16 September 2014

Cypherpunks (2012) – Book Review

. @WikiLeaks. @ORBooks. #Transparency. #Privacy. #Anonymous. #WikiLeaks.

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet is a fascinating series of conversations between Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn and Jérémie Zimmermann. While illuminating the political dangers of state “total surveillance” of the uploaded lives of the population of the entire industrialized world, the more positive case on the internet at the end of the book draws attention to the unprecedented level of popular influence and freedom it can still represent. For those who only go with a highly optimistic view of technology, Cypherpunks may cause disillusionment, but it also offers hope and a brilliant direction for incumbent technological change to be channeled. At the very least, this book enables those of you who consider yourselves to be “hackers” or to be striving for positive technological change in society to quickly know thine enemy. The book captures how hacking is the popular conquest of technology, while “centralization of technique” is the state conquest of technology for sustaining the power of a privileged few.

In stores prior to the disclosures of Edward Snowden in May 2013, the book nevertheless captures the awareness of the extensive nature of the surveillance yet unrevealed by Snowden at the time. The book’s concern seems to be that state political and economic abuses, particularly repression, unequal exchange and insider trading, will become rampant if government officials exploit their present information privilege (p. 4). While currently governments enjoy high privacy and citizens are made transparent by surveillance, instead the opposite ought to be enforced (p. 141-147). Going beyond the normal political spectrum, the book posits that both the state and powerful firms are enemies of our newfound technological liberation (p. 53-54).

The book considers how governments believe secrecy is needed for the sake of “slowing down processes to better control them” (p. 22). This kind of state thinking is an admission that states currently consider themselves too sluggish to keep up with popular technology and the popular wills expressed through it. Knowledge can be interpreted as the power to understand and effect change (p. 23).  States, which depend on borders, regard the internet as a horrible wound, and their vicious reactions to leakers resemble the throes of a fatally wounded beast. They are afraid of the popular “ability to affect government affairs by travelling to other countries, speaking to people, and spreading ideas.” The “most dangerous” thing that state authorities believe they are facing is that they can be popularly rejected and contradicted because of the information explosion (p. 113). However, the internet in politics can be seen as a double-edged sword for both sides, as it can be used to track down dissidents as well as criticize governments. One decisive point that deserves particular attention at our juncture in history is the simple observation of how, rather than it remaining the case that state technological advantages and monopolies are accepted as practical necessities by the public, those state advantages are increasingly only ever justified through a variety of paranoid and autocratic security narratives (p. 72).

In their horror at the newfound popular power of the internet, states want to bypass the war of information and seek the last-ditch defense of hardware dominance (p. 3). Perhaps they feel the urgency to control the ground upon which data centers rest. Yet, in spite of all their efforts, high “centralization of technique” is historically succeeded by “democratization of technique,” as more people are empowered by the historical flow of technology (p. 26-27). Everything rests on the way in which the technology exists and can be used, and inherent democratic properties and potentials in the technology itself can indicate inevitable democratization of the technique of using the technology.

The state retains control of many hackers by teaching a “cog in the machine” mentality (p. 36) to them. This goes against the current historical trend of the crisis of state social cohesion. Hackers, among tomorrow’s educated youth, reject the “nation”. The true trend is that the youth are becoming increasingly difficult to use as nationalistic automatons, and must directly be affected morally in order to compel them to do anything. They are more morally affected by their peers, who reject state authority, than they are by the state. This trend ought to be encouraged if technology is to move in the direction favorable to freedom.

Part of the war of position of the hackers is their encouragement of legislation to counter surveillance, as explained (p. 41-49). However, this is not possible unless in a small country where rulers can more easily be known to be violating their mandate and easily held accountable. In a larger country, it is far harder to know when legislation and treaties are violated by the government itself. Hacker culture is also part of the war of position, as transnational civil society has proven overwhelmingly sympathetic to the hacker activist element (p. 68). Cryptographic tools are the key option in the maneuver warfare of hackers to circumvent the prying eyes of states, because they subvert the ability of governments to threaten violence to stop information (p. 59-65). Violence cannot be used when the source of the information is unknown.

A fascinating observation shared by Assange is the fact that there seems to be only two kinds of escape from the “totalitarian surveillance society”. One is the path of the hackers (people who are trained and willing to take apart and understand systems to conquer them) and the other is the path of the neo-luddites (people who simply avoid communication technology to escape surveillance, but become politically irrelevant as a result) (p. 62-63). With the larger public, there could arise the problem of self-censorship, in which true political grievances go unexpressed because all people know they are being listened to and don’t want to be investigated or harassed (p. 65).
The end of the book looks beyond the apparent dystopia forming around us, to imagine a better world through free technology and information (p. 149-161). Most importantly, technology has a life of its own and can run free from the hands of the powerful and even its own creators:
“Technology and science is not neutral. There are particular forms of technology that can give us these fundamental rights and freedoms that many people have aspired to for long” (p. 151)
 Compare this with the fact that the political vision of the modern world has really always been in favor of liberty and equality. Nothing could be more foolish than to throw away an opportunity to impose those revolutionary images in the architecture of our world with technology. A free world requires free software and free access to technology (p. 152-153). We must make the world hacker-friendly, and the key to this is to win the war of opinion and education to create individuals who are both skilled and free thinkers with a strong ability to chastise the powers that be when they are behaving in an undemocratic way.  Making the world hacker-friendly could go beyond mere internet freedom to the real world, with 3D printing and other technologies to allow people to “build their own three-dimensional objects” (p. 153). This DIY technological world threatens to debase states and monopolistic firms in the world, which is why it is so necessary to win the popular battle of encouraging a decentralized culture which maximally values freedom.

Only a small amount of the book’s attention is paid to the human element in the fight for freer information and technology. However, hackers are characterized as being “away from our national identity” (p. 156) and have their own “common consciousness”. Transnational in nature, the democratic conquest of technology is necessarily something that must leave the current kind of state behind in the pages of history. More hopeful is the prospect that a generation of new political minds will arise who understand the internet and the democratization of technology, and know it is unstoppable and necessary (p. 157). In this sense, the web freedom controversy can be seen as a conflict between the global youth and the current old geopolitical states system. Perhaps those of us who wish to understand the future should regard the controversy in a non-emotional way as a necessary part of a historical social transition.

However, Assange considers the pessimistic scenario to be a far more likely outcome, and is more committed to cautioning people on the emerging technological dystopia than positing a utopia (p. 159). If the dystopia is certain, the only way to oppose it is through a “high-tech rebel elite” (p. 161) because only the hackers hold the key to lifting technologically-imposed injustice. Highlighting the most positive trend that could be taken by accelerating technological progress is the observation that global problems simply necessitate the global freedom of information enabled by the internet (p. 131). Thwarting this freedom could seriously hamper the ability of humanity to articulate and address their primary concerns or avert catastrophes of civilization. There must be a “self-knowing of human civilization” (p. 158), meaning that the world of the future must be a hacker’s world, occupied and led by those individuals who play with technology and, driven by their curiosity, truly conquer the machines our new world has been suspended upon. 

By Harry J. Bentham - More articles by Harry J. Bentham

Originally published at h+ Magazine on 23 August 2013

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