I want to talk a little about techno-political theories of change, and outline where the paths of Julian Assange and I diverged.
Although I don’t talk about it very much, I was a cypherpunk in the 1990s. I contributed a little to a software project to protect human rights workers in China. I collaborated with some individuals on a software project to build a Kiva-like microfinance engine on top of e-gold, and narrowly avoided getting entangled in a lot of legal badness when the project exploded. I’m going to return to that story in a minute, but let’s turn back to Julian Assange.
The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaptation.
Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.
Now there are two things you can infer from this, if you read between the lines.
- Some of the “leaked” material will actually be obtained by computer intrusion (hacking/cracking) and passed off as being leaked by insiders
- Assange’s model is fundamentally economic and logistical: it’s about transaction costs in a Coase/Benkler style.
WikiLeaks is acting as a marketplace for illicit information, literally a clearing house. This model, with its unconscious capitalist/economics language bias, is the key reason to doubt the long-term effectiveness of this strategy.
Here’s why: the “daylight” model of increasing the transaction costs for conspiracies against the people, in a manner which extends good journalistic practice for the digital age has a simple countermeasure: make security cheaper. By pushing up demand for secure communications, the price of supply goes down. Ah, you say, but leaks circumvent security: actually, no. Digitally tagging files by doing things like rearranging whitespace and swapping words around helps track documents so you know which person leaked. Similar approaches can be taken for images and video. Security isn’t just about stopping people from listening, it’s the whole spectrum of information assurance techniques.
All we’re doing is breeding better conspiracies.
There’s also good reason to believe that Assange simply picked the wrong target. There are a vast number of commercial conspiracies – cartels and industrial espionage being two really useful examples, plus omnipresent government corruption over civil contracting matters. Hitting these networks hard might actually have achieved a lot of popular support for wikileaks in the popular press, and the politically powerful middle class support base which actually decides elections might have come along for the ride. But doing stuff that makes it less likely for the western democracies to win wars makes everybody in those democracies uneasy, consciously or not, and leaves wikileaks politically and more importantly emotionally exposed. People just don’t like it. And it’s not just because Julian Assange is a zealot.
Now let’s consider the “nightside” model, in which we think of wikileaks as simply being a publishing front for computer crackers to launder stolen documents as more-legitimate leaks. By creating a single exchange point, they’ve created a point of regulation. Pushing down the cost of publishing a cracked document, and providing filtering to take out (say) the names of innocents involved in a situation also creates a new political bottleneck, which (of course) the authorities have chocked down on as hard as possible. The other argument is that wikileaks primary threat is not the governments of the west, but vastly more unscrupulous agencies (Mossad, the Chinese) who might find their own uses for an allegedly journalistic endeavour.
Economics thinking leads one astray when dealing with matters of political power.
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” – Mao Tse-tung
I was writing software to run cryptographic financial markets in the late part of the last millennium. I’d worked extensively with the e-gold guys, and started to do some real analysis on how to do something very, very interesting. I was thinking about low-cost financial instruments for sustainable development, and rapidly discovered that there was a very, very real risk that my work was going to wind up empowering mafias.
I got The Fear. I was an illegal immigrant writing software to build secure, anonymous, untraceable financial instruments on top of a dodgy digital currency run out of a south sea island banking system, and (worse) Florida. I slapped some sense into myself, and left the project behind, and cryptography with it. It just didn’t feel safe because I was already running one risk (being an illegal immigrant trying to find status to stay in the US) and I was breaking The Rules (1. only ever break one law at a time. 2. never break the law with somebody you don’t trust. 3. never break the law with somebody protected from the consequences. 4. don’t get caught. 5. never break the law with somebody dumber than you are. 6. cons con cons (aka “you cannot cheat an honest man.”), 7. never steal anything worth less than two years salary. 8. don’t do it for the thrill.)
These are the things you learn growing up on a Scottish housing estate in the 1980s.
So I quit crypto. Not being able to go to The State for help, if the situation I’d been in escalated to Men With Guns, left me with a clear understanding: I needed the State’s protection to be a full human being. Now, let me say that again: I needed the State’s protection to be a full human being.
This is the start of my divergence from the classical cyperpunk’s anti-State crypto-anarchist market capitalist stance. I realized that I needed them to protect me from the Mafia, because I saw just the very shady outline of the Mafia two or three handshakes out from where I was, in a position where I couldn’t get help without getting deported. If they’d gone from three handshakes away to one handshake away, I’d have had to make a decision: ask for help and lose my country, or go it alone and risk losing my life or worse.
It’s not until you get a sense of those situations yourself that your ethics become clear. But I realized that I needed the State.
Years later, I realized the State needed me. I did a biometrics technology package, aimed at situations like Iraq, which embodied many of the fundamental core cypherpunk principles (anonymity, cryptographic assurances of judicial process, cryptographic implementation of personal privacy) in a proposed biometric ID card standard. I was working for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, with oversight from the National Security Agency. I worked in the public domain, you can see the CheapID proposal here, and I considered myself to be doing good. The Pentagon have always supported the hexayurt project, they’ve always treated the concepts of appropriate technology with respect, and while none of that washes away the evil done, I’ve never seen the fanged end of the beast.
But I know it is there, and I tread carefully.
Recently I invented the Riot Snorkel in direct response to the abuse of pepper spray and cs gas for suppressing peaceful protest in America. In the long run, that might be a pretty harsh anti-State action, and I’m aware of the risk it’s going to get people hurt in the long run by depriving police of an effective first move in quashing protests. I took a calculated risk, and invested some of my political capital to draw a line in the sand: “you should not be doing this, and I’m standing up.” That’s a political step I made to frame a wider project: getting some of this radical political stuff implemented as the only realistic way of governing ourselves on the planet, given the failure of mainstream democracies to protect the environment, help the poor, or even stay at peace in times where no legitimate reason for war exist.
Understand: follow my engineering advice, and pepper spray and cs gas stop working. I didn’t put that out there without thinking through the risks at a political and personal level pretty carefully. I did it to protect democracy, in my own way, in my own time.
So this is where Assange and I part ways. He used an economic analysis, and came up with a way of making conspiracy expensive. I used a military use-of-force analysis, and came to the conclusion that I needed the State’s protection, and in fact we all do. As a result, I’m guardedly loyal to the State, and I want the best State possible. I’m absolutely enthusiastic about the A Thousand Nations approach of building some new countries with new governance arrangements and seeing what works (“a Cambrian explosion in governance!” as they say) but, in the here and now, we need Better States.
So here’s the model I use, parallel to Assange’s transaction costs model.
- Inside of government there’s a range of political and personal character, ranging from saintly to outright diabolical in a very literal “evil” sense.
- The good end of government tend to believe in things like open data, open government, rule of law, human rights and similar. It’s people a lot like you and me, but inside the State.
- By identifying the progressive incumbents, the best of the people seated at the Big Tables, and supporting them, we can produce better government.
- The critical periods are long-term conflicts about what to do on the biggest scale: wars, environment, civil rights etc. in which established factions form and fight for the framing of the problem of a given position.
- The critical actors are senior bureaucrats, not elected officials. Elected officials of any substantial power are all agents of satan by virtue of constantly having to lie to people and the media “or the other, even worse guy, will win.” This is corruption.
- Civil society – that’s you and me – can meaningfully contribute by effective support and cooperation to differentially empower progressive incumbents. We help the critical actors (senior bureaucrats) win critical conflicts during critical periods as a way of expressing our political power.
- Mostly what they need are good ideas and proof that doing the right thing will work. Civil society can produce these, possibly using Wikipedia-type Free approaches.
I wrote about this approach at considerable length in The Big Deal, a series of long blog posts analysing how civil society could push forwards a new settlement with government in critical areas to try and create a better world. I believe in this approach.
Now, here’s why I’m laying this approach out. Next year, I’m going after #Occupy. The current political culture inside of #Occupy is dangerously shallow. If we get large scale economic breakage, and Occupy goes from being 2,000 people in New York to being 200,000 people, if it becomes the army of the dispossessed, the Tyranny of Structurelessness is going to be an immense bane, as a lot of angry, frightened people get together in a non-democratic environment and attempt to figure out where to apply their political weight to get solutions. There’s a name for that: it’s called a mob. We can, and must, do better than first-past-the-post voting every four years for leaders pre-selected by political power elites and corporate-controlled media. But we must also do better than small groups of people waving their hands at each other at emotive appeals.
Two core virtues: voting, and written discourse. They go together: you can’t vote on a speech, or an improvised dialogue, because somebody may have made a mistake and now you’re voting on their mistake, not their intention. We need clear, written platforms, and political accountability for diverting from them. We’d all prefer CHANGE Obama to MORE OF THE SAME Obama, but there’s little framework for holding him to his own high standards.
Fighting, even winning, the war against narrow self interest is not the same thing as creating viable global solutions for the narrows that the human race finds itself in.
Support progressive incumbents.
Solve problems, don’t just yell at people.
Be ready to take responsibility, because The State does a lot of work for us, and it’s going bankrupt in many places.
Frontal assault is always going to get you bitten in the face. But we can change the world, as previous generations have, by skillful politics and picking both our horses and our battles with care.
As I said at the beginning, I went to the same school as Julian Assange, but we learned different lessons.
We can’t do this alone, and a counter-conspiracy is just another gang. It’s up to us to find a better, more inclusive, more whole way to address our global problems.
Because until the proposed settlement works for everybody with a veto, particularly a veto-by-violence, stuck we remain.
So that’s my game plan for next year. Thankless as the task might be, society as-a-whole is going to need a more politically sophisticated Occupy to take up the slack left by a limp press and a corrupt government. The outrage of the people needs to be both realistic and constructive, because if we tear down much more, there’s going to be nothing left. We don’t suffer from too much governance, we suffer from too little: no effective climate regulation, no effective nanobio risk regulation.
Imagine a bridge built from the more reasonable end of Occupy, right through to the strategy rooms of Whitehall and Washington DC. That’s my vision of 2012: get everybody around the same table, make them all say sorry to each other, and then get on with figuring out how to fix the world.