The Harry Truman Show double-tapped the “Japs” in ‘45, not to end World War 2 ASAP, but to flourish the Yankee saber before the Ruskies at Potsdam and ensure they knew who the sheriff was in the new world order that followed, according to some accounts. Like two ancient warrior tribes, the Anglos and the Vikings, say, the Americans have been rattling words and swords ever since, from Sputnik to Stuxnet, from Lee Harvey Oswald to Edward Snowden. They are inextricably linked in modern history and, like the synthetic product of a Hegelian dialectical struggle, have revolutionized the world together.
You could draw a straight line from Sputnik to Stuxnet, from the early battle to control outer-space to the World War Cyber we are currently in. Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, was seen as a Russian warning shot across the bow of the growing American talk-soft-Exceptionalism-and-carry-a-big-nuclear-stick empire. Out of the ensuing reactionary panic, the Pentagon developed the first internet (ARPANET), which was designed, in part, to be a Doomsdaycommunication system to ensure that American ICBM missiles could retaliate, should the Cold War get hot in a hurry.
It was a long time in coming, but Stuxnet, like Sputnik, is a firing-across-the-bow, an American warning to the world, but especially to the Russkies, that it’s game on in cyber-space. Stuxnet was the first virus designed to take out not code but hardware: Iranian nuclear centrifuges overheated with a resulting system catastrophe. Imagine a virus that targeted the fan of your laptop, resulting an overheating that destroyed the motherboard. Now imagine the world of industry — electric grids, oil wells, and yes, military hardware, etc. — targeted by tailored viruses. That’s the world we live in now.
Tim Berners-Lee is not happy with what’s become of his beloved World Wide Web since its introduction transformed the Internet twenty-and-some-change years ago. His vision of a free, open and universal access point for everybody to quickly obtain and share information — from the sciences through the humanities, and everything in-between — has been lost, as the result of the over-commercialization and “centralization” of the world wide web. “Oh, the humanity,” Berners-Lee seems to cry as his once-buoyant vision goes up in flames and falls.
And who hasn’t noticed how the Web has become like so many chambers in a Russian roulette game, as more and more of our attention is absorbed by the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon, and we pull the trigger on our consciousness? Marketized and re-militarized, the Internet has become a place for the Masters of Algorithm War to move our data points around like poker chips in a game of Bullshit. Fake News (Voice of America or RT?), Black Friday mega-deals, the latest Trump tweets, what chum will we go for today? Oh, the humanity.
Ever since 9/11, when the War on Terror began in earnest, it was inevitable that the Internet would be re-militarized by the Pentagon and that they would re-assert the right to control the protocols and communications crossing these wires. In between downloading a book from Amazon, or buying a gift from eBay, or spraying our endless opinions on Facebook, checking out Google’s latest apps, a world war is going on between the precious interstices of our consciousness. In 2012, before he fled (almost ironically) to Russia, Edward Snowden let the world know, with evidence so hard it was virtually whistleblower porn, that we live in a dystopic panopticon. Take Keyscore XL, the NSA’s secret browser which, according to Glenn Greenwald, can “listen to whatever emails they want, whatever telephone calls, browsing histories, Microsoft Word documents. And it’s all done with no need to go to a court, with no need to even get supervisor approval on the part of the analyst.”
Interestingly enough, the Mainstream Media was aware of the NSA’s illegal eavesdropping on American citizens back in October 2004. New York Times prize-winning journalist James Risen had a bombshell story quashed in order, said the Times 14 months later, when they finally published the piece, to avoid swaying the election with an “October surprise.” George H. Bush won re-election without the public having any awareness of the Bush-ordered spy program. Somehow, it never occurred to the editors that such spying might have vital public interest information that maybe should have swayed the election. In essence, they opted to protect his administration’s illegal violation of the Constitution.
Abusive surveillance by intelligence agencies has been going on in America for quite some time, as the Church Committee uncovered in the ‘70s, when it reported on the CIA’s secret and illegal domestic spying. That spying continued and, it’s safe to say, continues still. Why not, when there’s no repercussions and “Terror” is on the loose? It wasn’t long ago that the CIA was spying on members of Congress, without redress — no extended hearings,no long-lasting outrage. Just as after a group of baseball-playing Senators got shot up by a gunman in 2017, even when they were themselves the targets of criminal outrage, Congress demonstrated their fecklessness in the face of CIA abuses and did nothing. On the other hand, Julian Assange may have demonstrated recklessness when he published the entire hacking arsenal of the Agency last year, essentially declaring war on them. For his trouble, he’s been “linked” with Russia and declared “a non-state hostile intelligence service,” with all that that implies.
It’s a panopticon out there and Americans are rightly rattled. The security tentacles of Homeland Security seem to reach into every daily living activity — scans and pat-downs at the airport and train stations; facial scans at public events, especially at protest rallies; ICE at the borders; marijuana raids on legalized outlets; overzealous, militarized police. But the real threat to privacy and what used to be called a ‘normal’ life has disappeared since 9/11, when a “Pearl Harbor-like” event brought America a national security ratcheting. The fear is that, with a militarized Internet, we may be preparing for another Pearl Harbor-like event online that will result in a total lockdown of our activities. Whether you’re a conspiracy theorist or a conspiracy fearist, people in-the-know, such as Richard Clarke and Leon Panetta, have warned that we need to prepare.
But the panopticon is not just the national security apparatus that ostensibly has as its core value the protection of democracy and the American way of life, which one wants to believe only targets “terrorists” (an open-ended noun/verb, in our postmodern world), but includes the honeypot doings of the Good Panopticon — Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook. With the promise of making our online experience more, well, bespoken, tailored to our desires, they absorb our data points into algorithmic dances choreographed around our spending habits. We voluntarily fill in field after field, from forms to emails and texts, and we tell them everything about us at a far deeper level than the government is allowed to do.
Google works with the NSA and others, and has, in the past, built a search engine for the Pentagon. They are the most pervasive and invasive of the lot: street and satellite views of our property (with coordinates); they save and scan every email we’ve ever written (even post-delete); they keep track of images, documents, and other files. Currently, they are specializing in voice recognition software. They build a multi-faceted dossier on each and every user. You would be surprised at the scope of their savings on you — who you called; what you texted and to whom; voice-print samples; where you went — yesterday, last year; what you searched for: https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity . Sobering. And while many people have expressed outrage at Google’s agreeing to build a search engine for the Chinese that blacks out references to human rights issues and sites, they are blind to the work Google does to undermine freedom and democracy at home, because all the activity above is made available to intelligence services.
Amazon works with the CIA, building a database. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, often a first conduit of ‘highly-placed anonymous sources’ within the CIA and other national security agencies. And they specialize in facial recognition technology, which they enthusiastically share with law enforcement agencies. Apple and Microsoft have made system backdoors available to intelligence agencies. As we know the hard way, Facebook sells personal data for huge sums of money to analytical companies for future exploitative processes; the data Facebook keeps is downloadable to you, but also to anyone who cracks your password. Add in The Internet of Everything that would connect all devices to the Internet and there will soon be virtually no place to find relief from the relentless data collection of our doings.
Which brings up the battle for the last frontier — the space between our ears, the future of human consciousness. The more we become dependent upon Internet feeds to our brain, and the more we build on our own data dossier, the closer we come to being our own panopticons. It’s an experience that has already translated into psychological damage (see my review of two relevant books): according to some psychologists, up to 25% of the people around us are ensconced in paranoia; and, strange new diagnoses are arising, such as the Truman Show delusion, a condition whereby individuals feel they are living in a reality TV show, everyone around them actors, cameras everywhere. And that was a rising delusion even before the conspiracy-driven (“but not collusional”) Reality TV president was elected.
As after the Sputnik launch, no one knows where we are heading next, but as we hurdle toward the singularity of biology and the digital, it promises to be transformational, and even an evolutionary paradigm shift. Darwin, Lamarck, choose your poison. And blame the Russians.
When Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen got together with Julian Assange on June 23, 2011, Assange was staying with a WikiLeaks sponsor in rural England and had just completed his sixth month under house arrest as he fought extradition to Sweden for questioning regarding sexual assault charges. He was also dealing with the aftermath of the funding freeze on WikiLeaks, arranged by the US State Department, in retaliation for his publication of embassy cables and war-related secrets leaked to him by Chelsea Manning, including the now-infamous Collateral Murder video. Though he was the recent recipient of prestigious journalism awards, including the Martha Gellhorn prize and Australia’s premiere journalism award, the Walkley Award, the re-established sexual assault charges (Swedish authorities had dropped them and allowed him to leave the country) cut deeply into his popular appeal and began the intense counter-assault on WikiLeaks and on Assange’s character that continues to this day.
Assange: There’s Something About Schmidt (and Google)
Julian Assange’s new book, When Google Met Wikileaks is not really a new book at all; it is a minimally edited transcription of a secret meeting he had with Google’s Erich Schmidt back on June 23, 2011. It took place in rural England, while Assange was under house arrest and dealing with the aftermath of the funding-freeze on Wikileaks, arranged by the US State Department, in retaliation for his publication of war-related secrets leaked to him by Chelsea Manning, including the now-infamous Collateral Murder video. In agreeing to the meeting with Schmidt, Assange had been told that the Google head was writing a book and wanted his input regarding contemporary dissidents and the communication technologies they use. Joining Schmidt were Jared Cohen, Lisa Shields and Scott Malcomson, whom Assange later discovered were not merely Schmidt’s buddies but members of the Council on Foreign Relations, with ties to the State Department.
In any case, on April 19, 2013 Assange posted to the Wikileaks site the transcript of this secret meeting, and made the audio available as well, so that his words and integrity could not later be twisted in the triangulating tactic of They Said/ He Said, the numbers game that collaborating character assassins like to play. The book also includes his New York Times review of the subsequent Schmidt-Cohen book, The New Digital Age, which is also readily accessible online. So why buy the book?
There are a few good reasons. First, the book includes excellent links and notes which, in e-book form, can be clicked, instantly bringing the reader a wealth of background and further information that serve to deepen and more fully contextualize the themes of the secret discussion. Second, the book contains an important introduction (the wryly titled, “Beyond Good and “Don’t Be Evil”), which delves into the Google political philosophy, with disturbing examples of it in action. Third, WGMW is an extension to the scathing review he gave TNDA, which is a critical event worth celebrating in itself, and it more closely unpacks the clearly premeditated trashing of Assange that took place in their book. And lastly, of course, he needs the money.
WGMW is not the relentlessly sobering narrative Assange’s Cypherpunks was, which suggested a future where you’re either a data-encrypting activist, by default, or just another passive-ist consumer being pasture-ized and homogenized. It has a dialogical energy that lifts it beyond the diatribalism of rogue philosophizing that often sings the hacktivists’ body electric, and, again, the supplementary links make the experience of reading the transcript rather interactive, which seems all too appropriate. But most importantly, the WGMW’s subject matter and the themes that emerge from it, when weighed up against Schmidt-Cohen’s pseudo-Nietzschean TNDA huff-and-puffery, reveal what seem like irreconcilable world views destined for interminable future clashes, two systems of thought seemingly in collision – anarcho-libertarianism vs. totalitarian-utopianism, or, to channel Julia Kristeva, the semiotic vs. the symbolic.
The most important accomplishment of the book is the connection Assange establishes between the Google Politic and the ambitions set loose in The New Digital Age. The Schmidt-Cohen tome was originally titled The Empire of the Mind, which is in much closer alignment to their politics than the wonky-sounding TNDA, because at work in their book is an idealized vision of the world after neo-con American Exceptionalism has forcibly broken through every global barrier and established its neo-liberal dominion over all people and resources of the earth, with future presidents being the new emperors at the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama hath ordained.
In his introduction to WGMW, Assange cites a 2010 Foreign Affairs piece Schmidt-Cohen wrote, “The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power,” in which the dynamic duo discuss in detail future “coalitions of the connected” made possible with technologies “overwhelmingly provided by the private sector.” Assange pulls up this telling quote:
Democratic states that have built coalitions of their militaries have the capacity to do the same with their connection technologies. . . . They offer a new way to exercise the duty to protect citizens around the world [Assange’s emphasis added].
Like the justification George W. Bush used to ignore sovereignty and make war in countries “too weak or unable to fight terrorism,” the ‘duty to protect’ principle, is a militaristic co-optation and corruption of humanitarian intervention theory, as well as the clearest indication yet that the Internet has already been militarized and that we are now in the normalization phase. As a literal battlefield it is to be controlled by the strongest military, making Obama, as Commander-in-Chief the principle ‘decider’ for future Internet policies. Schmidt-Cohen are the Good Cop face to a long-time extant US foreign policy succinctly summed up, absolutely unapologetically, by Bad Cops, like former Latin American CIA chief Duane Clarridge, who helped arrange for the overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende. Says Bad Cop Clarridge, “We’ll intervene whenever we feel it’s in our interest to so, and if you don’t like it, lump it. Get used to it world. We’re not going to put up with any nonsense.” There is no functional difference between the political principles espoused by Schmidt-Cohen and that of Clarridge. None.
But, Assange makes clear, alloy this political mandate with the technological vision Schmidt-Cohen reveal in The Empire of the Mind and you have a profoundly disturbing nightmare scenario that clearly threatens the sanity of our species if not its very existence. As Assange points out, there is in the Schmidt-Cohen manifestive a banality that seeks to assuage and seduce, like a 1950s TV ad high on Twilight Zone smack, which serves to distract from consequences and implications. So, for instance, Schmidt-Cohen tells us how good buddy Amazon can help solve so many problems with their ever-so-clever algorithms (but doesn’t tell you how the two buddies collaborate with intelligence agencies). “For example,” the two tell us, “Amazon is able to take its data on merchants and, using algorithms, develop customized bank loans to offer them—in some cases when traditional banks have completely shut their doors.” Oh, so, kinda like that cool subprime loan thing-a-ma-jiggy, right? But, getting stranger than strange,
As for life’s small daily tasks, [Amazon’s] information systems will streamline many of them for people living in those countries, such as integrated clothing machines (washing, drying, folding, pressing and sorting) that keep an inventory of clean clothes and algorithmically suggest outfits based on the user’s daily schedule. [emphasis added]
And, if it stopped there, that would be sufficient to give pause to a sane person. But the two plough on with what may be the proverbial kicker. We mustn’t underestimate the value of future holograph boxes, they tell us, in which you can find entertainment by immersing yourself in various virtual excursions: “Worried your kids are becoming spoiled? Have them spend some time wandering around the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.” (What about a lesson in social justice; maybe send the kids to Ferguson with sniper guns? Maybe have the kids holographically visit Yemen to see what a cluster bomb does to an suspecting wedding party?) This is “transformative”? Visionary?
But daft is one thing, libellous and malicious is something else altogether. And Assange is rightly outraged by the way he is mauled by Schmidt-Cohen in their book. Polite to his face (and even telling him at one point they were “sympathetic” to his cause), it seems they couldn’t get away from him fast enough after the secret meeting, so that they could string together fibs and confabulations that were surely pre-mixed. In a lengthy chapter on the future of terrorism, where Assange, as the world’s leading hacktivist, has a starring role, they falsely claim Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition back to Sweden to face “an indictment for sexual assault;” they repeat the long-dropped lie that his published leaks “put lives at risk”; and though he very carefully explained his document redactions as a necessary “harm minimization / impact maximization” tactic to ward off “opportunists” looking to make the conversation about the treasonous harm of the publishing rather than the treasonous harm of the content, Schmidt-Cohen told Foreign Affairs that Assange’s real motivation was “money”; and these accumulated false concerns led to the question:
“Why is it Julian Assange, specifically, who gets to decide what information is relevant to the public interest?” [and] “what happens if the person who makes such decisions is willing to accept indisputable harm to innocents as a consequence of his disclosures?
As Assange points out, this is rhetorical, because soon they answer by saying all leaks should go to “a central body facilitating the release of information” and that whistleblower publishers need “supervision.”
And this begins to get at the heart of the matter: dissidents need to be accounted for, contained as a subset, and controlled. After all, most of them are just kids (more than half the world’s population is under 30, and growing) and Schmidt-Cohen, and the State Department, are worried sick about what these youngsters might get up to. As Schmidt-Cohen observe, “the mix of activism and arrogance in young people is universal.” This isn’t the first time they raised this sentiment either. Early on, during the secret meeting with Assange, Scott Malcomson, one of the CFR tools who accompanied Schmidt observed, “young people aren’t inherently good. And I say that as a father and with regret.” Nor are old people and fathers, and I say that in all sincerity.
And the self-described “old people” who met with Assange seem to have had a notion already in motion as to how they would shepherd and influence young people, but they are still looking for shaping mechanisms, triggers they can apply. That was the value of the recent secret Facebook-DoD experiment: to manipulate community emotions toward action, the way it was done in the Joseph Kony saga, where children were rounded up by a Christian evangelical ‘activist’ overnight on Facebook and put to the task of proxy vigiliantism. (Kony is still free today, although the actions of all those manipulated kids did lead to Congress authorizing a military presence in the Central African Republic, albeit they don’t seem to be looking for Kony much: “but 40 advisers will remain.”).
The answer, as with leaks, is to shepherd youngsters into a central crowdsource pens for them to vent their disaffection and participate in ‘constructive’ dissident campaigns. The preferred choice, of course, is movements.org, affiliated with the ‘centrist’ doctrines of the day, and neo-liberal causes, and their main goal is to knock down “dictators” everywhere, even if freely elected; it’s the American Way. Movements.org is just one more arm of co-optation and control, and an exercise in grooming future “responsible” controllers.
Meanwhile, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen and Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar, and all the other ‘activist’ billionaire philanthropists are free to do the adult freedom-fightin’; working with the NSA to drill down to unruly dissidents; or creating algorithms that the CIA can use to track, well, anybody; or pouring money into coups in places resistant to neo-liberalization,or even meeting up with rebels to organize resistance as Cohen says he’s done.
In WGMW, Assange once again raises constructive ways around the growing totalitarian state, including the use of mobile peer-to-peer communications by cellphone that don’t require going through a telco (properly adjusted, cells phones could communicate with unmediated radio frequencies, says Assange); comprehensive encryption (files and communication); and the use of non-persistent operating systems on a USB stick or DVD, such as TAILs. This is the new face of freedom in the future: Running and hiding and subverting goofy billionaire philanthropists who only want what’s best for you, who only want to help you make the right choices, all watched over, as Adam Curtis would have it, by machines of loving grace. And if you won’t be watched over, you will be targeted, put on the president’s future Tuesday morning hit list. You will never see it coming.
A few weeks ago I re-watched The Illustrated Man, a film based on Ray Bradbury’s short story collection by the same name. Reading The New Digital Age had me seeing those dystopic tattoos again, but not on the body of a knowing victim like Steiger, but in the daft Satyricon that is the Schmidt-Cohen premise. In The Illustrated Man, there’s one vignette in which two teens are allowed to play in their favourite holographic room and conjure up wild lions to play with and the parents think all is bliss until bits and pieces of their stuff goes missing, only to be discovered in the holographic room being sniffed over by the lions. Alarmed, the parents call in a shrink, who comes almost immediately, but not before the kids get the lions to maul and eat their parents. And, in the holography that still lights up my mind that’s how I want to respond to Google’s Dead Soul future — with Schmidt and Cohen (and Bezos and Omidyar, and all the other elites) taken by the Empire’s lions and devoured by their own megalomaniac fantasies.