An incomplete biography offers an elaborate glimpse into the life of the WikiLeaks founder, says Ravi Sundaram
A FEW YEARS ago, in 2006, a young hacker with an online pseudonym email@example.com, wrote an essay called Conspiracy as Governance. Conspiracy, said the essay, was the basis of modern power, a cognitive device taking information inputs, and acting on it. Power was akin to a giant computational machine dependent on constant flows of information. Against this model of power, a strategy of resistance could be two-fold. It could distort and confuse information flows, or better, activists could ‘throttle’ the conspiracy of governance. The hacker in question was Julian Assange, and a few years later, WikiLeaks would indeed temporarily confuse and throw into turmoil international regimes the world over.
A good glimpse into the story of WikiLeaks is in Julian Assange’s ‘unauthorised’ autobiography, probably the world’s first such book, mostly because Assange withdrew from the publishing deal at the last minute. Nevertheless, the publisher went ahead as Assange had already spent his advance on legal fees. In the event, the book is, for the most part, enjoyable, and will offer readers a fascinating glimpse into the making of WikiLeaks and the emergence of new electronic resistance networks from the 1990s onwards. Much of this is filtered through his own life story. The child of ’60s’ counter-cultural parents (his mother and father met at a demonstration), Assange went through a turbulent childhood, many stepfathers, until he became part of early 1990s hacker culture. These were the early days of the Internet, before the rise of online digital industries and complex state electronic surveillance. Independent hacker groups used their technical skills to pry open networks operated by the Pentagon, large companies and regimes all over the world. Hackers represented a mix of radical libertarian politics (“information must be free”) and male bravado.
Assange, along with an entire generation, graduated from early hacker politics to a more mature political analysis. With the spread of the Internet, a growing public sought to bypass State and commercial networks. These included pirate peer-to-peer networks worldwide where users shared torrent media files, political hacker groups like the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin, the critiques of copyright and intellectual property, counter-globalisation and anarchist movements.
By the second half of 2000-2010, Assange, along with a group of international collaborators launched WikiLeaks as a whistleblower site. The innovation of WikiLeaks was to recognise that despite the power of the State and commercial networks, they are structurally prone to information leakage; the Radia tapes in India are a typical example. Soon it began to publish internal information from banks, large companies and states. Coming at the time of the global downturn, this tapped into popular anger against financial institutions. Then WikiLeaks took on the US state itself, beginning with the video of a helicopter gunship that showed a massacre in the Iraq war, and then the internal US diplomatic cables affecting just about every nation on earth. The US, in turn, cut off its sources of funding, attacking its servers and using every means to discredit the organisation. Much of this is available in this book, including the sexual assault charges brought against Assange in Sweden. The reader will also get a flavour of Assange’s male narcissism, and obsessions, but for the most part this is an engrossing read.
Assange and WikiLeaks may well fade into history, but the episode has demonstrated a basic reality of the post-digital world: there are no guarantees for power today. The system will leak, constantly. This may terrify states and large corporations, but is surely a relief to most of the world’s citizens.
Sundaram is a senior fellow at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and one of the co-initiators of Sarai.