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.
It’ll come at you on a quiet wind one evening, you laying there drifting on some dream floe, at peace. Suddenly, you’ll hear a disembodied voice croak, “He knows.” You’ll recoil at its strange tenor then let it go. Then, day by day, more of the same comes your way: “We got him;” “That’s it;” “No more lies;” “He’s a maniac;” “We have to get him out of here;” and then, one day, repeated like a mantra, “Take him!”
The voices come from your neighborhood, and their repetition and urgency carve a frequency channel into your brain, so that what once passed by unnoted on a breeze is pre-tuned for your ears. Until one day, after many months, maybe years, a judgment declaration is made and you hear a shrill ancient voice caw, “He’s evil!”
Rapt now, you wonder who the referent is, and then it comes like the shower scene– someone drawls yourname, like an aural pointing finger. Terrified, you look out the window into the dark and there comes a slow accretion of pitchforks and torches gathering on your lawn. Voices hidden within hoods repeat, “You’re evil. Take himmmmm.”
You won’t even see it coming.
By now most everyone paying attention at all knows that President Obama holds Drone Tuesday sessions at the White House with key counter-terrorist advisors at which he shuffles through playing card targets for elimination by his weapon of choice, the soft-spoken, big-stick-toutin’ unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), AKA, the drone.
To date, thousands of foreign “terrorists” have been eliminated this way, including heaps of women and children, mistakenly identified baddies – sometimes whole wedding parties in mid-dance have been sent to Kingdom Comeuppance in a cluster bomb moment of joystick bliss.
Even American citizens have seen their playing cards retired in a flurry of statistical elision. No bubble gum with these playing cards.
Just as many now know of the horrors of Guantanamo, the black hoods, the orange suits, the deprivations, and the waterboards. A lot of Americans know but don’t remark upon the torture regimens and complete lack of due process done in the dark in their names, people held without charges for years, their lives shuffled unilaterally by Executive office hands. James Risen and others have by now detailed the medieval doings of Guantanamo. But this piece is not about drone strikes or waterboarding, per se, but about what they share in common, and what they share with the unnamed stalkee that opens our gambit above: The Disposition Matrix.
At last count there were 1.5 million Americans (and who knows how many globally) who are currently on one Watch List or another, ostensibly for their intrinsic threat to the regime. A million and a half citizens regarded by the government as potential terrorists or their supporters.
It would be impossible, even with an enormous army of watchers, to track all of them without profiling, which acts a database filter during queries. Analysts and psychologists put together these profile streams, not only for jihadists abroad, who will need droning or near-drowning, but also at home for dissidents and free-thinkers.
That’s the Disposition Matrix. It might help to regard it as a kind of astrological chart that keeps track of characteristics, influences, and other data dot connections.
Our “Evil” one above turns out to be a writer. Evil is the local version of “terrorist”. Our writer has crossed too many invisible Rubicons and now must pay. A whole panoply of tools will be put into play to neutralize him. His computer will be cloned through a wireless backdoor program, and “evidence” of moral turpitude will be added to the clone, which at the right time will be called “his” computer. His computer and iPhone will be fitted with keyloggers and rootkits.
He will be surveilled 24/7 using thermal imaging and infrared devices that track not only his movements but his family’s as well. He will be dehumanized and observed like a paramecium, his every movement and expression judged and analyzed.
All of his work will be called into question by innuendo and pettiness and absurd assertions in an effort to discredit. And all of it will happen behind his back so that no defense can be mounted – indeed, so that stalkers remain anonymous. A catalog of the tools involved can be seen in the handbook The Hidden Evil.
Recently I touched upon this paranoid world in my review of Robert Guffey’s Chameleo, which details the disappearance of government invisibility technology from a US military base and the mind-altering and clandestine means they employ to regain their assets. But in a follow-up interview Guffey says such means are just the tip of the iceberg to what is taking place covertly in America and probably the world.
“The Edward Snowden revelations pale in comparison,” he says. In a long essay entitled, “Nation of Stalkers,” Guffey argues that gangstalking is on its way to becoming the primary means for dealing with non-conformists and especially pesky dissidents, particularly if they have loose binds with others. Due process has been suspended; ‘justice’ has been contracted out.
Guffey makes an intriguing allusion to Marshall McLuhan, who, he notes once wrote of the human self in our age: “[since 1946 or 1947]…there [has been] no human life on this planet. Since then human beings have been grown inside programmed media-environments that are essentially like test tubes.
That’s why I say the kids today live mythically.” In a sense, baby-boomers, and beyond, have been tabla rasi stick-figures waiting for digitalization to animate their mythological dispositions. The medium is the message alright.
I found this interesting in relation to another book I reviewed recently, The Internet Is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen, who observes that one important thing the Internet has achieved is to turn most people on the planet into writers.
We spend our days clicking-and-clacking, hunting-and-pecking our way through narratives undreamed of before. We are busy, as McCluhan suggests, and as the Internet giants already know, writing our own mythical selves into databases controlled not by privacy and deep spaces of quietude and blank canvasses between works, but always switched on, interactive and reacting to endless beams of stimulation that actually ends up excluding our authentic selves.
And all of this mythmaking takes place in the Disposition Matrix, which becomes an omnibus of myths, collected and owned by the Googles, Facebooks and Amazons, leeched from by government agents, with all storylines approved or disapproved by corporates with fascist notions of the individual’s place in the narrative of digital being, where all must now reside, or be Watch-Listed and ‘removed’.
And literally, as digital beings, the day is approaching, if not already here, when anonymous global elites and their gangstalking enforcers, like the Homeric gods and their demigod hench-creatures decide who gets to have to have a voice, who gets to shine in the firmament, and, indeed, who lives and who dies.
We are coming to the day when ‘attitude’ and ‘personality type’ will determine where you fit in the hierarchy of social being, and those qualities will be decided upon and judged by myriad gargoyles of pedantry gazing down with fixed stares from the high-flying buttresses of Das Kapital cathedrals.
Oh, dear reader, provide your IP address in the comments section below, and watch how quickly your life can be turned into lugubrious mud by the organ-grinding 1%-er Dr. Phibes.
‘Some people are finding it harder and harder to distinguish between real people and targets from some Call of Duty scenario’
It”s so easy to misconstrue what we see. So easy, in fact, that eyewitnesses are not regarded as terribly reliant conduits of reality and their testimony in a court of law is routinely regarded as suspect.
It”s not much better for what we hear (or think we hear). Many years ago in Abu Dhabi, in my IB English class, I conducted a Chinese Whispers session as prep for a novel we were reading (Camus” The Stranger). By the time my very brief message got around from ear to ear, from student 1 through 19, it had changed dramatically.
We often bring what we expect or want to perceive into the perception and communicate accordingly.
Misconstruing is not limited to the phenomena of everyday life, but is a problem for science as well. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, for instance, states that formulating an absolute truth about a phenomenon is problematical because the object of our scrutiny is altered by the scrutiny itself.
Misconstruing came to mind the other night when I was watching a re-run of a Seinfeld episode – “The Diplomat”s Club” – the one in which Elaine is peevishly looking after a grumpy old rich guy who is now on his death bed. Elaine lights up when she learns that her ministrations have not been for nought, as he has named her in his will in appreciation for her service.
Elaine visits him in his hospital room and, wishing to make him more comfortable, carries a pluffed pillow over toward him, not realizing that she is being spied upon, and that the spy sees not an attempt at comforting but an attempt at murder, which she “interrupts” heroically and proceeds to undermine Elaine, who, as result loses her place in the will and, of course, the bounce in her step.
But misconstruing does not always lead to a punch line. There are more recent examples in “real life” where misconstruing has lead to misidentification and profound repercussions. For instance, last September, just after a British-accented ISIS jihadist beheaded a journalist, Australia used emergency powers for the first time to conduct a massive raid on an Islamic man in Sydney, reportedly affiliated with ISIS, who, an informant said, owned a scary sword.
After hysterical TV coverage of his arrest, his sword turned out to be ceremonial and plastic (a fact not subsequently widely reported), and the Islamic sect he belonged to was actually hostile to that inspiring ISIS. Luckily, the man was not killed in the raid, but the end result was the almost-immediate passage of sweeping new anti-terror legislation in parliament that contains severe implicit restrictions on civil liberties and the threat of torture.
It is not much of a step from misconstruing to misidentifying, and unlike as with the Sydney swordsman, it does not always end well for the targeted one. After the Boston Marathon bombing the FBI released a photo of the suspects online. One viewer thought the photo looked like his “friend,” Sunil Tripathi, a BrownUniversity student, and he began tweeting this information. Soon Reddit picked it up, and almost immediately a swarming vigilante mob began pursuing Sunil. The trouble is, after a panicky few hours, Sunil was soon thereafter discovered in the ocean, drowned (circumstances still unclear).
Recently, Melissa Howard had a piece in Overlandmagazine, “Spot the Terrorist,” that details not only facets of Sunil’s case but the rise of online vigilantism in general. No doubt, there’s a lot of instant gratification to mobbing a target. As with the delightful distancing of remote-control drone kills and the lovely story arcs of long distance American sniper work, donning a virtual white hood on the Internet must seem like Heaven’s playground to all the reactionary-aggressives out there.
There isn’t any question that some people – perhaps many people – are finding it harder and harder to distinguish between real people and targets from some Call of Duty scenario. But when you swarm, not only do you belong to “a greater cause” for awhile, but the guilt and shame load is widely distributed, and consequently diluted.
Early last year, there was the Joseph Kony saga, where children were crowdsourced on Facebook to “Get Kony.” This is an example of how dangerous cyber-manipulation can be (the sensation died, and Kony is still at large). It doesn’t help that Facebook was recently discovered to be experimenting, in cooperation with the US military, on the emotional manipulation of users.
This corporate-military alliance is not an anomaly: We ourselves are being militarized, drafted into service, and those who resist will be tomorrow’s burning cross victims, and with more than 1.5 million people on the US secret Watch List (i.e., suspects, dissidents) there’s plenty of torching ahead.
We are all potential Sunils, Konys and bin Ladens, in the abstract. This is not mere paranoia. One of the more frightening portions of the recent film Citizenfour came early on when government whistleblower Jacob Appelbaum told a group of activists that data trails follow us everywhere, and if one is even perceived as a suspect or government target that that status will follow you around for the rest of your life. East Germany’s Stasi reportedly had some 170, 000 informants willing to snitch, undermine and even some scores to earn brownie points from The Man, but with the Internet prevalence available informants no doubt reach into the millions.
But what’s more, digital vigilantism and stalking feeds the fires of shrill lunatics and psychopaths who were already a problem before America took her gloves off and announced to the world, “No more Mrs. Nice Girl.” There used to be an American TV program called Perverted Justice, in which vigilantes would “expose” various miscreants to the public (they seemed to specialize in pedophile cases), and worked to do all they could do to destroy their target, including anonymously messaging the target’s friends, family, and co-workers to germinate seeds of suspicion and hate. The program was finally cancelled, after being exposed for corruption, misrepresentations and mistakes, but not before they had fatally tarnished targets.
It gets worse still. Given the technology now available (and the terrifying stuff on its way), what with infra-red cameras, thermal imaging, rootkits, wireless highjacking, surreptitious PC enslavement, anyone could wake up one day and discover themselves a target of abuse and degradation as part of someone else’s idea of fun or a good hunt. And depending on the stuff you are made of, you may go Luddite, or get meek, or become a model prisoner. After all, it’s a case of “national security,” right?
In this near-future mirrored world you may even try to break free. There’ll be leeway, no doubt. You will be allowed to confront yourself in the mirror. Your masters will e-jubilate when you give yourself the rude finger in the mirror. They will delight with you when you play the mirror as an absurdist prop. And they may even look the other way when frustration builds and you may ty to shoot you way out of the glass house. To them, it’s all a game. But may the gods help you if you turn, in earnest, to the one-way mirror and tell them what you really think, your expression all contempt and derision.
Because it’s all about controlling the narrative, and if you try to escape the part they’ve set for you to become a True Man, if you try to alter the dialogue or the story arc – well, next thing you know, it won’t be like the relatively benign Truman Show, but more like Camus’ The Stranger, wherein peripheral personages testify against your dispositional deficiencies, and you”ll wake up one day treated like Peter Lorre in M, until pursued and trapped, they come to “take” you in the end, like Stan in Pinter”s The Birthday Party, to blow out your bloody candles.
Aye, now it’s dark; there’s no misconstruing that.
It’s all out of the bag now, as they say and say: America tortures. Of course, this news has been evident for quite some time. Who was in doubt of the implications lurking in Dick Cheney’s 2001 mumble-snark, “Time to take the gloves off”? In any case, in 2011, OR Books released The Torture Report, which details the deranged doings at Guantanamo, where hundreds of humans have been detained without trial for many years now.
And a couple of years ago, ex-CIA interrogator John Kiriakou belatedly blew the whistle on the Agency, at one point relating how one terrorist suspect was waterboarded so thoroughly that he ended up writing poems to the wife of his tormentor. “They hate us more than they love life,” quoth Kiriakou, and there can be no doubt why – our freedoms – or, at least, our license. (Oops, shouldn’t have said that.)
But the capper on the whole torture chamber music industry failings has to be the more recent acknowledgement that the torturers were aided and abetted in their Dark Knighthood doings by members of the APA – psychiatrists and psychologists who’d given their oaths, like Hippocrates, to ‘do no harm’. And apparently, if a recent report by an ex-APA executive is any indicator, these psychological architects of torture often did so gleefully, and not so much out of a sense of patriotism and justice but with career ambitions. In short, the ka-ching factor.
That’s depressing enough, but, then, who would you turn to for treatment? Who could you trust, when the profession which, next to Catholic confessionals, is built around honoring confidences turns around and sells those secrets to the Authorities for a song called, “The Bass Suddenly Sings Falsetto.”
You could argue that the first clear signs of the impending collapse of a civilization is when it throws its own most cherished ideals under the bus (or the chariot, if you require classical stim), and in America’s case the most important ideals, from a purely republican position, would be adherence to the Rule of Law and the application of due process. In America, the world’s once-premiere democratic republic, the law and the process were sacred symbols of trust, the manifest density of its transparent idealistic gas. The law and the process were a glad shackle of trust: Everyone here gets a fair shake. That’s what made gazing on the Statue of Liberty in the harbor so poignant, rather than just another accosting by the underarm deodorant industry. It was the value that made America exceptional.
But the law and the process were the first things to go under the Bush administration, and, by God, not even reluctantly. And when, a couple of years later, after the post-9/11 security lock-down was in place and well on its way to normalization, that he no longer much cared or thought about the atrocity’s presumed mastermind, Osama bin Laden, he revealed that the real mission he’d accomplished was the destruction of that sacred trust. The limited Congressional authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) to wage war strictly against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attack was morphed by corrupt lawyers into a justification for endless war, battlefields du jour, the militarization of all human communications, and, essentially, the martial outlawing of privacy – and not just in public communications, like texts and emails, but even, if they so choose, and using infrared technologies, the hand you wipe your bottom with. No doubt, terrorists use their left.
Borrowing, with heavy irony, from the post-modern relativists, the neo-cons and their kissing cousin neo-libs, have turned the Constitution into a feeble anachronism no longer to be taken any more literally than the Gospel of St. Paul. Never mind that the Constitution was the most literal document ever written, that it was intentionally written to be literal, and that that was what made it sacred.
But declaring war on an abstract noun –terrorism—and deleting due process as a syntactical inconvenience have messaged to the world that we’re pretty much right back in the world conjured up in living color by Voltaire in Candide, full of unspeakable horrors, Pangloss apologists and scaredy-cat gardeners. Ultimately, since the post-modernists demonstrated the relativism of controlling language and thereby weakened its hold, the controllers did one better and declared war on language itself. Because, in the end, that’s what the War on Terror is – a war on language.
It would be a mistake – and one I’m sure we’ll make—to think that now that we’ve fessed up and out our torturing ways that that’s the end to it; that long looks in the mirror will come next, followed by the rejuvenation and redemption of reform. Indeed, we have merely finished Phase One.
Consider that the same criteria used by psychologists to construct the Destructo machinery for the government are the same ones that help determine who gets put in the US government’s Disposition Matrix database – the one used to help determine who will be droned to death (‘and they will never see it coming’, haw-haw). The torture chamber was remedial; the Disposition Matrix is predictive. Like an astrology chart machine it algorithmically considers alignments of data stars and makes an analysis of how actors with certain star signs will respond in that alignment, and ices them ahead of time. (Man, I know some Aries punks who could use a good Hellfire in the belly, but I drift.)
The language of Terror (and the terror of language) being what it is, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the future blows. ‘Terror’ is a moveable feast. First, you wipe out the ones not willing to put up with any more crap (they’re easy to identify), and then you move on to their ‘material supporters’ and ‘sympathizers’, and then devolve to associates of sympathizers, until you reach that point where you are throwing Neanderthal Ned under the first wheel. Terror is the .gif that keeps on .giffing; a loopity-loop of fun and anticipation.
With the planet under siege and critical resources running low and dirty (think water), one imagines a future disposition matrix that includes most of the world’s people, all future billions of them, who, after all, add nothing to the future of the race but dirty genes and have only been useful as economic growth machines consuming what they’re told to (or else). Liberty and Democracy are fun words to say, especially with a few drinks in you, but they’ll soon come a time when government itself is anachronistic. Indeed, we may already be post-political and beyond the holy communion of self-governance.
Imagine gamers, armed with their Clint Eastwood joysticks and hacking acumen, hired by the government’s new morality enforcers, people such as the likeable Duane (Dewey) Clarridge, to snuff out ‘nonsense’ like over-population and other undesirables, culling down until there’s nobody left but elites, military leaders and family, rock stars and the like, the joystickers themselves (temporarily, wink) – in short, a Pol Potage of carnivalesque carnage, until there’s no one left but the ones Mick Jagger sings about in “Sympathy for the Devil.” In this world there’ll be no law or due process, no day in court. In fact, already, there are some places where not even the kangaroos get a day in court.
Is there no hope then? Hard to say. Voltaire, who thought we needed god to set us right, had Candide, in that cataclysmic best of all possible worlds filled with beheadings, failed states, and general pestilence, minding his own garden. One notes it was not a collectivist’s garden, Candide was no kibbutz-nik; he was alone with his private thoughts, blocking out the white noise of civilization collapsing all around him. Who knows, but maybe Candide was Voltaire’s hemlock and that lone constant gardener was his rude finger to the world? In the end, everyone picks his or her own poison, whether they know it or not.
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.
Nevertheless, the meeting was ostensibly a dialogical summit of switched-on minds that would unravel many of the complexities of the new, rapidly unfolding digital age, discussing the impact of this new paradigm on the core values of democracy in a ‘globalized’ world. Assange was led to believe that Schmidt was especially keen to pick the famous hacktivist’s brain on the role of dissidents and the communication tools they would employ to expose acts of governmental tyranny and corruption in this new era. He was led to believe that the un-molested conversational highlights of this meeting would find their way into the book Schmidt and Jared Cohen were working on –The New Digital Age – which they expected to publish about a year later. Just to be sure, 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 a game of They Said / He Said. Joining Schmidt and Jared Cohen at the meeting were Lisa Shields and Scott Malcomson, who Assange later discovered were not merely Schmidt’s buddies but members of the Council on Foreign Relations, with ties to the very State Department that had him under siege.
It turns out, the “productively paranoid” Assange (to cite Joseph Flatley’s wonderful categorization in his review of Schmidt and Cohen’s book) was smart to publish the transcript, because his fears were well-founded – the meeting was, for all intents and purposes, scripted theatre (call it Google Play), and could have been the work of Harold Pinter, for all its subtle signs and hidden agendas. As Assange remarks in the introduction to his new book, When Google Met WikiLeaks, “the delegation was one part Google, three parts US foreign-policy establishment, but I was still none the wiser.” In all likelihood, Schmidt and Cohen already knew what they were going to write about Assange before they met. But the book is not only the transcript of their encounter, it also includes the aforementioned introduction, which acts as an primer on the Schmidt-Cohen political agenda, as well as a reprint of Assange’s New York Times book review of the The New Digital Age, when it finally appeared in early 2013, and, finally, a postscript that details how Assange’s views at the meeting were distorted in the Schmidt-Cohen manifesto and his character further abused. Assange had a right to be livid and he manages to push back with his book.
Perhaps as an indication of his bruised ego, Assange opens his exposition by employing language that is seemingly intended to inflate his value, repeatedly referring to the meeting’s secrecy, as if the meeting were a negotiation between equals; and by nose-tweaking word choices that suggest a Ninja-like revolutionary at war with dark, machine-like authorities. This creates some readerly hurdles and unnecessary obfuscations. “I was intrigued that the mountain would come to Mohammed,” begins Assange, likening the meeting to a profound experience of enlightenment, which it was not. But what does that expression even mean? The best my DuckDuckGo results could do was to inform me that it isn’t derived from the Koran and is not an Islamic saying, and, indeed, that it almost certainly is derived from a distortion of a very similar reference in Francis Bacon’s way-back-in-the-day essay “Of Boldness,” wherein the user of that expression is lampooned as a charlatan. One could certainly see how Bacon could be making fun of the kind of boldness expressed in The New Digital Age, but it isn’t an intuitive connection.
Similarly, Assange writes about evading censorship by “moving across borders like ghosts,” and then employs a series of martial terms: “at Ellingham I became an immovable asset under siege. We could no longer choose our battles. Fronts opened up on all sides. I had to learn to think like a general. We were at war.” While this is somewhat amusing, one wonders what benefits accrue for Assange, and other activists he symbolically represents, by playing into (and consequently affirming) the ‘Internet is a battlefield’ meme, which tends to act as a convenient justification for government crackdowns. Here, even to this sympathetic reader, Assange seems to be hurt and lashing out, and comes across like John Connor, the boy-hero from Terminator, who represents the future of humanity and must stay alive at any cost. Again, while Assange’s position has enormous personal resonance for me, its tetchiness risks giving the bastards what they want. Even the gentle, congenial Yogi Bear, if ‘taken’ and tethered to a chain at a picnic site in Jellystone Park, where adults abuse and threaten him and children are encouraged to pretend to be afraid to provide a pretext for further abuse, even Yogi Bear would eventually turn grizzly, at which time his persecutors would sneer, “See, told you he had poor character.” But Assange must eschew the justifiable impulse to draw blood if he wants to keep tuned-in listeners on message. If you’re going to preach real freedom, expect to be really, really crucified.
Having said that though, one has a sense of proxy rage when, after hearing Jared Cohen stoke Assange’s vanity at the meeting by playing up, despite Assange’s protestations, the role WikiLeaks played in the Tunisian revolution and in the larger Arab Spring (Cohen all but throwing up a high-five), The New Digital Age gives no mention to Assange’s role as the provider of key information that may have tipped the balance. And then early in TNDA, in their chapter on The Future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting, after many pages devoted to how destructive to reputations online published material can be—to the point that it lead to “virtual honor killing” and can result in a targeted person’s actual murder—they segue to a section on what they refer to as Assange’s “free data movement”, where they wantonly (and arrogantly, given that the meeting was recorded) mischaracterize his position on leaking, on what gets leaked and why, almost likening WikiLeaks to revenge porn videos.
Despite some of the known negative consequences of this movement (threats to individual security, ruined reputations and diplomatic chaos), some free-information activists believe the absence of a delete button ultimately strengthens humanity’s progress toward greater equality, productivity and self-determination. We believe, however, that this is a dangerous model, especially given that there is always going to be someone with bad judgement who releases information that will get people killed. [emphasis added]
Later, in their chapter on the Future of Terrorism, they will directly assert that this is what Julian Assange did with his ‘might-as-well-be-terrorism’ leaks. They never challenged Assange this way to his face, and they ignored all evidence contrary to this assertion. But most importantly, they imply that Assange and any other free-information activists are worthy of being droned. In this way, the seemingly endless, sovereignty-scoffing US military forays that result in literally untold war crimes, including torture, murder, and the catastrophic displacement of huge swathes of various populations, become so normalized that the average citizen regards leaks that reveal this behaviour as the real treason.
They wrongly refer to the false assertion that he is wanted by Swedish police for questioning as “his indictment of sexual assault charges,” another agenda item never brought up to his face. Another slur that does little more than libel Assange by calling into question ‘his real motivations’ is the Schmidt-Cohen assertion that found its way in a Foreign Affairs magazine, the State department’s rah-rah forum, exclaiming that what few redactions Assange did make to documents prior to release were motivated by “money” considerations. He said no such thing, as the transcript plainly shows, and in fact he painstakingly explained to them that his action was a ‘harm minimization / impact maximization’ tactic designed to ward off political “opportunists” looking to make the conversation about the treasonous harm of the publishing rather than the treasonous harm of the content’s revelations about administrative criminality. Schmidt-Cohen have no problems with undermining Assange’s reputation, despite saying to his face that they “sympathized” with his views.
As Assange points out, “it was not until well after Schmidt and his companions had been gone that I came to understand who had really visited me.” He means, of course, that he had essentially received a proxy visit from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. This might seem a wild and egotistical claim, until you realize that Schmidt has a close relationship with Obama, having been on a short list of candidates to head the Commerce Department, while Jared Cohen was regarded as a can-do wunderkind by the State Department, first under Condoleeza Rice and then under Hillary Clinton, before going to Google in 2010. As Assange would come to learn from the subsequent publishing of The New Digital Age, a key concern for Schmidt-Cohen was learning how Assange did what he did and how they could harness that know-how to corral younger generation activists into doing their bidding.
Ironically, the aspect of their meeting where they might truly have had meaningful dialectical exchanges during their meeting was around the subject of information systems management. Assange acknowledges their mutual passion for systems architecture and management, and how it relates to their politics, when he writes,
His questions often skipped to the heart of the matter, betraying a powerful nonverbal structural intelligence… This was a person who understood how to build and maintain systems: systems of information and systems of people. My world was new to him, but it was also a world of unfolding human processes, scale, and information flows.
The problem, of course, is that their politics have entirely different vectors. While Schmidt is correct to refer to assert that Assange is a kind of ‘free information activist,’ at least when it comes to government transparency and shedding a light on executive office criminality, Assange is also spot-on when he says of Schmidt: “[he] fits exactly where he is: the point where the centrist, liberal, and imperialist tendencies meet in American political life.” Given Google’s long-standing cooperation with the Defense Department (indeed the ex-head of their R&D arm, DARPA, recently jumped to an executive position with Google) and the NSA (Google played a key a role in the NSA’s highly-invasive and illegal PRISM program), one could posit that Schmidt-Cohen represent the vanguard of neoliberal policies, enforced by neoconservative martial might. The very governmental constraints and intrusiveness that they seek to end in the “repressive” regimes they cite is equally if not substantially more true of the US surveillance state.
(It is a largely undiscussed fact that well before 9/11 Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney created and implemented a secret Continuation of Government (COG) plan in the event of catastrophic terrorist attack, spectacular natural disaster, or major popular insurrection for any number of reasons, including major opposition to foreign policy actions (see a summary of some details here). This COG operates as emergency principles and supersedes the usual Constitutional chain of command. This COG emergency protocol went into effect on 9/11. Almost no one in Congress was aware that this shadow government existed, let alone that Cheney had triggered the procedure. Many citizens would be amazed to learn that Obama actually inherited this secretive state of emergency. Indeed, the state of emergency rules are still in place, and, technically, the Executive office claims the power to act as if the US were in a state of martial law. Because, according to these protocols, it is. When you apply this knowledge to American military actions in foreign lands, from Europe and the Middle East to Asia, you’re looking at the empire-building conceits that were gifted to the neoconservatives by way of 9/11.)
But back to systems of information and their utilities. Assange and Schmidt-Cohen share a passion for activating the masses to generate momentum and change the status quo. For Assange, the desire is to create a reliable means to affect changes that result in what he calls “just acts.” Using a Fourth Estate model, Assange locates the “bottleneck” to just and progressive change in how information is distributed and presented to the populace. At the meeting, Assange tells Schmidt and his cohorts:
In a Fourth Estate context, the people who acquire information are sources; the people who work on information and distribute it are journalists and publishers; and the people who may act on it includes everyone. That’s a high-level construct, but it then comes down to how you practically engineer a system that solves that problem, and not just a technical system but a total system. WikiLeaks was, and is, an attempt—although still very young—at a total system.
Another way of regarding it is a state of radical transparency for government, which could lead to strict levels of privacy for citizens and considerably more say in democratic governing processes.
This is in contradistinction to the kind of system that Schmidt-Cohen have in mind. The usual astonishing hypocrisy aside, perhaps the most important accomplishment of When Google Met WikiLeaks 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 New Digital Age, 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 has so stupidly and wrongly ordained.
In his introduction to WGMW, Assange cites a 2010 Foreign Affairs piece that 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 who are abused by their governments or barred from voicing their opinions. [Assange’s emphasis in italics; mine in bold.]
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 become 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-extant US foreign policy succinctly summed up, unapologetically, by Bad Cops like former Latin American CIA chief Duane Clarridge, who helped arrange for the overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende (or “What’s-his-name,” as Clarridge refers to him). Says 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 if you alloy this political mandate with the technological vision that Schmidt-Cohen reveal in The Empire of the Mind, then you have a profoundly disturbing nightmare scenario. As Assange points out, there is in the Schmidt-Cohen manifestoes a banality that seeks to assuage and seduce, like a 1950s TV ad high on Twilight Zone smack. Schmidt-Cohen tell us how our good buddy Amazon can help solve so many problems with its ever-so-clever algorithms, but they don’t tell us how the two buddies collaborate with intelligence agencies. “For example,” they write, “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, right? And, 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]
If it stopped there, that would be sufficient to give pause to a sane person. But the two plow on. Matter-of-factly and without any horror at the implications, Schmidt-Cohen describe a future where identity merchants make a handsome profit in the brave new economy. With a straight face, they offer up this scenario:
Virtual kidnappings, on the other hand—stealing the online identities of wealthy people, anything from their bank details to public social-network profiles, and ransoming the information for real money—will be common. Rather than keep and maintain captives in the jungle, guerrillas in the FARC or similar groups will prefer the reduced risk and responsibility of virtual hostages.
But that’s not 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.” Don’t worry about changing it any, right? (Schmidt brought his teen-aged daughter with him when he visited North Korea, so that she could ‘experience’ a totalitarian state first-hand and blog about it.) This is “transformative”? Visionary? Sane?
But back to leaks and who decides how and when they are published, there is another important difference in how the two systems operate. After setting Assange up as a might-as-well-be terrorist, Schmidt-Cohen toss out a disingenuous 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 both a dishonest and rhetorical question, because soon they answer by saying that all leaks should go to “a central body facilitating the release of information” and that whistleblower publishers need “supervision.”
This gets 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, along with 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 have raised this sentiment. Early on, during the secret meeting with Assange, Scott Malcomson, one of the CFR tools who accompanied Schmidt observed, apropos of Dostoyevsky’s wet snow, “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.)
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 pull. 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, where they don’t seem to be looking for Kony much, “but 40 advisers will remain”).
Schmidt-Cohen’s answer, as with leaks, is to shepherd youngsters into central crowdsource pens where they can vent their disaffection and participate in ‘constructive’ dissident campaigns. Their preferred choice, of course, is The Alliance of Youth Movements, or other NGOs (Schmidt loves NGOs the way the Department of Defense loves its sub-contractors) affiliated with the ‘centrist’ doctrines of the day, and their main goal is to knock down “dictators” everywhere, even if freely elected. It’s the American Way. As Hillary Clinton told a gathering of the Alliance by video link not long ago, “You are the vanguard of a rising generation of citizen activists…. And that makes you the kind of leaders we need.” The Alliance and Movements.org are just two more branches of co-optation and control, an exercise in grooming future “responsible” controllers.
Meanwhile, ‘activist’ billionaire philanthropists like Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen and Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar are free to do the adult freedom-fightin’; working with the NSA to drill down to unruly dissidents; creating algorithms that the CIA can use to track anyone; pouring money into coups in places resistant to neo-liberalization; even meeting up with rebels to organize resistance, as Cohen says he’s done with Iranian dissdents. This has not been met with as much approval among the national security types as you might imagine. In a WikiLeaks email leaked from the private security firm Stratfor, the director complained to a colleague:
Google is getting WH [White House] and State Dept support and air cover. In reality they are doing things the CIA cannot do… [Cohen] is going to get himself kidnapped or killed. Might be the best thing to happen to expose Google’s covert role in foaming up-risings, to be blunt. The US Gov’t can then disavow knowledge and Google is left holding the shit-bag.
This is the real face of the “Don’t be evil” meme.
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—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. They 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. In the holography that still lights up my mind, that is how I want to respond to Google’s Dead Souls future – with Schmidt and Cohen (and Bezos and Omidyar and others) taken by the Empire’s lions and devoured by their own megalomaniac fantasies.
Imagine: You leave your house for work and the light sensor over your door records the time and snaps a picture. You hop into your car and before it will start a quick substance-abuse check is performed as you hold the steering wheel. Once you’re allowed to drive, your car’s “black box” records your speed and braking habits, and sends a graph to police analysts and your insurance company. Your car and Android pass on your GPS coordinates to some unknown Authority and to Google, who turns around and sells the information to target marketers. At a traffic light your licence plate is recorded, along with a thermal image showing how many passengers are in the car. In addition, an unseen drone overhead zooms in your face and reads its mood and ‘tone’ and matches it up against that day’s ‘known threat types’ in a disposition matrix. Still sitting at the light, you look left to see a teen in the next car wearing Google Glasses and recording your face; indeed, a few moments later, Instagram notifies you that your expression has been entered in a daily polling contest and already has 5 up-thumbs. Your car radio senses your rising anxiety and begins playing some easy listening tunes to calm you. Dread of work begins to envelop you—having to face the eye scanner to enter the building and the finger-print scanner to log on to your PC, and where you’ll be careful of how you answer emails, extra conscious of how you speak on phones, afraid to use the coffee machine, because it counts your cups and sends stats off to a work productivity study with unknown ramifications. And the coworker in the cubicle opposite you keeps flashing you a proud new prosthetic vagina that was extruded from a 3D printer at home. You decide to call in a sickie and turn the car around. Sensors and alarms go off. Your car questions your move. An app pops up on your Android and scans your features. You make it home, the light sensor recording your return, alone. You go into the kitchen and the fridge immediately calls out that ‘milk is low’ and your open laptop has a pop-up list of items needing replenishing that your fridge has passed on. You piss and the toilet tells you how many blue flushes are left. You take to bed and curl up in the foetal position, your blanket warming to an ‘optimal soothe’. Your bedroom lights read your distress and come on and a floating voice asks you over and over if you are okay, while simultaneously passing the moments on to your insurer, which immediately alerts a counsellor, whose voice in the room now says you need to spend more and sends you a scrip for Valium and a set of discount coupons that you hear arrive in your Inbox with a mystical ding…
Ordinarily, the Amazon–Hachette battle over revenue streams is not something I would take much interest in: no matter how the fight is framed by the mainstream media, the fact remains the bottom line is all that counts for these corporate entities. But I have been drawn into the fray by happenstance, having recently received my younger brother’s memoirs of his glorious bank-robbing years, along with a request for me to edit the manuscript and see to its publication. As my brother is not a well-known figure, except in his own outlaw circles, it was clear that self-publishing was the most viable avenue to travel, and that Amazon was the best option for uploading and marketing his book. Or so I then thought.
I was willing to employ Amazon’s services for my brother’s sake (he’s somewhat apolitical), but I didn’t like knowing I had so little choice. Just a couple of months ago I had cancelled my Amazon account – a feat which took me almost a week to complete, as the cancel function is nearly impossible to locate at the Amazon site and one is required to submit time-consuming requests, and hit special buttons, etc – because I was fed up with the its attitude. I mean, there is abundant reason to shy away from the book-selling collossus, starting with the horror stories surrounding their workplace practices; their nose-tweaking insolence and just plain silliness regarding the use of drones to deliver books; their database collaboration with the CIA – after the Snowden revelations; the creepy privacy intrusions of their algorithms; the nuisance DRM locks they place on ebooks to prevent copying and conversion to other reading formats; the shock revelation that you are, in essence, not purchasing, but renting, a book from Amazon, which you may discover the hard way after cancelling your account.
So if corporations are now people, Amazon can seem to be what you might call a thug.
But the question remains: what is the battle with major publisher Hachette about, and are there any victors other than the bottom-liners? Do readers benefit? Will writers be better off when all is said and done?
On the surface the issue seems fairly clear-cut. Hachette, like all the other hard copy publishers, wants to sell their ebooks at a substantially higher rate – $14–20 a pop – than Amazon’s set policy price of $10. Hachette justifies its higher rates by pointing to its substantial overhead and to costs associated with discovering and promoting new writers; ultimately, the extra revenue supports the publishing industry’s ‘ecosystem’ of manufacturing and distribution. Hachette does not deny that ebooks themselves have relatively very little production costs compared to print books, they just see the extra funds generated by inflated pricing as a form of publishing subsidisation.
But this seems to be a real sticking point for Amazon. Aside from the fact that they don’t really give a shit about the woes of an anachronistic publishing industry who they see as competitors anyway, Amazon points to stats that seem to support their argument that lower prices are better and that higher pricing is actually counterproductive. For instance, Amazon told The Bookseller:
We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99.
Thus, according to this measurement, everyone wins, because more volume means more revenue generated for Amazon, the publishers and their authors. And it is easy to see how more fluidity among ebook sales would create a ripple-on effect in the sale of print copies as well, since there would be more familiarity with the works out there. Hachette, or any other publisher, really, cannot argue this point.
But here’s the thing. The book publishing industry has always been different than other corporate enterprises, in that there has never been an expectation of high-profit yields. In fact, many would argue that the industry is still largely devoted to the continued dissemination of culture and the idea that books are important. It is this cultural aspect – the protective layer for art and culture, even amidst business principles – that Hachette uses to bolster its claim of keeping the eco-system healthy in order to continue delivering the Greater Good.
However, people like bestselling author Richard Russo, who also heads the Author’s Guild, whose job it is to protect the interests of writers, worries that Amazon, though seeming to offer good deals to readers and writers alike, has no interest in supporting the culture that is the backbone of the publishing industry. Writes Russo:
We want Jeff Bezos to say, ‘We share your beliefs, we’re all in this together.’ Yet even that simple statement—which would mean so much—hasn’t come. We’ve heard nothing. Just silence.
But the shocking fact is, Amazon doesn’t necessarily care any more about the books it sells than any of its other commodities. Why would it, asks Jason Diamond of Flavorwire, ‘when you consider that books don’t even make up ten percent of Amazon’s $75 billion in total yearly revenue.’ The reality is that Amazon is more closely related to eBay than book publishers.
In the end, it is the projection of this attitude that most offends. When Amazon released an app that allowed consumers to go into a local bookseller’s shop and read the barcode off shelved books and compare to Amazon prices, many were deeply offended by the underlying message of this tactic. As the New York Times observed, the battle with Hachette has led Amazon to engage in behaviour that engages it critics’ worst suspicions:
Now Amazon is raising prices, removing ordering buttons, lengthening shipping times and monkeying with recommendation algorithms. Do these sound like the moves of a man who cares about customers above all else?
No, it sure doesn’t. And since those delays and tactics slow sales and turn off readers, they hurt writers as well. Even my brother is offended by these predations and wants to take his memoirs elsewhere. Luckily, there are alternatives, like draft2digital and ganxy, where he can flout his comparably honourable days of fleecing banks.