Jaron Lanier on Wikileaks

Paul Raven @ 22-12-2010

The Wikileaks story just keeps on rolling, but in defiance of the cliché it’s picking up a fair bit of moss as it goes. At the risk of repeating arguments made, well, pretty much everywhere (and to reiterate a point I made before), it’s quite possible to be supportive or generally approving of Wikileaks as a principle and as an organisation at the same time as thinking Julian Assange to be a serious douchebag who’s responding to the limelight like weeds to the springtime sun… though the caveat there is that most of what we’re hearing of Assange’s public statements is being filtered through other news organisations whose fondness for Wikileaks is less than complete. The truth remains obscure, in other words.

That said, it’s been interesting – and heartening – to watch the results of genuine grassroots action as regards the #MooreAndMe rape apologism campaigns; it’s a horrible way for it to have happened (and a horrible that it should even be necessary), but I can’t help but feel that there’s a good side to the way that discussion and criticism of mainstream cultural attitudes to rape have been brought out from the marginalised sidelines of feminism into highly visible layers of public discourse. Granted, it’s been rather like overturning a rotten log in a gloomy forest, but that’s the price of progress, I suppose; a societal problem can’t be fixed until society becomes conscious of it. Sunlight, disinfectant, you know the drill.

So to the tireless folk behind the #MooreAndMe hashtag, my utmost respect. As hard as it might be to believe for a regular reader of this site, there are times when I realise that the most helpful thing I can do is shut up and let people who really know what they’re talking about do their thing. Perhaps stepping back from the fight isn’t as useful as pitching in, but personal experience dictates that the greatest of harm can result from the best of intentions, and that one learns much more from listening than flapping one’s own uninformed lips.

But there’s one commentary link-out that needs to be made, and it’s to Jaron Lanier’s Wikileaks piece at The Atlantic. I’m by no means in complete agreement with it on a number of points, and there’s a slightly patronising “yeah, I was once naive enough to believe all that stuff, too, but I done growed up” undertone to it that grates somewhat… but of all the negative responses to Wikileaks I’ve read so far, it’s by far the most cognisant of the playing field it discusses, and the first that has really made me think hard about my own stance on the matter. It’s a long one, and not easy to yank quotes from while maintaining context, so just go read the whole thing… whether you’re for or against.

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13 Responses to “Jaron Lanier on Wikileaks”

  1. Jean-Marc Liotier says:

    I can’t stand Jaron Lanier… But since I like your blog I went to read this article. Mostly the same tripe as usual in my opinion : Lanier does no like large-scale complex systems with imperfect data and thriving automation – he longs for some mythical human-scale networks.

    That said, I do like this quote: “The flip side of responsibly held secrets, however, is trust” – I agree with that fully, but in my opinion it is not as incompatible with Wikileaks as Lanier says : the trust has been broken by the governments and Wikileaks is retaliation. Retaliation is a transitory state in reaction to another transitory state – I do not believe that anyone reasonable advocates leaks like this one to be permanent features, and those who pretend so are attacking a strawman.

    Citizen will keep entrusting their governments with secrecy, but they will also expose the dirt whenever they believe there is too much of it under the carpet.

  2. Wintermute says:

    I usually find myself in more agreement than disagreement with Jaron, but in this case, that norm is reversed.

    There’s some deep sea change of tone in this piece which I can’t place, it’s like he’s retrofitting his usual modality a bit too much in order to be relevant to the news of the day and ends up coming off less insightful and oversightful than usual.

    I mean he’s talking about governments and corporations like the US and Mastercard, Paypal, Amazon, etc. as if these entities are poor powerless victims, and Assange and The Digital Horde of Anonymous Hackers are “pinning them down with their (digital) body weight” and having their way with them.

    I have to say, f*** that. Governments and corporations have been royally f***ing us over, largely through their *abuse* of the *privelege* of secrecy, or have we already forgotten that we went to war on government manufactured false premises, that we and our childrens children have been robbed blind by *shadow banks* and not transparency but *opacity* in financial markets? Climate change? Poverty? Secrecy, lying, and disinformation has become a global dire cancer on the planet, and Wikileaks is not some all consuming flood destroying the “sensitive membranes” protecting the weak institutions of government and corporations, Wikileaks is a hard-fought drop in the bucket against the eldritch Cthulu-esque nightmares of the shadow-reality that conspire to turn our planet into a burning, flattened, crowded Sisyphia.

    And Jaron is starting to create his own make believe dichotomy here with the “nerd supremecy” movement as if it is some sort of immovable and Godwin Law invoking force. He’s getting caught up in the marketing label called cyberpunk’s hacker ethos, constructed by the news media and movies as the 1980’s anti-system brash and bratty immature punk, pulling wires in the system for teh juvenile schadenfreude. The truth is, most hackers nowadays are not all snotty little kids, and especially the really serious professionals who bring down countries like Estonia or break into Google. Let’s not kid ourselves: all corporations and governments have their own hackers and cyberwarriors constantly doing battle with each other on the mapless battlefield of cyberspace. And if they don’t have a cyber warfare division, they can always rent a digital Black Water, *especially* banks who have all the money to do so. Assange and Zuckerberg both are adept at using computers and were both finalists for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year but that’s about where the similarities end. One is using his skills to make a ton of money by auctioning off your personal info and/or try to be the Millenial’s sequel to Citizen Kane, the other is trying to do what every good journalist and every good citizen *should* aspire to; keep the plutocracies/oligopolies of the world honest by bringing the truth to light where is an excess of secrecy. The irony is we have to go to Australia to find someone with the balls to do it, for all this talk of the “land of the free and home of the brave”.

    My main gripe with Jaron is for all his 60’s nostalgia attacking (which is totally warranted), he often tends to talk in these abstract Peace Love and Digital Harmony tropes, which are good ideas, but end up coming off almost as unrealistic as the ideas he disagrees with. For example, he argues against the actions of Wikileaks by saying essentially, “But what if everything was open. There would be no structure!” The thing is, things are already almost totally open but it’s a one-way mirror panopticon. Facebook, Google, and the CIA Google works with already knows where you are and what flavor of yogurt you ate for breakfast. The Too Big To Be Indicted banks with their insider trading, privileged info and master-node algorithms *already* know what the ponzi wealth-escalation machine known as the stock market is going to look like in the next minute, hour, day, week, and gobble up naive hopeful investors and 401ks for breakfast. The answer is not to sit around in a drum circle, sing kumbaya in nonviolent protest and wait for corporations, banks, and the government to stop spying on us and hording their own info to their chest like the RIAA to copyrights. No, what we need to do is break down the mirror and pull the bastards through their own looking glass out into the open for all the world to see.

  3. Paulo says:

    I do agree with most of what you say Wintermute, the truth should come out even if it hurts, so I do feel that Wikileaks and Assange are paying the price for having the audacity to defy governments (even if, most of what’s come out, wasn’t exactly groundbreaking revelations).
    But, releasing location of American airbases seems to be going a bit too far though

  4. gmoke says:

    Bruce Sterling on wikileaks: http://www.webstock.org.nz/blog/2010/the-blast-shack/

    Lotsa food for thought here and very well written. Pope/Emperor Bruce sure do love to gab, even though he ain’t too happy here.

  5. jt says:
  6. Wintermute says:

    It’s interesting how Bruce uses permutations of the phrase, “I know lots of people like X” a million times, like a teenager namedropping people he’s Googling up on his iPhone in a desperate attempt to seem “cool” and “better” than the crowd. While at the same time he is constantly declaritively generalizing hackers as “sociopaths”, and explaining the psychology of Assange and Manning as if he is their therapist or they are characters in his third-person omniscient narrator fiction, when he obviously hasn’t met them and it appears his knowledge of them is limited to a few articles with the #wikileaks hash tag. Frankly I take a little offense to that.

    Among other inaccuracies, Assange didn’t hack anything here; he simply organized a website that publishes leaks revealed by anonymous parties, and does what journalists (Bruce has a degree in this) are supposed to do: reveal the truth. To frame him as a “hacker” is to fit him into the character mold of a pre-determined science fiction story or recycled cyberpunk manifesto.

  7. werwolf says:

    lanier is being conservative and apologetic in his piece.

    even if we assume that wikileaks and assange made many mistakes in how they released their information and which stance they took (and i certainly think that they made heaps of mistakes), this is no longer the point at all.

    lanier writes: “If the secret is about something of vital interest to other people, then secrets can be kept by those who are sanctioned and accountable to keep them within the bounds of a reasonably functional democratic process.”

    and this is where the real problem is hidden: those who THE PEOPLE have sanctioned and are supposed to be accountable for this secrecy are being questioned. which should be right within the boundaries of any “reasonably functional democratic process”. but instead of owning up and facing the people who gave them power in the first place, the government reacts with a brutish “none of your damn business”. and this must not stand.

    my personal interpretation of lanier’s piece is that he is holding the view that the government was given power and now may use that power and we should better well adjust to it. yeah, he’s right, cloak & dagger and bandit romanticism isn’t going to help us along one bit, but transparency of governmental power structures is an entiere different matter. that discussion shouldn’t be dismissed as lanier is trying to.

  8. jt says:

    Wintermute: Even though Assange himself didn’t jack into the Metaverse and write code and brute force passwords, etc. I think it’s still valid (though definitely arguable both way) to consider Wikileaks a hacking organization. It’s just more social hacking than techno hacking.

  9. Wintermute says:

    If that’s true then every journalist and organization at all involved in publishing leaked facts is a hacker. The New York Times are a bunch of hackers. The Guardian is run by hackers. I’d say that’s a stretch to begin with. And Bruce qualifies it as *computer* hacker repeatedly, so I’d say that’s pretty thin.

    Certainly that’s not what Bruce appears to mean in the context of his rant, continually making Assange out to be some kind of cyberpunk anti-hero Neo figure taking it to “The System” with his amazing computer hacker skillz, comparing him to science fictional tropes like the Black Net, etc. And then calling Manning one of “them ‘cracker’, ‘darkside hacker’, computer underground’ types” because he burnt a CD.

    Apparently every nine year old who has ever made a mix CD or transferred a file to their iPod is suddenly a ‘dyed in the wool 1337 badass anarcho-darkside computer hacker’. Uh huh.

  10. c3 says:

    Yes growing up and realizing comics are targeted for a 10-21 year olds world view is important. When one takes that POV and attempts to inject it into the realworld, one gets the damage being done today by geek wanna be Luthors and Dark Knights.
    The future since 2001 has been just making movies based on scifi comics written in the 1960s…and making the bad buys, cool.
    That’s the lesson Lanier didnt get for the first half of his tech life… and Sterling?. Hes lost in his words…hearing them- while 99% of the geeks he speaks to at paid tech conferences never read his novels, but saw over 40 versions of youtube geek fan edits of Star Wars, The Phantom Ethics, the Computer EFX.

    we are what we eat.

  11. constance f. iker says:

    For me, what’s important in this is the power of the net in the mediascape… it’s shown the ripples it can make in the old print media world – and they amount to a tsunami. I agree with Sterling this is black net only not as we imagined it. The worm jar is open and this will continue; albeit now governments will be working overtime to stem the copycats. And there will be plenty of contenders.

    Assange (and the wikileaks backroom – blackroom?) only did what journalists have always done. However, they didn’t used the established method. And this is their shame…? The internet is still in it’s infancy – roads, trains, water systems… and this is it’s first real appearance. As a truth serum?

    If they had been smarter… anonymity, possibly.

    At the end of the day, and journalists very rarely have one of these, this is what your government thinks… why don’t you want to know?

  12. Chris Grayson says:

    I’m not going to chime in on this subject yet again, only that:
    “…it’s quite possible to be supportive or generally approving of Wikileaks as a principle and as an organisation at the same time as thinking Julian Assange to be a serious douchebag who’s responding to the limelight like weeds to the springtime sun…”

    In a nutshell.

  13. Cat says:

    Hello Paul – my response comes about 2 months too late. I blame my occasional hermitage from the world.

    I’m more than half way through Jaron Lanier’s book and I think he presents very clear arguments about the unpleasant direction of technology. His seemingly patronizing tone in the article you linked can be bypassed. His point is very coherent and well-intentioned. While I don’t wholeheartedly agree with him – I quite respect him for his willingness to listen to opposing views.

    I found you because as I was reading I just stopped in the middle and thought “I wonder what this guy thinks of the Wikileaks fiasco” and voila – found that he had written an article, thanks to you. So thanks for that!