Julian Assange and the improbable implosion of authoritarian systems

[UPDATE: A shortened, but still fairly accurate attempt to explain Julian Assange's attitude and mission, can be found in this comment published today, 5th of December, by Theo Brainin in The Guardian. Somehow, though, I feel that he too has read Aaron Bady's blog post.]

The vast majority of mass media and politicians has been taken by storm in the last few days; too quickly for them to start thinking clearly and coherently (no surprise here). Does the fairly similar case of entertainment industry vs. digital revolution ring a bell?

Assange is seen as anything, from villain to superhero, but not for what he really is: an extremely intelligent agent of change with quite an ambitious and complex plan (which goes beyond just ‘revealing the truth’). Interestingly, his goals might not necessarily (or exclusively) be rooted in an anti-American agenda, as some may like [us] to think. His target is a global system, which, depending on what side of libertarianism you are, may or may not appear as necessitating alteration.

In this short article about Assange and the way the image of ‘hackers’ is being depicted in some tabloid, beyond listing some conceivable motives such as fame, altruism, pure activism or just vanity, I did not delve too much into what could have been his true motivation. That has happened for a few reasons, notably lack of information, lack of time to search for that information, and also because that was not my intention for the article anyway.

There is a precious hidden gem that one is at risk of not gaining by only absorbing news from any news aggregator or broadcaster: understanding. Worse, even when focusing on [pretty much] impartial sources such as The Guardian (which newspaper I regard as an example of professionalism), one may still be at risk of conserving a narrow field of view.

That happens firstly because one may grab just the facts one is interested in, and, paradoxically, also because those facts may be in a near pure form when collected from objective sources. Without adding into the mix subjective but divergent, and also unrelated perspectives, lateral thinking might be replaced by one-sided thinking, so in short, there is no real opportunity for profound understanding.

Like many others, during the last few days, I monitored the evolution of the diplomatic cables leak story, whilst oscillating between sympathy for the WikiLeaks’ crusade and its founder’s struggle, revolt against the unfair image of Britain as depicted in the diplomatic documents, and also (valid?) concerns regarding the possibility of local, regional (and why not, global) conflicts.

Yet, just watching or reading the news did not help me with gaining the insights I wanted, so I went across the blogosphere looking for different views and comments. This pertinent, critical analysis by UC Berkeley graduate Aaron Bady, which I found by mistake (and of whose reading I would insist upon), has sown the seeds which I needed to initiate my own investigation and hence gain some understanding of the whole issue.

Any reader, however, should be aware of the fact that, due to my slightly libertarian views and nerdy preoccupations, I have a personal bias towards Julian Assange & Co. Still, whatever opinions I express in this article are kept as objective as possible; thus, please try to keep a vertical stance and also don’t curse me too much if you suspect subjectivity.

So, what does Julian Assange try to achieve through WikiLeaks? The above mentioned analysis contains one of the most plausible views that I have found (forget about US propaganda) and that is, put simply, provoking the collapse of the complex system of governmental authority based on secrecy – or “governmental conspiracy”, as Assange calls it – not only in America, but perhaps everywhere.

First of all I need to briefly introduce the reader to the idea of mechanistic systems, since the article I just recommended is not based on this idea  (don’t run away – it is damn simple; it is basically a machine). Generally, the mechanistic principle (fundamentally a heritage of the Industrial Revolution) regards natural wholes (principally living things) as being like machines, composed of parts lacking any inherent relationship to each other, and with their order imposed in a centralised way (quick reference: ‘mechanism’ on Wikipedia).

In organisational practice, this view has been translated into strict hierarchical arrangements of human systems, bureaucracies, and tight control schemes, in which people (especially lower echelons) are regarded more like automatons, rather than complex, emergent entities. In this respect, one would somewhat regard military organisations, governmental and intelligence agencies, and diplomatic structures as mechanistic systems. Yet, as I will show, things at the moment are not quite like that.

The opposite, at least in Burns and Stalker’s view, are the organic systems, which are not hierarchical in the same way as mechanistic systems, as they are still layered, but based on the expertise of its constituents. Organic structures could rely, for instance, on indoctrination, strong organisational culture built around motivation and self-development, and the ability of its constituents to behave as proactive, self-organising actors.

At least from what I have observed in my (not so many) years of managerial experience, as well as in some contemporary readings in the fields of sociology, management, and systems thinking, in organic systems there is an emphasis on the power to achieve goals through people, whereas in the mechanistic ones there is a clear tendency to gain power over the people and then use them as [seemingly] mindless instruments for achieving organisational goals.

Thus mechanistic structures have to rely on tight command and control systems, rather than on transparency and mutual adjustment of the actors. It is almost common sense the fact that bureaucracies attempt to control both their internal and external environments through exercising the principle of power over. But how do they do it? As far as I remember now, systems and complexity thinkers such as Ackoff, Kuhn, or Gharajedaghi agree (in different words, but similar concepts) that controlling the flow of information might just be the best tool for exercising the power over.

And mechanistic structures are damn good at controlling every bit of information that flows in and out, as well as inside them. Which in turn doesn’t do them a favour with respect to flexibility, innovation, and more importantly, high sensitivity and responsivity to threats. Can you think of any governmental agency which doesn’t need those? (Well, you must remember the complaints of the FBI agents regarding the lack of hierarchical response to their warnings regarding the 9/11 attacks).

In Assange’s view, as explained by Mr Bady, the “governmental conspiracy” relies on internal control of information in order to ensure the secrecy of all its operations. (Obviously, controlling the flow of information also ensures that the majority of actors in the external environment are also being kept at bay.) Yet, too much control of information may hinder the activity of internal subsystems (i.e. operatives, spies, military, and diplomats), so the architects of the system have to ensure that there is a certain liberty in accessing the available information. (The sort of liberty that has allowed a disgruntled, young intelligence analyst to copy over 250,000 classified documents without even being traced.)

I do not have the time right now to read Assange’s essays, and also my intention is not to critically analyse Aaron Bady’s article, but it appears that in Julian Assange’s view, as quoted, the “governmental conspiracy” cannot be a pure mechanistic structure – like a traditional hierarchy – otherwise the top of the pyramid can be a single point of failure. (Oops, cannot help but to point out at the similarity to computer networking, where a single point of failure (SPOF), especially at the top level, can bring the entire network down if it indeed fails; Assange is a ‘hacker’, remember?)

As a result, the organisation has to be a blend of organic and mechanistic structures. Aaron Bady explains it as “acephalous” (as in, having no head), but “[with] certain amount of centralization […] (otherwise there is no conspiracy)”. “Too much centralization makes the system vulnerable”.

That’s right; too much centralisation means the risk of a big single point of failure, as well as that of many other SPOFs, at the top of many internal pyramids. Also, too many management layers will definitely transform the organisation into a slow and ineffective bureaucracy, in which the flow of information will be hindered at every level.

So in a purely geeky tradition, Assange thought of a bug. Mind you, it may sound like a big revelation, but it should not be, and I almost feel ashamed that I haven’t thought of it in the first place (though I have an excuse: ahem, I did not know that those essays by Julian Assange exist).

Perhaps a look at how the HIV retrovirus works may just offer the perfect metaphor in understanding part of his actions – that is, how a system can be turned against itself. When HIV infects cells in the human immune system, a special group of lymphocytes (called Cytotoxic T cells) will hunt down and kill those infected cells – basically the immune system is successfully attacking and weakening itself.

Julian Assange’s mission seems to be that of generating excessive mistrust inside governmental systems; if inoculated in the right way and amount, the resulting paranoia is expected to cause the implosion of these systems.

So any leak, no matter the press coverage (well, the last one has been a big blow), does not aim to embarrass any government. The leaks prove the penetrability of governmental systems, and thus increase their security-related paranoia (that is also a common, but necessary syndrome amongst computer geeks, like Assange).

The flow of communication between different parts of the system will then be hindered due to fear of leaks to the outside world. And this is not something supposed to happen necessarily only in America, but also in the already paranoid, totalitarian regimes, like China or North Korea, just because the possibility of classified data leakage has been proven. As Aaron Bady puts it very simply, “the conspiracy [can be destroyed], in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire […]. Wikileaks wants to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat”.

Now here is the point where I need to explain why I brought into discussion the essential differences between organic and mechanistic structures. Organic structures are highly adaptable and therefore very resilient. A terrorist organisation is an organic system. They rely on the indoctrination and high determination of their constituents (hell, to commit suicide for a cause is enough proof of being determined, isn’t it?). Mechanistic structures just cannot put up so easily with organic ones. Think of any David vs. Goliath example.

Now, I am not the sort of person to jump into the same bandwagon with all the terrorist scaremongers. The high disregard for human rights, which we have seen happening part in secrecy once the ‘war on terror’ has been declared by the Bush administration, has disgusted me profoundly.

Yet, I do not expect governments to change too much their shoddy practices. But I also anticipate that they will tighten the secrecy belt as a result of the latest events. They will simply start to re-mechanise their structures, maybe more than before, in order to control the information, a fact which, as explained above, will make them more vulnerable, as well as inefficient. Finally they will just simply fail to do their job.

Eventually, I also know that there are quite a few lunatics out there who would like to repeat the London Tube bombings, or the 9/11 attacks.

I admire Assange, as it is probably obvious, for his intelligence, ‘geekiness’, beliefs, activism and persistence. I cannot help, though, thinking that in London, my friends, I, and millions of other people are relying heavily on the public transport and in that respect everybody, up until now at least, has returned home safely every evening.

About Manuel Timita

Passionate about both human and IT systems. More curious than a cat, yet hoping to dodge its proverbial fate for a while.
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