Still drawn from The Ray and Charles Eames film, The Information Machine, held in the Prelinger Library and hosted at Archive.org
Jaron Lanier's critique parses the mentality behind Anonymous, the DDOS, the cult of personality surrounding Assange, and the problem with the idea of forcing "transparency". This is dead-on: a must-read. One of three pages excerpted below - read the entire article in The Atlantic, here. (A version of this story first appeared in the German magazine Focus.)
via The Atlantic:
The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks
Dec 20 2010, 2:50 PM ET
By Jaron Lanier
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.
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.
Continue to Page 2 on The Atlantic
Continue to Page 3 on The Atlantic
[Continued below is the last section of Page 3, too good not to include here]:
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.
Continue on to read the footnotes.