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

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State