The Blast Shack
by Bruce Sterling / 22 December 2010

{Webstock asked Bruce Sterling, who spoke at Webstock ’09, for his take on Wikileaks.}

The Wikileaks Cablegate scandal is the most exciting and interesting hacker scandal ever. I rather commonly write about such things, and I’m surrounded by online acquaintances who take a burning interest in every little jot and tittle of this ongoing saga. So it’s going to take me a while to explain why this highly newsworthy event fills me with such a chilly, deadening sense of Edgar Allen Poe melancholia. But it sure does. Part of this dull, icy feeling, I think, must be the agonizing slowness with which this has happened. At last — at long last — the homemade nitroglycerin in the old cypherpunks blast shack has gone off.

Those “cypherpunks,” of all people. Way back in 1992, a brainy American hacker called Timothy C. May made up a sci-fi tinged idea that he called “The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto.” This exciting screed — I read it at the time, and boy was it ever cool — was all about anonymity, and encryption, and the Internet, and all about how wacky data-obsessed subversives could get up to all kinds of globalized mischief without any fear of repercussion from the blinkered authorities. If you were of a certain technoculture bent in the early 1990s, you had to love a thing like that. As Tim blithely remarked to his fellow encryption enthusiasts, “The State will of course try to slow or halt the spread of this technology, citing national security concerns, use of the technology by drug dealers and tax evaders, and fears of societal disintegration. Many of these concerns will be valid; crypto anarchy will allow national secrets to be traded freely,” and then Tim started getting really interesting.

Later, May described an institution called “BlackNet” which might conceivably carry out these aims. Nothing much ever happened with Tim May’s imaginary BlackNet. It was the kind of out-there concept that science fiction writers like to put in novels. Because BlackNet was clever, and fun to think about, and it made impossible things seem plausible, and it was fantastic and also quite titillating. So it was the kind of farfetched but provocative issue that ought to be properly raised within a sci-fi public discourse.

Because, you know, that would allow plenty of time to contemplate the approaching trainwreck and perhaps do something practical about it. Nobody did much of anything practical. For nigh on twenty long years, nothing happened with the BlackNet notion, for good or ill. Why? Because thinking hard and eagerly about encryption involves a certain mental composition which is alien to normal public life. Crypto guys — (and the cypherpunks were all crypto guys, mostly well-educated, mathematically gifted middle-aged guys in Silicon Valley careers) — are geeks. They’re harmless geeks, they’re not radical politicians or dashing international crime figures. Cypherpunks were visionary Californians from the WIRED magazine circle. In their personal lives, they were as meek and low-key as any average code-cracking spook who works for the National Security Agency. These American spooks from Fort Meade are shy and retiring people, by their nature. In theory, the NSA could create every kind of flaming scandalous mayhem with their giant Echelon spy system — but in practice, they would much would rather sit there gently reading other people’s email.

NSA, via Google Earth, 10 March 2008

One minute’s thought would reveal that a vast, opaque electronic spy outfit like the National Security Agency is exceedingly dangerous to democracy. Really, it is. The NSA clearly violates all kinds of elementary principles of constitutional design. The NSA is the very antithesis of transparency, and accountability, and free elections, and free expression, and separation of powers — in other words, the NSA is a kind of giant, grown-up, anti-Wikileaks. And it always has been. And we’re used to that. We pay no mind. The NSA, this crypto empire, is a long-lasting fact on the ground that we’ve all informally agreed not to get too concerned about. Even foreign victims of the NSA’s machinations can’t seem to get properly worked-up about its capacities and intrigues. The NSA has been around since 1947. It’s a little younger than the A-Bomb, and we don’t fuss much about that now, either. The geeks who man the NSA don’t look much like Julian Assange, because they have college degrees, shorter haircuts, better health insurance and far fewer stamps in their passports. But the sources of their power are pretty much identical to his. They use computers and they get their mitts on info that doesn’t much wanna be free. Every rare once in a while, the secretive and discreet NSA surfaces in public life and does something reprehensible, such as defeating American federal computer-security initiatives so that they can continue to eavesdrop at will. But the NSA never becomes any big flaming Wikileaks scandal. Why? Because, unlike their wannabe colleagues at Wikileaks, the apparatchiks of the NSA are not in the scandal business. They just placidly sit at the console, reading everybody’s diplomatic cables. This is their function. The NSA is an eavesdropping outfit.

Cracking the communications of other governments is its reason for being. The NSA are not unique entities in the shadows of our planet’s political landscape. Every organized government gives that a try. It’s a geopolitical fact, although it’s not too discreet to dwell on it. You can walk to most any major embassy in any major city in the world, and you can see that it is festooned with wiry heaps of electronic spying equipment. Don’t take any pictures of the roofs of embassies, as they grace our public skylines. Guards will emerge to repress you.

Now, Tim May and his imaginary BlackNet were the sci-fi extrapolation version of the NSA. A sort of inside-out, hippiefied NSA. Crypto people were always keenly aware of the NSA, for the NSA were the people who harassed them for munitions violations and struggled to suppress their academic publications. Creating a BlackNet is like having a pet, desktop NSA. Except, that instead of being a vast, federally-supported nest of supercomputers under a hill in Maryland, it’s a creaky, homemade, zero-budget social-network site for disaffected geeks.

But who cared about that wild notion? Why would that amateurish effort ever matter to real-life people? It’s like comparing a mighty IBM mainframe to some cranky Apple computer made inside a California garage. Yes, it’s almost that hard to imagine. So Wikileaks is a manifestation of something that this has been growing all around us, for decades, with volcanic inexorability. The NSA is the world’s most public unknown secret agency. And for four years now, its twisted sister Wikileaks has been the world’s most blatant, most publicly praised, encrypted underground site. Wikileaks is “underground” in the way that the NSA is “covert”; not because it’s inherently obscure, but because it’s discreetly not spoken about. The NSA is “discreet,” so, somehow, people tolerate it. Wikileaks is “transparent,” like a cardboard blast shack full of kitchen-sink nitroglycerine in a vacant lot.

That is how we come to the dismal saga of Wikileaks and its ongoing Cablegate affair, which is a melancholy business, all in all. The scale of it is so big that every weirdo involved immediately becomes a larger-than-life figure. But they’re not innately heroic. They’re just living, mortal human beings, the kind of geeky, quirky, cyberculture loons that I run into every day. And man, are they ever going to pay. Now we must contemplate Bradley Manning, because he was the first to immolate himself. Private Manning was a young American, a hacker-in-uniform, bored silly while doing scarcely necessary scutwork on a military computer system in Iraq. Private Manning had dozens of reasons for becoming what computer-security professionals call the “internal threat.” His war made no sense on its face, because it was carried out in a headlong pursuit of imaginary engines of mass destruction.

The military occupation of Iraq was endless. Manning, a tender-hearted geek, was overlooked and put-upon by his superiors. Although he worked around the clock, he had nothing of any particular military consequence to do. It did not occur to his superiors that a bored soldier in a poorly secured computer system would download hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables. Because, well, why? They’re very boring. Soldiers never read them. The malefactor has no use for them. They’re not particularly secret. They’ve got nothing much to do with his war. He knows his way around the machinery, but Bradley Manning is not any kind of blackhat programming genius. Instead, he’s very like Jerome Kerveil, that obscure French stock trader who stole 5 billion euros without making one dime for himself.

Jerome Kerveil, just like Bradley Manning, was a bored, resentful, lower-echelon guy in a dead end, who discovered some awesome capacities in his system that his bosses never knew it had. It makes so little sense to behave like Kerveil and Manning that their threat can’t be imagined. A weird hack like that is self-defeating, and it’s sure to bring terrible repercussions to the transgressor. But then the sad and sordid days grind on and on; and that blindly potent machinery is just sitting there. Sitting there, tempting the user. Bradley Manning believes the sci-fi legendry of the underground. He thinks that he can leak a quarter of a million secret cables, protect himself with neat-o cryptography, and, magically, never be found out.

So Manning does this, and at first he gets away with it, but, still possessed by the malaise that haunts his soul, he has to brag about his misdeed, and confess himself to a hacker confidante who immediately ships him to the authorities. No hacker story is more common than this. The ingenuity poured into the machinery is meaningless. The personal connections are treacherous. Welcome to the real world. So Private Manning, cypherpunk, is immediately toast. No army can permit this kind of behavior and remain a functional army; so Manning is in solitary confinement and he is going to be court-martialled. With more political awareness, he might have made himself a public martyr to his conscience; but he lacks political awareness. He only has only his black-hat hacker awareness, which is all about committing awesome voyeuristic acts of computer intrusion and imagining you can get away with that when it really matters to people. The guy preferred his hacker identity to his sworn fidelity to the uniform of a superpower.

The shear-forces there are beyond his comprehension. The reason this upsets me is that I know so many people just like Bradley Manning. Because I used to meet and write about hackers, “crackers,” “darkside hackers,” “computer underground” types. They are a subculture, but once you get used to their many eccentricities, there is nothing particularly remote or mysterious or romantic about them. They are banal. Bradley Manning is a young, mildly brainy, unworldly American guy who probably would have been pretty much okay if he’d been left alone to skateboard, read comic books and listen to techno music. Instead, Bradley had to leak all over the third rail. Through historical circumstance, he’s become a miserable symbolic point-man for a global war on terror. He doesn’t much deserve that role. He’s got about as much to do with the political aspects of his war as Monica Lewinsky did with the lasting sexual mania that afflicts the American Republic. That is so dispiriting and ugly. As a novelist, I never think of Monica Lewinsky, that once-everyday young woman, without a sense of dread at the freakish, occult fate that overtook her. Imagine what it must be like, to wake up being her, to face the inevitability of being That Woman. Monica, too, transgressed in apparent safety and then she had the utter foolishness to brag to a lethal enemy, a trusted confidante who ran a tape machine and who brought her a mediated circus of hells. The titillation of that massive, shattering scandal has faded now. But think of the quotidian daily horror of being Monica Lewinsky, and that should take a bite from the soul. Bradley Manning now shares that exciting, oh my God, Monica Lewinsky, tortured media-freak condition. This mild little nobody has become super-famous, and in his lonely military brig, screenless and without a computer, he’s strictly confined and, no doubt, he’s horribly bored.

I don’t want to condone or condemn the acts of Bradley Manning. Because legions of people are gonna do that for me, until we’re all good and sick of it, and then some. I don’t have the heart to make this transgressor into some hockey-puck for an ideological struggle. I sit here and I gloomily contemplate his all-too-modern situation with a sense of Sartrean nausea. Commonly, the authorities don’t much like to crush apple-cheeked white-guy hackers like Bradley Manning. It’s hard to charge hackers with crimes, even when they gleefully commit them, because it’s hard to find prosecutors and judges willing to bone up on the drudgery of understanding what they did. But they’ve pretty much got to make a puree’ out of this guy, because of massive pressure from the gravely embarrassed authorities. Even though Bradley lacks the look and feel of any conventional criminal; wrong race, wrong zipcode, wrong set of motives. Bradley’s gonna become a “spy” whose “espionage” consisted of making the activities of a democratic government visible to its voting population. With the New York Times publishing the fruits of his misdeeds. Some set of American prosecutorial lawyers is confronting this crooked legal hairpin right now. I feel sorry for them.

Then there is Julian Assange, who is a pure-dye underground computer hacker. Julian doesn’t break into systems at the moment, but he’s not an “ex-hacker,” he’s the silver-plated real deal, the true avant-garde. Julian is a child of the underground hacker milieu, the digital-native as twenty-first century cypherpunk. As far as I can figure, Julian has never found any other line of work that bore any interest for him. Through dint of years of cunning effort, Assange has worked himself into a position where his “computer crimes” are mainly political. They’re probably not even crimes. They are “leaks.” Leaks are nothing special. They are tidbits from the powerful that every journalist gets on occasion, like crumbs of fishfood on the top of the media tank. Only, this time, thanks to Manning, Assange has brought in a massive truckload of media fishfood. It’s not just some titillating, scandalous, floating crumbs. There’s a quarter of a million of them. He’s become the one-man global McDonald’s of leaks. Ever the detail-freak, Assange in fact hasn’t shipped all the cables he received from Manning. Instead, he cunningly encrypted the cables and distributed them worldwide to thousands of fellow-travellers. This stunt sounds technically impressive, although it isn’t. It’s pretty easy to do, and nobody but a cypherpunk would think that it made any big difference to anybody. It’s part and parcel of Assange’s other characteristic activities, such as his inability to pack books inside a box while leaving any empty space. While others stare in awe at Assange’s many otherworldly aspects — his hairstyle, his neatness, too-precise speech, his post-national life out of a laptop bag — I can recognize him as pure triple-A outsider geek. Man, I know a thousand modern weirdos like that, and every single one of them seems to be on my Twitter stream screaming support for Assange because they can recognize him as a brother and a class ally. They are in holy awe of him because, for the first time, their mostly-imaginary and lastingly resentful underclass has landed a serious blow in a public arena. Julian Assange has hacked a superpower.

He didn’t just insult the captain of the global football team; he put spycams in the locker room. He has showed the striped-pants set without their pants. This a massively embarrassing act of technical voyeurism. It’s like Monica and her stains and kneepads, only even more so. Now, I wish I could say that I feel some human pity for Julian Assange, in the way I do for the hapless, one-shot Bradley Manning, but I can’t possibly say that. Pity is not the right response, because Assange has carefully built this role for himself. He did it with all the minute concentration of some geek assembling a Rubik’s Cube. In that regard, one’s hat should be off to him. He’s had forty years to learn what he was doing. He’s not some miserabilist semi-captive like the uniformed Bradley Manning. He’s a darkside player out to stick it to the Man. The guy has surrounded himself with the cream of the computer underground, wily old rascals like Rop Gonggrijp and the fearsome Teutonic minions of the Chaos Computer Club. Assange has had many long, and no doubt insanely detailed, policy discussions with all his closest allies, about every aspect of his means, motives and opportunities. And he did what he did with fierce resolve. Furthermore, and not as any accident, Assange has managed to alienate everyone who knew him best. All his friends think he’s nuts. I’m not too thrilled to see that happen. That’s not a great sign in a consciousness-raising, power-to-the-people, radical political-leader type. Most successful dissidents have serious people skills and are way into revolutionary camaraderie and a charismatic sense of righteousness. They’re into kissing babies, waving bloody shirts, and keeping hope alive. Not this chilly, eldritch guy. He’s a bright, good-looking man who — let’s face it — can’t get next to women without provoking clumsy havoc and a bitter and lasting resentment. That’s half the human race that’s beyond his comprehension there, and I rather surmise that, from his stern point of view, it was sure to be all their fault. Assange was in prison for a while lately, and his best friend in the prison was his Mom. That seems rather typical of him. Obviously Julian knew he was going to prison; a child would know it. He’s been putting on his Solzhenitsyn clothes and combing his forelock for that role for ages now. I’m a little surprised that he didn’t have a more organized prison-support committee, because he’s a convicted computer criminal who’s been through this wringer before. Maybe he figures he’ll reap more glory if he’s martyred all alone.

I rather doubt the authorities are any happier to have him in prison. They pretty much gotta feed him into their legal wringer somehow, but a botched Assange show-trial could do colossal damage. There’s every likelihood that the guy could get off. He could walk into an American court and come out smelling of roses. It’s the kind of show-trial judo every repressive government fears. It’s not just about him and the burning urge to punish him; it’s about the public risks to the reputation of the USA. They superpower hypocrisy here is gonna be hard to bear. The USA loves to read other people’s diplomatic cables. They dote on doing it. If Assange had happened to out the cable-library of some outlaw pariah state, say, Paraguay or North Korea, the US State Department would be heaping lilies at his feet. They’d be a little upset about his violation of the strict proprieties, but they’d also take keen satisfaction in the hilarious comeuppance of minor powers that shouldn’t be messing with computers, unlike the grandiose, high-tech USA. Unfortunately for the US State Department, they clearly shouldn’t have been messing with computers, either. In setting up their SIPRnet, they were trying to grab the advantages of rapid, silo-free, networked communication while preserving the hierarchical proprieties of official confidentiality. That’s the real issue, that’s the big modern problem; national governments and global computer networks don’t mix any more. It’s like trying to eat a very private birthday cake while also distributing it. That scheme is just not working. And that failure has a face now, and that’s Julian Assange. Assange didn’t liberate the dreadful secrets of North Korea, not because the North Koreans lack computers, but because that isn’t a cheap and easy thing that half-a-dozen zealots can do. But the principle of it, the logic of doing it, is the same. Everybody wants everybody else’s national government to leak. Every state wants to see the diplomatic cables of every other state. It will bend heaven and earth to get them. It’s just, that sacred activity is not supposed to be privatized, or, worse yet, made into the no-profit, shareable, have-at-it fodder for a network society, as if global diplomacy were so many mp3s. Now the US State Department has walked down the thorny road to hell that was first paved by the music industry. Rock and roll, baby. Now, in strict point of fact, Assange didn’t blandly pirate the massive hoard of cables from the US State Department. Instead, he was busily “redacting” and minutely obeying the proprieties of his political cover in the major surviving paper dailies. Kind of a nifty feat of social-engineering there; but he’s like a poacher who machine-gunned a herd of wise old elephants and then went to the temple to assume the robes of a kosher butcher. That is a world-class hoax. Assange is no more a “journalist” than he is a crypto mathematician. He’s a darkside hacker who is a self-appointed, self-anointed, self-educated global dissident. He’s a one-man Polish Solidarity, waiting for the population to accrete around his stirring propaganda of the deed. And they are accreting; not all of ‘em, but, well, it doesn’t take all of them.

Julian Assange doesn’t want to be in power; he has no people skills at all, and nobody’s ever gonna make him President Vaclav Havel. He’s certainly not in for the money, because he wouldn’t know what to do with the cash; he lives out of a backpack, and his daily routine is probably sixteen hours online. He’s not gonna get better Google searches by spending more on his banned MasterCard. I don’t even think Assange is all that big on ego; I know authors and architects, so I’ve seen much worse than Julian in that regard. He’s just what he is; he’s something we don’t yet have words for. He’s a different, modern type of serious troublemaker. He’s certainly not a “terrorist,” because nobody is scared and no one got injured. He’s not a “spy,” because nobody spies by revealing the doings of a government to its own civil population. He is orthogonal. He’s asymmetrical. He panics people in power and he makes them look stupid. And I feel sorry for them. But sorrier for the rest of us. Julian Assange’s extremely weird version of dissident “living in truth” doesn’t bear much relationship to the way that public life has ever been arranged. It does, however, align very closely to what we’ve done to ourselves by inventing and spreading the Internet. If the Internet was walking around in public, it would look and act a lot like Julian Assange. The Internet is about his age, and it doesn’t have any more care for the delicacies of profit, propriety and hierarchy than he does. So Julian is heading for a modern legal netherworld, the slammer, the electronic parole cuff, whatever; you can bet there will be surveillance of some kind wherever he goes, to go along with the FREE ASSANGE stencils and xeroxed flyers that are gonna spring up in every coffee-bar, favela and university on the planet. A guy as personally hampered and sociopathic as Julian may in fact thrive in an inhuman situation like this. Unlike a lot of keyboard-hammering geeks, he’s a serious reader and a pretty good writer, with a jailhouse-lawyer facility for pointing out weaknesses in the logic of his opponents, and boy are they ever. Weak, that is. They are pathetically weak.

Diplomats have become weak in the way that musicians are weak. Musicians naturally want people to pay real money for music, but if you press them on it, they’ll sadly admit that they don’t buy any music themselves. Because, well, they’re in the business, so why should they? And the same goes for diplomats and discreet secrets. The one grand certainty about the consumers of Cablegate is that diplomats are gonna be reading those stolen cables. Not hackers: diplomats. Hackers bore easily, and they won’t be able to stand the discourse of intelligent trained professionals discussing real-life foreign affairs. American diplomats are gonna read those stolen cables, though, because they were supposed to read them anyway, even though they didn’t. Now, they’ve got to read them, with great care, because they might get blindsided otherwise by some wisecrack that they typed up years ago. And, of course, every intelligence agency and every diplomat from every non-American agency on Earth is gonna fire up computers and pore over those things. To see what American diplomacy really thought about them, or to see if they were ignored (which is worse), and to see how the grownups ran what was basically a foreign-service news agency that the rest of us were always forbidden to see. This stark fact makes them all into hackers. Yes, just like Julian. They’re all indebted to Julian for this grim thing that he did, and as they sit there hunched over their keyboards, drooling over their stolen goodies, they’re all, without exception, implicated in his doings. Assange is never gonna become a diplomat, but he’s arranged it so that diplomats henceforth are gonna be a whole lot more like Assange. They’ll behave just like him. They receive the goods just like he did, semi-surreptitiously. They may be wearing an ascot and striped pants, but they’ve got that hacker hunch in their necks and they’re staring into the glowing screen. And I don’t much like that situation. It doesn’t make me feel better. I feel sorry for them and what it does to their values, to their self-esteem. If there’s one single watchword, one central virtue, of the diplomatic life, it’s “discretion.” Not “transparency.” Diplomatic discretion. Discretion is why diplomats do not say transparent things to foreigners. When diplomats tell foreigners what they really think, war results. Diplomats are people who speak from nation to nation. They personify nations, and nations are brutal, savage, feral entities. Diplomats used to have something in the way of an international community, until the Americans decided to unilaterally abandon that in pursuit of Bradley Manning’s oil war. Now nations are so badly off that they can’t even get it together to coherently tackle heroin, hydrogen bombs, global warming and financial collapse. Not to mention the Internet. The world has lousy diplomacy now. It’s dysfunctional. The world corps diplomatique are weak, really weak, and the US diplomatic corps, which used to be the senior and best-engineered outfit there, is rattling around bottled-up in blast-proofed bunkers. It’s scary how weak and useless they are. US diplomats used to know what to do with dissidents in other nations. If they were communists they got briskly repressed, but if they had anything like a free-market outlook, then US diplomats had a whole arsenal of gentle and supportive measures; Radio Free Europe, publication in the West, awards, foreign travel, flattery, moral support; discreet things, in a word, but exceedingly useful things. Now they’re harassing Julian by turning those tools backwards. For a US diplomat, Assange is like some digitized nightmare-reversal of a kindly Cold War analog dissident. He read the dissident playbook and he downloaded it as a textfile; but, in fact, Julian doesn’t care about the USA. It’s just another obnoxious national entity. He happens to be more or less Australian, and he’s no great enemy of America. If he’d had the chance to leak Australian cables he would have leapt on that with the alacrity he did on Kenya. Of course, when Assange did it that to meager little Kenya, all the grown-ups thought that was groovy; he had to hack a superpower in order to touch the third rail. But the American diplomatic corps, and all it thinks it represents, is just collateral damage between Assange and his goal. He aspires to his transparent crypto-utopia in the way George Bush aspired to imaginary weapons of mass destruction. And the American diplomatic corps are so many Iraqis in that crusade. They’re the civilian casualties.

As a novelist, you gotta like the deep and dark irony here. As somebody attempting to live on a troubled world… I dunno. It makes one want to call up the Red Cross and volunteer to fund planetary tranquilizers. I’ve met some American diplomats; not as many as I’ve met hackers, but a few. Like hackers, diplomats are very intelligent people; unlike hackers, they are not naturally sociopathic. Instead, they have to be trained that way in the national interest. I feel sorry for their plight. I can enter into the shame and bitterness that afflicts them now. The cables that Assange leaked have, to date, generally revealed rather eloquent, linguistically gifted American functionaries with a keen sensitivity to the feelings of aliens. So it’s no wonder they were of dwindling relevance and their political masters paid no attention to their counsels. You don’t have to be a citizen of this wracked and threadbare superpower — (you might, for instance, be from New Zealand) — in order to sense the pervasive melancholy of an empire in decline. There’s a House of Usher feeling there. Too many prematurely buried bodies. For diplomats, a massive computer leak is not the kind of sunlight that chases away corrupt misbehavior; it’s more like some dreadful shift in the planetary atmosphere that causes ultraviolet light to peel their skin away. They’re not gonna die from being sunburned in public without their pants on; Bill Clinton survived that ordeal, Silvio Berlusconi just survived it (again). No scandal lasts forever; people do get bored. Generally, you can just brazen it out and wait for public to find a fresher outrage. Except. It’s the damage to the institutions that is spooky and disheartening; after the Lewinsky eruption, every American politician lives in permanent terror of a sex-outing. That’s “transparency,” too; it’s the kind of ghastly sex-transparency that Julian himself is stuck crotch-deep in. The politics of personal destruction hasn’t made the Americans into a frank and erotically cheerful people. On the contrary, the US today is like some creepy house of incest divided against itself in a civil cold war.

“Transparency” can have nasty aspects; obvious, yet denied; spoken, but spoken in whispers. Very Edgar Allen Poe. That’s our condition. It’s a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel, but it’s not a comedy that the planet’s general cultural situation is so clearly getting worse. As I sit here moping over Julian Assange, I’d love to pretend that this is just me in a personal bad mood; in the way that befuddled American pundits like to pretend that Julian is some kind of unique, demonic figure. He isn’t. If he ever was, he sure as hell isn’t now, as “Indoleaks,” “Balkanleaks” and “Brusselsleaks” spring up like so many filesharing whackamoles. Of course the Internet bedroom legions see him, admire him, and aspire to be like him — and they will. How could they not? Even though, as major political players go, Julian Assange seems remarkably deprived of sympathetic qualities. Most saintly leaders of the oppressed masses, most wannabe martyrs, are all keen to kiss-up to the public. But not our Julian; clearly, he doesn’t lack for lust and burning resentment, but that kind of gregarious, sweaty political tactility is beneath his dignity. He’s extremely intelligent, but, as a political, social and moral actor, he’s the kind of guy who gets depressed by the happiness of the stupid. I don’t say these cruel things about Julian Assange because I feel distant from him, but, on the contrary, because I feel close to him. I don’t doubt the two of us would have a lot to talk about. I know hordes of men like him; it’s just that they are programmers, mathematicians, potheads and science fiction fans instead of fiercely committed guys who aspire to topple the international order and replace it with subversive wikipedians.

Enigma machines were used by the Nazis in WWII (unsuccessfully) to ensure world domination.

The chances of that ending well are about ten thousand to one. And I don’t doubt Assange knows that. This is the kind of guy who once wrote an encryption program called “Rubberhose,” because he had it figured that the cops would beat his password out of him, and he needed some code-based way to finesse his own human frailty. Hey, neat hack there, pal. So, well, that’s the general situation with this particular scandal. I could go on about it, but I’m trying to pace myself. This knotty situation is not gonna “blow over,” because it’s been building since 1993 and maybe even 1947. “Transparency” and “discretion” are virtues, but they are virtues that clash. The international order and the global Internet are not best pals. They never were, and now that’s obvious. The data held by states is gonna get easier to steal, not harder to steal; the Chinese are all over Indian computers, the Indians are all over Pakistani computers, and the Russian cybermafia is brazenly hosting because that’s where the underground goes to the mattresses. It is a godawful mess. This is gonna get worse before it gets better, and it’s gonna get worse for a long time. Like leaks in a house where the pipes froze. Well, every once in a while, a situation that’s one-in-a-thousand is met by a guy who is one in a million. It may be that Assange is, somehow, up to this situation. Maybe he’s gonna grow in stature by the massive trouble he has caused. Saints, martyrs, dissidents and freaks are always wild-cards, but sometimes they’re the only ones who can clear the general air. Sometimes they become the catalyst for historical events that somehow had to happen. They don’t have to be nice guys; that’s not the point. Julian Assange did this; he direly wanted it to happen. He planned it in nitpicky, obsessive detail. Here it is; a planetary hack. I don’t have a lot of cheery hope to offer about his all-too-compelling gesture, but I dare to hope he’s everything he thinks he is, and much, much, more.

Bruce Sterling
email : bruces [at] well [dot] com

by Julian Assange

Rubberhose was originally conceived by crypto-programmer Julian Assange as a tool for human rights workers who needed to protect sensitive data in the field, particularly lists of activists and details of incidents of abuse. Repressive regimes in places like East Timor, Russia, Kosovo, Guatamalia, Iraq, Sudan and The Congo conduct human rights abuses regularly. Our team has met with human rights groups an heard first hand accounts of such abuses. Human rights workers carry vital data on laptops through the most dangerous situations, sometimes being stopped by military patrols who would have no hesitation in torturing a suspect until he or she revealed a passphrase to unlock the data. We want to help these sorts of campaigners, particularly the brave people in the field who risk so much to smuggle data about the abuses out to the rest of the world.

Rubberhose (our rubber-hose proof filing system) addresses most of these technical issues, but I’d like to just comment on the best strategy game-theory wise, for the person wielding the rubber-hose. In Rubberhose the number of encrypted aspects (deniable “virtual” partitions) defaults to 16 (although is theoretically unlimited). As soon as you have over 4 pass-phrases, the excuse “I can’t recall” or “there’s nothing else there” starts to sound highly plauseable. Ordinarily best strategy for the rubber-hose wielder is to keep on beating keys out of (let us say, Alice) indefinitely till there are no keys left. However, and importantly, in Rubberhose, *Alice* can never prove that she has handed over the last key. As Alice hands over more and more keys, her attackers can make observations like “the keys Alice has divulged correspond to 85% of the bits”. However at no point can her attackers prove that the remaining 15% don’t simply pertain to unallocated space, and at no point can Alice, even if she wants to, divulge keys to 100% of the bits, in order to bring the un-divulged portion down to 0%. An obvious point to make here is that fraction-of-total-data divulged is essentially meaningless, and both parties know it – the launch code aspect may only take up .01% of the total bit-space. What I find interesting, is how this constraint on Alice’s behaviour actually protects her from revealing her own keys, because each party, at the outset can make the following observations:

We will never be able to show that Alice has revealed the last of her keys. Further, even if Alice has co-operated fully and has revealed all of her keys, she will not be able to prove it. Therefor, we must assume that at every stage that Alice has kept secret information from us, and continue to beat her, even though she may have revealed the last of her keys. But the whole time we will feel uneasy about this because Alice may have co-operated fully. Alice will have realised this though, and so presumably it’s going to be very hard to get keys out of her at all.

(Having realised the above) I can never prove that I have revealed the last of my keys. In the end I’m bound for continued beating, even if I can buy brief respites by coughing up keys from time to time. Therefor, it would be foolish to divulge my most sensitive keys, because (a) I’ll be that much closer to the stage where I have nothing left to divulge at all (it’s interesting to note that this seemingly illogical, yet entirely valid argument of Alice’s can protect the most sensitive of Alice’s keys the “whole way though”, like a form mathematical induction), and (b) the taste of truly secret information will only serve to make my aggressors come to the view that there is even higher quality information yet to come, re-doubling their beating efforts to get at it, even if I have revealed all. Therefor, my best strategy would be to (a) reveal no keys at all or (b) depending on the nature of the aggressors, and the psychology of the situation, very slowly reveal my “duress” and other low-sensitivity keys. Alice certainly isn’t in for a very nice time of it (although she she’s far more likely to protect her data).

On the individual level, you would have to question whether you might want to be able to prove that, yes, infact you really have surrendered the last remaining key, at the cost of a far greater likelihood that you will. It really depends on the nature of your opponents. Are they intelligent enough understand the deniable aspect of the cryptosystem and come up with the above strategy? Determined to the aspect they are willing to invest the time and effort in wresting the last key out of you? Ruthless – do they say “Please”, hand you a Court Order, or is it more of a Room 101 affair? But there’s more to the story. Organisations and groups may have quite different strategic goals in terms of key retention vs torture relief to the individuals that comprise them, even if their views are otherwise co-aligned. A simple democratic union of two or more people will exhibit this behaviour. When a member of a group, who uses conventional cryptography to protect group secrets is rubber-hosed, they have two choices (1) defecting (by divulging keys) in order to save themselves, at the cost of selling the other individuals in the group down the river or (2) staying loyal, protecting the group and in the process subjugating themselves to continued torture. With Rubberhose-style deniable cryptography, the benefits to a group member from choosing tactic 1 (defection). are subdued, because they will never be able to convince their interrogators that they have defected. Rational individuals that are `otherwise loyal'” to the group, will realise the minimal gains to be made in chosing defection and choose tactic 2 (loyalty), instead. Presumably most people in the group do not want to be forced to give up their ability to choose defection. On the other hand, no one in the group wants anyone (other than themselves) in the group to be given the option of defecting against the group (and thus the person making the observation). Provided no individual is certain* they are to be rubber-hosed, every individual will support the adoption of a group-wide Rubberhose-style cryptographically deniable crypto-system. This property is communitive, while the individual’s desire to be able to choose defection is not. The former every group member wants for every other group member, but not themselves. The latter each group member wants only for themself.

* “certain” is a little misleading. Each individual has a threshold which is not only proportional to the the perceived likely hood of being rubberhosed over ones dislike of it, but also includes the number of indviduals in the group, the damage caused by a typical defection to the other members of the group etc.

Cheers, Julian

From: (Timothy C. May)
Subject: The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto
Date: Sun, 22 Nov 92

Cypherpunks of the World,
Several of you at the “physical Cypherpunks” gathering yesterday in Silicon Valley requested that more of the material passed out in meetings be available electronically to the entire readership of the Cypherpunks list, spooks, eavesdroppers, and all. Here’s the “Crypto Anarchist Manifesto” I read at the September 1992 founding meeting. It dates back to mid-1988 and was distributed to some like-minded techno-anarchists at the “Crypto ’88” conference and then again at the “Hackers Conference” that year. I later gave talks at Hackers on this in 1989 and 1990. There are a few things I’d change, but for historical reasons I’ll just leave it as is. Some of the terms may be unfamiliar to you…I hope the Crypto Glossary I just distributed will help. (This should explain all those cryptic terms in my .signature!) –Tim May


The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto
by Timothy C. May

A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy. Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner. Two persons may exchange messages, conduct business, and negotiate electronic contracts without ever knowing the True Name, or legal identity, of the other. Interactions over networks will be untraceable, via extensive re- routing of encrypted packets and tamper-proof boxes which implement cryptographic protocols with nearly perfect assurance against any tampering. Reputations will be of central importance, far more important in dealings than even the credit ratings of today. These developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret, and will even alter the nature of trust and reputation.

The technology for this revolution–and it surely will be both a social and economic revolution–has existed in theory for the past decade. The methods are based upon public-key encryption, zero-knowledge interactive proof systems, and various software protocols for interaction, authentication, and verification. The focus has until now been on academic conferences in Europe and the U.S., conferences monitored closely by the National Security Agency. But only recently have computer networks and personal computers attained sufficient speed to make the ideas practically realizable. And the next ten years will bring enough additional speed to make the ideas economically feasible and essentially unstoppable. High-speed networks, ISDN, tamper-proof boxes, smart cards, satellites, Ku-band transmitters, multi-MIPS personal computers, and encryption chips now under development will be some of the enabling technologies.

The State will of course try to slow or halt the spread of this technology, citing national security concerns, use of the technology by drug dealers and tax evaders, and fears of societal disintegration. Many of these concerns will be valid; crypto anarchy will allow national secrets to be trade freely and will allow illicit and stolen materials to be traded. An anonymous computerized market will even make possible abhorrent markets for assassinations and extortion. Various criminal and foreign elements will be active users of CryptoNet. But this will not halt the spread of crypto anarchy.

Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure, so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions. Combined with emerging information markets, crypto anarchy will create a liquid market for any and all material which can be put into words and pictures. And just as a seemingly minor invention like barbed wire made possible the fencing-off of vast ranches and farms, thus altering forever the concepts of land and property rights in the frontier West, so too will the seemingly minor discovery out of an arcane branch of mathematics come to be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property. Arise, you have nothing to lose but your barbed wire fences!


Timothy C. May | Crypto Anarchy: encryption, digital money, | anonymous networks, digital pseudonyms, zero
408-688-5409 | knowledge, reputations, information markets,
W.A.S.T.E.: Aptos, CA | black markets, collapse of governments.
Higher Power: 2^756839 | PGP Public Key: by arrangement.


“What is BlackNet?”
” — an experiment in information markets, using anonymous message pools for exchange of instructions and items. Tim May’s experiment in guerilla ontology.
— an experimental scheme devised by T. May to underscore the nature of anonymous information markets. “Any and all” secrets can be offered for sale via anonymous mailers and message pools. The experiment was leaked via remailer to the Cypherpunks list (not by May) and thence to several dozen Usenet groups by Detweiler. The authorities are said to be investigating it.”

What Bruce Sterling Actually Said About Web 2.0 at Webstock 09
by Bruce Sterling  / March 1, 2009

{By the garbled reportage, I’d be guessing some of those kiwis were having trouble with my accent. Here are the verbatim remarks.}

So, thanks for having me cross half the planet to be here. So, just before I left Italy, I was reading an art book. About 1902, because we futurists do that. And it had this comment in it by Walter Pater that reminded me of your problems. Walter Pater was a critic and an artist of Art Nouveau. There was a burst of Art Nouveau in Turin in 1902 — because what Arts and Crafts always needed was some rich industrialists. Rich factory owners were the guys who bought those elaborate handmade homes and the romantic paintings of the Lady of Shalott. Fantastic anti-industrial structures were financed by heavy industry.

I know that sounds ironic or even sarcastic, but it isn’t. Creative energies are liberated by oxymorons, by breakdowns in definitions. The Muse comes out when you look sidelong, over your shoulder. So Walter Pater was a critic, like me, so of course he’s complaining. The Italians in 1902 don’t understand the original doctrines of the PreRaphaelites and Ruskin and William Morris! That’s his beef. The Italians just think that Art Nouveau has a lot of curvy lines in it, and it’s got something to do with nude women and vegetables! They’re just seizing on the superficial appearances! In Italy they call that stuff “Flower Style.”

And that’s your problem, too, here in New Zealand. Far from the action here at the antipodes, you people, you just don’t get it about the original principles of Web 2.0! Too often, you’ve got no architecture of participation, sometimes you don’t have an open API! Out here at the end of the earth, you think it’s all about drop shadows and the gradients and a tag cloud, and a startup name with a Capital R in the middle of it!

And that’s absolutely the way of the world… nothing any critic can do about it. People do make mistakes, they interpret things wrongly — but more to the point, they DELIBERATELY make mistakes in creative work. Creative people don’t want to “do it right.” They want to share the excitement you had when you yourself didn’t know how to do it right. Creative people are unconsciously attracted by the parts that make no sense. And Web 2.0 was full of those.

I want you to know that I respect Web 2.0. I sincerely think it was a great success. Art Nouveau was not a success — it had basic concepts that were seriously wrongheaded. Whereas Web 2.0 had useful, sound ideas that were creatively vague. It also had things in it that pretended to be ideas, but were not ideas at all: they were attitudes. In web critical thinking, this effort, Web 2.0, was where it was at. Web 2.0 has lost its novelty value now, but it’s not dead. It’s been realized: it has spread worldwide.

It’s Web 1.0 that is dead. Web 1.0 was comprehensively crushed by Web 2.0, Web 2.0 fell flaming on top of web 1.0 and smashed it to rubble.

Web 2.0 is Wikipedia, while web 1.0 is Britannica Online. “What? Is Britannica online? Why?”

Web 2.0 is FlickR, while web 1.0 is Ofoto. “Ofoto? I’ve never even heard of Ofoto.”

Web 2.0 is search engines and Web 1.0 is portals. “Yeah man, I really need a New Zealand portal! I don’t think I can handle that information superhighway without a local portal!”

What do we talk about when we say “Web 2.0?” Luckily, we have a canonical definition! Straight from the originator! Mr Tim O’Reilly! Publisher, theorist, organizer, California tech guru: “Web 2.0 is the network as platform, spanning all connected devices; Web 2.0 applications are those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform: delivering software as a continually-updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an ‘architecture of participation,’ and going beyond the page metaphor of Web 1.0 to deliver rich user experiences.”

I got all interested when I heard friends discussing web 2.0, so I swiftly went and read that definition. After reading it a few times, I understood it, too. But — okay, is that even a sentence? A sentence is a verbal construction meant to express a complete thought. This congelation that Tim O’Reilly constructed, that is not a complete thought. It’s a network in permanent beta. We might try to diagram that sentence. Luckily Tim did that for us already. Here it is.

The nifty-keen thing here is that Web 2.0 is a web. It’s a web of bubbles and squares. A glorious thing — but that is not a verbal argument. That’s like a Chinese restaurant menu. You can take one bubble from sector A, and two from sector B, and three from sector C, and you are Web 2.0. Feed yourself and your family! Take away all the bubbles, and put some people there instead. Web 2.0 becomes a Tim O’Reilly conference. This guy is doing x, and that guy is doing y, and that woman is the maven of doing z. Do these people want to talk to each other? Do they have anything to say and share? You bet they do. Through in some catering and scenery, and it’s very Webstock.

Web 2.0 theory is a web. It’s not philosophy, it’s not ideology like a political platform, it’s not even a set of esthetic tenets like an art movement. The diagram for Web 2.0 is a little model network. You can mash up all the bubbles to the other bubbles. They carry out subroutines on one another. You can flowchart it if you want. There’s a native genius here. I truly admire it. This chart is five years old now, which is 35 years old in Internet years, but intellectually speaking, it’s still new in the world. It’s alarming how hard it is to say anything constructive about this from any previous cultural framework.

The things that are particularly stimulating and exciting about Web 2.0 are the bits that are just flat-out contradictions in terms. Those are my personal favorites, the utter violations of previous common sense: the frank oxymorons. Like “the web as platform.” That’s the key Web 2.0 insight: “the web as a platform.” Okay, “webs” are not “platforms.” I know you’re used to that idea after five years, but consider taking the word “web” out, and using the newer sexy term, “cloud.” “The cloud as platform.” That is insanely great. Right? You can’t build a “platform” on a “cloud!” That is a wildly mixed metaphor! A cloud is insubstantial, while a platform is a solid foundation! The platform falls through the cloud and is smashed to earth like a plummeting stock price!

Imagine that this was financial thinking — instead of web design thinking. We take a bunch of loans, we mash them together and turn them into a security. Now securities are secure, right? They are triple-A solid! So now we can build more loans on top of those securities. Ingenious! This means the price of credit trends to zero, so the user base expands radically, so everybody can have credit! Nobody could have tried that before, because that sounds like a magic Ponzi scheme. But luckily, we have computers in banking now. That means Moore’s law is gonna save us! Instead of it being really obvious who owes what to whom, we can have a fluid, formless ownership structure that’s always in permanent beta. As long as we keep moving forward, adding attractive new features, the situation is booming!

Now, I wouldn’t want to claim that Web 2.0 is as frail as the financial system — the financial system that supported it and made it possible! But Web 2.0 is directly built on top of finance. Web 2.0 is supposed to be business. This isn’t a public utility or a public service, like the old model of an Information Superhighway established for the public good. The Information Superhighway is long dead — it was killed by Web 1.0. And web 2.0 kills web 1.0.

Actually, you don’t simply kill those earlier paradigms. What you do is turn them into components, then make the components into platforms, then place more fresh components on top. That is native web logic. The World Wide Web sits on top of a turtle, and then below that is an older turtle, and that sits on the older turtle. You don’t have to feel fretful about that situation — because it’s turtles all the way down.

Now, we don’t have to think about it in that particular way. The word “turtles” makes it sound absurd and scary, like a myth or a confidence trick. We can try another, very different metaphor — as Tim O’Reilly once offered us. “Like many important concepts, Web 2.0 doesn’t have a hard boundary, but rather, a gravitational core. You can visualize Web 2.0 as a set of principles and practices that tie together a veritable solar system of sites that demonstrate some or all of those principles, at a varying distance from that core.”

Okay, now we’ve got this kind of asteroid rubble of small pieces loosely joined. As a science fiction writer, I truly love that metaphor. That’s the web. Web pieces are held by laws of gravity, and supposedly the sun isn’t gonna do anything much. Right? The sun is four and half billion years old, it’s very old and stable. Although the web sure isn’t. Let’s look at a few of these Web 2.0 principles and practices.

“Tagging not taxonomy.” Okay, I love folksonomy, but I don’t think it’s gone very far. There have been books written about how ambient searchability through folksonomy destroys the need for any solid taxonomy. Not really. The reality is that we don’t have a choice, because we have no conceivable taxonomy that can catalog the avalanche of stuff on the Web. We have no army of human clerks remotely able to tackle that work. We don’t even have permanent reference sites where we can put data so that we can taxonomize it.

“An attitude, not a technology.” Okay, attitudes are great, but they’re never permanent. Even technologies aren’t permanent, and an attitude about technology is a vogue. It’s a style. It’s certainly not a business. Nobody goes out and sells a kilo of attitude. What is attitude doing in there? Everything, of course. In Web 2.0 the attitude was everything.

Then there’s AJAX. Okay, I freakin’ love AJAX. Jesse James Garrett is a benefactor of mankind. I thank God for this man and his willingness to look sympathetically at users and the hell they experience. People use AJAX instead of evil static web pages, and people literally weep with joy. But what is AJAX, exactly? It’s not an acronym. It doesn’t really stand for “Asynchronous Java and XTML.” XTML itself is an acronym — you can’t make an acronym out of an acronym! You peel that label off and AJAX is revealed as a whole web of stuff.

AJAX is standards-based presentation using XHTML and CSS. AJAX is also dynamic display and interaction using the Document Object Model. AJAX is also data interchange and manipulation using XML and XSLT; AJASX is also asynchronous data retrieval using XML-http request. With JavaScript binding everything. Okay, that was AJAX, and every newbie idiot knows that Web 2.0 is made of AJAX. “AJAX with JavaScript binding everything.” JavaScript binding everything — like the law of gravity, like there’s a sun somewhere. Okay, that sounds reassuring, but suppose something goes wrong with the sun. Sun were the guys who built JavaScript, if you recall. That sounds kind of alarming… because Sun’s JavaScript, the binder of AJAX, is the core of the Web 2.0 rich user experience.

JavaScript is the duct tape of the Web. Why? Because you can do anything with it. It’s not the steel girders of the web, it’s not the laws of physics of the web. Javascript is beloved of web hackers because it’s an ultimate kludge material that can stick anything to anything. It’s a cloud, a web, a highway, a platform and a floor wax. Guys with attitude use JavaScript.

There’s something truly glorious about this. Glorious, and clearly hazardous, bottom-up and make-do. I’m not gonna say that I will eat my own hat if the Internet doesn’t collapse by 1995. Guys say that — Metcalfe said it — he had to eat the damn hat. That doomsayer, man, he deserved it. He invented Ethernet, so what did he ever know about networking.

What I have to wonder is: how much of Javascript’s great power is based on an attitude that Javascript is up to the job? Duct-taping the turtles all the way down. I certainly don’t want to give up Javascript — but is Sun the center of the web 2.0 solar system? Sun’s not lookin’ real great right now, is it? That is our solid platform, our foundation? Can you have Javascript without a sun? Duct-tape in the dark?

eBay reputations and Amazon reviews. “User as contributor.” Are “user” and “contributor” the right words for the people interacting with Amazon? Let’s suppose there’s a change of attitude within Amazon; they’re going broke, they’re desperate, the stock price has cratered, and they really have to turn the screws on their users and contributors. Then what happens? This is a social attitude kinda held together with Javascript and duct tape, isn’t it? I mean, Amazon used to sell books. Right? You might want to talk to some publishers and booksellers about the nature of their own relationship with Amazon. They don’t use nice terms like “user and contributor.” They use terms like “collapse, crash, driven out of business.”

The publishing business is centuries old and bookstores have been around for millennia. Is Amazon gonna last that long? Are they a great force for our stability? Are we betting the farm on the Web 2.0 attitude of these guys?

Blogs — “participation not publishing.” Okay, I love my blog. Mostly because there’s never been any damn participation in it. My blog has outlived 94 percent of all blogs every created. I’ve got an ancient turtle of a blog. I may also have one of the last blogs surviving in the future, because the rest were held together with duct tape and attitude. Try going around looking for a weblog now that is literally a log of some guy’s websurfing activities. Most things we call “blogs” are not “weblogs” any more. Even MY ancient writer-style blog isn’t quite a weblog. My blog isn’t participatory, but it’s got embedded videos, FlickR photos, links to MP3s.

You can go read my blog from four years ago. Five years ago. Still sitting there in the server. Absolutely consumed with link-rot. I’m blogged to stuff that has vanished into the ether, it’s gone into 404land. It had “granular addressibility,” just like Tim recommends here, but those granules were blown away on the burning solar wind.

Not that I’m the Metcalfe prophet of doom here — there were more granules. Sure. I got supergranules. I get granules direct from Tim O’Reilly’s tweets now, I get 140-character granules. And man, those are some topnotch tweets. Tim O’Reilly is my favorite Twitter contact. He is truly the guru. I don’t know anybody who can touch him. I also know that the Fail Whale is the best friend of everybody on Twitter. He’s not a frail little fail minnow, either. The Fail Whale is a big burly beast, he’s right up there with the dinosaurs.

Let me throw in a few more Web 2.0 oxymorons here because, as a novelist, these really excite me. “Web platform,” of course — that one really ranks with ‘wireless cable,’ there’s something sublime about it…

“Business revolution.” Web 2.0 was often described as a “business revolution.” Web 1.0 was also a business revolution — and it went down in flames with the Internet Bubble. That was when all the dotcom investors retreated to the rock-solid guaranteed stability of real-estate. Remember that?

Before the 1990s, nobody had any “business revolutions.” People in trade are supposed to be very into long-term contracts, a stable regulatory environment, risk management, and predictable returns to stockholders. Revolutions don’t advance those things. Revolutions annihilate those things. Is that “businesslike”? By whose standards?

“Dynamic content.” Okay, content is a stable substance that is put inside a container. It’s stored in there: that’s why you put it inside. If it is dynamically flowing through the container, that’s not a container. That is a pipe. I really like dynamic flowing pipes, but since they’re not containers, you can’t freakin’ label them!

“Collective intelligence.” Okay, there is definitely something important and powerful and significant and revolutionary here. Google’s got “collective intelligence.” I don’t think there’s a revolutionary in the world who doesn’t use Google. Everybody who bitches about Google uses Google.

I use Google all the time. I don’t believe Google is evil. I’m quite the fan of Sergey and Larry: they are like the coolest Stanford dropouts ever. I just wonder what kind of rattletrap duct-taped mayhem is disguised under a smooth oxymoron like “collective intelligence.” You got to call it something — and “collective intelligence” is surely a lot better than retreating to crazed superstition and calling it “the sacred daemon spirits of Mountain View who know everything.”

But if collective intelligence is an actual thing — as opposed to an off-the-wall metaphor — where is the there there? Google’s servers aren’t intelligent. Google’s algorithms aren’t intelligent. You can learn fantastic things off Wikipedia in a few moments, but Wikipedia is not a conscious, thinking structure. Wikipedia is not a science fiction hive mind. Furthermore, the people whose granular bits of input are aggregated by Google are not a “collective.” They’re not a community. They never talk to each other. They’ve got basically zero influence on what Google chooses to do with their mouseclicks. What’s “collective” about that?

Talking about “collective intelligence” is like talking about “the invisible hand of the market.” Markets don’t have any real invisible hands. That is a metaphor. And “collective intelligence” doesn’t have any human will or any consciousness. “Collective intelligence” isn’t intelligently trying to make our lives better, it’s not an abstract force for good.

“Collective credit-card fraud intelligence” — that is collective intelligence, too. “Collective security-vulnerabilities intelligence” — that’s powerful, it’s incredibly fast, it’s not built by any one guy in particular, and it causes billions of dollars of commercial damage and endless hours of harassment and fear to computer users.

I really think it’s the original sin of geekdom, a kind of geek thought-crime, to think that just because you yourself can think algorithmically, and impose some of that on a machine, that this is “intelligence.” That is not intelligence. That is rules-based machine behavior. It’s code being executed. It’s a powerful thing, it’s a beautiful thing, but to call that “intelligence” is dehumanizing. You should stop that. It does not make you look high-tech, advanced, and cool. It makes you look delusionary.

There’s something sad and pathetic about it, like a lonely old woman whose only friends are her cats. “I had to leave my 14 million dollars to Fluffy because he loves me more than all those poor kids down at the hospital.” This stuff we call “collective intelligence” has tremendous potential, but it’s not our friend — any more than the invisible hand of the narcotics market is our friend.

Markets look like your friend when they’re spreading prosperity your way. If they get some bug in their ear from their innate Black Swan instability, man, markets will starve you! The Invisible Hand of the market will jerk you around like a cat of nine tails. So I’d definitely like some better term for “collective intelligence,” something a little less streamlined and metaphysical. Maybe something like “primeval meme ooze” or “semi-autonomous data propagation.” Even some Kevin Kelly style “neobiological out of control emergent architectures.” Because those weird new structures are here, they’re growing fast, we depend on them for mission-critical acts, and we’re not gonna get rid of them any more than we can get rid of termite mounds.

So, you know, whatever next? Web 2.0, five years old, and sounding pretty corny now. I loved Web 2.0 — I don’t want to be harsh or dismissive about it. Unlike some critics, I never thought it was “nonsense” or “just jargon.” There were critics who dismissed Tim’s solar system of ideas and attitudes there. I read those critics carefully, I thought hard about what they said. I really thought that they were philistines, and wrong-headed people. They were like guys who dismissed Cubism or Surrealism because “that isn’t really painting.”

Web 2.0 people were a nifty crowd. I used to meet, interview computer people… the older mainframe crowd, Bell Labs engineers and such. They were smarter than Web 2.0 people because they were a super-selected technical elite. They were also boring bureaucrats and functionaries. All the sense of fun, the brio had been boiled out of them, and their users were hapless ignoramus creatures whom they despised.

The classic Bell subset telephone, you know, black plastic shell, sturdy rotary dial… For God’s sake don’t touch the components! That was their emblem. They were creatures of their era, they had the values of their era, that time is gone and we have the real 21st century on our hands. I am at peace with that. I’m not nostalgic. “Even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.”

Web 2.0 guys: they’ve got their laptops with whimsical stickers, the tattoos, the startup T-shirts, the brainy-glasses — you can tell them from the general population at a glance. They’re a true creative subculture, not a counterculture exactly — but in their number, their relationship to the population, quite like the Arts and Crafts people from a hundred years ago.

Arts and Crafts people, they had a lot of bad ideas — much worse ideas than Tim O’Reilly’s ideas. It wouldn’t bother me any if Tim O’Reilly was Governor of California — he couldn’t be any weirder than that guy they’ve got already. Arts and Crafts people gave it their best shot, they were in earnest — but everything they thought they knew about reality was blown to pieces by the First World War.

After that misfortune, there were still plenty of creative people surviving. Futurists, Surrealists, Dadaists — and man, they all despised Arts and Crafts. Everything about Art Nouveau that was sexy and sensual and liberating and flower-like, man, that stank in their nostrils. They thought that Art Nouveau people were like moronic children.

So — what does tomorrow’s web look like? Well, the official version would be ubiquity. I’ve been seeing ubiquity theory for years now. I’m a notorious fan of this stuff. A zealot, even. I’m a snake-waving street-preacher about it. Finally the heavy operators are waking from their dogmatic slumbers; in the past eighteen months, 24 months, we’ve seen ubiquity initiatives from Nokia, Cisco, General Electric, IBM… Microsoft even, Jesus, Microsoft, the place where innovative ideas go to die.

But it’s too early for that to be the next stage of the web. We got nice cellphones, which are ubiquity in practice, we got GPS, geolocativity, but too much of the hardware just isn’t there yet. The batteries aren’t there, the bandwidth is not there, RFID does not work well at all, and there aren’t any ubiquity pure-play companies.

So I think what comes next is a web with big holes blown in it. A spiderweb in a storm. The turtles get knocked out from under it, the platform sinks through the cloud. A lot of the inherent contradictions of the web get revealed, the contradictions in the oxymorons smash into each other. The web has to stop being a meringue frosting on the top of business, this make-do melange of mashups and abstraction layers.

Web 2.0 goes away. Its work is done. The thing I always loved best about Web 2.0 was its implicit expiration date. It really took guts to say that: well, we’ve got a bunch of cool initiatives here, and we know they’re not gonna last very long. It’s not Utopia, it’s not a New World Order, it’s just a brave attempt to sweep up the ashes of the burst Internet Bubble and build something big and fast with the small burnt-up bits that were loosely joined.

That showed more maturity than Web 1.0. It was visionary, it was inspiring, but there were fewer moon rockets flying out of its head. “Gosh, we’re really sorry that we accidentally ruined the NASDAQ.” We’re Internet business people, but maybe we should spend less of our time stock-kiting. The Web’s a communications medium — how ’bout working on the computer interface, so that people can really communicate? That effort was time well spent. Really.

A lot of issues that Web 1.0 was sweating blood about, they went away for good. The “digital divide,” for instance. Man, I hated that. All the planet’s poor kids had to have desktop machines. With fiber optic. Sure! You go to Bombay, Shanghai, Lagos even, you’re like “hey kid, how about this OLPC so you can level the playing field with the South Bronx and East Los Angeles?” And he’s like “Do I have to? I’ve already got three Nokias.” The teacher is slapping the cellphone out of his hand because he’s acing the tests by sneaking in SMS traffic.

“Half the planet has never made a phone call.” Boy, that’s a shame — especially when pirates in Somalia are making satellite calls off stolen supertankers. The poorest people in the world love cellphones. They’re spreading so fast they make PCs look like turtles. Digital culture, I knew it well. It died — young, fast and pretty. It’s all about network culture now.

We’ve got a web built on top of a collapsed economy. THAT’s the black hole at the center of the solar system now. There’s gonna be a Transition Web. Your economic system collapses: Eastern Europe, Russia, the Transition Economy, that bracing experience is for everybody now. Except it’s not Communism transitioning toward capitalism. It’s the whole world into transition toward something we don’t even have proper words for.

The Web has always had an awkward relationship with business. Web 2.0 was a business model. The Transition Web is a culture model. If it’s gonna work, it’s got to replace things that we used to pay for with things that we just plain use. In Web 2.0, if you were monetizable, it meant you got bought out by the majors. “We stole back our revolution and we sold ourselves to Yahoo.” Okay, that was embarrassing, but at least it meant you could scale up and go on. In the Transition Web, if you’re monetizable, it means that you get attacked. You gotta squeeze a penny out of every pixel because the owners are broke. But if you do that to your users, they will vaporize, because they’re broke too, just like you; of course they’re gonna migrate to stuff that’s free.

After a while you have to wonder if it’s worth it — the money model, I mean. Is finance worth the cost of being involved with the finance? The web smashed stocks. Global banking blew up all over the planet all at once… Not a single country anywhere with a viable economic policy under globalization. Is there a message here? Are there some non-financial structures that are less predatory and unstable than this radically out-of-kilter invisible hand? The invisible hand is gonna strangle us! Everybody’s got a hand out — how about offering people some visible hands?

Not every Internet address was a dotcom. In fact, dotcoms showed up pretty late in the day, and they were not exactly welcome. There were dot-orgs, dot edus, dot nets, dot govs, and dot localities. Once upon a time there were lots of social enterprises that lived outside the market; social movements, political parties, mutual aid societies, philanthropies. Churches, criminal organizations — you’re bound to see plenty of both of those in a transition… Labor unions… not little ones, but big ones like Solidarity in Poland; dissident organizations, not hobby activists, big dissent, like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia.

Armies, national guards. Rescue operations. Global non-governmental organizations. Davos Forums, Bilderberg guys. Retired people. The old people can’t hold down jobs in the market. Man, there’s a lot of ‘em. Billions. What are our old people supposed to do with themselves? Websurf, I’m thinking. They’re wise, they’re knowledgeable, they’re generous by nature; the 21st century is destined to be an old people’s century. Even the Chinese, Mexicans, Brazilians will be old. Can’t the web make some use of them, all that wisdom and talent, outside the market?

Market failures have blown holes in civil society. The Greenhouse Effect is a market failure. The American health system is a market failure — and most other people’s health systems don’t make much commercial sense. Education is a loss leader and the university thing is a mess. Income disparities are insane. The banker aristocracy is in hysterical depression. Housing is in wreckage; the market has given us white-collar homeless and a million empty buildings. The energy market is completely freakish. If you have no fossil fuels, you shiver in the dark. If you do have them, your economy is completely unstable, your government is corrupted and people kill you for oil. The human trafficking situation is crazy. In globalization people just evaporate over borders. They emigrate illegally and grab whatever cash they can find. If you don’t export you go broke from trade imbalances. If you do export, you go broke because your trading partners can’t pay you…

Kinda hard to face up to all this, especially when it’s laid out in this very bald fashion. But you know, I’m not scared by any of this. I regret the suffering, I know it’s big trouble — but it promises massive change and a massive change was inevitable. The way we ran the world was wrong.

I’ve never seen so much panic around me, but panic is the last thing on my mind. My mood is eager impatience. I want to see our best, most creative, best-intentioned people in world society directly attacking our worst problems. I’m bored with the deceit. I’m tired of obscurantism and cover-ups. I’m disgusted with cynical spin and the culture war for profit. I’m up to here with phony baloney market fundamentalism. I despise a prostituted society where we put a dollar sign in front of our eyes so we could run straight into the ditch.

The cure for panic is action. Coherent action is great; for a scatterbrained web society, that may be a bit much to ask. Well, any action is better than whining. We can do better. I’m not gonna tell you what to do. I’m an artist, I’m not running for office and I don’t want any of your money. Just talk among yourselves. Grow up to the size of your challenges. Bang out some code, build some platforms you don’t have to duct-tape any more, make more opportunities than you can grab for your little selves, and let’s get after living real lives. The future is unwritten. Thank you very much.


  1. Hi Bruce–I sent you an email but I also wanted some mention of the issue here where people can see it.

    This is a deeply felt and radically sharp piece and I think what you say in it, and your framing of this as a challenge to the community is brilliant.

    However, I’m surprised that when discussing Julian Assange’s recent jail time, you didn’t explain *why* he was in jail, which is because he is being sought for questioning in two rape cases.

    Assange has not been charged. He may be guilty or innocent, and/or being framed. Passions run very high on all sides of the issue, and it’s become very polarizing. I believe Assange is innocent until proven guilty. I support women who report sexual assault, especially in a culture that punishes them for doing so. I think that even if (IF) he is charged and found guilty, that reflects only on him, not on Wikileaks or anyone else. But sidestepping the reason an arrest warrant was issued feels wrong to me and I wanted to express that here.

    Special Report: STD fears sparked case against WikiLeaks boss
    by Mark Hosenball / Dec 7 2010

    The two Swedish women who accuse WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of sexual misconduct were at first not seeking to bring charges against him. They just wanted to track him down and persuade him to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases, according to several people in contact with his entourage at the time. The women went to the police together after they failed to persuade Assange to go to a doctor after separate sexual encounters with him in August, according to these people, who include former close associates of Assange who have since fallen out with him. The women had trouble finding Assange because he had turned off his cellphone out of concern his enemies might trace him, these sources said. Assange’s elusiveness may have worked against him in the Swedish investigation, which might well have gone nowhere had he taken the women’s calls and not left Sweden when police started looking into the allegations. The Swedish investigation has undergone head-spinning twists and turns. After initially issuing a warrant for Assange’s arrest on rape and molestation charges in mid-August, a Swedish prosecutor dropped the rape charge the next day. After this U-turn, it appeared likely that the whole investigation of the 39-year-old Australian computer hacker would be abandoned. Assange’s accusers then hired a lawyer who declared he would press prosecutors not only to keep the investigation going but to reinstate rape charges. The case was soon transferred to one of Sweden’s three Directors of Public Prosecutions, Marianne Ny, who indeed decided to reinstate the rape investigation and continue the molestation probe. She ordered that Assange should be subject to official interrogation about the allegations. After Assange left the country, Swedish authorities issued a European arrest warrant under which Assange could be detained and returned to Sweden. A spokeswoman for Swedish prosecutors affirmed, however, that at the moment Assange is not formally charged in Sweden with any criminal offense, but is only wanted for questioning.

    The most serious accusation Swedish prosecutors made against him in a statement on their website is that he committed “rape, less serious crime” — the least serious of three levels of rape charges that are on the statute books in Sweden. Conviction carries a maximum four year jail sentence and a minimum of less than two years, depending upon the circumstances. As described by several people who were in contact with Assange and his inner circle at the time the allegations against him surfaced, both of his accusers are young Swedish women who came into contact with him during a visit to Sweden on behalf of WikiLeaks. One of the women, identified in the British court hearing on Sweden’s extradition request as Miss A, was listed on publicity for Assange’s Swedish visit as a spokesperson for a group hosting the WikiLeaks leader. People who were in contact with both Assange and other members of his entourage at the time say that the woman at some point invited him to stay at her residence. Assange’s financial resources are opaque, but by most accounts he maintains an austere lifestyle, supporting himself on the donations of wealthy and not-so-rich supporters and overnighting in a succession of friends’ spare rooms. According to the accounts of Assange’s associates, his overnight stays at his erstwhile spokeswoman’s residence soon evolved into a sexual relationship between the two. During one of their encounters, the woman later said, a condom Assange was wearing broke or split. People who saw Assange and the woman in the days after this incident is said to have occurred said the two displayed little if any obvious sign of tension or hostility; to some who saw them at the time, it was not clear their relationship was anything other than amicable and chaste.

    A few days later, however, people who were in contact with Assange then told Reuters, a second, younger woman went to a seminar addressed by Assange. According to an account published by London’s Daily Mail — which said it had access to heavily redacted versions of the statements both women made to Swedish police — the second woman had become obsessed by Assange after watching him on television. After hearing him speak at the seminar, the newspaper said, the woman, identified in court as Miss W, loitered outside the meeting hall, and eventually was invited to lunch with Assange and his entourage at a local bistro. A day after their initial meeting — which the Mail account said included a visit to a natural history museum — Miss W agreed with Assange that he should spend the night at her apartment about 45 minutes outside Stockholm. The paper says she had to pay for his $15 train ticket because he had no cash and didn’t want to use a credit card in case it would help authorities locate him. That night, according to the accounts of both the newspaper and people who were in contact with Assange and his inner circle, he and Miss W had sex using a condom. The next morning, however, under circumstances which remain deeply murky, the sources said, Assange allegedly had sex with the woman again, this time without a condom. Then, after a meal during which the Mail says that the woman joked that she could be pregnant, they parted on friendly terms, with Miss W buying Assange his train ticket back to Stockholm. Two people who were in contact with Assange’s entourage before, during and after these events said that while some details are still unclear, it appears that after parting from Assange, Miss W became increasingly concerned that he might have given her a sexually-transmitted disease. According to the sources, Miss W anxiously tried to phone Assange to plead with him to go to a doctor and be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. However, the sources said that Assange had turned his phone off, leaving Miss W no way to get in touch with him. Becoming increasingly anxious about possible dire consequences of having had sex without a condom, Miss W then began trying to contact Assange through various people she believed were in touch with him.

    This eventually led her to Miss A — who according to people who followed the case closely was not previously acquainted with Miss W. The two women proceeded to compare notes on their encounters with Assange and decided that they would insist that he should go to a hospital or doctor and submit to testing for sexually-transmitted diseases. Eventually they managed to get in touch with Assange, according to a person who closely followed the case at the time. But by the time the women had wrung this concession from Assange, the source said, it was a Friday evening and hospitals and medical clinics were closed. At this point, Miss W, apparently exasperated at Assange’s evasive behavior, decided to take her story to police, though initially she didn’t want Assange to be prosecuted. According to a version of the story published by London’s Guardian newspaper, which has been in close and continuing contact with Assange for months, Miss A decided to go to the police with Miss W to offer moral support, but did not want charges brought against Assange either. After taking statements from the women, according to both published accounts and to accounts confirmed by Swedish officials at the time, police officers passed the reports on to prosecutors. Based on the reports a prosecutor serving after-hours duty on a Friday night then decided to issue a warrant for Assange’s arrest on suspicion of rape — a charge which the Guardian said at the time was related to Assange’s alleged encounter with Miss W. The next morning, however, the file was sent for review to a more senior prosecutor, who concluded there was insufficient evidence to support the rape accusation and canceled the arrest warrant. But the second prosecutor decided that the investigation should continue as a lesser accusation of “molestation” against Assange, Swedish officials said at the time. Over the following several days, prosecutors spoke about wanting to question Assange, though also dropped heavy hints that they wanted to wrap up their investigation rapidly — with the most likely outcome being a closing of the file.

    However, new life was injected into the investigation after Miss A and Miss W hired Claes Borgstrom, a prominent Swedish lawyer. Borgstrom confirmed to reporters at the time that his clients’ allegations against Assange related to efforts he made to have sex with them without wearing condoms, and his subsequent reluctance to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Borgstrom said at the time that he would appeal the authorities’ initial decision to close the rape investigation to a higher authority. Subsequently, Marianne Ny, one of three senior Swedish prosecutors who hold the title of Director of Public Prosecutions, issued a statement about the case, which, in an official translation published on the English language page of the Swedish Prosecution Authority’s website, declared that: “There is reason to believe that a crime has been committed. Considering information available at present, my judgment is that the classification of the crime is rape.” In their official statement, prosecutors added that the original “molestation” investigation of Assange — which was never officially closed — also would continue and “will be extended to include all allegations in the original police report… There is reason to believe that a crime has been committed. Based on the information available, the crimes in question come under the heading of sexual coercion and sexual molestation, respectively.” In a flurry of statements and Twitter messages after the case first erupted, Assange and WikiLeaks charged that the whole Swedish case was the product of some kind of “dirty tricks campaign” related to the group’s work. In one Tweet, WikiLeaks said that “The charges are without basis and their issue at the moment is deeply disturbing.” Another Tweet said: “We were warned to expect ‘dirty tricks’. Now we have the first one.” Assange kept to this theme in subsequent statements to the media. “I know by experience that WikiLeaks’ enemies will continue to bandy around things even after they have been renounced. I don’t know who’s behind this but we have been warned that, for example, the Pentagon plans to use dirty tricks to spoil things for us.” But Assange was also quoted saying that he had “never, whether in Sweden or in any other country, had sex with anyone in a way that is not founded on mutual consent.”

    The Swedish prosecutor, Ny, said Tuesday the case was a personal matter and not connected with his work releasing secret U.S. diplomatic cables. “I want to make it clear that I have not been put under any kind of pressure, political or otherwise,” Ny said in a statement. Tuesday, a lawyer representing the Swedish government laid out for a British judge four specific charges of sexual misconduct, three related to Miss A and one related to Miss W. The word “rape” was not part of the charges but “unlawful coercion” and Assange’s alleged reluctance to use condoms was. Assange understood in August that Swedish authorities were seeking to question him about sexual misconduct charges, but the WikiLeaks founder left the country anyway, fearing a “media circus,” according to someone who spoke with him at the time. By bolting Sweden without appearing for interrogation, however, Assange forced the Swedes and British to launch an international legal effort that has created precisely the kind of media extravaganza he hoped to avoid.

Leave a Reply