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.
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