The Blast Shack
This article was first published on 22 December 2010 on Webstock.
The Wikileaks Cablegate scandal is the most exciting and interesting hacker scandal ever. I rather commonly write about such things, and I’m surrounded by online acquaintances who take a burning interest in every little jot and tittle of this ongoing saga. So it’s going to take me a while to explain why this highly newsworthy event fills me with such a chilly, deadening sense of Edgar Allen Poe melancholia.
But it sure does.
Part of this dull, icy feeling, I think, must be the agonizing slowness with which this has happened. At last — at long last — the homemade nitroglycerin in the old cypherpunks blast shack has gone off. Those “cypherpunks,” of all people.
Way back in 1992, a brainy American hacker called Timothy C. May made up a sci-fi tinged idea that he called “The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto.” This exciting screed — I read it at the time, and boy was it ever cool — was all about anonymity, and encryption, and the Internet, and all about how wacky data-obsessed subversives could get up to all kinds of globalized mischief without any fear of repercussion from the blinkered authorities. If you were of a certain technoculture bent in the early 1990s, you had to love a thing like that.
As Tim blithely remarked to his fellow encryption enthusiasts, “The State will of course try to slow or halt the spread of this technology, citing national security concerns, use of the technology by drug dealers and tax evaders, and fears of societal disintegration. Many of these concerns will be valid; crypto anarchy will allow national secrets to be traded freely,” and then Tim started getting really interesting. Later, May described an institution called “BlackNet” which might conceivably carry out these aims.
Nothing much ever happened with Tim May’s imaginary BlackNet. It was the kind of out-there concept that science fiction writers like to put in novels. Because BlackNet was clever, and fun to think about, and it made impossible things seem plausible, and it was fantastic and also quite titillating. So it was the kind of farfetched but provocative issue that ought to be properly raised within a sci-fi public discourse. Because, you know, that would allow plenty of time to contemplate the approaching train wreck and perhaps do something practical about it.
Nobody did much of anything practical. For nigh on twenty long years, nothing happened with the BlackNet notion, for good or ill. Why? Because thinking hard and eagerly about encryption involves a certain mental composition which is alien to normal public life. Crypto guys — (and the cypherpunks were all crypto guys, mostly well-educated, mathematically gifted middle-aged guys in Silicon Valley careers) — are geeks. They’re harmless geeks, they’re not radical politicians or dashing international crime figures.
Cypherpunks were visionary Californians from the WIRED magazine circle. In their personal lives, they were as meek and low-key as any average code-cracking spook who works for the National Security Agency. These American spooks from Fort Meade are shy and retiring people, by their nature. In theory, the NSA could create every kind of flaming scandalous mayhem with their giant Echelon spy system — but in practice, they would much rather sit there gently reading other people’s email.
One minute’s thought would reveal that a vast, opaque electronic spy outfit like the National Security Agency is exceedingly dangerous to democracy. Really, it is. The NSA clearly violates all kinds of elementary principles of constitutional design. The NSA is the very antithesis of transparency, and accountability, and free elections, and free expression, and separation of powers — in other words, the NSA is a kind of giant, grown-up, anti-Wikileaks. And it always has been. And we’re used to that. We pay no mind.
The NSA, this crypto empire, is a long-lasting fact on the ground that we’ve all informally agreed not to get too concerned about. Even foreign victims of the NSA’s machinations can’t seem to get properly worked-up about its capacities and intrigues. The NSA has been around since 1947. It’s a little younger than the A-Bomb, and we don’t fuss much about that now, either.
The geeks who man the NSA don’t look much like Julian Assange, because they have college degrees, shorter haircuts, better health insurance and far fewer stamps in their passports. But the sources of their power are pretty much identical to his. They use computers and they get their mitts on info that doesn’t much wanna be free.
Every rare once in a while, the secretive and discreet NSA surfaces in public life and does something reprehensible, such as defeating American federal computer-security initiatives so that they can continue to eavesdrop at will. But the NSA never becomes any big flaming Wikileaks scandal. Why? Because, unlike their wannabe colleagues at Wikileaks, the apparatchiks of the NSA are not in the scandal business. They just placidly sit at the console, reading everybody’s diplomatic cables.
This is their function. The NSA is an eavesdropping outfit. Cracking the communications of other governments is its reason for being. The NSA are not unique entities in the shadows of our planet’s political landscape. Every organized government gives that a try. It’s a geopolitical fact, although it’s not too discreet to dwell on it.
You can walk to most any major embassy in any major city in the world, and you can see that it is festooned with wiry heaps of electronic spying equipment. Don’t take any pictures of the roofs of embassies, as they grace our public skylines. Guards will emerge to repress you.
Now, Tim May and his imaginary BlackNet were the sci-fi extrapolation version of the NSA. A sort of inside-out, hippiefied NSA. Crypto people were always keenly aware of the NSA, for the NSA were the people who harassed them for munitions violations and struggled to suppress their academic publications. Creating a BlackNet is like having a pet, desktop NSA. Except, that instead of being a vast, federally-supported nest of supercomputers under a hill in Maryland, it’s a creaky, homemade, zero-budget social-network site for disaffected geeks.
But who cared about that wild notion? Why would that amateurish effort ever matter to real-life people? It’s like comparing a mighty IBM mainframe to some cranky Apple computer made inside a California garage. Yes, it’s almost that hard to imagine.
So Wikileaks is a manifestation of something that has been growing all around us, for decades, with volcanic inexorability. The NSA is the world’s most public unknown secret agency. And for four years now, its twisted sister Wikileaks has been the world’s most blatant, most publicly praised, encrypted underground site.
Wikileaks is “underground” in the way that the NSA is “covert”; not because it’s inherently obscure, but because it’s discreetly not spoken about.
The NSA is “discreet,” so, somehow, people tolerate it. Wikileaks is “transparent,” like a cardboard blast shack full of kitchen-sink nitroglycerine in a vacant lot.
That is how we come to the dismal saga of Wikileaks and its ongoing Cablegate affair, which is a melancholy business, all in all. The scale of it is so big that every weirdo involved immediately becomes a larger-than-life figure. But they’re not innately heroic. They’re just living, mortal human beings, the kind of geeky, quirky, cyberculture loons that I run into every day. And man, are they ever going to pay.
Now we must contemplate Bradley Manning, because he was the first to immolate himself. Private Manning was a young American, a hacker-in-uniform, bored silly while doing scarcely necessary scutwork on a military computer system in Iraq. Private Manning had dozens of reasons for becoming what computer-security professionals call the “internal threat.”
His war made no sense on its face, because it was carried out in a headlong pursuit of imaginary engines of mass destruction. The military occupation of Iraq was endless. Manning, a tender-hearted geek, was overlooked and put-upon by his superiors. Although he worked around the clock, he had nothing of any particular military consequence to do.
It did not occur to his superiors that a bored soldier in a poorly secured computer system would download hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables. Because, well, why? They’re very boring. Soldiers never read them. The malefactor has no use for them. They’re not particularly secret. They’ve got nothing much to do with his war. He knows his way around the machinery, but Bradley Manning is not any kind of blackhat programming genius.
Instead, he’s very like Jerome Kerviel, that obscure French stock trader who stole 5 billion euros without making one dime for himself. Jerome Kerviel, just like Bradley Manning, was a bored, resentful, lower-echelon guy in a dead end, who discovered some awesome capacities in his system that his bosses never knew it had. It makes so little sense to behave like Kerviel and Manning that their threat can’t be imagined. A weird hack like that is self-defeating, and it’s sure to bring terrible repercussions to the transgressor. But then the sad and sordid days grind on and on; and that blindly potent machinery is just sitting there. Sitting there, tempting the user.
Bradley Manning believes the sci-fi legendry of the underground. He thinks that he can leak a quarter of a million secret cables, protect himself with neat-o cryptography, and, magically, never be found out. So Manning does this, and at first he gets away with it, but, still possessed by the malaise that haunts his soul, he has to brag about his misdeed, and confess himself to a hacker confidante who immediately ships him to the authorities.
No hacker story is more common than this. The ingenuity poured into the machinery is meaningless. The personal connections are treacherous. Welcome to the real world.
So Private Manning, cypherpunk, is immediately toast.
No army can permit this kind of behavior and remain a functional army; so Manning is in solitary confinement and he is going to be court-martialled. With more political awareness, he might have made himself a public martyr to his conscience; but he lacks political awareness. He has only his black-hat hacker awareness, which is all about committing awesome voyeuristic acts of computer intrusion and imagining you can get away with that when it really matters to people.
The guy preferred his hacker identity to his sworn fidelity to the uniform of a superpower. The shear-forces there are beyond his comprehension.
The reason this upsets me is that I know so many people just like Bradley Manning. Because I used to meet and write about hackers, “crackers,” “darkside hackers,” “computer underground” types. They are a subculture, but once you get used to their many eccentricities, there is nothing particularly remote or mysterious or romantic about them. They are banal. Bradley Manning is a young, mildly brainy, unworldly American guy who probably would have been pretty much okay if he’d been left alone to skateboard, read comic books and listen to techno music.
Instead, Bradley had to leak all over the third rail. Through historical circumstance, he’s become a miserable symbolic point-man for a global war on terror. He doesn’t much deserve that role. He’s got about as much to do with the political aspects of his war as Monica Lewinsky did with the lasting sexual mania that afflicts the American Republic.
That is so dispiriting and ugly. As a novelist, I never think of Monica Lewinsky, that once-everyday young woman, without a sense of dread at the freakish, occult fate that overtook her. Imagine what it must be like, to wake up being her, to face the inevitability of being That Woman. Monica, too, transgressed in apparent safety and then she had the utter foolishness to brag to a lethal enemy, a trusted confidante who ran a tape machine and who brought her a mediated circus of hells. The titillation of that massive, shattering scandal has faded now. But think of the quotidian daily horror of being Monica Lewinsky, and that should take a bite from the soul.
Bradley Manning now shares that exciting, oh my God, Monica Lewinsky, tortured media-freak condition. This mild little nobody has become super-famous, and in his lonely military brig, screenless and without a computer, he’s strictly confined and, no doubt, he’s horribly bored. I don’t want to condone or condemn the acts of Bradley Manning. Because legions of people are gonna do that for me, until we’re all good and sick of it, and then some. I don’t have the heart to make this transgressor into some hockey-puck for an ideological struggle. I sit here and I gloomily contemplate his all-too-modern situation with a sense of Sartrean nausea.
Commonly, the authorities don’t much like to crush apple-cheeked white-guy hackers like Bradley Manning. It’s hard to charge hackers with crimes, even when they gleefully commit them, because it’s hard to find prosecutors and judges willing to bone up on the drudgery of understanding what they did. But they’ve pretty much got to make a purée out of this guy, because of massive pressure from the gravely embarrassed authorities. Even though Bradley lacks the look and feel of any conventional criminal; wrong race, wrong zipcode, wrong set of motives.
Bradley’s gonna become a “spy” whose “espionage” consisted of making the activities of a democratic government visible to its voting population. With the New York Times publishing the fruits of his misdeeds. Some set of American prosecutorial lawyers is confronting this crooked legal hairpin right now. I feel sorry for them.
Then there is Julian Assange, who is a pure-dye underground computer hacker. Julian doesn’t break into systems at the moment, but he’s not an “ex-hacker,” he’s the silver-plated real deal, the true avant-garde. Julian is a child of the underground hacker milieu, the digital-native as twenty-first century cypherpunk. As far as I can figure, Julian has never found any other line of work that bore any interest for him.
Through dint of years of cunning effort, Assange has worked himself into a position where his “computer crimes” are mainly political. They’re probably not even crimes. They are “leaks.” Leaks are nothing special. They are tidbits from the powerful that every journalist gets on occasion, like crumbs of fishfood on the top of the media tank.
Only, this time, thanks to Manning, Assange has brought in a massive truckload of media fishfood. It’s not just some titillating, scandalous, floating crumbs. There’s a quarter of a million of them. He’s become the one-man global McDonald’s of leaks.
Ever the detail-freak, Assange in fact hasn’t shipped all the cables he received from Manning. Instead, he cunningly encrypted the cables and distributed them worldwide to thousands of fellow-travellers. This stunt sounds technically impressive, although it isn’t. It’s pretty easy to do, and nobody but a cypherpunk would think that it made any big difference to anybody. It’s part and parcel of Assange’s other characteristic activities, such as his inability to pack books inside a box while leaving any empty space.
While others stare in awe at Assange’s many otherworldly aspects — his hairstyle, his neatness, his too-precise speech, his post-national life out of a laptop bag — I can recognize him as pure triple-A outsider geek. Man, I know a thousand modern weirdos like that, and every single one of them seems to be on my Twitter stream screaming support for Assange because they can recognize him as a brother and a class ally. They are in holy awe of him because, for the first time, their mostly-imaginary and lastingly resentful underclass has landed a serious blow in a public arena. Julian Assange has hacked a superpower.
He didn’t just insult the captain of the global football team; he put spycams in the locker room. He showed the striped-pants set without their pants. This a massively embarrassing act of technical voyeurism. It’s like Monica and her stains and kneepads, only even more so.
Now, I wish I could say that I feel some human pity for Julian Assange, in the way I do for the hapless, one-shot Bradley Manning, but I can’t possibly say that. Pity is not the right response, because Assange has carefully built this role for himself. He did it with all the minute concentration of some geek assembling a Rubik’s Cube.
In that regard, one’s hat should be off to him. He’s had forty years to learn what he was doing. He’s not some miserabilist semi-captive like the uniformed Bradley Manning. He’s a darkside player out to stick it to the Man. The guy has surrounded himself with the cream of the computer underground, wily old rascals like Rop Gonggrijp and the fearsome Teutonic minions of the Chaos Computer Club.
Assange has had many long, and no doubt insanely detailed, policy discussions with all his closest allies, about every aspect of his means, motives and opportunities. And he did what he did with fierce resolve.
Furthermore, and not as any accident, Assange has managed to alienate everyone who knew him best. All his friends think he’s nuts. I’m not too thrilled to see that happen. That’s not a great sign in a consciousness-raising, power-to-the-people, radical political-leader type. Most successful dissidents have serious people skills and are way into revolutionary camaraderie and a charismatic sense of righteousness. They’re into kissing babies, waving bloody shirts, and keeping hope alive. Not this chilly, eldritch guy. He’s a bright, good-looking man who — let’s face it — can’t get next to women without provoking clumsy havoc and a bitter and lasting resentment. That’s half the human race that’s beyond his comprehension there, and I rather surmise that, from his stern point of view, it was sure to be all their fault.
Assange was in prison for a while lately, and his best friend in the prison was his Mom. That seems rather typical of him. Obviously Julian knew he was going to prison; a child would know it. He’s been putting on his Solzhenitsyn clothes and combing his forelock for that role for ages now. I’m a little surprised that he didn’t have a more organized prison-support committee, because he’s a convicted computer criminal who’s been through this wringer before. Maybe he figures he’ll reap more glory if he’s martyred all alone.
I rather doubt the authorities are any happier to have him in prison. They pretty much gotta feed him into their legal wringer somehow, but a botched Assange show-trial could do colossal damage. There’s every likelihood that the guy could get off. He could walk into an American court and come out smelling of roses. It’s the kind of show-trial judo every repressive government fears.
It’s not just about him and the burning urge to punish him; it’s about the public risks to the reputation of the USA. The superpower hypocrisy here is gonna be hard to bear. The USA loves to read other people’s diplomatic cables. They dote on doing it. If Assange had happened to out the cable-library of some outlaw pariah state, say, Paraguay or North Korea, the US State Department would be heaping lilies at his feet. They’d be a little upset about his violation of the strict proprieties, but they’d also take keen satisfaction in the hilarious comeuppance of minor powers that shouldn’t be messing with computers, unlike the grandiose, high-tech USA.
Unfortunately for the US State Department, they clearly shouldn’t have been messing with computers, either. In setting up their SIPRnet, they were trying to grab the advantages of rapid, silo-free, networked communication while preserving the hierarchical proprieties of official confidentiality. That’s the real issue, that’s the big modern problem; national governments and global computer networks don’t mix any more. It’s like trying to eat a very private birthday cake while also distributing it. That scheme is just not working. And that failure has a face now, and that’s Julian Assange.
Assange didn’t liberate the dreadful secrets of North Korea, not because the North Koreans lack computers, but because that isn’t a cheap and easy thing that half-a-dozen zealots can do. But the principle of it, the logic of doing it, is the same. Everybody wants everybody else’s national government to leak. Every state wants to see the diplomatic cables of every other state. It will bend heaven and earth to get them. It’s just, that sacred activity is not supposed to be privatized, or, worse yet, made into the no-profit, shareable, have-at-it fodder for a network society, as if global diplomacy were so many mp3s. Now the US State Department has walked down the thorny road to hell that was first paved by the music industry. Rock and roll, baby.
Now, in strict point of fact, Assange didn’t blandly pirate the massive hoard of cables from the US State Department. Instead, he was busily “redacting” and minutely obeying the proprieties of his political cover in the major surviving paper dailies. Kind of a nifty feat of social-engineering there; but he’s like a poacher who machine-gunned a herd of wise old elephants and then went to the temple to assume the robes of a kosher butcher. That is a world-class hoax.
Assange is no more a “journalist” than he is a crypto mathematician. He’s a darkside hacker who is a self-appointed, self-anointed, self-educated global dissident. He’s a one-man Polish Solidarity, waiting for the population to accrete around his stirring propaganda of the deed. And they are accreting; not all of ‘em, but, well, it doesn’t take all of them.
Julian Assange doesn’t want to be in power; he has no people skills at all, and nobody’s ever gonna make him President Vaclav Havel. He’s certainly not in it for the money, because he wouldn’t know what to do with the cash; he lives out of a backpack, and his daily routine is probably sixteen hours online. He’s not gonna get better Google searches by spending more on his banned MasterCard. I don’t even think Assange is all that big on ego; I know authors and architects, so I’ve seen much worse than Julian in that regard. He’s just what he is; he’s something we don’t yet have words for.
He’s a different, modern type of serious troublemaker. He’s certainly not a “terrorist,” because nobody is scared and no one got injured. He’s not a “spy,” because nobody spies by revealing the doings of a government to its own civil population. He is orthogonal. He’s asymmetrical. He panics people in power and he makes them look stupid. And I feel sorry for them. But sorrier for the rest of us.
Julian Assange’s extremely weird version of dissident “living in truth” doesn’t bear much relationship to the way that public life has ever been arranged. It does, however, align very closely to what we’ve done to ourselves by inventing and spreading the Internet. If the Internet was walking around in public, it would look and act a lot like Julian Assange. The Internet is about his age, and it doesn’t have any more care for the delicacies of profit, propriety and hierarchy than he does.
So Julian is heading for a modern legal netherworld, the slammer, the electronic parole cuff, whatever; you can bet there will be surveillance of some kind wherever he goes, to go along with the FREE ASSANGE stencils and xeroxed flyers that are gonna spring up in every coffee-bar, favela and university on the planet. A guy as personally hampered and sociopathic as Julian may in fact thrive in an inhuman situation like this. Unlike a lot of keyboard-hammering geeks, he’s a serious reader and a pretty good writer, with a jailhouse-lawyer facility for pointing out weaknesses in the logic of his opponents, and boy are they ever. Weak, that is. They are pathetically weak.
Diplomats have become weak in the way that musicians are weak. Musicians naturally want people to pay real money for music, but if you press them on it, they’ll sadly admit that they don’t buy any music themselves. Because, well, they’re in the business, so why should they? And the same goes for diplomats and discreet secrets.
The one grand certainty about the consumers of Cablegate is that diplomats are gonna be reading those stolen cables. Not hackers: diplomats. Hackers bore easily, and they won’t be able to stand the discourse of intelligent trained professionals discussing real-life foreign affairs.
American diplomats are gonna read those stolen cables, though, because they were supposed to read them anyway, even though they didn’t. Now, they’ve got to read them, with great care, because they might get blindsided otherwise by some wisecrack that they typed up years ago.
And, of course, every intelligence agency and every diplomat from every non-American agency on Earth is gonna fire up computers and pore over those things. To see what American diplomacy really thought about them, or to see if they were ignored (which is worse), and to see how the grownups ran what was basically a foreign-service news agency that the rest of us were always forbidden to see.
This stark fact makes them all into hackers. Yes, just like Julian. They’re all indebted to Julian for this grim thing that he did, and as they sit there hunched over their keyboards, drooling over their stolen goodies, they’re all, without exception, implicated in his doings. Assange is never gonna become a diplomat, but he’s arranged it so that diplomats henceforth are gonna be a whole lot more like Assange. They’ll behave just like him. They receive the goods just like he did, semi-surreptitiously. They may be wearing an ascot and striped pants, but they’ve got that hacker hunch in their necks and they’re staring into the glowing screen.
And I don’t much like that situation. It doesn’t make me feel better. I feel sorry for them and what it does to their values, to their self-esteem. If there’s one single watchword, one central virtue, of the diplomatic life, it’s “discretion.” Not “transparency.” Diplomatic discretion. Discretion is why diplomats do not say transparent things to foreigners. When diplomats tell foreigners what they really think, war results.
Diplomats are people who speak from nation to nation. They personify nations, and nations are brutal, savage, feral entities. Diplomats used to have something in the way of an international community, until the Americans decided to unilaterally abandon that in pursuit of Bradley Manning’s oil war. Now nations are so badly off that they can’t even get it together to coherently tackle heroin, hydrogen bombs, global warming and financial collapse. Not to mention the Internet.
The world has lousy diplomacy now. It’s dysfunctional. The world corps diplomatique are weak, really weak, and the US diplomatic corps, which used to be the senior and best-engineered outfit there, is rattling around bottled-up in blast-proofed bunkers. It’s scary how weak and useless they are.
US diplomats used to know what to do with dissidents in other nations. If they were communists they got briskly repressed, but if they had anything like a free-market outlook, then US diplomats had a whole arsenal of gentle and supportive measures; Radio Free Europe, publication in the West, awards, foreign travel, flattery, moral support; discreet things, in a word, but exceedingly useful things. Now they’re harassing Julian by turning those tools backwards.
For a US diplomat, Assange is like some digitized nightmare-reversal of a kindly Cold War analog dissident. He read the dissident playbook and he downloaded it as a textfile; but, in fact, Julian doesn’t care about the USA. It’s just another obnoxious national entity. He happens to be more or less Australian, and he’s no great enemy of America. If he’d had the chance to leak Australian cables he would have leapt on that with the alacrity he did on Kenya. Of course, when Assange did it to that meager little Kenya, all the grown-ups thought that was groovy; he had to hack a superpower in order to touch the third rail.
But the American diplomatic corps, and all it thinks it represents, is just collateral damage between Assange and his goal. He aspires to his transparent crypto-utopia in the way George Bush aspired to imaginary weapons of mass destruction. And the American diplomatic corps are so many Iraqis in that crusade. They’re the civilian casualties.
As a novelist, you gotta like the deep and dark irony here. As somebody attempting to live on a troubled world… I dunno. It makes one want to call up the Red Cross and volunteer to fund planetary tranquilizers.
I’ve met some American diplomats; not as many as I’ve met hackers, but a few. Like hackers, diplomats are very intelligent people; unlike hackers, they are not naturally sociopathic. Instead, they have to be trained that way in the national interest. I feel sorry for their plight. I can enter into the shame and bitterness that afflicts them now.
The cables that Assange leaked have, to date, generally revealed rather eloquent, linguistically gifted American functionaries with a keen sensitivity to the feelings of aliens. So it’s no wonder they were of dwindling relevance and their political masters paid no attention to their counsels. You don’t have to be a citizen of this wracked and threadbare superpower — (you might, for instance, be from New Zealand) — in order to sense the pervasive melancholy of an empire in decline. There’s a House of Usher feeling there. Too many prematurely buried bodies.
For diplomats, a massive computer leak is not the kind of sunlight that chases away corrupt misbehavior; it’s more like some dreadful shift in the planetary atmosphere that causes ultraviolet light to peel their skin away. They’re not gonna die from being sunburned in public without their pants on; Bill Clinton survived that ordeal, Silvio Berlusconi just survived it (again). No scandal lasts forever; people do get bored. Generally, you can just brazen it out and wait for the public to find a fresher outrage. Except.
It’s the damage to the institutions that is spooky and disheartening; after the Lewinsky eruption, every American politician lives in permanent terror of a sex-outing. That’s “transparency,” too; it’s the kind of ghastly sex-transparency that Julian himself is stuck crotch-deep in. The politics of personal destruction hasn’t made the Americans into a frank and erotically cheerful people. On the contrary, the US today is like some creepy house of incest divided against itself in a civil cold war. “Transparency” can have nasty aspects; obvious, yet denied; spoken, but spoken in whispers. Very Edgar Allen Poe.
That’s our condition. It’s a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel, but it’s not a comedy that the planet’s general cultural situation is so clearly getting worse. As I sit here moping over Julian Assange, I’d love to pretend that this is just me in a personal bad mood; in the way that befuddled American pundits like to pretend that Julian is some kind of unique, demonic figure. He isn’t. If he ever was, he sure as hell isn’t now, as “Indoleaks,” “Balkanleaks” and “Brusselsleaks” spring up like so many filesharing whackamoles. Of course the Internet bedroom legions see him, admire him, and aspire to be like him — and they will. How could they not?
Even though, as major political players go, Julian Assange seems remarkably deprived of sympathetic qualities. Most saintly leaders of the oppressed masses, most wannabe martyrs, are all keen to kiss-up to the public. But not our Julian; clearly, he doesn’t lack for lust and burning resentment, but that kind of gregarious, sweaty political tactility is beneath his dignity. He’s extremely intelligent, but, as a political, social and moral actor, he’s the kind of guy who gets depressed by the happiness of the stupid.
I don’t say these cruel things about Julian Assange because I feel distant from him, but, on the contrary, because I feel close to him. I don’t doubt the two of us would have a lot to talk about. I know hordes of men like him; it’s just that they are programmers, mathematicians, potheads and science fiction fans instead of fiercely committed guys who aspire to topple the international order and replace it with subversive wikipedians.
The chances of that ending well are about ten thousand to one. And I don’t doubt Assange knows that. This is the kind of guy who once wrote an encryption program called “Rubberhose,” because he had it figured that the cops would beat his password out of him, and he needed some code-based way to finesse his own human frailty. Hey, neat hack there, pal.
So, well, that’s the general situation with this particular scandal. I could go on about it, but I’m trying to pace myself. This knotty situation is not gonna “blow over,” because it’s been building since 1993 and maybe even 1947. “Transparency” and “discretion” are virtues, but they are virtues that clash. The international order and the global Internet are not best pals. They never were, and now that’s obvious.
The data held by states is gonna get easier to steal, not harder to steal; the Chinese are all over Indian computers, the Indians are all over Pakistani computers, and the Russian cybermafia is brazenly hosting wikileaks.info because that’s where the underground goes to the mattresses. It is a godawful mess. This is gonna get worse before it gets better, and it’s gonna get worse for a long time. Like leaks in a house where the pipes froze.
Well… every once in a while, a situation that’s one-in-a-thousand is met by a guy who is one in a million. It may be that Assange is, somehow, up to this situation. Maybe he’s gonna grow in stature by the massive trouble he has caused. Saints, martyrs, dissidents and freaks are always wild-cards, but sometimes they’re the only ones who can clear the general air. Sometimes they become the catalyst for historical events that somehow had to happen. They don’t have to be nice guys; that’s not the point. Julian Assange did this; he direly wanted it to happen. He planned it in nitpicky, obsessive detail. Here it is; a planetary hack.
I don’t have a lot of cheery hope to offer about his all-too-compelling gesture, but I dare to hope he’s everything he thinks he is, and much, much, more.