Julian Assange is in the news these days and not with well wishes for his birthday today. His Wikileaks crusade has made him the poster child of bringing transparency to the black boxes of big, centralised authority. And the headlines around the global trotting Edward Snowden evokes Assange’s own peripatetic fleeing. I am not a lawyer and I certainly don’t have anything like first hand information on either of the cases against Assange or Snoden, but the principles they are heralding lie at the heart of black box complexity. Embracing the failure of large institutions to keep themselves in check, external and independent watchdogs become a vital part of society. This realisation drove America’s founding fathers to not only embrace a tricameral federal government, but also to enumerate its very first right in the Bill of Rights to be freedom of speech, press and assembly.
Salon published an interview with Assange a short while ago, “Julian Assange: The Web can create revolutions — or jail revolutionaries” (thanks Chris) which delved into these perspectives with three of his colleagues – Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Maller-Maguhn and Jaramie Zimmermann. Zimmermann, in particularly, described this black box complexity that creates the transparency imperative…
- “Zimmermann: I see a difference with what we describe as the spreading of technology, because in the case of the mill and the printing press you had to look at one to understand how it works, whereas now we are increasingly building control inside the technology. The control is built-in. If you look at a modern computer in most cases you cannot even open it to get to know all the components. And all the components are in small cases—you cannot know what they are doing.
- Müller-Maguhn: Because of the complexity?
- Zimmermann: Because of the complexity and also because the technology itself is not intended to be understood. That’s the case with proprietary technology. Cory Doctorow describes it in his ‘The War on General-Purpose Computing.’ Where a computer is a generic machine, you can do everything with it. You can process any information as an input; transform it into anything as an output. And more and more we’re building devices that are those general-purpose computers but which are restricted to do just GPS or just telephone or just MP3 player. More and more we are building machines that have built-in control, to forbid the user from doing certain things.”