The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’ (article by Julian Assange)

June 20, 2013

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, “The Banaility of ‘Don’t be Evil,” Julian Assange critiques the book “The New Digital Age – Reshaping the future of people, nations and business,” co-authored by Jared Cohen and Google CEO Eric Schmidt. A short summary of the book can be found here. The title of Assange’s article, which is fiercely critical of Cohen and Schmidt’s ideas for the future of a digitized civilization, is a reference to a phrase long ago used by Hannah Arendt to note that the greatest evils in human history (particularly the Holocaust) were not executed by sociopaths and fanatics but very ordinary people who simply accepted the normalcy of the status quo.

The following are a few representative passages from the article:

“THE New Digital Age” is a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of its leading witch doctors, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the 21st century. This idiom reflects the ever closer union between the State Department and Silicon Valley, as personified by Mr. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and Mr. Cohen, a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton who is now director of Google Ideas.

[…] The authors offer an expertly banalized version of tomorrow’s world: the gadgetry of decades hence is predicted to be much like what we have right now — only cooler. “Progress” is driven by the inexorable spread of American consumer technology over the surface of the earth. Already, every day, another million or so Google-run mobile devices are activated. Google will interpose itself, and hence the United States government, between the communications of every human being not in China (naughty China). Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.

[…] I have a very different perspective. The advance of information technology epitomized by Google heralds the death of privacy for most people and shifts the world toward authoritarianism. This is the principal thesis in my book, “Cypherpunks.” But while Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Cohen tell us that the death of privacy will aid governments in “repressive autocracies” in “targeting their citizens,” they also say governments in “open” democracies will see it as “a gift” enabling them to “better respond to citizen and customer concerns.” In reality, the erosion of individual privacy in the West and the attendant centralization of power make abuses inevitable, moving the “good” societies closer to the “bad” ones.

[…] Without even understanding how, they have updated and seamlessly implemented George Orwell’s prophecy. If you want a vision of the future, imagine Washington-backed Google Glasses strapped onto vacant human faces — forever. Zealots of the cult of consumer technology will find little to inspire them here, not that they ever seem to need it. But this is essential reading for anyone caught up in the struggle for the future, in view of one simple imperative: Know your enemy.

Julian Assange is of course a highly controversial figure, so some might question his credibility. It is therefore worth noting that Assange is not alone with the views expressed in that article and that a large number of highly regarded public intellectuals agree with those views. Notable examples are Rebecca MacKinnon, Lawrence Lessig, Evgeny Morozov and Deibert et al.

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