The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks


Wikileaks isn't really a "wiki," but it is designed to look and feel like the Wikipedia. It aspires to emulate the practical philosophy of the wiki movement. The Wikipedia professes to get humanity as a whole to arrive at the one truest truth.

The Wikileaks design, by invoking Wikipedia, creates the impression that some universally negotiated, balanced unveiling of human affairs is being approximated; that what was formerly hidden is being fairly unhidden. But that is not true.

If you are a fan of Wikileaks, you might have trouble seeing this, so you would do well to consider Wikileaks-like activities performed by people of opposing ideological persuasions. The comparison will probably enrage some Wikileaks supporters, but if you are one of them, I ask you to try it on as an exercise to test your own internal degrees of bias.

Two cases from the United States come to mind: In one, personal information about abortion providers was posted online, and an "X" was drawn over the information about a specific provider once that provider was murdered. In another, which occurred in Utah in 2010, vigilantes published personal details about undocumented Hispanic immigrants, in an apparent bid to encourage harassment.

In the first case, there were deaths, while the second was all noise and fear mongering with no action, so far as I know. The activists who listed abortion doctors never pulled a trigger, didn't know the people who pulled triggers, and so perhaps had "nothing" to do with the murders.

These actions were related to what goes on in Wikileaks, though people with different politics performed them. Defenders of Wikileaks will probably feel that the comparison is unwarranted, so I would like to address some of the rationalizations I have heard.

It is often pointed out that Wikileaks didn't leak all the diplomatic cables it had, but only a small percentage that was filtered through traditional news organizations, as if this were a sign of deliberation and moderation.

But it did use all of the cables for blackmail. Encrypted copies were sent around the world, creating what is known as a "dead man switch." It was claimed that the encrypted cables contained genuinely dangerous information. Under certain circumstances the key would be released. Is this not similar to the case of the abortion doctors? "Either do what I want or I will expertly use my Internet skills to enable creepy third parties I don't even know to harm you."

It seems that our perceptions of the two cases are strongly colored by how we feel about the targets and where we find the underdog. At the very least, the comparison demonstrates that there is no such thing as a neutral Internet leak organization. Anyone who plays the game brings biases into the work.

The same critique can and should be applied to militaries and other traditional players who have become cyber-fascinated. It is true that the U.S. military faces a moral hazard in the use of drones. An anonymous operator a world away can direct an attack, and there is an inevitable danger of forgetting the seriousness of the decision. But consider: Anonymous Wikileakers attacked anonymous drone operators, sniping from snug perches in front of computer screens. Wikileaks published the names of Afghans who were put at risk, potentially becoming collateral damage.

Isn't it clear that we tend to become like what we mock and fear?

Another common rationalization favoring Wikileaks is that we don't have documentation of individuals, such as the canonical example of liasons in Afghanistan, who were killed as a result of a leak.

I wish I could find comfort in this line of thinking, but bad behavior doesn't become ok just because we don't know if anyone's been hurt yet. Did anyone ask the individuals who were named for permission to leak their names? I don't think any of the undocumented immigrants in Utah were killed, but does that excuse what happened? Assange has stated that if there were deaths from leaks, it would be acceptable because of the bigger picture. The ideological framework and rationale for collateral damage has been made explicit.

To me, both right wing extremist leaks and Wikileaks are for the most part resurrections of old-fashioned vigilantism. Some of the targets of vigilantism in the Utah of the 19th century, say, might have unquestionably been "bastards," and yet there are, to say the least, some tremendously attractive things about the rule of law. Vigilantism has always eroded trust and civility, but what's new online is the sterile imprimatur of a digital ideology that claims to offer automatic betterment.

Vigilante information violation is a form of assault that degrades society for everyone. If we are to experiment with giving up some degree of privacy, we have to do it all at once, including even the hackers.

Can we say Wikileaks is doing anything beyond sterile information worship? Is it engaged in nonviolent activism?

We celebrate the masters of nonviolent activism, such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. All these figures displayed astounding courage, faced arrest, and suffered without hating their oppressors in order to demonstrate a common humanity. These remarkable people did not make "Crush the bastards" into their mantra.

So the question has to be, if you add the Internet, can you now be a nonviolent activist without having to show courage and respect the opposing side? Is it now suddenly helpful to be a troll, attacking from the darkness, as the members of Anonymous do? Does the Internet really make life that much easier?

Of course it doesn't.


Although I have certainly not done as much as any of us should, I can say that I have gone to jail as a result of political protest, and doing so was not a way of rejecting society, but engaging it. In my case, I was arrested while protesting the nuclear weapons policies of the United States in the 1970s. I helped block the entrance to a power plant that was also feeding the weapons program. I smiled and had a friendly conversation with the police who carried me off, and with the jailers.

Civil disobedience is fundamentally respectful of the shared project of having a civilization, but only when the protestor gets arrested voluntarily and without sneering at opponents. Instead, one hopes to raise consciousness with a flood of respect and compassion, even for those who disagree.

In the intervening years, my point of view on nuclear weapons policy has shifted, though not totally. If my phase as a protester had been ruder, I would have complicated my own avenue for personal evolution, because I would have become too invested in the trauma that would have ensued. Respectful civil disobedience is not only more productive for others, but for oneself. It is the path away from extremism.

Totally aside from whether Wikileaks has hurt the USA or anyone else, we should ask the question, "What has it done to us?" The hacker idea has gotten meaner, less sensitive, more combative, and more reactive.  This is what I mean by the problem of nerd supremacy.

Wikileaks grew out of a forum hosted by John Gilmore, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I almost became one of the founders of EFF as well. I was at the founding meeting, a meal in San Francisco's Mission District with John, John Perry Barlow, and Mitch Kapor. What kept me out of EFF was a sudden feeling -- at that very meal -- that something was going wrong.

There was a fascination with using encryption to make hackers potentially as powerful as governments, and that disturbed me. I could feel the surge of ego: We hackers could change history. But if there's one lesson of history, it is that seeking power doesn't change the world. You need to change yourself along with the world. Civil disobedience is a spiritual discipline as much as anything else.

EFF has matured, and is now moderate enough to be subject to occasional attacks from outfits like Anonymous (though Anonymous rejects characterizations of itself as a group of people and prefers to be known as collective cyber-brain.) In its early days, however, EFF helped glamourize the image of the encrypted nerd resisting the government. EFF was hardly alone: One of the first covers of Wired magazine featured a dashing gaggle of outlaw hackers, faces hidden by scarves. The hacker as glamorous revolutionary was a guiding image as the Internet was first coming together and being polished for widespread use a couple of decades ago, and we are paying now for our silly romanticism back then.

When you feel that urge to power within yourself- that is when you should be most careful.  When I hear Julian Assange talk about "crushing bastards" I feel grateful that I avoided getting swept up back then.

Should information flows be controlled in the network age? Who should get to decide who gets access to what information? It's not as if these questions have only been asked for the first time because of the Internet. The many generations of people that learned how to build democracies wrestled with them over the centuries.

We know what the answers are. If the secret is about something that isn't a vital interest for other people, then everyone has a right to keep a private sphere private. 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.

Both of these answers are under assault by the ideology of nerd supremacy which I understand well, since I was part of it in its early days.

You need to have a private sphere to be a person, or for that matter for anything creative to happen in any domain. This is the principle I described as "encapsulation" in You Are Not a Gadget. I have written about this idea in various ways, but I'd like to try another way here, addressed to the truest believers. Let's consider encapsulation in computer code.

There was a time when computer code was messier, in that any piece of code could read or write to any other part. That didn't work out well. Programs were too tangled and impossible to maintain.

So a movement to add structure to programming took root. For instance, the idea of "object oriented" code breaks a program up into encapsulated modules centered on chunks of data and code related specifically to that data. If you program in an object oriented way, you are not allowed to make the code in one object directly manipulate the interior of another.  Instead, everything has to go through the proper channels.

A great many programmers hated the object oriented idea in the early days. It seemed like nothing but prissy restrictions. To others, it was simply incomprehensible how restrictions would do you any good. Wasn't the point to be able to program anything? How could a negative be a positive? How could restrictions improve results? 

And yet, ideas like object oriented programming were essential to making big programs reliable. The world we know today couldn't exist if code had stayed as messy as it used to be.  Structure is what makes information usable. Making everything totally connected and open to everything destroys structure. This principle works for code, but it is also cosmic. 

Even we people need structure in our affairs. Imagine openness extrapolated to an extreme.  What if we come to be able to read each other's thoughts? Then there would be no thoughts. Your head has to be different from mine if you are to be a person with something to say to me. You need an interior space that is different from mine in order to have a different, exotic model of the world, so that our two models can meet, and have a conversation.

Privacy is not about anachronistic prohibitions on information flow, but about personhood.  I was one of those young hackers who didn't get this point for a long time. I used to think that an open world would favor the honest and the true, and disfavor the schemers and the scammers. In moderation this idea has some value, but if privacy were to be vanquished, people would initially become dull, then incompetent, and then cease to exist. Hidden in the idea of radical openness is an allegiance to machines instead of people.

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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