’m going to talk about and the direct and indirect history of May Day.)

I should also say that I’m intentionally using the term “society with secrets” here to mean not just Freemasonry, but really any group with secrets that is publicly known. Freemasonry is not a secret society, really, after all. But, like everyone sharing a book or movie recommendation who doesn’t want to reveal the important points of the plot, let alone the ending, Freemasonry does have secrets. (I’ve been meaning to write about my thoughts around “society with secrets vs secret societies” for a long time, but, I suppose the fullness of that topic will remains one of my own secret for now.)

 

The “code of conduct” document itself offers a number of specific directives about how the Freemasonic Grand Lodge of Massachusetts wishes its members to behave online, not just in social media though that’s what the title suggests is the scope.

 

“As a Mason, he must be aware that his postings are a permanent record; therefore, his conduct may influence the world with a positive or a negative opinion about him personally and also about any organizations to which he belongs.”

As the librarian of the Hermetic Library, I can say I’ve received email from people several times wishing my help to remove, alter or obfuscate content they wrote that still appears online.

In some cases, people want their names removed. In some cases, people want the content to go away. In others, they want links to archives of their content removed so that Google stops indexing the linked to archive. In even other cases, people have contacted me to let me know they’ve removed previously written content from their site due to a new role they’ve taken in which those comments aren’t now appropriate, as if the whole of one’s history is merely, and must conform with, the current accidents of the moment (which ironically requires history to constantly be changed to make an illusion). In some cases, it’s clear that the person contacting me is embarrassed by something they’ve written in the past and wants to distance themselves from that; which motive I personally find revolting and pathetic and deceitful. In other cases, the motives are more or less clean, such as needing to manage how others might use past writing as a weapon, how others might twist and misrepresent the past to impune the present person. (You might, or not, be surprised at how much vitriol and willful harassment there is out there, sometimes hidden in back channels and sometimes not, in which cases managing access to one’s information becomes important as a defensive measure against evil, unscrupulous or stalker-y people.) So, there’s a whole gamut of reasons why people seem to want their previous work forgotten.

Interestingly, there may seem a serious disconnect in my own views on this matter. For example, I am viciously adamant about my own right to remove content from services like Facebook, but I am relatively lassez-faire about my content being permanently on display in various revisions at the Wayback Machine. Of course, the primary difference is that Facebook, and corporations like it purporting to offer a service, is in fact constantly and expansively trying to enclose and encumber not just the works of our minds but every hour of our lives in order to control and monetize both; and to that my resistance is very consistent and internally consistent.

 

“Do not identify any Freemason as a member of the Craft unless he has provided his consent, or has already identified himself as such.”

Another of the points in this code of conduct is not to reveal the identity of a member unless they’ve already done so. This point is a big one for many sub-cultures, and is an important one. “Outing” another person is a serious breach of security and etiquette. But, it should also be considered a serious breach to reveal information about not just the identity but also the location and activities of another member, especially to strangers. (This point is a hint at why personally I almost universally refuse to broadcast my future whereabouts or add instant, or even relatively contemporaneous, geolocation data to my content. I also do not participate in any service which is either dedicated to showing my instant location data or where I cannot hide that, even from “friends”, even so far as to eschew instant messaging services in favour of asynchronous email.)

Anyone with any IT security experience should be able to share strong reasons not to succumb to social engineering, revealing important details to not only strangers but even well-known people who should not have some bits of information. Anyone who’s worked in retail or the service industry should be able to confirm how dangerous it can be to reveal personal information or work schedules of co-workers, both about their time at work and their time away from work. Loose lips not only sink ships and breach internal security, but lead to things like stalking and other antisocial behaviour.

I can hardly begin to tell you the times I’ve gotten strange looks and had eyes rolled at me when I’ve tried to educate people about the dangers and dimwittedness of revealing information about not only others but about themselves to strangers. I cannot count on my fingers the number of times I’ve tried to shush someone who’s speaking on the phone to some random stranger who’s just called and to whom they are revealing all kinds of privileged information about someone else’s schedule and whereabouts … It’s just shocking and disheartening to have people I know, or moreover people I’ve cared about, be so dumb about such things. Really, the Pavlovian desperation to respond most people have to phone and electronic communications, and moreover the ease with which most people reveal information (passwords, account information or even just random particulars) to some unknown person as if merely by being on the phone or online imbues some Milgrim-like authority, is something both breathtaking and bizarre to me.

Developing security culture is not just about the security of groups, but is also protecting individuals. I hope those people prone to such information breaches are never in the situation where they learn the hard way by ending up pursued by a stalker, pursued by someone so mentally stunted or backward that they cannot understand the meaning of “no” or even the basic social contract of consent, and then to have information about their activities and whereabouts revealed by themselves or others simply because they didn’t know better. And if that ever happens I hope that nothing seriously harmful happens as a consequence other than learning to be more careful next time, though so many worse things are possible.

Just one more story, of any number of others, about this: At one of the really big Occupy marches in Portland, OR, I have to tell you I cringed every time someone yelled out another person’s name to get their attention. Really? Serious protest foul, that, people!

But, really, the lack of awareness about security culture is a symptom of not having one in the first place. How’s that for a tautology? No, seriously, the adoption of a general security culture could be helped by having serious security culture in subcultural groups, and thus pushing out the wave of adoption by having smaller groups educate and inform their members who then end up bringing that awareness to larger groups and the overall culture in which they each participate. (So, now that you’ve read this, go and find out more so I can pretend I’ve been effective in widening the general awareness of security culture …)

 

The commentary in the post itself, and the comments by readers to that post, over at Freemason Information are interesting to me as well. Primarily the reaction is focused on how some of the points in the code of conduct are just common sense ideas about protocol and etiquette, but there’s also a perception that the code of conduct is an overreaching attempt to control the actions of members. I think this code of conduct document, while not perfect, seems to me a good first step toward building a meaningful and reasonable security culture. The worth of that, at the very least, is as a catalyst to considering and talking about meaningful and reasonable security culture for any subcultural group of people, whether that’s in, to name a few, a fraternal organization, social club, workplace, or, yes, even in one’s own home environment. But, recognizing that such ideas can be seen as unreasonable attempts to control behaviour suggests how important it is to reveal and share the reasoning behind them, and the reasons why they are being suggested.

 

There’s a lot of useful thinking and writing that’s been done on creating security culture, and this post is merely a few initial words on the topic. I wrote a setup document for GnuPG, aimed at members of a society with secrets in which I am involved which has a mandate for the use of encryption which is not supported by a culture in which use of encryption is easy for non-technical users or even has much use in spite of the mandate. In that document I tried to include some background and links to further information about security culture, by way of saying how important it is to at least think about such things in any social group with secrets. In the same way that the encryption requirement by the US Grand Lodge of Ordo Templi Orientis is essentially and largely mooted by the apparent lack of implementation among the membership, the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts has started down a pretty slippery slope of creating mandated behaviour and requirements that it cannot hope to maintain ahead of breaches of conduct, but rather only after the fact in selective punishment against those who happen to get caught. Without a security culture, these rules are mostly meaningless as far as stopping behaviours from happening and are really only rubrics that can be used to evaluate behaviours that have already occurred. In other words, it seems to me, these kinds of guidelines need to be part of a program of proactive education instead of taken as proscriptive measures to control behaviour, and where they are merely the later they should be transformed into the former. Guidelines like these need to create a culture in the implementation not create criminals in the breach.

But really, I think the exposure to the ideas of, and how to create, security culture can offer an essential and necessary set of skills for people in this modern day information age to understand and implement the many overlapping circles of information scope in our lives. (Just as I believe thinking about and deconstructing propaganda models and theory offer essential skills for resisting the influence of not just canonical propaganda but also in resisting the influence of pervasive and invasive marketing and advertising in this Western culture.)

For a general primer, I’d encourage you to check out check out a few documents which stand out in my memory as good initial surveys: Towards a Collective Security Culture, Affinity Groups and Why do you need PGP?.

For further reading, you may be interested in Activism and Security Culture, Security Culture, and Security Culture. Beyond those, I commend you to your favourite search engine for further study.

As a last note, I can’t help but suggest and recommend two works, in no small part because these two are on the list of works that appear in my own thoughts consistently, which I think connect to this post and the broader subject of resistance culture. First, both for the history of the resistance of but also the resistance to the international labor movement, I’d like to suggest an excellent history of Industrial Workers of the World, The Wobblies: The Story of the IWW and Syndicalism in the United States by Patrick Renshaw. And, secondly, for the history and role of Freemasonry in the resistance culture of colonial and early American periods of United States history, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order, 1730-1840 by Steven C. Bullock.

Hermetic

The term “hermetic”, or “hermeticism”, is one that gets used a lot in esoteric study. There’s several meanings for this term, and there’s oppositional terms. Inspired by the possibility for a project recently, I thought that one of the first things I would do is to outline my own thinking about the term and how I use it. I wanted to do this so that I could think about the scope of what a project focused on hermeticism or using a hermetic viewpoint would look like. This is not so much meant to be a serious treatise on the topic, but rather an exploration of my current thoughts and ideas. This is more of an exploration than an essay, a marker at the beginning of a journey to help me see where I was when some point down the road I look back.

Hermes Trimegistus

The term hermetic is related to Hermes Trimegistus, the thrice-great. In fact, the late Latin term hermeticus is as much to say alchemical, and is derived from the name Hermes Trimegistus [see,amzn,amzn]. This is the hellenic Hermes-Thoth and, also like Ganesha being the scribe of the Mahabharata [amzn], is an archetypal magico-religious figure.

You know, one of the earliest references may not be to thrice-great but rather to triple-hero. This makes me instantly think of Triptolemos, literally threefold warrior, a demi-god in the Eleusinian mysteries [amzn,amzn] who was sometimes priest of Demeter, sometimes inventor of the plow (which is then a kenning or synecdoche for agriculture). Also, in the tripartite social structure of indo-european society [amzn], the semi-divine hero often fulfilled all three categories, being magician-king and warrior-poet and farmer-laborer combined. For example, Triptolemos already mentioned; and Orpheus who’s magical music commanded even the rocks and trees to his bidding, who was one of the warrior-poets of the Argos in the Odyssey [amzn], and who cursed the bees of the bee-keeper. These semi-divine heroes walked the line between human and divine with the task of both upholding and challenging the world-order [amzn,amzn]. Also, it seems to me that to pass into life and through the two veils of the tree of life, that of Paroketh and of the Abyss, is to be thrice-born.

So, the term hermetic means related to Hermes Trismegistus or the many materials he was supposed to have written on the topics of alchemy and magic.

The term hermetic is also a more general term for the overall syncretic tradition that is evidenced in much of the specific Western esoteric traditions. In other words, the term hermetic, includes those parts of the western tradition which use the hermetic modality in their thoughts and works. These include a cornucopia of what often seem to be wild-eyed, fridge, and alternative groups throughout history: Alchemists, Rosicrucians, esoteric Christians, Kabbalists, Theosophical and the Illuminist or Perfectibilist currents within Freemasonry. This current continues in many of the modern occult and esoteric traditions, especially with so many having some connection or exposure to the materials from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a true nexus point in the Western tradition.

This is to say that the hermetic philosophy is a kind scientific illuminism, which further term is familiar to those who’ve read Crowley [amzn]. This hermetic modality is a philosophy that attempts to relate, perhaps universalize, magico-religious principles. To the extent that this universalization denatures the originals, I think that’s not a good thing; but to the extent that this philosophy is one that normalizes the diversity of human understanding of the human relationship to the more-than-human, in essence facilitating the conversation between the blind men about the elephant, there’s enormous value.

Hermetic vs Mosaic

One way I often use the term hermetic is to mean esoteric and symbolic. So not more generally semiotic, but more specifically symbolic within philosophical, spiritual and religio-mythic contexts. Although, clearly, semiotic analysis and interpretation are useful. An example of this in use is from Campbell’s An Open Life [amzn]:

“Now, the distinction between the Mosaic doctrine and the Hermetic doctrine is that the symbols which are shared are interpreted historically by the Moasaic tradition, and in the Hermetic tradition they are interpreted spiritually. So there grew, during those first centuries of Christianity, a whole literature of the Hermetic sort in which the symbols, interpreted in the orthodox Christian tradition as historical, were being read in a proper mythological sense. And these then began to link the Christian myth to pagan analogues. The Gnostics, for instance, were in that boat. But the orthodox Christians insisted on the historicity of all these events.” (p77)

Notice that this introduces the oppositional relationship between hermetic and mosaic. I suppose it’s quite possible and reasonable to see Campbell as the source from which I started to use the terms hermetic and mosaic as meaning symbolic and literal. I don’t know now where or when I started to use these terms, so it seems as likely as any.

These two oppositional terms also for me have connotations of fun vs. boring as well as flexible vs. uptight, permissive vs. strict. Beginning to become more poetic in my analysis, I also see this opposition as curious vs. close-minded and multivalent vs monovalent and polysemious vs. synonymous. Maybe even to go overboard I also think of many other oppositions when using hermetic and mosaic: nominalist vs realist, existential vs essential, freedom vs slavery, existentialist vs positivist, empiricist vs realist, allegorical vs tautegorical, antinomian vs legalist. I could go on and on.

Clearly, I have some value judgements about this pair, and have a bias toward the symbolic, mythical side. I feel that the hermetic thinker is one that is curious and skeptical, one looking to test propositions instead of blindly accepting them. The discipline of symbolic thinking seems to me to be one that is necessary in the face of a modern world where propaganda and persuasion, in the form of not just political discourse but also in marketing and advertising, seem the most common styles of communication. Many times I find myself baffled by people who’s mode of thinking is mosaic, and most likely they by me.

To make my string of comparisons less pejorative to the literal, perhaps these can also be seen as meaning, to hint at the Tantric, expansive vs contractive, and thus akin to the Alchemical solve et coagula. Following this thought, these two form an functional set necessary for change to occur, just as the action of solve et coagula results in transmutation. This is the tug of war between the Asuras and Devas that results in the churning of the waters of the world through the action of the Axis Mundi so beautifully represented at Angkor Wat [amzn]. This is the analysis and synthesis of the ancient dialectic, the thesis and antithesis of Hegel leading to synthesis, and the dialogism of Bakhtin [amzn]. Seen this way, these are the yin-yang, the unity of duality, and here were now back full-circle to ideas of Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism and more, which can be seen as coming under the umbrella of Hermeticism; thus, the opposition is contained by one of the polar pairs, just as the yin contains the yang.

It is to me no small irony that another meaning for hermetic, which I’m not talking about except for here, is to be tightly sealed or impervious to outside influence (although also derived from Hermes Trimegistus) [see]. Because this seems to me to be generally the opposite of the meaning I’m exploring. Hermetic is a one word oxymoron. But, then again, here’s the unity in duality. And, indeed the universalist movements within the overall hermetic umbrella are a form of this contractive, simplifying, unifying effort even within what I take most often to be the opposite.

This opposition-within-position is completely non-Aristotelean, and warms the cockles of my evil little black heart. This is philosophical wabi-sabi. Put that in your pipes and smoke it, you frakkin’ Randroids!

Hermetic Drift

I’m not sure where I first heard the phrase hermetic drift but it’s a great description of the kind of lateral surfing through correspondences that often happens when thinking about esoteric topics, ideas and terms. Connections can be made between things which are symbolic, even poetic; not based necessarily on logic or science. The risk seems to me that this can become a trap in Chapel Perilous or a dinner-date with Choronzon (Watch out for those meat pies, Saturninus! [see]). There’s a term for the mania of seeing connections and patterns everywhere in meaningless or random data, apophenia. It is possible to get lost in Chapel Perilous and go insane unless one is prepared.

I’m not saying hermetic drift is a Bad Thing™. I’m just saying it’s a double-edged sword, so be conscious of where you’re swingin’ that thang.

Some of the worst of the new age is an overbearing universalism, which seems to me to even become appropriation. This denaturing of difference is the worst kind of old-school anthropology, like the Romans trooping around always engaged in a procrustean project to transform others into the familiar: “Oh, when you say Odin, you mean Mercury! Why didn’t you say so?” This seems to be one of the major projects, and thus I think failings, of movements like Theosophy; this essentially anti-intellectual, anti-academic haze that everything is the same and differences are mistakes in people’s understanding of their own traditions; it’s hierarchically arranged so that the so-called expert always knows better than the actual practitioners. This kind of expertise is really just another hall of mirrors, the echo chamber for the expert to see only what they are already conscious of in themselves everywhere else [see]. That kind of expert might as well be a brain in a jar never really engaging beyond their own illusions of self.

But, hermetic drift can be fun at parties, but probably not that useful for panty raids. Then again, no reason not to try anyway, I suppose …

Hermetic man vs Mosaic man

The old Golden Dawn was really uptight about the use of the inverse pentacle. Seeing the pentacle as the five elements, with spirit being the point either up or down; the inverse pentacle had spirit beneath the rest of the elements. The triumph of matter over spirit could be seen as being lost in the world of illusion. However, it’s also possible to see the inverse pentacle as being the process of manifestation, and thus an appropriate pair with the upright pentacle; this is the lightning path bringing manifestation down and the snake wending back up the tree of life.

In a pyramidical arrangement, the elements form the base with spirit as the apex. The capstone of an ancient pyramid was said to have been golden, and seems like a better representation of the perfect ashlar. This perfect ashlar is not cubical but rather, like the Benben, representative of the primeval mound that rose from the primordial waters before the beginning of time, sacred as the place where the first rays of the sun-disk fell to create the universe. In the Amarna period, the Aten disk’s rays were hands extended giving the symbol of life, the ankh.

From Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition [amzn]:

“The Egyptian Adam is more than human; he is divine and belongs to the race of the star demons, the divinely created governors of the lower world. He is even stated to be ‘brother’ to the creative Word-Demiurge–Son of God, the ‘second god’ who moves the stars.” (p27)

Indeed, “Every man and woman is a star” [see,amzn], and “… a star in the company of stars …” [see] ring true to my ears. And, moreover, part of my own daily practice has been what I’ve called an Orphic spell, reconstructed from my reading on such things, a spell spoken to the guardians of the underworld by the initiated:

I am a child of earth and starry heaven. But my race is of the stars, as you well know. I have come here guided by the gods themselves. I am parched and dying of thirst. Let me drink from the well of memory.

Moreover, from the short “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life [amzn]:

“Exec #1: Item six on the agenda: “The Meaning of Life” Now, uh, Harry, you’ve had some thoughts on this.

Exec #2: Yeah, I’ve had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we’ve come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: People aren’t wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person’s soul. However, this “soul” does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man’s unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.

Exec #3: What was that about hats again?”

Again, from Yates:

“… the difference between Hermetic man and Mosaic man, the one created divine, the other created out of the dust of the earth. The fall of Hermetic man is more like the fall of Lucifer than the fall of Adam.” (p27 footnote 1)

This distinction reminds me also of the notion I recently read in a collection of Steiner essays, The Temple Legend [amzn], of the Sons of Abel, or sons of God, and the Sons of Cain, or the sons of Man; those of Men to prepare the worldly and those of God to prepare the divine.

To equate hermetic man with the one created divine versus the mosaic man who is divinely created but of the earth is like the dichotomy between the upright and inverse pentacles. One is spirit triumphant over matter, the other is matter triumphant over spirit. Both are necessary parts of the process of creation, or existence.

The person that is developing a relationship with their divine self, whatever term one wants to use for that, and whether one thinks that that exists ab initio or is created through the process of communicating with it, either way this connection is made through developing a relationship; is a process by which one might be said to be remade from a mosaic into a hermetic being.

Then, in combining the two ideas, I might suggest that to think symbolically is to be closer to divinity. It is the mythological level which is more divinely imbued and more divinely directed. This is, I think, to say something very similar to how practitioners of traditional chinese Feng Shui talk about Chi, and that the information form is more important than the physical form [amzn].

I have running through my head right now the spoken word by Robert Anthony on Trance Mission’s track “Every stone’s dream” [amzn]:

“Every stone is light slowed down, tied in a knot; and light is every stone’s dream.”

Further, therefore, allegory and symbol seem then to be the way the mind of the divine works. To understand even a bit of the divine is to understand art, poetry and music; to be touched by metaphor and myth; and to realize that all is metaphor, all is in flux; and, flux is merely the appearance of waves on an ocean too vast and deep to ever be fully comprehended.

imaginary oxymoron

The thing is that no market is free. All transactions are conditioned by who has power at the table. Therefore, all markets, being places where transactions take place are subject to those with power; further, the market as a collective entity is conditioned by larger systems of power which govern the collection of transaction sub-systems.

Further, the phrase ‘free market’ is just marketing. (Marketing being its own propaganda system, of power over information.) What people ask for when they ask for a ‘free market’ is a market which is subject only to those within their own tribe, and further that it’s their tribe or the highway. What they mean by ‘free market’ is ‘my market’ and ‘not your market’. Advocates of a ‘free market’ are actually seeking a market with specific conditions. Thus it’s not just an oxymoron, but is actually, quite simply, a lie.

The notion ‘free market’ is an imaginary oxymoron.

To approach the notion of a ‘free market’ is also an imaginary journey to somewhere other than where the proponents really wish to go. If one were to approach the free market, one would not have taxes, sure. One would also not have government subsidies to businesses within the industrial-military-prison-security complex, a leviathan to which quite a few ‘free market’ proponent have sold their souls.

There’s plenty of murk still. Because although the loss of the industrial-military-prison-security complex and corporate welfare looks pretty good to me; one would also, of course, not have bank bailouts and no social security and no ‘New Deal’. And, maybe other stuff that we may or may not agree on, but that advocates of a ‘free market’ would probably like to keep, such as corporate indemnity and corporate person-hood and patents and copyright and the legal system and the stock market. All gone.

There’s a lot of everything for everyone lose. I think there’s things we could agree on being sorely missed, such as that one would not have the highway and freeway system. One would also not have the Internet. And so much more.

An environment without conditions would simply be closer to a jungle of violence. The only time that a market would form is as an expression of someone’s power over a thing they wanted to exchange, and the relative window of powerlessness of someone seeking that thing to not simply take it away without an exchange they could afford; as part of a transaction other than violence.

When people advocate for a ‘free market’ what they mean is they want a ‘power market’ where they are the hegemon in power, or, at the very least, where they are protected by a power friendly to them in a hegemony. And, that just means they want, not to change the system; but, quite obviously to simply change who’s in power.

So, to those seeking a ‘free market’, “I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you can not put downe” [see] which is to say, it’s not what you really want. You’re selling and being sold a bill of goods. Don’t believe the hype. Caveat Emptor.