Julian Assange appears on screen to discuss the revelations about New Zealand's mass surveillance at Auckland Town Hall, 15 September. Ph
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When Julian Assange went head to head with Google

For Julian Assange, Google is all but an arm of the US state department. For the company’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, and Jonathan Rosenberg, an adviser to its CEO, Larry Page, Google is the model of the 21st-century company.

When Google Met Wikileaks
Julian Assange
OR Books, 224pp,p £10

How Google Works
Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg with Alan Eagle
Hodder & Stoughton, 352pp, £25

Google is the emblematic internet company. All of the others are, in various ways, specialised. Apple is a high-end gadget-maker, Facebook and Twitter are social networkers and Microsoft is the bewildered dinosaur. But Google is all things to all clickers. It is, for the moment, the internet.

Its mission statement (“. . . to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”) in effect makes that claim. The projected style of the company – more loose and freewheeling than Apple, less narrow in scope than Facebook – creates a mood of cool, go-anywhere, do-anything excitement. Google acquires and announces products seemingly at random and indulges in experimentation (like its self-driving car) as if just for the hell of it.

In truth, nothing is random or freewheeling. More than 90 per cent of Google’s revenues come from advertising. These ads are sold and targeted on the basis of the information the company acquires, overwhelmingly without payment, from its users. We are its product; our information is its asset base. There is nothing inherently wrong or sinister about this. Tactically, however, it is better for Google to be seen as a technology company rather than a seller of advertising space.

These books add new layers to the ambiguity. For Julian Assange, Google is all but an arm of the US state department (or, indeed, vice versa). For the company’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, and Jonathan Rosenberg, an adviser to its CEO, Larry Page, Google is the model of the 21st-century company.

Assange’s account is funnier and faster. It is written like a hammy thriller and, narcissist that he evidently is, the author is the hero. The Schmidt-Rosenberg book is a jaunty but dull read if you are not a tech entrepreneur, though, with patience, it becomes fascinating even if you’re not.

When Google Met WikiLeaks is, from one perspective, a masterly comedy of misunderstanding that should be taken up by the Coen brothers. It is about a meeting that took place in June 2011 at Ellingham Hall, in Norfolk, where Assange was then confined by order of a British court. This was at the height of the storm following the Wiki­Leaks release of a vast amount of secret data supplied by the American soldier Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. As this was all about information, Google wanted to know more and it asked for a meeting.

The book includes a transcription of the ensuing interview of Assange by Schmidt; Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas; Scott Malcomson, said to be the editor of a “brilliant” book that Schmidt and Cohen intended to write; and Lisa Shields, Schmidt’s then partner. The dynamics of the encounter are pretty clear. The Google team is “rinsing” Assange for information, while Assange is talking freely and eagerly about WikiLeaks policies and technologies. He comes across as a very clever man but he did not see that nothing in Google’s agenda aligned with his. Now, he ruefully acknowledges that he should perhaps have been aware that three of his four visitors – Cohen, Malcomson and Shields – had state department connections.

The ensuing book by Schmidt and Cohen, The New Digital Age, was a bleak, self-serving and intellectually perverse account of the future, much admired by the likes of Tony Blair and Richard Branson, which showed no sympathy whatsoever for Assange’s ideology of total information transparency. It was, in his view, nothing more than state department propaganda. By now trapped in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, he was incandescent. “I waited for the stringent criticism the book would receive,” he writes. “But none came.”

This is untrue – I pretty much trashed the book in the Sunday Times – but Assange’s rage is indiscriminate. He compensated for (as he would say) the lickspittles of the world press by writing a long review in the New York Times, also reproduced here, calling the book “a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism”. I don’t agree with much of what Assange says and I mistrust his narcissism but that sounds about right.

Where The New Digital Age was a geo­political policy document for the murmuring classes, How Google Works is a blueprint for all would-be makers of 21st-century companies. “We mean you, entrepreneur,” write the authors, jabbing their fingers at the reader. Like many similar management books, it is Maoist in its determination to extirpate the past. Throughout the book, the message is that what is being proposed here is absolutely new and has nothing to do with what Google’s co-founder Larry Page calls in his foreword “prevailing ‘wisdom’ ”. Note the deadly quote marks. It is also Maoist in its celebration of a new hero class – the “smart creatives”. A smart creative is, apparently, “a fire hose of ideas” and ideally should possess 11 attributes including being “user smart”, “risky creative” and “open creative”. These fabulous elites will be very well paid – smart creatives are in a global seller’s market – and expected to scorn the comfortable platitudes of the work-life balance. Sure, they can see the kids once in a while but . . .

Managing the future requires managing smart creatives or, rather, giving them their freedom, as they don’t really need management as such. Here, we come up against one of the slippery contradictions that so annoyed me about The New Digital Age. On the one hand, everything is free and democratic among the smart creatives; on the other, “Meetings should have a single decision-maker/owner.” The latter suggests that the old “wisdom” isn’t quite so useless.

I am being slightly unfair to the book because it is, willy-nilly, a handy guide to how the world is understood by the technocrats. For example, the old managerial target of achieving growth has been overturned in favour of “scaleability”, a more innovative concept defined by the way in which new technologies seem to invent rather than discover markets. Mere money is also downgraded. It is no longer the lifeblood of companies. Information is at least as – or more – important. This may explain why there is so little in this book about how Google actually makes money, or it may be that the uncoolness of advertising is the problem.

Ethically, Schmidt and Rosenberg, to borrow from Evelyn Waugh, create a sea of unease on which they float with log-like calm. China issues are explained as an unconditional vindication of the company motto (“Don’t be evil”) and Prism – an NSA surveillance programme with which Assange suggests Google and other tech companies may have been involved – is not mentioned. Clearly, privacy is an attribute of the old “wisdom” that will have to be eliminated by smart creative cadres. But this is history written, for the moment, by the victors and a little light Photoshopping is to be expected.

So has Google earned the ire of Assange? First, he was naive to expect fair or favourable treatment. He is any capitalist’s nightmare and, although Google may present itself as a new type of company, in many respects it is an old-style one. It is Wall Street-dependent and close to government, partly through conventional lobbying and partly through a joint interest in amassing information. It used to be unremarkable to say that the interests of General Motors and those of the US were aligned. It should be equally unremarkable to say the same of Google and the Obama administration.

This is not necessarily a bad thing but plainly it could be and it is here that Assange is on relatively solid ground. Schmidt and Cohen did use him rather ruthlessly and misrepresented him at certain points in their book. Furthermore, Google’s power – as demonstrated, embarrassingly, by the ease with which it can walk, carefree and practically tax-free, into Downing Street – is disturbing, unaccountable and, increasingly, global. “Technocratic imperialism” is a substantial charge.

In the end, however, this is an asymmetrical battle. Google sails on regardless and will do for some years to come. Assange, meanwhile, is his own worst enemy, thanks to his imperiousness and scratchy personality. His ideology is utopian and unrealistic and his distinction between good humans and bad society is incoherent. He represents a form of extremism that has some value as a corrective to the abuses of the powerful but that must inevitably be self-defeating.

Google’s weakness is more subtle and it lies in the sheer abstraction of its ideology. “We see most big problems as information problems,” it says. This is like saying we have a hammer and, therefore, everything is a nail. Unless you expand the definition of “information” to the point where it means nothing, it is precisely wrong. Reality is neither that simple nor that biddable. There was, in short, more than one kind of naivety at Ellingham Hall.

Follow Bryan Appleyard on Twitter: @bryanappleyard

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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