Assange essay reveals motivation behind Wikileaks

Paul Raven @ 01-12-2010

Yup, still talking about Wikileaks; even if the content of the leaks is boring you, their existence is one of the biggest sociopolitical stories of the moment, and as such it’s gonna be a while before I stop thinking about them. So here’s a link for those who’ve asked “what’s this Assange character’s motivation, anyway?”, via the double-Boing; Assange wrote an essay in 2006 entitled “State and Terrorist Conspiracies” [PDF link].

It’s the sort of document I’m going to need to spend some time with before I can offer my own opinions on it, but I’m immediately getting serious harmonic chiming with a lot of my own (admittedly far less thoroughly baked) theories on the-state-as-sytem. In the meantime, it is analysed in detail at ZunguZungu, offering an insight into the philosophies that inform Assange’s projects.

[Assange’s] model for imagining the conspiracy, then, is not at all the cliché that people mean when they sneer at someone for being a “conspiracy theorist.” After all, most the “conspiracies” we’re familiar with are pure fantasies, and because the “Elders of Zion” or James Bond’s SPECTRE have never existed, their nonexistence becomes a cudgel for beating on people that would ever use the term or the concept. For Assange, by contrast, a conspiracy is something fairly banal, simply any network of associates who act in concert by hiding their concerted association from outsiders, an authority that proceeds by preventing its activities from being visible enough to provoke counter-reaction. It might be something as dramatic as a loose coalition of conspirators working to start a war with Iraq/n, or it might simply be the banal, everyday deceptions and conspiracies of normal diplomatic procedure.

[…]

He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s  information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire…

[…]

Because we all basically know that the US state — like all states — is basically doing a lot of basically shady things basically all the time, simply revealing the specific ways they are doing these shady things will not be, in and of itself, a necessarily good thing. In some cases, it may be a bad thing, and in many cases, the provisional good it may do will be limited in scope. The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets. The point of Wikileaks — as Assange argues — is simply to make Wikileaks unnecessary.

And as an added bonus (not to mention yet another reason for any right-leaning pro-nation types still reading to write me off as a mad raving lefty pinko), here’s arch-academic Noam Chomsky pointing out that the most interesting thing about the Cablegate material is the subtext [via BigThink]:

… the main significance of the cables that are being released so far is what they tell us about Western leadership. So Hillary Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu surely know of the careful polls of Arab public opinion. The Brookings Institute just a few months ago released extensive polls of what Arabs think about Iran. The results are rather striking. They show the Arab opinion holds that the major threat in the region is Israel — that’s 80. The second major threat is the United States — that’s 77. Iran is listed as a threat by 10%.

With regard to nuclear weapons, rather remarkably, a majority — in fact, 57 – say that the region would have a positive effect in the region if Iran had nuclear weapons. Now, these are not small numbers. 80, 77, say the U.S. and Israel are the major threat. 10 say Iran is the major threat. This may not be reported in the newspapers here — it is in England — but it’s certainly familiar to the Israeli and U.S. governments, and to the ambassadors. But there is not a word about it anywhere. What that reveals is the profound hatred for democracy on the part of our political leadership and the Israeli political leadership. These things aren’t even to be mentioned. This seeps its way all through the diplomatic service. The cables to not have any indication of that.

When they talk about Arabs, they mean the Arab dictators, not the population, which is overwhelmingly opposed to the conclusions that the analysts here — Clinton and the media — have drawn. There’s also a minor problem; that’s the major problem. The minor problem is that we don’t know from the cables what the Arab leaders think and say. We know what was selected from the range of what they say. So there is a filtering process. We don’t know how much it distorts the information. But there is no question that what is a radical distortion is — or, not even a distortion, a reflection — of the concern that the dictators are what matter. The population does not matter, even if it’s overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. policy.

Cue lots more stuff about Israel/Palestine… you can say what you like about Chomsky, but at least the guy’s consistent, AMIRITES? 😉

But this all kind of underlines the point I’ve been trying to make about Wikileaks-as-phenomenon, which is to say that waving it off as “an attempt to embarrass the United States” is to engage in exactly the same myopic narcissism that it’s trying to destroy. Whether you think destroying that narcissism is a good thing is different question entirely, of course…


Free speech or frank speech? A Wikileaks counterpoint

Paul Raven @ 30-11-2010

Via Tobias Buckell, here’s a piece by Anne Applebaum at Slate that deflates some of the more optimistic rhetoric around Wikileaks, Cablegate and all that:

This is certainly embarrassing for those who made the remarks. I am less sure whether their revelation gets us anywhere: On the contrary, it seems that in the name of “free speech” another blow has been struck against frank speech. Yet more ammunition has been given to those who favor greater circumspection, greater political correctness, and greater hypocrisy.

Don’t expect better government from these revelations, expect deeper secrets. Will the U.S. ambassador to Country X give Washington a frank assessment of the president of X if he knows it could appear in tomorrow’s newspaper? Not very likely. Will a foreign leader tell any U.S. diplomat what he really thinks about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if he knows it might show up on WikiLeaks? I doubt it. Diplomatic cables will presumably now go the way of snail mail: Oral communication will replace writing, as even off-the-record chats now have to take place outdoors, in the presence of heavy traffic, just in case anyone is listening.

Hmmm. I see where that’s going – a forced return to state diplomacy of the old school – but I’m not sure it’s necessarily a bad direction. Secrets are inevitable; it’s the nigh-industrial scale of confidential information exchange that will suffer from diplomatic paranoia, rather than confidentiality itself, and I remain to be convinced that a world with less backroom dealing wouldn’t be a better one for everyone other than the backroom dealers.

However, Applebaum’s point about Wikileaks’ choices of targets is harder to pick holes in:

… the world’s real secrets—the secrets of regimes where there is no free speech and tight control on all information—have yet to be revealed. This stuff is awkward and embarrassing, but it doesn’t fundamentally change very much. How about a leak of Chinese diplomatic documents? Or Russian military cables? How about some stuff we don’t actually know, like Iranian discussion of Iranian nuclear weapons, or North Korean plans for invasion of South Korea Korea? If WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange is serious about his pursuit of “Internet openness”—and if his goal isn’t, in fact, embarrassing the United States—that’s where he’ll look next. Somehow, I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t.

I get the feeling that Assange and company would happily leak stuff from totalitarian regimes*, but it’s probably harder to come by; the great advantage of being a dissenter in a democracy – however flawed a democracy it may be – is that you’re less likely to pay the ultimate cost for your dissent. Indeed, you could probably argue that leaking Western secrets may encourage dissenters in totalitarian regimes to leak in sympathy… but I’m not sure that would hold a lot of water.

Perhaps it’s just that totalitarian nation-states are better at keeping their secrets… or simply shrewd enough to not let hundreds of thousands of people have access to a “secret” electronic network of diplomatic communications. Whether pointing out the dangers and consequences of global-scale hubris also counts as “embarrassing the United States” is left as an exercise for the reader. 😉

[ * At times like this I have to remind myself that Assange is as much a political animal as those he’s trying to unsettle. As a dissident of sorts myself, I want to believe what he says at face value… and that’s probably the best reason for me not to do so. Trust in nothing, beware of strangers bearing gifts, etc etc. ]


Cablegate: the morning after

Paul Raven @ 29-11-2010

Well, here we are: no one yet dead as a result of the latest WikiLeaks release, so far as I can tell, but a lot of egg on political faces. I remarked to a friend on Saturday that it’d probably contain depressing proofs of things we’d long suspected, and it looks like I wasn’t far off the mark… though that’s hardly an act of staggering insight and prescience on my part.

I’m going to leave the punditry and predictions to the professionals (or at least those with far more of the pertinent specialist knowledge than myself), but the one thing I’ll assert without any hesitation is that, while it may cause friction and difficulty in the political short- and medium-term, this leak – and others like it, past and future – is a good thing for us, the people of the world. Sure, nothing’s going to change overnight, and the removal of the public facades of diplomacy from the theatres of contemporary conflicts – be they physical, ideological, economic or all three – will certainly make things more difficult for all parties involved in them… but maybe that’ll mean said parties are less willing to start such conflicts in the first place.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” in other words. But what do you lot think?


Who are Foundation X, and why do they want to buy out the UK government?

Paul Raven @ 04-11-2010

Chances are good you’ve seen this already, but for those of you who haven’t, well, it really needs to be seen.

We can thank Charlie Stross for spotting it while trawling through Hansard, the official transcript publication of the proceedings of the UK Houses Of Parliament; depending on just how conspiracy-theory minded you are, it’s either an astonishing revelation about an unnamed and extremely wealthy organisation (such as, hypothetically speaking, The Vatican) offering to buy out debt-beleaguered Britain with a no-strings-attached cash donation of stupendous size, or an obscure back-bench peer of the House Of Lords with something of a history for rambling non sequiteurs having what we might politely and euphemistically refer to as a very public “senior moment”.

Just go read the whole thing, seriously; if it was sourced from anywhere other than Hansard, you’d have to dismiss it as a missing (and suspiciously well-written) Dan Brown chapter. It’s gonna be providing novelists with a high-grade Jonbar Point for years to come.

Additional: Justin Pickard picks out a comment from the thread on Charlie’s post which suggests mashing up textual analysis software with the government transparency project They Work For You to allow real-time assessment of the sanity of our elected and non-elected representatives. An interesting and strangely plausible project, but one whose result would probably bear more bad news than we really need at this precise moment in time…


Speculative direct democracy: the cybernetic tax-allocation feedback loop

Paul Raven @ 07-10-2010

Here’s a really interesting thought-experiment from Adam Rothstein, riffing off the no-fee-no-fire-brigade story and the receipt-for-your-taxes idea. I’ll let him explain rather than attempt to paraphrase:

What if after seeing this receipt, taxpayers were allowed to shift where their taxes went? Say, less Pell grants, and more to the war in Afghanistan, if that was their priority. Or less war, and more highways. Of course this would affect their service. The service only gets what the individual public thinks it deserves from their contribution to the tax coffers. It would be easier to go all Henry Thoreau on a war a hemisphere away then it would on, say, your local fire service, because there are fewer people contributing to your local fire bureau than paying national taxes, and you’d see the effect of the latter right away, the former only later. But hey, open it up. Let people pay their share of what they think it important. Let’s think about what would happen, if people could actually control where the money was going.

Other than finally letting individuals control their tax dollars, what this would eventually create is a massive, cybernetic feedback loop. Let’s say you opened up a website with UI controls, so you could adjust your proportional tax payment anytime you wanted, adjustable down to hourly segments of your fiscal year total. (I am assuming you must still pay your full total, you can just allocate the percentages. Otherwise, everyone would obviously opt to pay nothing at all.) And this site updates. So after it first launches, we see (and I am just guessing here) payment for education and arts decrease, and military spending increases. After a few hours of people allocating their own taxes, education and arts are almost at zero. But then what happens as people see these changes? Maybe someone who originally allocated 75% military/25% education, on seeing education spending slide nationally to nothing, decides to allocate 100% education to make up for the difference. How many people do this? Enough to counter the childless militants? What sort of equilibrium is reached? Is an equilibrium reached?

Now imagine, after they open up the API of this system (naturally), third-party algorithms are introduced. Want to help the budget reach 25% for education nationally? Install this add-on, and it will auto-adjust you and everyone else using the add-on in a unified front to make this goal a reality (while protecting your personal data, of course). Or maybe you set it to automatically devote up to 100% of your individual taxes to education, unless highways dip below 5%, and then it re-figures your totals according to your preference. Or, download the Democratic Party algorithm, which will automatically adjust your percentages to match the national tax distribution platform of the party. Download the Support our Troops algorithm, which helps the Veterans and Military budgets maintain a certain consistent ratio to the overall budget depending on how many troops are currently on active duty. Pledge to Support the Dollar, by downloading the FOMC algorithm that will adjust internal infrastructure spending and national debt spending in such a way as to drive the strength of the dollar world-wide. How about an algorithm that scans the news for stories of political scandal, reducing the money allocated to congressional salaries every time there is another ethics violation? Too many fires in your district last month? The Google Map Fire Layer-aware algorithm will automatically up your fire services percentage by an appropriate amount.

Now what would be REALLY REALLY interesting: what sort of equilibrium is achieved, and how far off is it the current balance as it now, without this sci-fi direct democracy scheme? After all the algorithms are factored in, and all the feedback to the results of the algorithms are calculated and re-factored… are we actually any different than where we are now? Is our national desired budget, summed from all the diverse opinion about where we ought to be spending money, really any different from reality? If we let one person tweak the budget, they’d do all sorts of different things. But if everyone’s opinion and rate of pay were weighted together, I’d say it’s a fair bet that we’d end up exactly where we are.

[…]

Is it possible that as bankrupt and backwards as our democracy is, that it actually functions perfectly at doing what it is supposed to do? This function: to obfuscate and abstract our own lack of knowledge and ability, to direct our attention away from our responsibility for our own egos. And is it possible that the government, by echoing the non-sensical desires and demands of a populace that is as fickle as a television programming schedule, is already the representative compass of a society that is ready and willing to sprint directly towards oblivion? This society that would rather wage war across the globe than put out the fires in our neighbors homes, and fix the gas lines underneath our own feet.

Provocative stuff, and no mistake; much like Rothstein, I’d love to see the results of an experimental run of a system like this, though I’m perhaps a trifle more optimistic about the results we might see, especially if there were a good degree of local granularity involved.


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