Among the most powerful actors of the Arab Spring—that brief, brilliant moment when revolution burst into glorious life, the supposed petite mort, the delirious, wistful death for the authoritarians and theocratics that had held down the region for so long?
Ad hoc revolutionaries require communication platforms, unencumbered by government censure and impervious to silencing. The great genius set in the shadows of the Santa Cruz Mountains had provided them with myriad: Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites sometimes carried as standards by renegade Internet providers rallied sympathizers and disseminated marching orders … then relayed results to an enthralled world.
According to Julian Assange—perhaps the person most responsible for directly using the Internet and technology to shape the body politic, via WikiLeaks—evidence of Silicon Valley’s interbred affair with foreign policy began prior to the Arab Spring. Twitter seemed important enough to the 2009 Iranian uprising that Jared Cohen, now director of Google Ideas and then a member of the State Department, sent a missive to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey begging off any regular maintenance that might have hampered the movement.
That Silicon Valley—and Google, Beast of the Valley, in particular—would play a key role in geopolitics, even on a pandemic scale, cannot be considered much of a surprise. For all the bluster and misogyny, the easily mocked jejune awkwardness and sauntering, the just-kissed-a-pretty-person peacocking that so grossly characterizes the American tech sector, many of the technology merchants quite literally go about changing the world. Google certainly ranks not least among them.
Simply behold figures the hunted Assange rolls before us in an attempt to quantify Google’s brobdingnagian heft. As of 2013, the company’s “colorful, playful logo is imprinted on human retinas just under six billion times each day, 2.1 trillion times per year.” These figures, like the measurements of the universe or the geologic timeline, feel so immense as to be practically incomprehensible, baffling by sheer scale alone. In a moment in history when we often conflate visibility with power, Google possesses, as Assange puts it, “an opportunity for respondent conditioning enjoyed by no other company in history.”
In When Google Met WikiLeaks, electric polemics and prophecies bookend a transcript of Assange’s interview with Jared Cohen and with Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. (This interview makes up the bulk of the work.) What concerns Assange? Not so much the catholic power and reach exerted by Google as what the company seeks. In Assange’s view, wacky Google, “Don’t Be Evil” its most famous dictum, aims to be a new kind of geopolitical actor: a boundless superstate, the Invisible—yet extremely, immensely, impossibly visual!—Empire. Cohen and Schmidt represent the heralds of a new age of technocratic hegemony.
For a dash of the Orwellian dramatic, consider the term “technocratic imperialism.” Assange’s taxon first appeared in his June 2013 New York Times review of the Schmidt/Cohen-penned, treatise-cum
policy papercum-bestseller The New Digital Age. (From Assange’s review, in the interest of context: “… a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of its leading witch doctors …”)
Assange really does not seem so far off, given a close read of When Google’s first chapter. It’s one of the two bookends that make Google v WikiLeaks worth a read. The transcript sandwiched between them enlightens in its own way, but Assange’s interjections and observations around this core give his book impetus.
One such observation comes in a reprinting of the above-quoted Times review, a rather delightful and slightly apocalyptic evisceration not only of the book’s premise, but of Schmidt and Cohen. Assange wrote, “The New Digital Age is a balefully seminal work in which neither author has the language to see, much less express, the titanic centralizing evil they are constructing.”
Technophiles could easily see such claims as extremist paranoiac ravings—titanic, centralizing evil! like Skynet!—but for the hard evidence of Google’s geopolitical machinations. Cohen and Schmidt both have long, deep ties with important people in Washington, with CVs tangled in a myriad of NGO boards, with think-tank war tables.
Assange asks if we are so enamored with the catechism echoing from the Googleplex as to have basically turned a blind eye to its incestuous involvement with the National Security Administration, brought to light with the PRISM leaks, wherein the NSA vacuumed Internet data into its shadowed maw like a wobbegong shark, much of this from the Beast. Assange openly laments the tragic irony of personal privacy advocates checking their gmail whilst iPod polyps sit tucked into their ears.
Silicon Valley’s relationship with the NSA may be more than money and compliance kickbacks. Correspondence among Schmidt, Google’s Sergey Brin and NSA chief General Keith Alexander, as revealed in Jason Leopold’s Al Jazeera America reporting, provided evidence that the Beast of the Valley may be building infrastructure for military and intelligence communities.
Assange points to a seemingly throw-away line in Gen. Alexander and Brin’s emails. The general acknowledges Brin as a “key member of the Defense Industrial Base.” According to Assange, the Department of Homeland Security particularly defines the Defense Industrial Base as the industrial nexus by which “research and development, as well as design, production, delivery, and maintenance” of Title X (U.S. armed forces) components meet the stipulations of the U.S. military. This strongly implicates Brin, Schmidt, Cohen, et al. as crucial figures in the military-industrial complex.
Cold cash backs up this assertion. In 2012, Google streaked into the D.C. lobbyist stratosphere, outspending perennial power players (and military/industrial blue chips) Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. Google even surrendered its vaunted front page, the very Internet’s front page, to the State Department’s Syria efforts, with a live link to John Kerry answering questions on Hangout.
Schmidt and Cohen unequivocally believe that Silicon Valley will be the next great player in geopolitics. “What Lockheed Martin was to the twentieth century, technology and cyber-security companies will be to the twenty-first,” they wrote in The New Digital Age.
Perusing Google’s mergers and acquisitions, we see recent buys like Meka Robotics and Boston Dynamics and Titan Aerospace (which specializes in high-altitude UAVs, read: drones), plus artificial intelligence/image recognition firm Jetpac. One can be forgiven for assuming that perhaps Cohen and Schmidt had grievously misunderstood—and made true—their own metaphor.
Assange sees less to fear in those overt maneuvers, though, than what he sees as the Beast of the Valley’s tack-by-night philosophy of budding superstatedom—the subtle positioning, beneath that cheerful logo and puppy-like dogma, of Google as the United State’s sword and shield in the brave new (un)wired world.
Assange’s fears may best be sussed out from the transcript, which ends up being as much—if not more so—a philosophical treatise as it is technological.
The interview, ostensibly for research for The New Digital Age, took place while Assange sat under house arrest at Ellingham Hall in Norfolk, England, in 2011. (Assange, then and now, is being hounded by the United States government, which seeks to try him for espionage over publishing the Chelsea Manning links, a bundle of diplomatic cables that included classified Army documents pertaining to operations in Iraq.)
At Ellingham Hall, over dinner and a garden perambulation—interrupted by rain—WikiLeaks met with Cohen and Schmidt. (Cohen’s resume aside, Schmidt also runs high and fast in the D.C. power corridors.) Assange also met, he realized later, a State Department shadow envoy. Lisa Shields, on hand to take notes during the interview, and Scott Malcomson, the Digital Age’s editor, have deep foreign relations ties.
In the interview, Schmidt—whom Assange describes as having “a machinelike analyticity,” a genius of systems, if not politics—often drills down into the guts. The Google chief opens the interview by inquiring about the technical details of Tor, the anonymity-focused Internet network. (Schmidt mispronounces the term as “Thor,” a slip Assange gleefully pounces upon). Assange’s answers, shaped in part by having Cohen and Malcomson at the table, tend to wander from the computer sciences department over to the humanities.
We find some legitimately thrilling explanations of how WikiLeaks and others in its forward-thinking web state—the one destined to directly oppose, it seems, that of Google/the government—parry attempts by various nations, law enforcement bodies, and extralegal corporate retaliations. (This stuff, even with a modicum of understanding, truly, inherently, interests a reader. We see into an exhilarating game of cat-and-mouse, played paradoxically blind and in screaming plain sight/site, at once.) The most the interview has to offer, besides the unfettered record, comes in hints of the motivations of those in the interview.
WikiLeaks owns a somewhat polarizing reputation in the United States. Citizens perceive it either as a bold, whistleblowing topple-er of regimes, and bane of the powerful … or else a treasonous body that may cause irrevocable harm to the United States and its interests abroad. For readers leaning towards the latter but not yet over the precipice, Assange’s reasonings may serve some cold comfort.
Assange details for Cohen and Schmidt his basic philosophy behind WikiLeaks: that a small amount of information can lead to extraordinary changes in human beings. From this axiom, the WikiLeaks mission becomes clear: Make available all relevant information. Unshackle knowledge from censorship.
Assange maintains that public knowledge only becomes detrimental for governments or organizations engaged in acts not in the public good. Otherwise, why would unveiling cause concern? Assange submits that the key weakness of bureaucratic behemoths is their reliance on (and prodigious creation of) paper trails to operate. In short, a publication platform like WikiLeaks takes advantage of this inherent flaw to inspire true societal impetus.
Assange waves off the classic rebuttals, of dangers posed and lives put at risk, as a nefarious kind of doublespeak. WikiLeaks self-censures to ensure safety when needed. No American life has been lost due to the leaks. (Neither, of course, has Google’s good will—it seems just as, if not a touch more, curious.)
This is all rather heavy stuff, a bloody melange of geopolitics, technology, freedom, the emergence of corporate superstates, the very nature of knowledge revolution … topped with a dash of anti-utopian (for the Leaks-sympathetic set) futurism.
Assange, though his name may well be, at this point, a synecdoche for cyber-terrorist, the 21st-century horror—comes off in his own book as an eloquent, if not unbiased, guide. He turns out to be a shockingly good author, particularly in light of some media stereotyping suggesting a pallid oracle with the sphinx’s leash betwixt his teeth and a bald eagle around his neck, his chemical eyes glowing in the night as government adjules bay outside his window.
While far too erudite—and too diluted by the interview transcript—to be considered truly a clarion call, we may nonetheless eventually look back on When Google Met WikiLeaks as the first declaration of new digital war. We hear it here first, from a soft voice quietly speaking to the truths of Silicon Valley: Google is as capable of being evil—may already be evil—as any other company, body, or state.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/music/art critic currently based in Chicago. His work can be seen in VICE, Sports on Earth, The Classical, The Myrtle Beach Sun News and Newcity, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.