I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the whole Wikileaks thing these past few weeks, like a lot of people who belong to my particular sub-set of the human population. (First World, technology-oriented, somewhat politically minded. White as a goddamn ghost.)
I’m massively ambiguous about the whole affair, which has earned me my fair share of sneering and disbelieving virtual glares from my friends and fellow travelers. (I use that term in the most ironic way possible.) My own ambiguity surprises me, because in theory this is the sort of thing I’ve been wanting to see happen for most of my life. I’ve always been a card-carrying dyed-in-the-wool cyberpunk type; even though I’ve disagreed with the EFF on issues involving digital music, I support them with all my heart (and occasionally, when I can afford it, my wallet). Transparency in government is something I’m a fervent believer in.
So why does this whole thing make me uneasy?
I think it’s tied into a lot of the reservations I’ve been feeling, for a long time now, about the hacker culture in general. Not the “get excited and write code” part of hacker culture, which I find deeply meaningful and valuable to humanity as a whole, even if some of the participants can be deeply tedious party guests. But there’s also a flip side to the cleverness and ingenuity of hacker culture; a deep arrogance and near-sociopathology.
In America at least, there’s a big crossover between the hacker and libertarian communities. Though I was at one point in my late teens registered as a libertarian — mainly because they were the political party least likely to send me irritating snail mail — I’ve come to have a deep distaste for libertarianism. These days, I tend to believe that European Union-style socialist democracy is probably the most humane economic and political system we’ve got. I might be wrong on that…but I don’t believe that American capitalism works, and I’ve come to abhor the notion of a world ruled entirely by capitalism, oligarchy and the Grim Meathook Future of a totally free market.
A lot of hackers I know personally are basically heavy libertarian types. They hate the government, they hate taxes. They’re smart and very capable of taking care of themselves and don’t have a lot of time for people who don’t. They seem to apply the same sneering contempt to poor people that they do to clueless Windows users; it’s that same sense of superiority to those who haven’t figured out how to hack the system. Most of them are only political in as far as privacy and tax issues are concerned. I’m not saying all hackers are like this…but this archetype certainly covers a fair number of the ones I know, and I know quite a lot of them.
(Even though I write code professionally, I don’t consider myself a hacker, because I’m not interested in code or systems or exploits for their own sake. There’s not really a name for what I am — somebody who thinks about lots of different things and then talks about them or tries to make them happen in a variety of media. “Dilettante” is probably le mot juste.)
Another trait of a lot of hackers I know is an unwillingness to concern themselves with the long-term ramifications of what they do. Their primary motivation is boredom and a desire to be very clever. Which is a great motivator for smart people…but when you’ve got the keys (or lock picks) to a lot of kingdoms, a lack of foresight can cause some very serious problems in the real world. Being capable of hacking into credit card companies and getting millions of card numbers and personal identification information for people is a really cool skill…but putting it out into the world can cause some really serious harm to people who, unlike the credit card companies, don’t even deserve it in theory.
The Gawker thing is a perfect example. When Anonymous (or whatever subset of Anonymous) hacked into Gawker and put the user logins and passwords up for display, the first people who dived for that information were spammers, who used it to log into people’s Facebook accounts and email and send massive amounts of penis enlargement spam and other weird nonsense — for their own monetary gain, of course. (Happened to me, which is why I’m never, ever going to comment on a blog again.) It was an inconvenience at worst, but the point remains: the collateral damage wasn’t done to Gawker, it was done to people whose chief crime was wanting to respond to a post about the Doctor Who Christmas special or to tell other like-minded people what their favorite note-taking app for the iPhone was.
That complete lack of interest in the damage inflicted upon innocent bystanders is psychopathic. It’s putting one’s own political or personal ideology, or simple desire to feel like God, above the well-being of others. It is, in fact, precisely the sort of thing that people despise about corporations and governments in the first place.
But most of the hackers I know winked and tut-tutted at the whole thing, or the Anonymous attacks on Visa and MasterCard and Paypal. Because, really, anybody stupid enough to use the same password for all their accounts — or to use credit or debit or online payment systems — really deserved what they got, right?
The same way a woman who’s assaulted while walking down the street dressed provocatively deserves what she gets, for being so stupid, right?
Which brings us back to Wikileaks, in a roundabout way. The debate over the sexual assault case against Julian Assange has become incredibly tedious to me. I don’t know if he raped or assaulted those two women, and neither do you. I do find the reaction of the Swedish authorities and Interpol to be a bit unlikely, at the very least: I can’t think of any other occasion when Interpol put an APB out on someone accused — not convicted — of sexual assault. Whether the charges were politically motivated or not, the response very obviously is.
But as for the charges themselves, I care as much as I care about any other investigation into assault charges involving people I don’t know, which is not a whole hell of a lot. Sorry. If it happened the way the women say it did, Assange needs to answer for it. If not, he should walk. That’s the level of my concern and care now. The hysteria on every side of that debate (feminist, anti-feminist, conspiracist) has just become horrible noise.
For the record, here’s what I believe about Wikileaks:
1) I don’t think they’re journalists, in the traditional sense. There’s no journalism going on; just massive data dumping. Redacting things isn’t the same as verifying material, putting it into perspective; all the things traditional journalists would do. (Snarky prick alert: Nor do I think that traditional journalism is just “Old Media” and totally lame and the past, and that Wikileaks is the “new way” and totally awesome and the future, and if you do I don’t care, because I’ve walked every side of that particular fence and I know every inch of it by feel and smell and I doubt you do, so be quiet. That debate is deeply nuanced and it’s not played out yet.)
2) I absolutely, utterly, completely believe that the American government has no right to prosecute Julian Assange or to attack Wikileaks in any way. He’s not an American citizen and he does not fall under American jurisdiction. Even if he was, it’s fairly clear he would fall under First Amendment and whistleblower protection, the same way that Daniel Ellsberg was when he gave out the Pentagon Papers. It would also be a grievous moral act on my government’s part…not that anybody seems to care about that anymore.
3) I believe that what Wikileaks has done with the Afghanistan information and with these diplomatic cables is not going to make the American government more transparent in its dealings with its citizens or with other nations. It’s going to have the opposite effect: it’s going to make people who are already paranoid about information leakage a lot more paranoid. And I don’t like the idea of hyper-paranoid people with their finger on the metaphorical button or buttons.
4) I don’t believe that Assange gave one nimble rat’s fuck about the collateral damage he might cause by releasing this information, any more than the Anonymous hackers who’ve been hacking into things in his name did about the damage they might cause. Assange strikes me as a rather archetypal sociopathic black-hat hacker type. I’ve debated other people who are involved in Wikileaks, and it’s my impression that several of them are precisely the kind of libertarian hackers I’ve been talking about; from everything I’ve seen, so is Assange. I could be wrong about that, but based on the evidence I’ve seen, that’s my guess.
I’m also bemused by the sheer hypocrisy that is being shown by every player in this affair. Assange wants transparency but gets outraged when somebody leaks details of his sexual assault case to the Guardian; Anonymous wants to tear down the walls of the secret-keepers, but do so from behind their own obscuring wall of anonymity; the hacker community that is so vocally supporting Assange’s attack upon secrecy are the same people who routinely also bitch about the government spying on them and searching them at airports and trying to make them, as private citizens and as business operators, pay their full share of taxes. I’m a big believer in consistency of thought and action: you can’t have it both ways, kids. You want an end to secrecy, fine; but that means your secrets can be spilled too.
Do I ultimately think Wikileaks is a good thing? Yes. And no. Both. Either way, I think it’s a Pandora’s box that has been irrevocably opened. Things are going to change because of this; the whole notion of privacy and secrecy is going to be turned upside down, not just for governments but for all of us. I also think this is the beginning of a new era of net warfare, played out between governments and NGOs and groups that don’t even have memberships or know who they themselves are, like Anonymous. I think the main outcome is going to be that living online is going to get a whole lot more irritating.
And I’d like to believe that, just like with the mythical Pandora’s box, hope still lies somewhere at the bottom of all of this.
(For further reading, Big Bruce Sterling‘s thoughts on all this.)