Julian Assange’s publisher, OR Books, asked me if I’d like to review Assange’s latest book, When Google Met WikiLeaks. I said I would and waited for the review copy to be served, which it was. My return volley, however, has been hampered by a stiff-kneed schedule, and even when I took my swing, the target felt soft, my stroke ungainly. When Google Met WikiLeaks is not a significant book – more of a republishing of previous material. But the issue it addresses is vital to our times, and Assange is one of the few people capable of approaching it with intelligence and insight.
I present the review here in two parts:
Amidst the recent outcry over the mass release of celebrity flesh on our cell phones, the actor and funnyboy, Seth Rogan, expressed both sincerity and solidarity: “Posting pics hacked from someone’s cell phone is really no different than selling stolen merchandise,” he tweeted.
We can forgive the comedian for missing the nuances of techno-judicial scholarship. Nobody hacked Jennifer Lawrence’s cell phone. It was her iCloud account that was compromised. And the pic-as-merchandise analogy, in fact, was addressed and dismissed over fifty years ago by such brilliant thinkers and economists as Hal Varian, George Akerlof, Joseph Stiglitz, Michael Spence and many others. We can no more stock a traditional market with digital goods than we can power our automobiles with dreams.
The Internet always seemed so big and borderless; but it was never infinite. It was never unconquerable. From the comfort of your private captain’s quarters (study, basement, bedroom), you could steer your journey wherever you wanted — cruise the currents of a telnet link, spelunk the depths of a subterranean SSH network. Self-driven, solitary; no timetable or paperwork or formal meetings; no need to hold a single conversation.
And yet the sense of discovery you felt when stepping onto some isle of remoteness, with its treasure buried deep in a directory tree, was both real and chimeric. Footprints — just as Crusoe discovered — were already there. Tracks, roads, pathways, the frontiers of your journey had been laid by others. However far you traveled, you were always connected. The Internet was always shared.
If celebrities feel outraged over the Internet’s obsession with their private parts, so too will non-celebrities for those private parts obscuring the urgency of more important spills — the pesticides and sludge, for example, that are choking the Great Barrier Reef. At first the overcrowding of this shared webspace seemed purely technical; the Internet’s 32-bit IP address system wasn’t large enough to offer refuge to every brain on the planet (let alone every thought in every brain). There were speed issues, security holes. But the biggest limitation, it turned out, was something all too familiar in the history of Empire: namely, the tendency of its inhabitants — and therefore its developers — to push forth narrow, deceptive, clan-driven ideologies over such things as diversity, imagination, clarity, intellect, equal rights, democracy.
One of the most significant dates, a turning point really, in the battle for imperial control over the Internet was April 19, 2004 — the exact same day, incidentally, 234 years earlier, that captain James Cook spotted Australia, the Terra Incognita of the Southern Hemisphere, and a discovery that would forever alter the future of its indigenous people. Now, centuries later, it was the arrival of Wall Street upon the shores of the Internet’s largest continent: Google.com. In the eight hours of frenzied trading between 9am to 5pm, Google raised $1.67 billion dollars of euphemistically “public” capital (there’s very little “public” about an IPO), thus positioning itself as the spine from which the Internet’s latest incarnation — a sort of sticky-cloudy Frankenmonster — would start to kick and grow.
There are other important dates, of course; other defeats and victories. For example, six years later, on April 5, 2010, WikiLeaks would release its famous “Collateral Murder” video, shaking the Internet out of its stupor, holding a mirror up for the Western powers to examine their own psychopathic tendencies. Many dates; many salvos. The launch of the TOR Project, a privacy-protecting network, on September 20, 2002. The launch of BitTorrent the following month. The world’s very first “tweet,” March 22, 2006. The publishing of Satoshi Nakamoto’s paper, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, in November, 2008. That fateful day in Hawaii when Edward Snowden decided to pull back the curtains on America’s National Security Agency.
However we look at the Internet’s history, Google and WikiLeaks are two of its leading players. No wonder, then, that the Australian intellectual-in-exile, Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, would consider his meeting with Eric Schmidt, the CEO and Chairman of Google, a subject worthy of serious contemplation. Schmidt and the director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, had requested to interview Assange for a book they were writing, its vintage Soviet-era working title, “The Empire of the Mind.”
The interview was held in June, 2011. The place was the house of Assange’s friend, Vaughan Smith, in rural Norfolk, about three hours northeast of London. Assange was under house arrest at the time, a tracking beacon clipped round his ankle as a condition of his provisional release from jail, although his politico-criminal status adds little to the interview’s gravitas.
The meeting’s historical merit had none of the personal injury or sense of redemption found in, say, Nelson Mandela’s face-to-face encounter with P.W. Botha in 1989; or the meeting of revolutionary minds in, say, Fidel Castro’s visit with Malcolm X at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem in 1960. Perhaps Obama’s handshake with Raul Castro at Mandela’s funeral offers a closer comparison; or Richard Nixon’s meeting with Mao Zedong, but only in terms of the great cultural divide being crossed (with none of the germinating results).
“I was intrigued that the mountain” — that is, Google — “would come to Muhammad,” writes Assange in a 50-page thought-piece, which, along with previously released material concerning that historic meeting in Norfolk, appears in Assange’s latest book, When Google Met WikiLeaks. We can ignore his self-casting role in the Muhammad cliche; Assange’s point is that, as frail and ankled-snared as Fabritius’ goldfinch, he felt weak and isolated compared the $200 billion behemoth that was Google at the time, its “playful logo imprinting on human retinas just under six billion times each day, 2.1 trillion times a year.” An interesting choice of words, the playful logo, the mechanical retinas, the rhetorical calculations. Emotions cast as market symbols. Machinery as optometry. Neither Muhammad nor the mountain, in this one-day encounter amidst the Norfolk idyll, comes off as very human.
But still, Assange appears the less corrupted of the bunch. There’s an endearing, sometimes hard to believe, naivete in his belief that the emissaries of Google might actually value Assange’s input into their proposed book about “the empire of the mind;” or indeed, that such a book, written by men in charge of increasing their company’s share price, could possibly contain anything other than buzz-speak and the latest Silicon Valley platitudes. “The scholarship was poor — even degenerate,” writes Assange about the astonishment he felt when he finally read Schmidt and Cohen’s book two years later.
Empire of the Mind would change it’s title to the more prognosticatory, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business (see my review of it here). “[The book] did not seem to fit the profile of Schmidt, that sharp, quiet man in my living room,” observes Assange. “Reading on I began to see that the book was not a serious attempt at future history.”
Turns out the quiet man in Assange’s living room (Vaughan’s living room, in fact) was more shrewd than sharp. The audio of the encounter has been available online at least since my review of Assange’s Cypherpunks in October last year, and the complete transcript is republished in When Google Met WikiLeaks. The meeting is a distressingly one-sided affair. Assange is one of those people who speaks in careful, well-constructed sentences, coolly rallying together a very large force of well-behaved words, trusting them to act according to their job descriptions. If he appears overly loquacious in his effort “to guide [his listeners] into my worldview,” as he puts it, it’s because his worldview is both compelling and complex; but also because his encounter with Google was, in his mind, less a meeting than an interview. And as the interview subject, he assumed he was “expected to do most the talking.”
This he did. One gets the sense that Assange had visualised in great detail his contribution to Schmidt’s and Cohen’s book before their arrival. “I consider the interview perhaps the best I have given,” he says, crediting his interviewers — Schmidt, Cohen, Lisa Shields (Schmidt’s partner at the time), and Scott Malcomson (a speechwriter and communications wonk) — with his command performance. But as an exercise of empire-building, Assange is outplayed, outmaneuvered in every way during the idyllic Google-chat, except perhaps in terms of honesty and honour.
When The New Digital Age appears two years later, in April, 2013, and he finds none of his world view in its pages, Assange would review the book for the New York Times. The result is a review as clear-sighted, articulate and awakening as anything the Times has published about the Internet — and Google — in many years.
Titled “The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil,’” the review eviscerates Google’s dysto-Gogolian vision; and rightly so. Publications such as The New Yorker and Slate, with the smarts and credibility to land a knock-out blow to such New Digital nonsense, delivered sycophantic softies or stayed out of the ring entirely behind disclaimers such as, “The editor of The New Yorker’s website is the co-founder of a company funded in part by Eric Schmidt;” or “Eric Schmidt is the chairman of the New American Foundation board. New America is a partner in Future Tense with Slate.”
Google must know a lot about the future of technology, the reviewers and talk show hosts so spinelessly conceded, because, well, Google owns the present. But if that’s the case, why did Assange know so much more about the Internet’s future than the Chairman of the Internet’s largest property?
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