Introducing The National Algorithm

This is a write-up of the talk I’ve been giving while working on my current research project “The National Algorithm”, an investigation of the tensions and relationships embedded in modern camouflage patterns.

The talk consists of a heavily condensed history of modern military camouflage and what it has come to symbolise, then goes into the specifics of the project itself.

Peacock in the Woods , Abbott Handerson Thayer — 1907 | Male Ruffed Grouse in the Forest, Gerald Handerson Thayer — 1907/8

The central tension in camouflage is between being seen, and going unseen. The hunter and the hunted. Eat or be eaten. But evolution has also found other uses for coloration and pattern. In certain cases a pattern’s function may be to warn off predators instead of obscuring its wearer or imitating their surroundings. In either case, in the animal world, patterns often also perform a dual function of signalling fitness to potential mates. Strength. Survival.

Fast forward several billion years, and being the tool-wielding geniuses that we are, humans have figured out ways to kill each other from great distances. For a period of time the men who concern themselves with this activity wear red coats. The high quality cochineal dye needed for a scarlet coat was an extremely valuable commodity, making these coats hard to come by. Wearing one is very much a status symbol. To soldiers they are an item to be worn with pride, a defining element of their identity.

Before long the ability to execute lethal agency at a distance becomes more equally distributed, and wearing a bright red jacket in the middle of a drab field becomes something of a problem. Disruptive camouflage patterns are experimented with, and Dazzle camouflage is in heavy use by naval forces. For most infantry however, by the end of the first World War military dress has evolved into the familiar khaki/drab single tone uniforms worn for most the first half of the 20th century, and in some capacities still in use today.

Humans get around to a second World War, and experimentation with uniforms in disruptive camouflage patterns similar to those we’re used to today begins at scale, mostly deployed by the German forces. The patterns now much more distinctly begin to take on other functions. Not just concealing soldiers, but signalling an identity.

The pattern designs show that a soldier belongs to a particular force or unit, therefore by extension one may assume they possess associated skills, are capable of certain acts, and can call upon the technological and logistical capabilities of the greater force of which they are part. The camouflage uniform has established itself in military use, but is still uncommon in the civilian world.

During the Vietnam war parallel developments introduce new associations and begin the introduction of camouflage patterns to civilian wear in forms we’re now more familiar with. On one hand, the custom-made Tigerstripe uniforms worn by US Special Forces start to become a coveted item among photographers and journalists, signalling their access and affiliation.

On the other hand, veterans protesting the war wear their issued ERDL uniforms. The nature of the military affiliation is now turned on it’s head. The uniform signals that one knows of what they speak, and they speak out against it. The camouflage pattern in civilian life begins to take on its revolutionary aspects, being worn as a symbol of protest even while gaining more traction as a signal of exclusivity and affiliation with strength.

Fast-forward again to the late 80’s, and the M81 Woodland camouflage pattern has become established as the standard of what generally comes to mind when people talk about camouflage. Thanks in no small part due to a sustained campaign of military sponsorship of Hollywood, the camouflage uniform has taken on the function once performed by the red coat.

The camouflage uniform has become loaded with implied values of heroism and patriotism. Ruggedness, masculinity, ability to survive, willingness to fight, all of the above are included and still just parts of the complex of signals the wearer now loads themselves with, whether consciously or not.

Of course these values of strength are not held exclusively by military organisations. Combined with the low cost and practicality of military surplus gear, the revolutionary aspects of camouflage dress make their way into various people’s representation of struggle. Travelling with sound system culture it becomes a staple in music scenes on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether in UK jungle or US hiphop, by the 1990’s being “military minded”, seeing oneself as a soldier, has been universalised to the extent that in many contexts its musical subcultural associations are stronger than any military connection.

Enter the 21st century

Air Force Cyberspace Command (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo) | Osama Bin Laden & his favourite jacket. (U.S. Attorney’s Office)

As we pass the year 2000, now you have guys sitting around in a high-tech cyber command center wearing the same jackets as Q-Tip, 2Pac, and that guy they’re trying to bomb out of his mountain cave. Besides the cyber troops looking kind of silly wearing woodland camo in the first place, this is in fact a serious image problem for the military. With two big new shiny wars to fight in the Middle-East, a lot of new recruits are needed. Something needs to be done about the marketing.

“Thank you all for wearing your camelflage” — Ali G Indahouse, 2002

Not to mention that the ‘traditional’ disruptive woodland camouflage design has been repurposed and recoloured over and over, bleeding so far into pop culture and so clearly becoming a signal of affiliation to a subculture instead of a means of concealment that it has lost it’s menace to the point of ridicule.

It’s time for something new. Something modern. Something… …digital.

In the late 90’s the Canadian military introduces CADPAT, kicking off the trend of “digital” camouflage patterns. The US Marine Corps would soon follow with the rollout of their variant, MARPAT. Whether the pixel itself actually has any functional value can be argued about, but it certainly signifies a level of modernity that the old disruptive patterns did not.

The US Airforce deploy their Airman Battle Uniform with its digital tigerstripe pattern, and now the troops look much better in the cyber command center. The US Army of course can’t get left behind in this game, so they commission a multi-year, multi-million dollar study into what would be the most effective camouflage pattern, and in 2004 they completely ignore the results and also adopt a pixilated pattern, UCP. This would prove to be an unfortunate decision.

With the choice of UCP, or ‘Universal Camouflage Pattern’ the US Army appears to have made their decision based on how the uniforms would look in recruitment videos instead of their effectiveness in the field. This exercise in branding turns out to be dangerously ineffective in most operating theatres, and in Afghanistan it is replaced with ‘OCP’, at the time the commercially available Multicam pattern, now an earlier variant known as Scorpion W2.

In the excellent paper The Digital Revolution, Camouflage in the 21st Century, Anthony King does an excellent job of explaining how the ‘digital’ camouflage pattern has become an important status symbol.

“Digital camouflage allows professionalizing militaries to re-assert their distinctiveness from the past and to affirm their status over their rivals.”

“digital camouflage connotes the digital revolution, which has itself trans- formed the military; above all the pixel symbolizes the enhanced military performance and precision”

“The pixel has no great merit as camouflage but few other shapes are as redolent with contemporary meaning as this small, computer-generated square.”

Digital camouflage signals that a military force is modern. It advertises technological advantage and advanced capabilities, it can give troops an enhanced sense of identity, improving force cohesion. All this taken together makes the modern camouflage pattern at least as much, if not more, about the projection of an image, rather than concealment of a subject.

The Netherlands Fractal Pattern (NFP)

Metro Special, Landmacht 2.0 — Maandag 27 Oktober, 2014

Against the backdrop of all of the above, the Dutch military also felt they required a new camouflage pattern. Research was commissioned as part of SMP, the “Soldier Modernisation Program”, resulting in the Netherlands Fractal Pattern, or NFP. Pictured above is the pattern as it currently exists, in its variants NFP Green and NFP Tan. A third transitional pattern has also been developed for use on equipment.

Officially announced in 2014, the pattern’s deployment has been delayed ‘till next year’ ever since, but I had already become interested in the pattern during its testing phase. In 2009 the first images of testing patterns had started to come out, an example of which is shown below:

Test pattern

The center photograph above is one of the NFP prototype patterns. The background images shown to it’s left and right may look familiar to you. They are examples of how the MIVD (Dutch Military Intelligence Services) had previously chosen to censor sensitive sites in aerial photography released on Google Earth in 2005. A stylistic choice that did not go unnoticed, and has been the subject of various artistic explorations.

The same distinctive polygonal shapes are clearly in use, which some of you may recognise as the result of running a Voronoi diagram on a pseudo-random grid of points. Or simply put, Photoshop’s ‘Chrystallize’ filter. It’s not pixels, but now the visual output of a filtering algorithm has taken their place as the uniquely identifying building block of the camouflage pattern, signalling an identity that connects the security state to its armed forces. The ‘daunting’ aspect of the camouflage can be seen to lie in the advanced technical capabilities that are implied.

Excerpts from Urban camouflage assessment through visual search and computational saliency. Alexander Toet & Maarten A. Hogervorst, TNO

I did wonder then, where is the fractal in the ‘Netherlands Fractal Pattern’? Some amount of digging led me to find that the research for the development of the pattern is primarily performed by two scientists working at TNO, who have actually published publicly available papers detailing one of the design methods used for the development of a NATO testing pattern.

The language took some deciphering, but after a bit of experimentation I was able to replicate the work. Not with great results at first, but well enough to create a proof of concept. Described in the most basic terms, the pattern generation method consists of four steps:

  1. Create an input collage of the target environment.
  2. Create a fractal noise pattern.
  3. Swap the colour palettes of the images from steps 1 & 2.
  4. Dither the image down to the required colours.

So I have a set of steps, with inputs and an output, that describe a means of creating a camouflage pattern that has what has been declared to have “a unique identity that clearly represents the soldier’s Dutch identity”.

Now what? What is the ‘Dutch identity’?

The Netherlands Experimental Pattern (NEP)

Oranje boven.

It just happens that the Netherlands already has a very strong, albeit basic visual expression of what constitutes Dutch identity. If you’ve ever been in Amsterdam on Kingsday, or anywhere near a large-scale sporting event a Dutch national team has had any chance of winning you will already be familiar with the phenomenon of “Oranjegekte”, the “Orange craze”.

Dressing in orange and getting hella drunk is pretty benign as far as expressions of national pride go, but it’s not something I’ve ever been comfortable with. If this is the bar for Dutch-ness, I don’t pass.

Could we use this newly developed algorithm to generate a camouflage pattern for Dutch culture?

So I made a collage of the environment I wanted to hide in, generated the algorithmic noise, indexed the colours, swapped the palettes, dithered them down, applied the pixilation, and there you have it. The Netherlands Experimental Pattern (NEP).

I’m making the whole process sound a lot easier than it actually was, creating fractal noise that had a texture, density and colour distribution similar to the existing NFP patterns actually took quite some work. Getting red, white and blue to cluster nicely, and tweaking the orange hues so that they stacked well, formed distracting eye-lines and created some depth also took a lot of experimentation. Now having designed the pattern, I wanted to field-test it.

Photography by Tim Mooij-Knip. Models: Sven Farinum & Jet Sennema

About twenty meters of fabric were printed, the ‘Combat Utility’ Jacket & Pants worn by the military models were procured, and Cavalieri Kostumes worked for several weeks dissecting, retracing & sewing to produce exact replicas of the new Dutch uniform. The result is really pretty impressive.

Unfortunately conditions for the Kings-day 2017 field test proved to be, well, sub-optimal. It was wet and cold out. Amsterdam’s usual sea of orange shirts went hidden under coats & jackets, with the occasional hat or wreath really not providing the amount of “natural cover” we were after.

The central tension in camouflage is between being seen, and going unseen. With the discussion about what it is that constitutes national identity currently even being debated as part of the formation negotiations for the new Dutch coalition government, the core irony of this project looks to remain relevant for quite some time.

If a Dutch identity exists, how would a camouflage for it function? Or more importantly, why would anyone want or need to conceal themselves with it in the first place? What you are hiding from? How you want to be seen?

You can follow further developments in the project on Twitter: @nation_algo

A series of related articles is still planned for publication regarding some aspects of the pattern development and a few interesting things that came up during the research for this project. I’ll link them here as they appear.

I like Futures, Structure & Narrative.