Wikileaks Exposes Internet's Dissent Tax, not Nerd Supremacy

A sociologist of technology takes on Jaron Lanier's recent Atlantic essay


Jaron Lanier's recent lengthy essay about Wikileaks is not really about Wikileaks; thus, it is unsurprising that he misses the central lesson of this affair. From the beginning, he makes the fundamental conceptual mistake of conflating individual human beings and powerful institutions, like governments and corporations; he then takes off on a dystopic vision of a world dominated by an imagined "nerd supremacist" ethic of complete transparency, collapse of private life, and unrestricted information flow, in which humanity is the slave of the machine.

Horrifying as this vision is, it simply distracts from the main lessons of the Wikileaks affair: the increasing control of (relatively) unaccountable corporations and states over the key components of the Internet, and their increased willingness to use this control in politicized ways to impose a "dissent tax" on content they find objectionable. Ability to disseminate one's ideas on the Internet is now a sine qua non of inclusion in the global public sphere. However, the Internet is not a true public sphere; it is a public sphere erected on private property, what I have dubbed a "quasi-public sphere," where the property owners can sideline and constrain dissent.

When Lanier says that privacy "is not about anachronistic prohibitions on information flow, but about personhood" and "that everyone has a right to keep a private sphere private," as a scholar of privacy and the Internet, I wholeheartedly agree; I have written about this many times. However, Lanier then argues this right on behalf of institutions and governments, claiming that endeavors like Wikileaks are akin to social networking sites in destroying privacy, thus impeding the development of "personhood." He presents Wikileaks as a harmful example of the "nerd ideology" that is exposing us all, to the detriment of us all.

Lanier thus conflates the right to privacy of persons with the privilege of non-disclosure that states may sometimes exercise. Raising personhood in this context is irrelevant and dangerous. Misguided legal fictions aside, states and corporations are not persons and should not enjoy the considerations, such as an inherent right to privacy. On the contrary, they are subject to the people's right to transparent and accountable governance. Institutions, may, under certain conditions, exercise a privilege not to disclose particular kinds of information to the general public, but then only with justification. Any implied equation of these powerful institutional agents with humans made up of flesh, vulnerability is both morally and analytically suspect.. A "fair" fight between non-equals is not fair, and being blind to power is an implicit endorsement of the powerful.

Further, while one may disagree with the particular methods chosen by Wikileaks--and I certainly have my criticisms--the suggestion that we live in a world in which states and individuals have both become too transparent makes me wonder if Lanier is writing about not this reality, but one of the virtual ones he helped pioneer. It seems to me that states (and corporations) have become increasingly secretive and opaque, while people are increasingly exposed. This divergence was lampooned quite effectively by Saturday Night Live. "I give you private information about corporations for free," SNL's Assange quipped, "And I'm a villain. Mark Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he's the Man of the Year."

Nerd Power vs. Corporate Power

Much of Lanier's piece revolves around "nerd ideology," a topic of much concern to him; indeed, it is the subject of his last book, "You Are Not a Gadget." I'm sympathetic to much of what he has to say about this. I agree that there is sometimes almost a fetishization of information for its own sake. In my talk about Wikileaks at the Personal Democracy Forum recently, I emphasized that we should not see information by itself as a change agent and that a glut of information, especially without context and political leverage, may not result in meaningful change. That, however, is not an argument for less information.

I also share Lanier's distaste for the "Internet is coming alive as a new, singular, global, post-human, superior life form ...  a global brain" discourse, again much discussed in his book. Lanier apparently sees "Anonymous," the loosely-affiliated groups of individuals that are associated with the distributed denial-of-service attacks against corporations that targeted Wikileaks, as subscribers to the "global brain" idea. Fine, down with the global brain.

But how is this in any way but the most tangential connected to Wikileaks? First, neither Julian Assange nor Wikileaks is associated with Anonymous. His few public statements on this issue have been to distance his organization from them. Second, is Anonymous' campaign--a few, relatively unsuccessful, virtual protests by a group most estimate to be mostly composed of teenagers--really the main thing Lanier sees when he looks at what this whole affair has shown us about the Internet? It is one thing to be personally concerned about nerd ideology, it is quite another to see nerd ideology everywhere to the exclusion of all else .

During these past weeks, rather than a nerd takeover, I saw the crumbling of the facade of a flat, equal, open Internet and the revelation of an Internet which has corporate power occupying its key crossroads, ever-so-sensitive to any whiff of displeasure by the state. I saw an Internet in danger of becoming merely an interactive version of the television in terms of effective freedom of speech. Remember, the Internet did not create freedom of speech; in theory, we always had freedom of speech--it's just that it often went along with the freedom to be ignored. People had no access to the infrastructure to be heard. Until the Internet, the right to be heard was in most cases reserved to the governments, deep pockets, and corporate media. Before the Internet, trees fell in lonely forests.

The Wikileaks furor shows us that these institutions of power are slowly and surely taking control of the key junctures of the Internet. As a mere "quasi-public sphere," the Internet is somewhat akin to shopping malls, which seem like public spaces but in which the rights of citizens are restricted, as they are in fact private.  If you think the freedom of the Internet could never be taken back, I implore you to read the history of radio. Technologies that start out as peer-to-peer and citizen-driven can be and have been taken over by corporate and state power.

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So, no, I fail to be moved by Lanier's horror of  "Anonymous," apparently the epitome of nerd ideology, whose most fearsome member charged to-date with Wikileaks-related attacks is a 16-year-old Dutch kid. Anonymous' support for Wikileaks hardly makes Wikileaks a leading proponent of nerd ideology by association any more than Wikileaks is Kevin Bacon, but Lanier wants to write about Nerd Ideology. The actions by Anonymous were barely the equivalent of virtual sit-ins, and had very little effect. Jaron Lanier should know better how to judge the true impact of these small-scale DDoS attacks, regardless of the brief media hysteria.

The real cause for concern is the emergence of an Internet in which arbitrary Terms-of-Service can be selectively employed by large corporations to boot content they dislike. What is worrisome is an Internet in which it is very easy to marginalize and choke information. The fact that information is "there" in a torrent, or openly on a website that is not easily accessible or has been vilified, is about as relevant as your right to shout at your TV.

It has become obvious that, increasingly, contentious content is going to require infrastructure far above and beyond what is necessary to support content that is mainstream, power-friendly, or irrelevant. And further, contentious content will likely be cut off from being funded through people-power, as was shown by the speed with which Paypal, Mastercard and Visa, representing almost all the conventional and easy ways to send money over the Internet, moved to cut off Wikileaks. Platforms such as Apple, which maintain total control over content in their increasingly-appliancized devices, are another worrisome trend in this direction. (Apple swiftly moved to censor the lone Wikileaks App that made it through its app store).

What the Wikileaks furor shows us is that a dissent tax is emerging on the Internet. As a dissident content provider, you might have to fight your DNS provider. You might need to fund large-scale hosting resources while others can use similar capacity on commercial servers for a few hundred dollars a year. Fund-raising infrastructure that is open to pretty much everyone else, including the KKK, may not be available. This does not mean that Wikileaks cannot get hosted, as it is already well-known and big, but what about smaller, less-famous, less established, less well-off efforts? Will they even get off the ground?

These developments should alarm every concerned citizen, even those who are thoroughly disgusted by Wikileaks. This is the issue that the Wikileaks furor has exposed, not nerd ideology. This is the story and likely will be more important than the release of diplomatic cables (which were already available to millions of people) through major newspapers after scrutiny by journalists. This question will stay with us even if Wikileaks dissolves, and Julian Assange is never heard from again.

The Bits of the Internet

As a former professional programmer (in a previous life), I cannot resist briefly commenting on two somewhat technical claims made by Lanier.

First, Lanier argues that the digital architecture of computers causes things to end up in binary states at the macro level, i.e. we are either completely opaque or completely transparent. This analogy rests on a false premise. The binary system can represent numbers to any degree of precision one wishes, and can even be said to have an advantage over analog systems which cannot be as precise in representing in-between numbers. In fact, if degrees of gray are your goal, a digital system is your friend whereas analog systems are limited by the precision of measuring and sensing devices. It is no problem to distinguish 1.573234512345 from 1.573234512342 in a digital system.

The true reasons for the uncomfortable exposure of our information are not in silicon but in human affairs and macro-structures: legal, political and corporate. We don't have sufficiently-developed laws protecting us as our commons have moved to privately-owned spaces on the Internet. Lanier misses the fact that this is an issue of design, motive and choice. It would be just as easy, and just as technically feasible to design a different kind of Facebook. I agree that the ease with which information can be copied makes exposure easier and in that point, there is a link between Facebook and Wikileaks. However, to understand the structure of our Internet commons, one needs to look at relations of power. The purely techno-deterministic story told by Lanier misses that point.

Second, Lanier argues that, just as object-oriented programming made program flow easier to control, we should have orderly flow of information between different components of the social structure, i.e. between powerful institutions, governments, their diplomats and the people. His implication is that unstructured flow of information will be like "spaghetti code," in that it will result in unpredictable and undesirable consequences. In object-oriented programming, each module is opaque to each other; one only has inputs and outputs and no view of the internal workings. Lanier's lesson from object-oriented programming seems to be that citizens should always sit down and wait till the government module spits out whatever output it deems appropriate for us. (In fact, Lanier's argument, exporting technical design considerations to human affairs, seems like a perfect example of nerd culture and the kind of reasoning he's inveighing against.)

I don't believe that a "don't ask, don't tell" relationship between a state and its citizens is a moral position, especially for citizens of the most powerful nation on Earth, which is still engaged in multiple wars around the world. Again, surprisingly for a whole piece on Wikileaks, that fact only enters the discussion when Lanier invokes, in his words, "the canonical unfortunate fellow in Afghanistan who translated for a US diplomat and counted on the USA to keep it secret." Besides the fact that such cases are not known, these cables were available to about three million people (which has led me to argue elsewhere that their true impact may be in collapsing the insider/outsider boundary, rather than revealing deep secrets). I trust and hope that U.S. diplomats had the good sense not to put sensitive names in such a widely available resource. What I wonder is can one really write a whole piece about Wikileaks and not mention that administration after administration continues to be awfully secretive about these wars we are engaged in that are killing real people, surely a pressing a concern that must be raised when discussing the exposure of these cables.

I reiterate that one does not need to be a fan of Wikileaks to reject the notion that rather than demand increased transparency and disclosure from institutions with power, we should trust them because trust is a human value. Going back to my starting point, it appears that Lanier is once again conflating human-to-human relations and human-institution relations and suggesting that the same principles should apply to them. A world in which humans don't trust each other is indeed cold and inhumane. A world in which we trust powerful institutions merely on principle is one where we abdicate our responsibilities as citizens and human beings.