The War for Technology and the End of Democracy – livestream conversation with Julian Assange

The conversation with Julian Assange begins with a glitch. A technical break between the video and sound holds up the show. As to the cause, Assange jokes about the $16MM surveillance program that the British have built around the Ecuadorian embassy where he currently resides.

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This is actually the third in a series of live-stream interviews being hosted at Berlin’s Volksbühne concert hall, following sessions by Yanis Varoufakis and Slavoj Žižek, with each talk covering thorny European issues, such as refugee asylum and the seemingly incompatible cultures and struggles of a diverse people. The conversation with Assange deals with the power structures that exist within the greatest Western democracies and how these have led to our present technological fate and a need for new narratives that reach into the future.

Assange’s status as a political or otherwise prisoner of the West, locked away in the Ecuadorian embassy while fighting extradition to Sweden, complicates the man and the theories that he espouses. Assange, the free speech hero, or villain, or sexual predator (or any and all), is speaking live to a largely supportive group. Those in attendance are there to listen to the stories he tells about the West and the struggle between man and machine and the freedom or constraints we’ve created around us.

The first topic is democracy, and Assange describes a democracy that exists no more. Only a watered down version of an actual democracy exists in practice, he says. He asks, rather, “Have we ever even had a real democracy?” before launching into his thoughts on the reigning tech culture, spawned out of Silicon Valley, most strongly represented by companies like Facebook and Google, which he believes are the biggest threat to a democratic social order. It sounds like a lot of conspiracy, but coming from the man who has dedicated his life to opening up government secrets and exposing them to the public, it’s hard not to nod along in agreement.

Assange tells his own story, which began as a self-proclaimed “cypherpunk.” He was initially attracted to technology as a frontier and safe space not reachable by his parents, a sentiment that is echoed by youth throughout the generations. Though this is the path that eventually led him to create Wikileaks and the work that he is currently doing, he points out that it is a narrative that is easily co-opted by conservative power structures and used to capture the energy of youth. As youth escapes into its youthful capacity for fantasy, those fantasies are easily directed by the narrative espoused by the culture around them. One could argue that this is the same process that produces radicals in Islam or financial professionals in New York: culture and identity tied together in a single, easy to swallow package. With the technological narrative today, the themes abound around such concepts as ‘smart cities’ and the ‘internet of things’, which one might argue are not created from a great societal need, but rather a top down tendency for greater control over the masses. This cultural narrative is not without an origin. It’s Silicon Valley that Assange points to as directing this generation’s technological vision.

One of the causes for our present condition regarding democracy, claims Assange, is that there is no coherent narrative around technology to challenge the existing vision, especially for those in the political Left or anyone who wishes for a future without corporate control or centralized, technological powers. Even cypherpunks rely upon these dystopian visions without offering an alternative beyond dissent and disobedience.

The concern about our technological narrative often goes unchecked in Silicon Valley, where the latest trends are rapidly adopted by Venture Capitalists and social media reporters and pushed into the rest of society. In the desperate quest for dollars and page-views, little attention is being paid to the values of the group that has birthed this living culture. That group, centered in Silicon Valley and holding large investing and political resources, are often criticized for being out of touch with so much of the world beyond them. Assange extends this criticism further, arguing that this group is almost ‘cult-like’ in their beliefs about technology, being proponents of the so-called technological ‘singularity’: the moment in time when computers and artificial reasoning will surpass that of humans, rendering us culturally impotent.

The ‘singularity’ is an interesting concept. To some, it marks the first leap in cognitive development since the neocortex – a development that brought about our greatest abstract thinking, without which there would be no language or music. To many in the ‘singularity’ camp, this leap is the next logical evolution of mankind that will lead to an even higher level of abstraction. To some on the outside, it’s an abomination that makes humans subjects to machines.

Assange goes so far as to describe what he sees as a new religion within the tech community. A religion that naturally results in the vision of transhumanism: the human mind coupled to technology. He provides an anecdote about early Silicon Valley engineers who share the belief that if they cryogenically freeze their bodies after death they can be posthumously uploaded into a glorious AI afterlife. And, like any good religion, the glorious afterlife has its opposite construct: a nightmarish hell-like simulation that, in order to avoid, we must be good servants for the machine. For those not in the know, confirmation of these hopes and fears can be found amongst online forums such as Less Wrong or Reddit. You may not have been aware that these groups exist in real life, as opposed to a science fiction novel, but they do.

Assange looks at the rapid acceleration of technology today and how it has inserted itself between us and everything we do or say. We go to Google to search for things, Facebook to see what our friends are doing, and the vast majority of people do not even consider an alternative process. Google and Facebook dominate in ways that European companies could only begin to hope for, and in ways that have never been imagined prior. Facebook (who recently reported that as much as 1/7 of the world logged on in a single day) controls and directs an unprecedented amount of human attention via private algorithms and troves of user generated or commercially produced content. This attention was once directed towards a multitude of diverse ends; whereas now, it is focused towards sponsored content, advertisements, and photographs of food and vacations. If there is a deity within the machine, Consumption may just be its name.

Though there are many who try to compete with this power (Assange refers to a few Berlin-based organizations that has been building alternatives to Gmail and other services), no one is posing a threat. Further, none of these companies possess the purchasing power of Silicon Valley, where single organizations can purchase whole industries. Google’s purchase of the world’s most advanced drone technology, including military drones, is provided as example by Assange. The leaders of an entire industry that had hitherto competed against one another are now united under the command of a single Silicon Valley brand. To complicate (or maybe clarify) the situation, these companies are now falling under larger and greater divisions and regiments. Are these power structures preparing to be a major player in wartime as well? Or is this just a tax accounting trick? Assange cites the history of Silicon Valley to argue that Silicon Valley has always existed to support and develop technological war.

He claims that the mythology surrounding Silicon Valley and the tech companies who have insinuated themselves into our most intimate daily practices were largely manufactured by the CIA military-industrial complex. He refers to The Secret History of Silicon Valley by Steve Blank, a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur, who tells the story of Silicon Valley’s emergence post WW2 with direction and financing from the military and CIA. The previous technologies that were invested in were those that were valuable for war. Today’s technologies (social media, blockchain, smart toasters, etc.) may just be the latest tools in that war.

Whether there truly is a hidden hand at the Pentagon or Oval Office that is deciding things, an invisible hand of unintended consequence prevailing over our present conditions, or a divine hand within the machine itself, the reality (according to Assange) is that control over technological development (and the narrative around it) is already held in the hands of a very small group. The power they wield is an affront against democratic values. The war over technology has already been lost.

Culture, on the other hand, is still open game, and Assange argues that space exists for constructing and promoting new cultural narratives, even if the technological narrative is lost. He looks at the power of many small groups that share a set of values in acting, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the transgender acceptance movement, tea-partiers and more (one can even place ISIS here). The feedback loops of these groups are much smaller and they can act much more effectively than large monopolistic entities, even though they currently make use of the platforms and organizations that Assange criticizes.

The conversation goes to current global power struggles and the Syria situation. Once ISIS is defeated, Assange expects a very uncertain time of vying for power: we are in a true tipping point and the results are not clear. In any case, it will be a very exciting time in which a new technology could come in and enable radical power shifts. But whether a technology can truly solve a problem rooted in technology is not discussed.

Assange hopes that these new technologies will finally consider the opportunities and risks that arise in the discourse between the personal efficiency gains of platform technologies and the seemingly unavoidable state of surveillance. Assange’s advice: The absolute worst thing is to choose self-censorship over honesty or to limit self expression out of fear for the consequences. And ultimately, it is the virality or scalability of an idea of radical thought that is most effective.

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