When Google Met WikiLeaks

When Google Met WikileaksWhen Google Met Wikileaks by Julian Assange
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is primarily the transcript of a conversation between Julian Assange and Eric Schmidt (then CEO of Google) and Jared Cohen for their book The New Digital Age. The transcript is also available in its entirety (fittingly) on the WikiLeaks website along with the actual audio of the conversation. The transcript is book-ended by several essays: Beyond Good and “Don’t Be Evil”, the Banality of “Don’t Be Evil” (also published in New York Times) and Deliver us from “Don’t Be Evil”.

Assange read The New Digital Age and wasn’t happy with the framing of the conversation, or the degree to which his interview wasn’t included. When Google Met WikiLeaks is Assange’s attempt to reframe the discussion in terms of the future of publishing, information and the Internet. In particular Assange takes issue with Schmidt and Cohen’s assertion that:

The information released on WikiLeaks put lives at risk and inflicted serious diplomatic damage.

Schmidt and Cohen offer no source for this bold assertion, and in a note they equate WikiLeaks with minimally enabling espionage, again with no citation. Assange makes the case that WikiLeaks is actually in the business of publishing and journalism, not secretly selling information for private gain. I think Assange does this, but more importantly, he presents a view of the near future of the Internet, that is presaged by WikiLeaks, which is actually interesting and compelling. The transcript itself is heavily annotated with footnotes, many of which have URLs, that are archived at archive.today.

For me the most interesting parts of the book center on what Assange calls the Naming of Things:

The naming of human intellectual work and our entire intellectual record is possibly the most important thing. So we all have words for different objects, like “tomato.” But we use a simple word, “tomato,” instead of actually describing every little aspect of this god damn tomato…because it takes too long. And because it takes too long to describe this tomato precisely we use an abstraction so we can think about it so we can talk about it. And we do that also when we use URLs. Those are frequently used as a short name for some human intellectual content. And we build all of our civilization, other than on bricks, on human intellectual content. And so we currently have system with URLs where the structure we are building our civilization out of is the worst kind of melting plasticine imaginable. And that is a big problem.


Transcript of secret meeting between Julian Assange and Google CEO Eric Schmidt

This particular section goes on to talk about some really interesting topics: such as the effects of right to be forgotten laws, DNS, Bittorrent magnet URIs, how not to pick ISPs, hashing algorithms, digital signatures, public key cryptography, Bitcoin, NameCoin, flood networks, and distributed hash tables. The fascinating thing is that Schmidt is asking Assange for these details to understand how WikiLeaks operates; but Assange’s response is to discuss some general technologies that may influence a new kind of Web of documents. A Web where identity matters, where documents are signed and mirrored, republished and resilient.

Assange has been largely demonized by the mainstream press, and this book humanizes him quite a bit. It’s hard not to think of him in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London (where he will have been for 1500 days tomorrow) quietly adding footnotes to the transcript, and archiving web content.

OR Books role in printing this content on paper, for bookshelves everywhere is another aspect to this process of replication. Hats off to them for putting this project together.

Here’s some musical accompaniment to go along with this post:

Google’s Subconscious

Can a poem provide insight into the inner workings of a complex algorithm? If Google Search had a subconscious, what would it look like? If Google mumbled in its sleep, what would it say?

A few days ago, I ran across these two quotes within hours of each other:

So if algorithms like autocomplete can defame people or businesses, our next logical question might be to ask how to hold those algorithms accountable for their actions.

Algorithmic Defamation: The Case of the Shameless Autocomplete by Nick Diakopoulos

and

A beautiful poem should re-write itself one-half word at a time, in pre-determined intervals.

Seven Controlled Vocabluaries by Tan Lin.

Then I got to thinking about what a poem auto-generated from Google’s autosuggest might look like. Ok, the idea is of dubious value, but it turned out to be pretty easy to do in just HTML and JavaScript (low computational overhead), and I quickly pushed it up to GitHub.

Here’s the heuristic:

  1. Pick a title for your poem, which also serves as a seed.
  2. Look up the seed in Google’s lightly documented suggestion API.
  3. Get the longest suggestion (text length).
  4. Output the suggestion as a line in the poem.
  5. Stop if more than n lines have been written.
  6. Pick a random substring in the suggestion as the seed for the next line.
  7. GOTO 2

The initial results were kind of light on verbs, so I found a list of verbs and randomly added them to the suggested text, occasionally. The poem is generated in your browser using JavaScript so hack on it and send me a pull request.

Assuming that Google’s suggestions are personalized for you (if you are logged into Google) and your location (your IP address), the poem is dependent on you. So I suppose it’s more of a collective subconscious in a way.

If you find an amusing phrase, please hover over the stanza and tweet it — I’d love to see it!