The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks
Dec 20 2010, 2:50 PM ET
The degree of sympathy in tech circles for both Wikileaks and Anonymous has surprised me. The most common take seems to be that the world needs cyber-pranksters to keep old-school centers of power, like governments and big companies, in check. Cyber-activists are perceived to be the underdogs, flawed and annoying, perhaps, but standing up to overbearing power.
It doesn't seem so to me. I actually take seriously the idea that the Internet can make non-traditional techie actors powerful.1 Therefore, I am less sympathetic to hackers when they use their newfound power arrogantly and non-constructively.
This is an interesting difference in perception. How can you tell when you are the underdog versus when you are powerful? When you get that perception wrong, you can behave quite badly quite easily.2
Every revolutionary these days must post a video online. So the group Anonymous, which avenged the perceived enemies of Wikileaks by ganging up on sites like MasterCard and PayPal, released theirs, a scratchy cyberpunk scrawl. In it, a digitized announcer condemns the attacked companies for the "crime of cutting people off from the global brain." This might seem like an odd bit of propaganda for those who aren't familiar with the world of nerd supremacy.
The ideology that drives a lot of the online world -- not just Wikileaks but also mainstream sites like Facebook -- is the idea that information in sufficiently large quantity automatically becomes Truth. For extremists, this means that the Internet is coming alive as a new, singular, global, post-human, superior life form. For more moderate sympathizers, if information is truth, and the truth will set you free, then adding more information to the Internet automatically makes the world better and people freer.
The one exception to be carved out is that technically skilled programmers are celebrated for erecting digital privacy curtains around themselves. Thus we didn't necessarily get to know where Mr. Assange was at a given moment, before his detention on rape-related charges, or what Facebook or Google know about you.
But leaving hypocrisy aside, is there something to the idea? If the number of secrets falls with each passing minute and gradually approaches zero, what does that do to the world? Would a world without secrets be fairer, or more compassionate? More efficient? Does it matter if some secrets are revealed before others?
It is often the case that microstructure influences macrostructure. In the case of digital systems, where the microstructure is bits that are either completely on or completely off, it is easiest to build big things that tend to peg completely one way or another. You can easily be completely anonymous online, or utterly revealed, but it is hard to find an in-between spot.
The strategy of Wikileaks, as explained in an essay by Julian Assange, is to make the world transparent, so that closed organizations are disabled, and open ones aren't hurt. But he's wrong. Actually, a free flow of digital information enables two diametrically opposed patterns: low-commitment anarchy on the one hand and absolute secrecy married to total ambition on the other.
While many individuals in Wikileaks would probably protest that they don't personally advocate radical ideas about transparency for everybody but hackers, architecture can force all our hands. This is exactly what happens in current online culture. Either everything is utterly out in the open, like a music file copied a thousand times or a light weight hagiography on Facebook, or it is perfectly protected, like the commercially valuable dossiers on each of us held by Facebook or the files saved for blackmail by Wikileaks.
The Wikileaks method punishes a nation -- or any human undertaking -- that falls short of absolute, total transparency, which is all human undertakings, but perversely rewards an absolute lack of transparency. Thus an iron-shut government doesn't have leaks to the site, but a mostly-open government does.
If the political world becomes a mirror of the Internet as we know it today, then the world will be restructured around opaque, digitally delineated power centers surrounded by a sea of chaotic, underachieving openness. Wikileaks is one prototype of a digital power center, but others include hedge funds and social networking sites.
This is the world we are headed to, it seems, since people are unable to resist becoming organized according to the digital architectures that connect us. The only way out is to change the architecture.
The Internet as it is, which supports the abilities of Anonymous and Wikileaks, is an outgrowth of a particular design history which was influenced in equal degrees by 1960s romanticism and cold war paranoia. It aligned the two poles of the bit to these two archetypal dramas. But the poles of the bit can be aligned with other things. The Internet can and must be redesigned to reflect a more moderate and realistically human-centered philosophy.
Assange sees information as an abstract free-standing thing. Differences in perspective and circumstance mean nothing. This is how nerd supremacists think.It is possible for tiny actions to occasionally have huge consequences on the Internet -- like the creation of a Facebook or a Wikileaks by tiny teams -- because many thousands of people over decades set up the underlying structure of that seeming magic trick.
It seems to cost nothing to send an email, so we spend billions of dollars on spam. The existing Internet design is centered on creating the illusion of no-cost effort. But there is no such thing. It's an illusion born of the idylls of youth, and leads to a distorted perception of the nature of responsibility. When there seems to be no cost, the idea of moderation doesn't seem sensible.
Openness in itself, as the prime driver of events, doesn't lead to achievement or creativity.
One problem is that information in oceanic magnitudes can confuse and confound as easily as it can clarify and empower, even when the information is correct. There is vastly more financial data set down in the world's computers than there ever has been before, including publically accessible data, and yet the economy is a mess. How can this be, if information is the solution?
A sufficiently copious flood of data creates an illusion of omniscience, and that illusion can make you stupid. Another way to put this is that a lot of information made available over the internet encourages players to think as if they had a God's eye view, looking down on the whole system.
A financier, for instance, might not be able to resist the temptations of access to seemingly endless data. If you can really look down on the whole market from on high, then you ought to be able to just pluck money out of it without risk, which leads to the notion of a highly computerized, data intensive, brobdingnagian hedge fund. This is fine, for a while, until other people start similar funds and the whole market becomes distorted.
The interesting similarity between Mr. Assange and a typical financier who overdid it is that both attempted to align themselves with a perceived God-like perspective and method made possible by the flow of vast information on the Internet, while both actually got crazy and absurd. Wikileaks and similar efforts could do for politics approximately what access to a lot of data did for finance in the run up to the recession.
Whom does Cablegate harm? This issue has been debated extensively elsewhere, but I do want to point something out about how to interpret the question. The details that are prematurely revealed in Cablegate are not essential knowledge for me, since I am not immediately involved in the events, and the contents of the leaks thus far haven't disrupted my worldview or my politics.
They are, however, potentially consequential to American diplomacy, which is often, if we are to believe the cables, both trickier and better intentioned then we might have feared. The contents might be extremely consequential, even deadly, to a hapless individual on the ground -- and we'll once again invoke the canonical unfortunate fellow in Afghanistan who translated for a US diplomat and counted on the USA to keep it secret. I don't know if he exists, but it seems to me that there must be analogs to him, at least.
Julian Assange, in defending his actions sees a vindicating contradiction in this difference: How can information be both dangerous and inconsequential, he asks? He sees information as an abstract free-standing thing, so to him, differences in perspective and circumstance mean nothing. This is how nerd supremacists think.
Wikileaks isn't really a "wiki," but it is designed to look and feel like the Wikipedia. It aspires to emulate the practical philosophy of the wiki movement. The Wikipedia professes to get humanity as a whole to arrive at the one truest truth.
The Wikileaks design, by invoking Wikipedia, creates the impression that some universally negotiated, balanced unveiling of human affairs is being approximated; that what was formerly hidden is being fairly unhidden. But that is not true.
If you are a fan of Wikileaks, you might have trouble seeing this, so you would do well to consider Wikileaks-like activities performed by people of opposing ideological persuasions. The comparison will probably enrage some Wikileaks supporters, but if you are one of them, I ask you to try it on as an exercise to test your own internal degrees of bias.
Two cases from the United States come to mind: In one, personal information about abortion providers was posted online, and an "X" was drawn over the information about a specific provider once that provider was murdered. In another, which occurred in Utah in 2010, vigilantes published personal details about undocumented Hispanic immigrants, in an apparent bid to encourage harassment.
In the first case, there were deaths, while the second was all noise and fear mongering with no action, so far as I know. The activists who listed abortion doctors never pulled a trigger, didn't know the people who pulled triggers, and so perhaps had "nothing" to do with the murders.
These actions were related to what goes on in Wikileaks, though people with different politics performed them. Defenders of Wikileaks will probably feel that the comparison is unwarranted, so I would like to address some of the rationalizations I have heard.
It is often pointed out that Wikileaks didn't leak all the diplomatic cables it had, but only a small percentage that was filtered through traditional news organizations, as if this were a sign of deliberation and moderation.
But it did use all of the cables for blackmail. Encrypted copies were sent around the world, creating what is known as a "dead man switch." It was claimed that the encrypted cables contained genuinely dangerous information. Under certain circumstances the key would be released. Is this not similar to the case of the abortion doctors? "Either do what I want or I will expertly use my Internet skills to enable creepy third parties I don't even know to harm you."
It seems that our perceptions of the two cases are strongly colored by how we feel about the targets and where we find the underdog. At the very least, the comparison demonstrates that there is no such thing as a neutral Internet leak organization. Anyone who plays the game brings biases into the work.
The same critique can and should be applied to militaries and other traditional players who have become cyber-fascinated. It is true that the U.S. military faces a moral hazard in the use of drones. An anonymous operator a world away can direct an attack, and there is an inevitable danger of forgetting the seriousness of the decision. But consider: Anonymous Wikileakers attacked anonymous drone operators, sniping from snug perches in front of computer screens. Wikileaks published the names of Afghans who were put at risk, potentially becoming collateral damage.
Isn't it clear that we tend to become like what we mock and fear?
Another common rationalization favoring Wikileaks is that we don't have documentation of individuals, such as the canonical example of liasons in Afghanistan, who were killed as a result of a leak.
I wish I could find comfort in this line of thinking, but bad behavior doesn't become ok just because we don't know if anyone's been hurt yet. Did anyone ask the individuals who were named for permission to leak their names? I don't think any of the undocumented immigrants in Utah were killed, but does that excuse what happened? Assange has stated that if there were deaths from leaks, it would be acceptable because of the bigger picture. The ideological framework and rationale for collateral damage has been made explicit.
To me, both right wing extremist leaks and Wikileaks are for the most part resurrections of old-fashioned vigilantism. Some of the targets of vigilantism in the Utah of the 19th century, say, might have unquestionably been "bastards," and yet there are, to say the least, some tremendously attractive things about the rule of law. Vigilantism has always eroded trust and civility, but what's new online is the sterile imprimatur of a digital ideology that claims to offer automatic betterment.
Vigilante information violation is a form of assault that degrades society for everyone. If we are to experiment with giving up some degree of privacy, we have to do it all at once, including even the hackers.
Can we say Wikileaks is doing anything beyond sterile information worship? Is it engaged in nonviolent activism?
We celebrate the masters of nonviolent activism, such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. All these figures displayed astounding courage, faced arrest, and suffered without hating their oppressors in order to demonstrate a common humanity. These remarkable people did not make "Crush the bastards" into their mantra.
So the question has to be, if you add the Internet, can you now be a nonviolent activist without having to show courage and respect the opposing side? Is it now suddenly helpful to be a troll, attacking from the darkness, as the members of Anonymous do? Does the Internet really make life that much easier?
Of course it doesn't.
Although I have certainly not done as much as any of us should, I can say that I have gone to jail as a result of political protest, and doing so was not a way of rejecting society, but engaging it. In my case, I was arrested while protesting the nuclear weapons policies of the United States in the 1970s. I helped block the entrance to a power plant that was also feeding the weapons program. I smiled and had a friendly conversation with the police who carried me off, and with the jailers.
Civil disobedience is fundamentally respectful of the shared project of having a civilization, but only when the protestor gets arrested voluntarily and without sneering at opponents. Instead, one hopes to raise consciousness with a flood of respect and compassion, even for those who disagree.
In the intervening years, my point of view on nuclear weapons policy has shifted, though not totally. If my phase as a protester had been ruder, I would have complicated my own avenue for personal evolution, because I would have become too invested in the trauma that would have ensued. Respectful civil disobedience is not only more productive for others, but for oneself. It is the path away from extremism.
Totally aside from whether Wikileaks has hurt the USA or anyone else, we should ask the question, "What has it done to us?" The hacker idea has gotten meaner, less sensitive, more combative, and more reactive. This is what I mean by the problem of nerd supremacy.
Wikileaks grew out of a forum hosted by John Gilmore, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I almost became one of the founders of EFF as well. I was at the founding meeting, a meal in San Francisco's Mission District with John, John Perry Barlow, and Mitch Kapor. What kept me out of EFF was a sudden feeling -- at that very meal -- that something was going wrong.
There was a fascination with using encryption to make hackers potentially as powerful as governments, and that disturbed me. I could feel the surge of ego: We hackers could change history. But if there's one lesson of history, it is that seeking power doesn't change the world. You need to change yourself along with the world. Civil disobedience is a spiritual discipline as much as anything else.
EFF has matured, and is now moderate enough to be subject to occasional attacks from outfits like Anonymous (though Anonymous rejects characterizations of itself as a group of people and prefers to be known as collective cyber-brain.) In its early days, however, EFF helped glamourize the image of the encrypted nerd resisting the government. EFF was hardly alone: One of the first covers of Wired magazine featured a dashing gaggle of outlaw hackers, faces hidden by scarves. The hacker as glamorous revolutionary was a guiding image as the Internet was first coming together and being polished for widespread use a couple of decades ago, and we are paying now for our silly romanticism back then.
When you feel that urge to power within yourself- that is when you should be most careful. When I hear Julian Assange talk about "crushing bastards" I feel grateful that I avoided getting swept up back then.
Should information flows be controlled in the network age? Who should get to decide who gets access to what information? It's not as if these questions have only been asked for the first time because of the Internet. The many generations of people that learned how to build democracies wrestled with them over the centuries.
Privacy is not about anachronistic prohibitions on information flow, but about personhood.We know what the answers are. If the secret is about something that isn't a vital interest for other people, then everyone has a right to keep a private sphere private. If the secret is about something of vital interest to other people, then secrets can be kept by those who are sanctioned and accountable to keep them within the bounds of a reasonably functional democratic process.
Both of these answers are under assault by the ideology of nerd supremacy which I understand well, since I was part of it in its early days.
You need to have a private sphere to be a person, or for that matter for anything creative to happen in any domain. This is the principle I described as "encapsulation" in You Are Not a Gadget. I have written about this idea in various ways, but I'd like to try another way here, addressed to the truest believers. Let's consider encapsulation in computer code.
There was a time when computer code was messier, in that any piece of code could read or write to any other part. That didn't work out well. Programs were too tangled and impossible to maintain.
So a movement to add structure to programming took root. For instance, the idea of "object oriented" code breaks a program up into encapsulated modules centered on chunks of data and code related specifically to that data. If you program in an object oriented way, you are not allowed to make the code in one object directly manipulate the interior of another. Instead, everything has to go through the proper channels.
A great many programmers hated the object oriented idea in the early days. It seemed like nothing but prissy restrictions. To others, it was simply incomprehensible how restrictions would do you any good. Wasn't the point to be able to program anything? How could a negative be a positive? How could restrictions improve results?
And yet, ideas like object oriented programming were essential to making big programs reliable. The world we know today couldn't exist if code had stayed as messy as it used to be. Structure is what makes information usable. Making everything totally connected and open to everything destroys structure. This principle works for code, but it is also cosmic.
Even we people need structure in our affairs. Imagine openness extrapolated to an extreme. What if we come to be able to read each other's thoughts? Then there would be no thoughts. Your head has to be different from mine if you are to be a person with something to say to me. You need an interior space that is different from mine in order to have a different, exotic model of the world, so that our two models can meet, and have a conversation.
Privacy is not about anachronistic prohibitions on information flow, but about personhood. I was one of those young hackers who didn't get this point for a long time. I used to think that an open world would favor the honest and the true, and disfavor the schemers and the scammers. In moderation this idea has some value, but if privacy were to be vanquished, people would initially become dull, then incompetent, and then cease to exist. Hidden in the idea of radical openness is an allegiance to machines instead of people.
Improving access to information can be a very good thing in the right circumstances. For instance, another huge factor in making code better (in addition to structure) was a flow of information feedback from the real world.
We sanction secretive spheres in order to have our civilian sphere. Coding used to be based on hope. You'd code something and someone else would experience whether it crashed or not, and while they would let you know, it was hard to learn much from their tales of woe. With the arrival of the Internet, crash logs could be reported back to the programmers automatically, so software engineering became a closed loop feedback system. I well remember Steven Sinofsky showing me the early results of this flow of data about crashes in the early Windows operating system. It was as if a new sense organ had suddenly sprouted on one's face.
I bring this up to say that asking whether secrets in the abstract are good or bad is ridiculous. A huge flow of data that one doesn't know how to interpret in context is either useless or worse than useless, if you let it impress you too much. A contextualized flow of data that answers a question you know how to ask can be invaluable.
As has been frequently observed, the Cablegate episode hasn't revealed military or "top" secrets; at least as I write this. Furthermore, while some Wikileaks supporters see the documents as a portrait of an evil USA, actually the USA comes off pretty well in them.
In fact, most of the figures who have been embarrassed by the leaked cables seem to not have been America's closest friends. Instead, a typical hot leak dishes dirt about someone who was disturbing to American diplomats.
This is to be expected, since the Cablegate leak was of American documents, expressing American perceptions. So Wikileaks ended up accentuating the American point of view, which was already easy to know, instead of bringing new perspectives to the world!
If your primary motivation for supporting Wikileaks is that you think the USA is the problem, and must be opposed, then please meditate on this. (I happen to think the USA is going through a troubling period in some ways, but is overall an essential positive force in the world. But what I think about that isn't what's at issue here.)
If we want to understand all the sides of an argument, we have to do more than copy files. It's not as though we are supporting reporters out there on the ground to do independent investigative journalism. Random leaking is no substitute for focused digging. The "everything must be free and open" ideal has nearly bankrupted the overseas news bureaus.
The point of Cablegate is to make it hard for diplomats to function. We know this is the point, since Julian Assange has described the strategy in his writing. He hopes to screw up the USA, which he considers a conspiracy of bastards, by screwing up the trust which glues the USA together. When you reveal what one person said in confidence to another, you screw up their relationships with other people. That's what Wikileaks has come to be about with the Cablegate episode, not the revelation of deeply scandalous secrets.
Yet the controversies around radical openness are usually framed around questioning the legitimacy of keeping regulated institutional secrets. Military, commercial, and diplomatic spheres sanction more secret keeping than we are used to in civilian life.
If the distinctions between these spheres fail, then what we will lose is civilian life, since the others are ultimately indispensible. Then we'd turn into a closed society. In closed societies, like North Korea, everyday life is militarized.
You might not agree that this is what would happen, because it might seem as though fewer secrets ought to always, always mean a more open society. If you think that, you are making the same mistake those programmers who resisted structure made long ago.
Anarchy and dictatorship are entwined in eternal resonance. One never exists for long without turning to the other, and then back again. The only way out is structure, also known as democracy.
We sanction secretive spheres in order to have our civilian sphere. We furthermore structure democracy so that the secretive spheres are contained and accountable to the civilian sphere, though that's not easy.
There is certainly an ever-present danger of betrayal. Too much power can accrue to those we have sanctioned to hold confidences, and thus we find that keeping a democracy alive is hard, imperfect, and infuriating work.
The flip side of responsibly held secrets, however, is trust. A perfectly open world, without secrets, would be a world without the need for trust, and therefore a world without trust. What a sad sterile place that would be: A perfect world for machines.
1. The hacker community sometimes has a way of talking the talk about its own empowerment, but pretending it isn't walking the walk when it actually is, in order to enjoy the blessed cover and forgiveness granted to the oppressed.
This observation immediately brings up another difficulty in perception. I just made up a construction: "The hacker community." What the hell is that? Since important actors in the present dramas are anonymous, including many Wikileaks activists, it can be hard to pin ideas or actions on specific people. Does that mean we can't talk about what anyone thinks or does? We have to do our best to perceive actors in order to perceive and assess ideas and actions.
A range of ideas and strategies are in play. There are people from the Wikileaks community who became uncomfortable with Julian Assange, and are attempting to rev up alternative leak sites. Some of these experiments might turn out well, and I might become an enthusiast for them.
While acknowledging this diversity, it is also important to address certain mistaken core ideas underlying much of the world of cyber-activism.
2. Yet another essay that is critical of techie culture! Am I giving comfort to enemies of friends by challenging friends? Maybe a little, but I think my friends can take it and we get better and stronger from these conversations.
I'll declare here that I happen to share some of the concerns of many of the supporters of Wikileaks and related efforts. To be specific, am worried that the American government seems to be better able to lie to itself by keeping secrets digitally. The same can be said about the Chinese government, and many others. Digital information systems can help you lie to yourself better because dubious information can seem so much more credible and substantial when you've digitized it, and there can be so much of it.
But we can't descend into a primal sorting of who is friend and who is enemy.
Jaron Lanier - A computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author (You Are Not a Gadget), Jaron Lanier maintains interests in biomimetic information architectures, user interfaces, and computational approaches to the fundamentals of physics.
Archived at: http://www.theatlantic.com/preview/blog/2010/12/the-hazards-of-nerd-supremacy-the-case-of-wikileaks/68217/