The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks

The degree of sympathy in tech circles for both Wikileaks and Anonymous has surprised me. The most common take seems to be that the world needs cyber-pranksters to keep old-school centers of power, like governments and big companies, in check. Cyber-activists are perceived to be the underdogs, flawed and annoying, perhaps, but standing up to overbearing power.

It doesn't seem so to me. I actually take seriously the idea that the Internet can make non-traditional techie actors powerful.1 Therefore, I am less sympathetic to hackers when they use their newfound power arrogantly and non-constructively.

This is an interesting difference in perception. How can you tell when you are the underdog versus when you are powerful? When you get that perception wrong, you can behave quite badly quite easily.2

A version of this story first appeared in the German magazine Focus.

Every revolutionary these days must post a video online. So the group Anonymous, which avenged the perceived enemies of Wikileaks by ganging up on sites like MasterCard and PayPal, released theirs, a scratchy cyberpunk scrawl. In it, a digitized announcer condemns the attacked companies for the "crime of cutting people off from the global brain."  This might seem like an odd bit of propaganda for those who aren't familiar with the world of nerd supremacy.

The ideology that drives a lot of the online world -- not just Wikileaks but also mainstream sites like Facebook -- is the idea that information in sufficiently large quantity automatically becomes Truth. For extremists, this means that the Internet is coming alive as a new, singular, global, post-human, superior life form. For more moderate sympathizers, if information is truth, and the truth will set you free, then adding more information to the Internet automatically makes the world better and people freer.

The one exception to be carved out is that technically skilled programmers are celebrated for erecting digital privacy curtains around themselves. Thus we didn't necessarily get to know where Mr. Assange was at a given moment, before his detention on rape-related charges, or what Facebook or Google know about you.

But leaving hypocrisy aside, is there something to the idea? If the number of secrets falls with each passing minute and gradually approaches zero, what does that do to the world? Would a world without secrets be fairer, or more compassionate? More efficient? Does it matter if some secrets are revealed before others?

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It is often the case that microstructure influences macrostructure. In the case of digital systems, where the microstructure is bits that are either completely on or completely off, it is easiest to build big things that tend to peg completely one way or another. You can easily be completely anonymous online, or utterly revealed, but it is hard to find an in-between spot. 

The strategy of Wikileaks, as explained in an essay by Julian Assange, is to make the world transparent, so that closed organizations are disabled, and open ones aren't hurt. But he's wrong. Actually, a free flow of digital information enables two diametrically opposed patterns:  low-commitment anarchy on the one hand and absolute secrecy married to total ambition on the other.

While many individuals in Wikileaks would probably protest that they don't personally advocate radical ideas about transparency for everybody but hackers, architecture can force all our hands. This is exactly what happens in current online culture. Either everything is utterly out in the open, like a music file copied a thousand times or a light weight hagiography on Facebook, or it is perfectly protected, like the commercially valuable dossiers on each of us held by Facebook or the files saved for blackmail by Wikileaks.

The Wikileaks method punishes a nation -- or any human undertaking -- that falls short of absolute, total transparency, which is all human undertakings, but perversely rewards an absolute lack of transparency. Thus an iron-shut government doesn't have leaks to the site, but a mostly-open government does.

If the political world becomes a mirror of the Internet as we know it today, then the world will be restructured around opaque, digitally delineated power centers surrounded by a sea of chaotic, underachieving openness. Wikileaks is one prototype of a digital power center, but others include hedge funds and social networking sites.

This is the world we are headed to, it seems, since people are unable to resist becoming organized according to the digital architectures that connect us. The only way out is to change the architecture.

The Internet as it is, which supports the abilities of Anonymous and Wikileaks, is an outgrowth of a particular design history which was influenced in equal degrees by 1960s romanticism and cold war paranoia. It aligned the two poles of the bit to these two archetypal dramas. But the poles of the bit can be aligned with other things.  The Internet can and must be redesigned to reflect a more moderate and realistically human-centered philosophy.

Assange sees information as an abstract free-standing thing. Differences in perspective and circumstance mean nothing. This is how nerd supremacists think.

It is possible for tiny actions to occasionally have huge consequences on the Internet -- like the creation of a Facebook or a Wikileaks by tiny teams -- because many thousands of people over decades set up the underlying structure of that seeming magic trick.

It seems to cost nothing to send an email, so we spend billions of dollars on spam. The existing Internet design is centered on creating the illusion of no-cost effort. But there is no such thing. It's an illusion born of the idylls of youth, and leads to a distorted perception of the nature of responsibility. When there seems to be no cost, the idea of moderation doesn't seem sensible.


Openness in itself, as the prime driver of events, doesn't lead to achievement or creativity.

One problem is that information in oceanic magnitudes can confuse and confound as easily as it can clarify and empower, even when the information is correct. There is vastly more financial data set down in the world's computers than there ever has been before, including publically accessible data, and yet the economy is a mess. How can this be, if information is the solution?

A sufficiently copious flood of data creates an illusion of omniscience, and that illusion can make you stupid. Another way to put this is that a lot of information made available over the internet encourages players to think as if they had a God's eye view, looking down on the whole system.

A financier, for instance, might not be able to resist the temptations of access to seemingly endless data. If you can really look down on the whole market from on high, then you ought to be able to just pluck money out of it without risk, which leads to the notion of a highly computerized, data intensive, brobdingnagian hedge fund. This is fine, for a while, until other people start similar funds and the whole market becomes distorted.

The interesting similarity between Mr. Assange and a typical financier who overdid it is that both attempted to align themselves with a perceived God-like perspective and method made possible by the flow of vast information on the Internet, while both actually got crazy and absurd. Wikileaks and similar efforts could do for politics approximately what access to a lot of data did for finance in the run up to the recession. 

Whom does Cablegate harm? This issue has been debated extensively elsewhere, but I do want to point something out about how to interpret the question. The details that are prematurely revealed in Cablegate are not essential knowledge for me, since I am not immediately involved in the events, and the contents of the leaks thus far haven't disrupted my worldview or my politics.

They are, however, potentially consequential to American diplomacy, which is often, if we are to believe the cables, both trickier and better intentioned then we might have feared. The contents might be extremely consequential, even deadly, to a hapless individual on the ground -- and we'll once again invoke the canonical unfortunate fellow in Afghanistan who translated for a US diplomat and counted on the USA to keep it secret. I don't know if he exists, but it seems to me that there must be analogs to him, at least.

Julian Assange, in defending his actions sees a vindicating contradiction in this difference: How can information be both dangerous and inconsequential, he asks? He sees information as an abstract free-standing thing, so to him, differences in perspective and circumstance mean nothing. This is how nerd supremacists think.

Presented by

A computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author, Jaron Lanier maintains interests in biomimetic information architectures, user interfaces, and computational approaches to the fundamentals of physics.

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