Posts Tagged ‘WikiLeaks’

I found the previous entry hard to pull together but I couldn’t put my finger on why, so I went ahead and posted it, even though it felt somehow incomplete. But over the new few days, I realized the problem was that I’d been laying out two separate dichotomies — higher knowledge vs. institutionalized knowledge and liberal vs. conservative values — without quite realizing they weren’t the same thing.

At that point, I decided to clarify my own understanding by listing current political factions and the relationships among them. To my surprise, the rough framework that resulted looked like nothing so much as a simplified version of the alignments system of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

In its classic form, the AD&D system is based on two intersecting polarities — good vs. evil and lawful vs. chaotic — with various shades of neutral in between. Liberals, for example, might be defined as lawful good. They’re “good” because they care deeply about altruism and justice and “lawful” because they see government as the most effective means of implementing those values.

Anarchists, on the other hand, could appropriately be described as chaotic good. They’re dedicated to much the same values as liberals, but they regard the institutions of government as an impediment to achieving them. As a result, even though liberals and anarchists have many issues in common, they differ substantially in methods, ultimate goals, and personal style.

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I’ve got the midwinter doldrums and heavy-duty posts are coming hard. So I’m going to take a break by doing a simple round-up of some of the trends and movements that I see as about to coalesce into a holism-based counterculture.

Trends alone are not sufficient, of course. A counterculture explodes only when there is both a volatile mixture of elements and a spark to ignite that mixture. But these trends are what will fuel the fire — and each of them is already displaying the distinctive pattern of thought that will shape the next decade.

The movements that have been catching my eye are primarily offshoots of the environmental activists and computer hackers that I previously described as heretics of the 1980’s. Their roots go back to the potent blend of holism, multiculturalism, and do-it-yourself-ism nurtured by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog in the late 60’s and early 70’s. But what I’m seeing now suggests a new degree of assertiveness and philosophical self-awareness, along with a dedication to the nitty-gritty of everyday life that is very different from the ecotopian romanticism of the 80’s.

These movements fall into three broad groups, which intermingle at many points. The first is typified by WikiLeaks and Anonymous. It is rooted in the hacker ethic and in the belief that access to tools and information should be considered a fundamental human right.

The second, which I’ve only become aware of recently, involves a new wave of environmentalism that over the last two or three years appears to have moved away from any expectation of government-based solutions and applied itself instead to direct action.

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When I began working on the previous entry, I intended to discuss a number of ways in which the holism vision is overturning the old concept of the autonomous individual. But I wound up focusing entirely on recent developments in biology — and that tells only half the story. The other half has to do with the emerging concept of a global community of mind in which every one of us participates — what is coming to be known as the hivemind.

The idea of the hivemind is not new. It has been associated with the holism vision since the 1920’s, when the South African writer Eugene Marais theorized that every termite nest functions essentially as a single organism. Marais’ ideas were plagiarized by the prominent Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck in his enormously influential The Life of the White Ant (1926), and from there they quickly passed into science fiction.

Initially, any speculation that human beings might have hiveminds of their own was treated as a grounds for almost Lovecraftian horror. David H. Keller’s trail-blazing The Human Termites (1929), for example, begins by hypothesizing that wars occur because nation-states are “really collections of human beings organized as the termites are, each under the control of a Supreme Intelligence” — but it soon veers off into nightmarish fantasies about human-termite crossbreeds and giant insects destroying New York City.

Even 25 years later, J.R.R. Tolkien could use a grotesque image drawn directly from Maeterlinck to describe the effect on the armies of Mordor of the destruction of Sauron’s Ring: “As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless.”

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When I described Julian Assange a few entries back as the living embodiment of the holism vision, I meant it quite literally. It was not intended as a metaphor. That really is how these things appear to work.

We humans may believe we invent the visions — but it might be equally true to say the visions invent us. At every step, they push us to become more fully human, or even larger than human. And they operate as if they have a life and identity of their own, going well beyond anything consciously intended by their makers.

In the course of writing these entries, I’ve repeatedly found myself saying things like “the holism vision did such-and-such” and wondered if I was just using lazy shorthand for “the adherents of the holism vision.” But it doesn’t feel like shorthand. It feels like a truthful description.

If the visions really do possess a kind of autonomous existence, however, that raises the question of how they organize, maintain, and perpetuate themselves.

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The current WikiLeaks hysteria has gotten me looking back at the very first post I did about the “dance of the visions” in September of last year. There I wrote:

When a new vision first emerges from the ruins of its predecessor, it remains for a time on the borders of society, inspiring artists and philosophers but having relatively little impact upon daily life. Only when it has matured sufficiently in both theoretical and practical terms does it step forward to claim a leading role in the culture.

When that happens, everything changes. In a relatively brief but hectic interlude of cascading breakdowns and transformations, the entire society is shaken apart and remade in new terms.

First, the emergent vision challenges the claim to authority of the senior vision in the dominant partnership. That vision is already nearing the end of its useful life and showing increasing signs of rigidity and inability to cope with crisis, so it doesn’t take much to delegitimize it.

I’ve been counting down to lift-off since I did that entry — and I’d say we’ve finally arrived at the “everything changes” point and are about to embark on the “cascading breakdowns and transformations.”

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There can be no doubt that at this moment Julian Assange is the living embodiment of the holism vision in its computer-and-internet aspect. The various Pirate Parties have his back. Anonymous vows to avenge him. And no less an authority than John Perry Barlow has tweeted, “The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops.”

There can similarly be no doubt that the democracy vision is already in a state of accelerated collapse. Corporations sneer at its feeble attempts to put limits on their greed. Tea Partiers seriously propose undoing the great democratic achievements of the last 150 years. And even earnest liberals wring their hands and bemoan the breakdown of the social contract.

The utter panic of the world’s nations over the WikiLeaks info-dumps is a measure of their desperation and a sign that the era of democracy-and-chaos is drawing to an end.

But if what I wrote in the more placid times of a year ago is to be taken seriously, this is only the starting-point.

It should get interesting.


A listing of all my posts on the emerging counterculture can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

“Some dishonest Booksellers, called Land-Pirats, who make it their practice to steal Impressions of other mens Copies.”
— J. Hancock, Brooks’ String of Pearls, 1668 (quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary)

“The last man in the world sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”
— Fredric Brown

In 1984, Steven Levy concluded his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution with a melancholy epilogue titled “The Last of the True Hackers.”

“A man who called himself the last true hacker sat in a room on the ninth floor of Tech Square,” it begins. “His name was Richard Stallman, and he spoke in a tense, high-pitched voice that did not attempt to veil the emotion with which he described, in his words, the ‘rape of the artificial intelligence lab.’ He was thirty years old. His pale complexion and scraggly dark hair contrasted vividly with the intense luminescence of his deep green eyes. The eyes moistened as he described the decay of the Hacker Ethic at Tech Square.”

As explained by Levy, Stallman saw the ethic which had emerged among the original computer hackers of the late 50’s and 60’s as a form of communal anarchism based upon “a concern for constructive cooperation.” But in the 70’s, that first generation grew up, entered the corporate world, and accepted its restrictions — most notably the enforcement of software copyrights.

Around the same time, the Pentagon bureaucrats who controlled access to ARPAnet — the earliest form of the Internet — became obsessed with security measures. And though Stallman fought “to delay the fascist advances with every method I could,” he found himself without allies.

“I don’t believe that software should be owned,” he told Levy. “Because [the practice] sabotages humanity as a whole. It prevents people getting the maximum benefit out of the program’s existence.”

That interview in the fall of 1983 marked a moment of great frustration for Stallman. But in his very despair can be seen the signs of a romantic break about to explode.

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