Wiki man: Jimmy Wales. Image: Dan Murrell
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Mr Knowledge: Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales

The founder of the online free encyclopedia on Turkey’s Twitter ban, the perils of clicktivism and what Star Trek can teach us about democracy.

Is technology a force for good?

Overwhelmingly, it is. We can point to various ways in which technology is used, or can be used, for bad purposes, but all of these are dramatically outweighed by the ways in which technology is changing the world for the better. Today you can buy a smartphone in Africa for less than US$50 and in areas where we have negotiated agreements with cell carriers you can access Wikipedia for free – no data charges. So you have a massive source of information in your pocket for a very low cost.

 

Is access to information a human right?

Yes, it is. Think of it as the direct implication and corollary of our rights to freedom of expression. Just as the right to freedom of expression doesn’t imply that other people must supply you with a printing press, the right to access information doesn’t mean that other people must supply you with either the tools or the information. What it does mean is that the state has no role to play in preventing people from communicating with each other.

 

Can online activism be effective?

Yes, and I think the best evidence of this has unfolded recently in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan acted against Twitter and YouTube not because they are ineffective – but because they are effective.

Having said that, it is important that we are not naive about the possibilities. Yes, we can use online tools to educate others and to organise to demand positive change. But real activism also necessarily involves going physically to make demands, and that’s inherently risky and requires great courage.

There is something to the charge that people sometimes engage in “clicktivism” – the lazy approach of hitting “Like” on a petition and feeling that we’ve done something useful. But that doesn’t change the fact that online communities can have very deep and meaningful impacts on people’s lives.

 

Are there things you don’t want to know? Are there things we shouldn’t know?

Yes, there is quite a lot that I don’t want to know, and things that I think we shouldn’t know. I’ll talk about two important categories, but there are more.

First, there is a need for the recognition of the importance of privacy in a civilised world. Breaking into someone’s phone or computer to gain access to their personal information, as we’ve seen in the phone-hacking scandal in the UK and similar scandals elsewhere, is a very serious matter. Rather than spending their vast resources in spying on us themselves, I’d like to see organisations like GCHQ and the NSA more focused on investing in helping us to prevent such spying by encouraging the use of strong encryption everywhere.

Second, there are military and government secrets that are perfectly valid. I don’t think we need to know the exact details of every single thing that the government is doing in terms of spying. This is where I think Edward Snowden has been so powerfully effective: rather than releasing details of particular government operatives and operations, he’s released highly abstract information that gives the public the details we should have been given all along, so that we can have a proper, rational debate about the limits of state surveillance.

 

Is Silicon Valley in bed with the security services?

I don’t think so, but I trust some companies more than others. There’s an additional factor here most people haven’t considered: the engineers of Silicon Valley are virtually unanimous in viewing attacks on their infrastructure as horrific human rights abuses that should be countered with every effort they can muster. It would be impossible for any major internet company to issue an order from the top to build in back-door infrastructure to help the NSA. The engineers would leak it, and they know how to do so without getting caught.

That doesn’t mean that the NSA isn’t infiltrating these companies with people who are doing things that the rest of the staff would be horrified by, of course. It just means that it is pretty implausible that the companies themselves are directly “in bed” with the security services.

 

How have you resisted monetising Wikipedia?

We are a non-profit charitable organisation. We’re very mission-driven. For me personally, I feel sure that in 500 years, when people look back on this era, they’ll point to Wikipedia as something remarkable and good. I’m a big fan and user of WhatsApp, which recently sold to Facebook for $19bn, but I doubt if anyone will remember it in 50 years, much less 500.

 

Is net neutrality that important?

I differ from many of my colleagues, in that I don’t think net neutrality is super-important. The fear is that companies which control the “last mile” to the consumer will leverage that choke point to stifle innovation (unless they get paid extra for it happening). And that’s not an entirely crazy thing to fear, particularly because much last-mile infrastructure remains under inappropriate, government-granted monopoly privileges – or derived from those privileges in the first place years ago.

But if we are worried about a handful of companies getting control of a choke point and using it to squeeze out competitors and make massive profits, we don’t need to look at the layer of network infrastructure and network neutrality. We just need to look at the Apple App Store (and similar), where everything that runs on your iPhone or iPad has to be approved by Apple, with them taking a huge cut of the revenue at every step, with no real competition in sight. Consumers should be very worried about that.

Can you imagine the outcry if 20 years ago Microsoft had decreed that no third-party software could run on Windows without being approved by them, and bought through their proprietary stores? Yet today we accept this model on mobile devices (and soon, I fear, on our computers) without blinking.

 

Would you choose a benign dictatorship, or dysfunctional democracy?

Like the true geek I am, I can only answer a question like this by referencing Captain Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru.

In Star Trek lore, the Kobayashi Maru is a test at the Starfleet Academy with a “no-win” outcome. Kirk took the test twice and had his ship destroyed, so before trying a third time he hacked into the system to change the outcome. If our only choices are benign dictatorship or dysfunctional democracy, it’s time to hack the system and change the rules.

 

Where do you stand on piracy?

Commandeering and robbing vessels on the high seas? I’m totally against it.

Ha, you’re really asking about file-sharing. I think here the key is that we are finally seeing the argument move on from a rather useless debate about how to stop it by using the law (you can’t) into a recognition that, more than anything else, a business-model shift is the most successful way forward for creators of creative entertainment. We know that piracy falls dramatically when studios actually make things available for sale. Spotify, Netflix, iTunes, etc are the solution and are working very well.

Yes, some flat-broke teens are going to find ways to copy things that legally they shouldn’t. That has always been true. When I was that age, teens made cassette tapes for each other.

That’s not really the issue. Large-scale commercial piracy is a different matter and existing law seems to be handling that reasonably well. Minor tweaks are always possible, but perennial proposals to lock down the internet or give ridiculous powers to state censors are neither needed nor likely to be at all effective.

 

Do you vote?

I believe in principle in voting, but I live mostly in London, where I don’t (yet) have the right to vote. In the past I have voted, although I’ve also avoided registering to vote where it seemed to require me to make public my home address. It turns out that collecting “all the world’s knowledge” draws the attention of a fair number of threatening cranks, and I prefer for my family’s safety to keep a relatively low profile at home.

 

Are we all doomed?

The Onion is my favourite humour site, a parody of news. And one of my favourite headlines in the Onion was “World death rate holding steady at 100 per cent”. So yes, in that sense, we’re all doomed. 

Jemima Khan tweets at: @Jemima_Khan

Jimmy Wales will speak at the NS and Latitude Festival event Should We Know How Far Surveillance Goes, along with Luke Harding (the Guardian) and David Omand, former director of GCHQ. At King's College, London WC2 on 3 June. Tickets: newstatesman.com/events 

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle