Drowning in the Details

In my last post, I wrote about a difficult book I was trying to get through. I did manage to finish it, but it was certainly a slog. Admittedly, even though I enjoy nonfiction, I usually do not read about the latest technology. But, the Read Harder Challenge decreed that I should read a nonfiction book on technology, so I chose This Machine Kills Secrets: Julian Assange, the Cypherpunks, and Their Fight to Empower Whistleblowers, by Andy Greenberg, a technology journalist who, at the time of the writing, wrote for Forbes Magazine and now is a senior writer at WIRED.

The author seemed to want to write the definitive book on the history of whistleblowing and the development of anonymity on the internet. He starts with Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers — a top secret report that detailed decision-making in the Vietnam War. Ellsberg was identified and charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, but was eventually acquitted of all charges. Greenberg then moves on to the people who began thinking about anonymity at the birth of the internet, plods slowly through its evolution, and introduces the “cypherpunks,” who created tools to move information anonymously. He cuts back and forth between more contemporary hacking and whistleblowing and classic whistleblowing by the likes of Ellsberg.

I know nothing about how the internet works or how my information is secure or insecure. I just know it’s “out there” and does not depend on a series of tubes that might get blocked by unread emails or LOLcats.

…and cloggin up the intertubes.

I picked up the book because it was salient to the current debate on net neutrality, the fact that Congress repealed Obama-era rules to protect our personal information and allow websites to sell it to third-parties without our knowledge, and whistleblowers like Bradley (Chelsea) Manning and Edward Snowden. Greenberg’s focus on WikiLeaks was also pertinent to the big leaks that Julian Assange and company released during the presidential campaign. Since the book was written prior to Snowden’s actions, the author highlighted Manning’s whistleblowing and its consequences.

Unfortunately for me and for the readers who were looking for a story, the first two-thirds of the book gets mired down in the “how it works” details of the various attempts at creating anonymity tools for the internet. I love reading about topics with which I am unfamiliar, but I could not connect to the “story.” It seemed to require me to be a hacker or a computer analyst or at least someone with a minor interest in coding. One of the reviews I read claimed that the book did not get too technical. Since the reviewer was quoted in the book and was an expert on the topic, I would not take him at his word.

I kept waiting for the action to pick up. How could a movie (The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange) be based on a book that was so dense, I kept wondering, as I forced my way through the jungle of technical jargon. Finally, in the last 100 pages or so, Greenberg gets to the drama surrounding Assange and his various associates. The pace quickens, and I could see where the text could be adapted to a script. Assange seemed to invite drama into his life, even as he developed tools to keep people out of his business.

Instead of trying to write a sweeping history, Greenberg would have better served his audience by writing two books: one for the computer history nerds and one for the rest of us, who could connect with a story about a troubled man and the enemies he made as he pursued his cause. I measure a good book by how sad I am when the story ends. I have never been so relieved to finish a book.