When Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen got together with Julian Assange on June 23, 2011, Assange was staying with a WikiLeaks sponsor in rural England and had just completed his sixth month under house arrest as he fought extradition to Sweden for questioning regarding sexual assault charges. He was also dealing with the aftermath of the funding freeze on WikiLeaks, arranged by the US State Department, in retaliation for his publication of embassy cables and war-related secrets leaked to him by Chelsea Manning, including the now-infamous Collateral Murder video. Though he was the recent recipient of prestigious journalism awards, including the Martha Gellhorn prize and Australia’s premiere journalism award, the Walkley Award, the re-established sexual assault charges (Swedish authorities had dropped them and allowed him to leave the country) cut deeply into his popular appeal and began the intense counter-assault on WikiLeaks and on Assange’s character that continues to this day.
Nevertheless, the meeting was ostensibly a dialogical summit of switched-on minds that would unravel many of the complexities of the new, rapidly unfolding digital age, discussing the impact of this new paradigm on the core values of democracy in a ‘globalized’ world. Assange was led to believe that Schmidt was especially keen to pick the famous hacktivist’s brain on the role of dissidents and the communication tools they would employ to expose acts of governmental tyranny and corruption in this new era. He was led to believe that the un-molested conversational highlights of this meeting would find their way into the book Schmidt and Jared Cohen were working on –The New Digital Age – which they expected to publish about a year later. Just to be sure, Assange posted to the WikiLeaks site the transcript of this secret meeting, and made the audio available as well, so that his words and integrity could not later be twisted a game of They Said / He Said. Joining Schmidt and Jared Cohen at the meeting were Lisa Shields and Scott Malcomson, who Assange later discovered were not merely Schmidt’s buddies but members of the Council on Foreign Relations, with ties to the very State Department that had him under siege.
It turns out, the “productively paranoid” Assange (to cite Joseph Flatley’s wonderful categorization in his review of Schmidt and Cohen’s book) was smart to publish the transcript, because his fears were well-founded – the meeting was, for all intents and purposes, scripted theatre (call it Google Play), and could have been the work of Harold Pinter, for all its subtle signs and hidden agendas. As Assange remarks in the introduction to his new book, When Google Met WikiLeaks, “the delegation was one part Google, three parts US foreign-policy establishment, but I was still none the wiser.” In all likelihood, Schmidt and Cohen already knew what they were going to write about Assange before they met. But the book is not only the transcript of their encounter, it also includes the aforementioned introduction, which acts as an primer on the Schmidt-Cohen political agenda, as well as a reprint of Assange’s New York Times book review of the The New Digital Age, when it finally appeared in early 2013, and, finally, a postscript that details how Assange’s views at the meeting were distorted in the Schmidt-Cohen manifesto and his character further abused. Assange had a right to be livid and he manages to push back with his book.
Perhaps as an indication of his bruised ego, Assange opens his exposition by employing language that is seemingly intended to inflate his value, repeatedly referring to the meeting’s secrecy, as if the meeting were a negotiation between equals; and by nose-tweaking word choices that suggest a Ninja-like revolutionary at war with dark, machine-like authorities. This creates some readerly hurdles and unnecessary obfuscations. “I was intrigued that the mountain would come to Mohammed,” begins Assange, likening the meeting to a profound experience of enlightenment, which it was not. But what does that expression even mean? The best my DuckDuckGo results could do was to inform me that it isn’t derived from the Koran and is not an Islamic saying, and, indeed, that it almost certainly is derived from a distortion of a very similar reference in Francis Bacon’s way-back-in-the-day essay “Of Boldness,” wherein the user of that expression is lampooned as a charlatan. One could certainly see how Bacon could be making fun of the kind of boldness expressed in The New Digital Age, but it isn’t an intuitive connection.
Similarly, Assange writes about evading censorship by “moving across borders like ghosts,” and then employs a series of martial terms: “at Ellingham I became an immovable asset under siege. We could no longer choose our battles. Fronts opened up on all sides. I had to learn to think like a general. We were at war.” While this is somewhat amusing, one wonders what benefits accrue for Assange, and other activists he symbolically represents, by playing into (and consequently affirming) the ‘Internet is a battlefield’ meme, which tends to act as a convenient justification for government crackdowns. Here, even to this sympathetic reader, Assange seems to be hurt and lashing out, and comes across like John Connor, the boy-hero from Terminator, who represents the future of humanity and must stay alive at any cost. Again, while Assange’s position has enormous personal resonance for me, its tetchiness risks giving the bastards what they want. Even the gentle, congenial Yogi Bear, if ‘taken’ and tethered to a chain at a picnic site in Jellystone Park, where adults abuse and threaten him and children are encouraged to pretend to be afraid to provide a pretext for further abuse, even Yogi Bear would eventually turn grizzly, at which time his persecutors would sneer, “See, told you he had poor character.” But Assange must eschew the justifiable impulse to draw blood if he wants to keep tuned-in listeners on message. If you’re going to preach real freedom, expect to be really, really crucified.
Having said that though, one has a sense of proxy rage when, after hearing Jared Cohen stoke Assange’s vanity at the meeting by playing up, despite Assange’s protestations, the role WikiLeaks played in the Tunisian revolution and in the larger Arab Spring (Cohen all but throwing up a high-five), The New Digital Age gives no mention to Assange’s role as the provider of key information that may have tipped the balance. And then early in TNDA, in their chapter on The Future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting, after many pages devoted to how destructive to reputations online published material can be—to the point that it lead to “virtual honor killing” and can result in a targeted person’s actual murder—they segue to a section on what they refer to as Assange’s “free data movement”, where they wantonly (and arrogantly, given that the meeting was recorded) mischaracterize his position on leaking, on what gets leaked and why, almost likening WikiLeaks to revenge porn videos.
Despite some of the known negative consequences of this movement (threats to individual security, ruined reputations and diplomatic chaos), some free-information activists believe the absence of a delete button ultimately strengthens humanity’s progress toward greater equality, productivity and self-determination. We believe, however, that this is a dangerous model, especially given that there is always going to be someone with bad judgement who releases information that will get people killed. [emphasis added]
Later, in their chapter on the Future of Terrorism, they will directly assert that this is what Julian Assange did with his ‘might-as-well-be-terrorism’ leaks. They never challenged Assange this way to his face, and they ignored all evidence contrary to this assertion. But most importantly, they imply that Assange and any other free-information activists are worthy of being droned. In this way, the seemingly endless, sovereignty-scoffing US military forays that result in literally untold war crimes, including torture, murder, and the catastrophic displacement of huge swathes of various populations, become so normalized that the average citizen regards leaks that reveal this behaviour as the real treason.
They wrongly refer to the false assertion that he is wanted by Swedish police for questioning as “his indictment of sexual assault charges,” another agenda item never brought up to his face. Another slur that does little more than libel Assange by calling into question ‘his real motivations’ is the Schmidt-Cohen assertion that found its way in a Foreign Affairs magazine, the State department’s rah-rah forum, exclaiming that what few redactions Assange did make to documents prior to release were motivated by “money” considerations. He said no such thing, as the transcript plainly shows, and in fact he painstakingly explained to them that his action was a ‘harm minimization / impact maximization’ tactic designed to ward off political “opportunists” looking to make the conversation about the treasonous harm of the publishing rather than the treasonous harm of the content’s revelations about administrative criminality. Schmidt-Cohen have no problems with undermining Assange’s reputation, despite saying to his face that they “sympathized” with his views.
As Assange points out, “it was not until well after Schmidt and his companions had been gone that I came to understand who had really visited me.” He means, of course, that he had essentially received a proxy visit from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. This might seem a wild and egotistical claim, until you realize that Schmidt has a close relationship with Obama, having been on a short list of candidates to head the Commerce Department, while Jared Cohen was regarded as a can-do wunderkind by the State Department, first under Condoleeza Rice and then under Hillary Clinton, before going to Google in 2010. As Assange would come to learn from the subsequent publishing of The New Digital Age, a key concern for Schmidt-Cohen was learning how Assange did what he did and how they could harness that know-how to corral younger generation activists into doing their bidding.
Ironically, the aspect of their meeting where they might truly have had meaningful dialectical exchanges during their meeting was around the subject of information systems management. Assange acknowledges their mutual passion for systems architecture and management, and how it relates to their politics, when he writes,
His questions often skipped to the heart of the matter, betraying a powerful nonverbal structural intelligence… This was a person who understood how to build and maintain systems: systems of information and systems of people. My world was new to him, but it was also a world of unfolding human processes, scale, and information flows.
The problem, of course, is that their politics have entirely different vectors. While Schmidt is correct to refer to assert that Assange is a kind of ‘free information activist,’ at least when it comes to government transparency and shedding a light on executive office criminality, Assange is also spot-on when he says of Schmidt: “[he] fits exactly where he is: the point where the centrist, liberal, and imperialist tendencies meet in American political life.” Given Google’s long-standing cooperation with the Defense Department (indeed the ex-head of their R&D arm, DARPA, recently jumped to an executive position with Google) and the NSA (Google played a key a role in the NSA’s highly-invasive and illegal PRISM program), one could posit that Schmidt-Cohen represent the vanguard of neoliberal policies, enforced by neoconservative martial might. The very governmental constraints and intrusiveness that they seek to end in the “repressive” regimes they cite is equally if not substantially more true of the US surveillance state.
(It is a largely undiscussed fact that well before 9/11 Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney created and implemented a secret Continuation of Government (COG) plan in the event of catastrophic terrorist attack, spectacular natural disaster, or major popular insurrection for any number of reasons, including major opposition to foreign policy actions (see a summary of some details here). This COG operates as emergency principles and supersedes the usual Constitutional chain of command. This COG emergency protocol went into effect on 9/11. Almost no one in Congress was aware that this shadow government existed, let alone that Cheney had triggered the procedure. Many citizens would be amazed to learn that Obama actually inherited this secretive state of emergency. Indeed, the state of emergency rules are still in place, and, technically, the Executive office claims the power to act as if the US were in a state of martial law. Because, according to these protocols, it is. When you apply this knowledge to American military actions in foreign lands, from Europe and the Middle East to Asia, you’re looking at the empire-building conceits that were gifted to the neoconservatives by way of 9/11.)
But back to systems of information and their utilities. Assange and Schmidt-Cohen share a passion for activating the masses to generate momentum and change the status quo. For Assange, the desire is to create a reliable means to affect changes that result in what he calls “just acts.” Using a Fourth Estate model, Assange locates the “bottleneck” to just and progressive change in how information is distributed and presented to the populace. At the meeting, Assange tells Schmidt and his cohorts:
In a Fourth Estate context, the people who acquire information are sources; the people who work on information and distribute it are journalists and publishers; and the people who may act on it includes everyone. That’s a high-level construct, but it then comes down to how you practically engineer a system that solves that problem, and not just a technical system but a total system. WikiLeaks was, and is, an attempt—although still very young—at a total system.
Another way of regarding it is a state of radical transparency for government, which could lead to strict levels of privacy for citizens and considerably more say in democratic governing processes.
This is in contradistinction to the kind of system that Schmidt-Cohen have in mind. The usual astonishing hypocrisy aside, perhaps the most important accomplishment of When Google Met WikiLeaks is the connection Assange establishes between the Google Politic and the ambitions set loose in The New Digital Age. The Schmidt-Cohen tome was originally titled The Empire of the Mind, which is in much closer alignment to their politics than the wonky-sounding New Digital Age, because at work in their book is an idealized vision of the world after neo-con American Exceptionalism has forcibly broken through every global barrier and established its neo-liberal dominion over all people and resources of the earth, with future presidents being the new emperors at the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama has so stupidly and wrongly ordained.
In his introduction to WGMW, Assange cites a 2010 Foreign Affairs piece that Schmidt-Cohen wrote, “The Digital Disruption: Connectivity and the Diffusion of Power,” in which the dynamic duo discuss in detail future “coalitions of the connected” made possible with technologies “overwhelmingly provided by the private sector.” Assange pulls up this telling quote:
Democratic states that have built coalitions of their militaries have the capacity to do the same with their connection technologies…. They offer a new way to exercise the duty to protect citizens around the world who are abused by their governments or barred from voicing their opinions. [Assange’s emphasis in italics; mine in bold.]
Like the justification George W. Bush used to ignore sovereignty and make war in countries “too weak or unable to fight terrorism,” the ‘duty to protect’ principle is a militaristic co-optation and corruption of humanitarian intervention theory, as well as the clearest indication yet that the Internet has already become militarized and that we are now in the normalization phase. As a literal battlefield it is to be controlled by the strongest military, making Obama, as Commander-in-Chief the principle ‘decider’ for future Internet policies. Schmidt-Cohen are the Good Cop face to a long-extant US foreign policy succinctly summed up, unapologetically, by Bad Cops like former Latin American CIA chief Duane Clarridge, who helped arrange for the overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende (or “What’s-his-name,” as Clarridge refers to him). Says Clarridge, “We’ll intervene whenever we feel it’s in our interest to so, and if you don’t like it, lump it. Get used to it, world. We’re not going to put up with any nonsense.” There is no functional difference between the political principles espoused by Schmidt-Cohen and that of Clarridge. None.
But if you alloy this political mandate with the technological vision that Schmidt-Cohen reveal in The Empire of the Mind, then you have a profoundly disturbing nightmare scenario. As Assange points out, there is in the Schmidt-Cohen manifestoes a banality that seeks to assuage and seduce, like a 1950s TV ad high on Twilight Zone smack. Schmidt-Cohen tell us how our good buddy Amazon can help solve so many problems with its ever-so-clever algorithms, but they don’t tell us how the two buddies collaborate with intelligence agencies. “For example,” they write, “Amazon is able to take its data on merchants and, using algorithms, develop customized bank loans to offer them—in some cases when traditional banks have completely shut their doors.” Oh, so, kinda like that cool subprime loan thing, right? And, getting stranger than strange:
As for life’s small daily tasks, [Amazon’s] information systems will streamline many of them for people living in those countries, such as integrated clothing machines (washing, drying, folding, pressing and sorting) that keep an inventory of clean clothes and algorithmically suggest outfits based on the user’s daily schedule. [emphasis added]
If it stopped there, that would be sufficient to give pause to a sane person. But the two plow on. Matter-of-factly and without any horror at the implications, Schmidt-Cohen describe a future where identity merchants make a handsome profit in the brave new economy. With a straight face, they offer up this scenario:
Virtual kidnappings, on the other hand—stealing the online identities of wealthy people, anything from their bank details to public social-network profiles, and ransoming the information for real money—will be common. Rather than keep and maintain captives in the jungle, guerrillas in the FARC or similar groups will prefer the reduced risk and responsibility of virtual hostages.
But that’s not the proverbial kicker. We mustn’t underestimate the value of future holograph boxes, they tell us, in which you can find entertainment by immersing yourself in various virtual excursions: “Worried your kids are becoming spoiled? Have them spend some time wandering around the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.” Don’t worry about changing it any, right? (Schmidt brought his teen-aged daughter with him when he visited North Korea, so that she could ‘experience’ a totalitarian state first-hand and blog about it.) This is “transformative”? Visionary? Sane?
But back to leaks and who decides how and when they are published, there is another important difference in how the two systems operate. After setting Assange up as a might-as-well-be terrorist, Schmidt-Cohen toss out a disingenuous question:
Why is it Julian Assange, specifically, who gets to decide what information is relevant to the public interest? [And] what happens if the person who makes such decisions is willing to accept indisputable harm to innocents as a consequence of his disclosures?
As Assange points out, this is both a dishonest and rhetorical question, because soon they answer by saying that all leaks should go to “a central body facilitating the release of information” and that whistleblower publishers need “supervision.”
This gets at the heart of the matter: dissidents need to be accounted for, contained as a subset, and controlled. After all, most of them are just kids (more than half the world’s population is under 30, and growing) and Schmidt-Cohen, along with the State Department, are worried sick about what these youngsters might get up to. As Schmidt-Cohen observe, “the mix of activism and arrogance in young people is universal.” This isn’t the first time they have raised this sentiment. Early on, during the secret meeting with Assange, Scott Malcomson, one of the CFR tools who accompanied Schmidt observed, apropos of Dostoyevsky’s wet snow, “Young people aren’t inherently good. And I say that as a father and with regret.” (Nor are old people and fathers, and I say that in all sincerity.)
The self-described “old people” who met with Assange seem to have had a notion already in motion as to how they would shepherd and influence young people, but they are still looking for shaping mechanisms—triggers they can pull. That was the value of the recent secret Facebook-DoD experiment: to manipulate community emotions toward action, the way it was done in the Joseph Kony saga, where children were rounded up by a Christian evangelical ‘activist’ overnight on Facebook and put to the task of proxy vigiliantism. (Kony is still free today, although the actions of all those manipulated kids did lead to Congress authorizing a military presence in the Central African Republic, where they don’t seem to be looking for Kony much, “but 40 advisers will remain”).
Schmidt-Cohen’s answer, as with leaks, is to shepherd youngsters into central crowdsource pens where they can vent their disaffection and participate in ‘constructive’ dissident campaigns. Their preferred choice, of course, is The Alliance of Youth Movements, or other NGOs (Schmidt loves NGOs the way the Department of Defense loves its sub-contractors) affiliated with the ‘centrist’ doctrines of the day, and their main goal is to knock down “dictators” everywhere, even if freely elected. It’s the American Way. As Hillary Clinton told a gathering of the Alliance by video link not long ago, “You are the vanguard of a rising generation of citizen activists…. And that makes you the kind of leaders we need.” The Alliance and Movements.org are just two more branches of co-optation and control, an exercise in grooming future “responsible” controllers.
Meanwhile, ‘activist’ billionaire philanthropists like Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen and Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar are free to do the adult freedom-fightin’; working with the NSA to drill down to unruly dissidents; creating algorithms that the CIA can use to track anyone; pouring money into coups in places resistant to neo-liberalization; even meeting up with rebels to organize resistance, as Cohen says he’s done with Iranian dissdents. This has not been met with as much approval among the national security types as you might imagine. In a WikiLeaks email leaked from the private security firm Stratfor, the director complained to a colleague:
Google is getting WH [White House] and State Dept support and air cover. In reality they are doing things the CIA cannot do… [Cohen] is going to get himself kidnapped or killed. Might be the best thing to happen to expose Google’s covert role in foaming up-risings, to be blunt. The US Gov’t can then disavow knowledge and Google is left holding the shit-bag.
This is the real face of the “Don’t be evil” meme.
A few weeks ago I re-watched The Illustrated Man, a film based on Ray Bradbury’s short story collection by the same name. Reading The New Digital Age had me seeing those dystopic tattoos again—not on the body of a knowing victim like Steiger, but in the daft Satyricon that is the Schmidt-Cohen premise. In The Illustrated Man, there’s one vignette in which two teens are allowed to play in their favourite holographic room. They conjure up wild lions to play with, and the parents think all is bliss, until bits and pieces of their stuff goes missing, only to be discovered in the holographic room being sniffed over by the lions. Alarmed, the parents call in a shrink, who comes almost immediately, but not before the kids get the lions to maul and eat their parents. In the holography that still lights up my mind, that is how I want to respond to Google’s Dead Souls future – with Schmidt and Cohen (and Bezos and Omidyar and others) taken by the Empire’s lions and devoured by their own megalomaniac fantasies.
– John Kendall Hawkins is a freelancer residing in Australia. His op-eds, features and book reviews have appeared in publications in the US, Australia and Europe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.