Julian Assange appears on screen to discuss the revelations about New Zealand's mass surveillance at Auckland Town Hall, 15 September. Ph
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge