Laurie Penny: Facebook and Google know that we value conformity more than privacy

Julian Assange's new book "Cypherpunks" has failed to understand something fundamental about the internet.

Sometimes a paranoid, to paraphrase William Burroughs, is just a person in possession of all the facts. There is no one on earth for whom this description is more accurate than the WikiLeaks founder, dubious hacker messiah and noted cop-dodger Julian Assange, currently holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy evading extradition on rape allegations in Sweden. Assange knows more than almost anyone about the surveillance and security issues that affect every internet user; that he writes like a jaw-gnawing conspiracy theorist with crippling delusional narcissism doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Assange’s new book, Cypherpunks, is an edited transcription of conversations he had with some of his most devoted followers, all of them hackers, while under curfew in a house in England. It’s an urgent exploration of the ways in which world governments track the movements and store the data of any and all of us who use Facebook, Google, Twitter and other social networking sites. It is almost impossible to discuss the bare facts of this very real crisis without sounding a little bonkers – the government can read your emails! Big corporations are looking through your drunk party pictures! – and bombastic manifestos such as Cypherpunks only make it seem less credible.

Heroes and villains

Assange predicts, with all the subtle persuasive rhetoric of a placard-banging street-corner doomsayer, that the “universality of the internet will merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control”. He adds: “This book is a watchman’s shout in the night.” It’s a shout that desperately needs to be heard. What worries me is that the warning cry is being raised so poorly and with such little understanding of what makes people change their behaviour that the rest of us might dismiss it as background noise.

This is not an article about Assange’s sex life and alleged sex crimes. I’ve already written several of those, as have many others, and the most salient point there is that those who believe in freedom should not be forced to choose between censorship and misogyny. It should be possible for us to defend whistleblowers’ rights to freedom from prosecution and women’s rights to freedom from abuse at the same time.

The truth is that sexual assault is so horrifically commonplace that it should be possible to imagine that a man might be an important thinker, a heroic freedom fighter and also a rapist. Recent history is a litany of brave and distinguished writers, from Tom Paine to Leo Tolstoy to T S Eliot, who were physical or psychological abusers of women. That does not disqualify them from making contributions to human progress but it does cast those contributions in a harsher light than they perhaps intended.

Cypherpunks is a book about four brave, smart, innovative men, one of whom is wanted for questioning on rape allegations, sitting in a room telling each other how brave and smart they are and expecting everyone else to agree with them. That is not and never has been a way to make a revolution happen. Hacker orthodoxy holds that the facts alone should be sufficient to stop people signing over their social universe to shady corporations, but if you want to change the world it isn’t enough just to be right.

If you want to change the world, you need to sketch out the possibility of a life without the shackles that you see and others can’t, invite everyone else to join you there and make it convenient for them to do so, even if you don’t like them, even if they aren’t as clever as you are.

At present, the only solution from Assange and his cypherpunks seems to be for everyone to become competent at digital encryption, which is not going to happen any time soon. We know this because, even though there’s free software out there that allows anyone with moderate computer skills to make their data secure, the head of the CIA, for God’s sake, still uses Gmail to drop messages to his mistress.

Assange and his acolytes have failed to understand something fundamental about the internet because they have failed to understand something fundamental about people. The internet isn’t just a matrix of a squillion numbers meshed in fibre optics; it’s a network of billions of human beings, most of whom spend a lot of time terribly frightened of being lonely and left out and who are prepared to do a lot of things they aren’t proud of to allay those fears. That’s the terrifying power of the social network.

Willing victims

People don’t need to be told that Facebook is a juddering behemoth that probably knows where you live, your food and music preferences and the weight and idiosyncracies of your genitals – and has the right to sell that information to any third party it deems worthy. People don’t need to be told that every single dirty or idiotic thing they searched for on Google three years ago is recorded on a giant corporate server somewhere in the American Midwest. We already know or suspect all of those things and more and we may not be happy to be a part of it, but the vast majority of us have chosen to join the crowd rather than be cut off from social influence, because that’s what people do.

This is how totalitarianism works. It’s not just the threat of violence, in the cypherpunks’ words – it’s also the threat of exclusion.

You aren’t stupid. You knew what you were doing when you ticked the little box signing over your personal information, your intimate photographs and the history of your private heartbreak that you can now read in a cold text-and-picture box that isn’t yours, displayed next to adverts optimised to suit whatever products an algorithm thinks you might buy.

Nobody was holding a knife to your throat. You gave those parts of yourself freely, because you were afraid that if you didn’t you would be left behind, and unless someone comes along and puts a gentle, understanding hand on your wrist you may very well continue to give and give until there’s no part of your private self that can’t be sold.

If the “global totalitarian surveillance society” that Assange envisages comes about, that impulse will be what brings it into being: not just fear of violence, but a creeping conformism that is as violent as any gunshot in the night.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor of the New Statesman

The fact that Julian Assange writes like a jaw-gnawing conspiracy theorist with crippling delusional narcissism doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Photograph: Getty Images

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.