This was mid-2011. Bitcoin had been operating for almost two years. As the meeting wore on, Schmidt and his comrades were treating Assange like an alien life form, a visitor from another galaxy with the secrets to the universe in his unfamiliar head:
Schmidt: I actually have like five hours more technical questions.
Malcomson: I know! Because it’s like one thing, and then there’s more.
Schmidt: How would you architect this, how would you architect that…?
Part of this excitement is flattery, of course. Cool business cajoling. They’re fuelling the storyteller’s fire (every storyteller needs a pourer of wine, as H.G. Wells discovered). But the tone is also one of camaraderie, philanthropy, shared interests. In fact, for all of Schmidt’s fogginess about such Internet drivers as TOR, BitCoin, hash-tree coding, phone-to-phone encryption (anything Google can’t seize control of), one feels that Google should be paying Assange a hefty consultancy fee, such is the value of the information received. Schmidt, however, is a businessman. If he knows the price of Assange’s brain, he also knows how to manipulate an exchange in his favour.
One piece of information Google did know more about than Assange was just how often — and for what reasons — the US government was requesting Google to provide information about its users. Particularly about Assange and WikiLeaks. Schmidt is cagey in reply: That would be illegal, he says. Assange rightly counters that the government requests are just as likely to be illegal under the First Amendment.
Schmidt considers. “So your specific request is that Google argue legally that Wikileaks…be informed if they are named in a FISA [request]?” asks Schmidt.
“Yes,” says Assange.
“Okay,” says Schmidt, ducking the authority of his own position, passing the proverbial buckhorn knife to the next player on the great American card-table of personal freedom. “I will pass that along [to our general counsel]. And we’ll see what comes back!”
Such a benign, sharp and quiet little technocrat, our Mr. Schmidt.
Julian Assange, by contrast, is heir to a long line of gifted, passionate, freely educated and well-intentioned young men — mostly men, it seems — who, in their ability to glimpse behind the veil of Empire, return as revolutionary intellectuals to share what they’ve discovered. Men like Iran’s Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, China’s Liang Quichao, men who’d once meet in the coffee houses of Paris, Tokyo, Calcutta to discuss the latest political theories and global affairs. Most importantly, they were as savvy as — even better versed in the workings of Empire — than the figures most central to imperial control. Gandhi knew his British law at least as well as Lord Mountbatten. The Australian-raised Assange not only freely traveled around the Internet in the late 1980s as part of his “ethical hacking” group, the “International Subversives,” but he was traversing the firewalls of the Pentagon, the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, Citibank, Lockheed Martin and many other citadels of international might.
What to do with such people? Invariably they are demonised. After the Chelsea Manning leak, arguably one of the most important leaks in modern history, a New York Times reporter described Assange as looking like a “bag lady.” Vogue described him as someone who clearly “hadn’t bathed in several days.” Another article in the Times, reminiscent of British ethnocentrism in its rule over India, insinuated that Assange didn’t know how to use a toilet.
Civilization vs. Savagery. New World vs. Old. The lines are drawn, the sides divided. Techies, according to the Internet powers, can be smart and clean and faithful; but “hackers” lack hygiene. Non-techies, meanwhile (most of whom today, by 1990s standards, would be considered technological wizards), are the innocent village farmers who must take a side, “with us or with the enemy,” or become extinct. Most of these civilians, of course – even the ones whose photos and friendships and once private affairs are feeding the profits of their rulers — will join the ranks of fashionable geekdom. They will praise social media sites like Facebook just as the 19th century Indian sycophant, Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, would have done:
“The most wonderful phenomenon the world has seen,” proclaimed Khan about the British Raj.
The scale of Google’s deception is so large that to challenge it is to feed our shared reality into a psychological shredder. There’s no question that Google was founded on massive copyright infringement; if its spiders could read the words “no index” in a robots.txt file, such creepy-crawlers could just as easily read the long-accepted copyright symbol “©,” which essentially means the same thing. But what authority, what lawyers, prosecutor, public representative at the time could have made the connection?By the time the issue of copyright infringement was legally questioned, Google had already benefited from the ruse, moving on to new, more profitable deceptions. Today the slightest slight-of-hand can bring Google tens of millions of dollars and influence just as many brains. Assange points to a very rare link Google placed on the sacred white turf of its homepage on September 10, 2012: “Live! Secretary Kerry answers questions on Syria. Today via Hangout at 2pm ET.” (View an archive of the page). To Assange, apart from advertising Google Hangouts, the link represented an unprecedented chumminess with the Obama administration. “The Obama administration was trying to drum up support for US airstrikes against Syria,” writes Assange, and Google was becoming one of the most powerful lobbying organisations in America, quickly surpassing such military contractors as Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas. Google had transitioned from flouting copyright law to helping shape the policies of government.
Such influence is brazen, ballsy, but overt and relatively easy to pinpoint. Google’s most sinister cheats, however — sinister for being so calculated — are usually obscured in the mundanities of interface design, a tweak to functionality, a change of terminology that would make a legislator’s head spin faster than Apple’s beachball of death. There’s the hard-to-find privacy setting; that extra click to completely log you out of Google (even after “signing out”). That hint, that hover, that piffling piece of policy. As with all empires, such bureaucratic arcana — hidden, overlooked, impossible to regulate — determines the course of history. The subjugation of our species is written in a print too fine for humans to comprehend.
Of course, it’s not just Google. Take the recent iOS 8.1 upgrade. The upgrade turns the Siri dictation feature — which previously translated voice to text — into a listening device. All voices carried into Apple’s iCloud. All voices feeding into the leviathan of a supposedly greater good (a more accurate and homogenised translator) that would send shivers through the bones of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham while tantalising the ghost of Immanuel Kant to blog a listical: “Seven categorical imperatives in the new digital age.” If we don’t agree to Apple’s terms, the function is denied us. Either accept the conditions of an artificial overlordship, or you wither into silence and isolation; the sacrificial ant amongst the onward marching colony of civilisation.
We’ve always suspected this would happen, machinery’s monarchy. What’s far more difficult to convey, what’s far more astonishing is the sheer triteness of the duplicity (for which Assange employs Arendt’s “banality”). It’s an alluring, playful, user-friendly, technical, yet genocidal gentility — as dangerous to our existence as even the most radical, carbon-coughing, school-invading, ebola-spitting terrorist group.