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Julian Assange: The Road to WikiLeaks

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Julian Assange
Julian Assange Photography by Mark Chew

Hans Ulrich Obrist talks to Julian Assange about his youth in Australia and the epiphanies that created WikiLeaks

Since its official launch in 2007, WikiLeaks has cracked open a treasure trove of classified documents and state secrets, claiming more scoops in its short life than most national newspapers carry in decades. A clearing house for anonymous journalists and whistleblowers, it has leaked material concerning everything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the standard operating procedures in Guantanamo Bay, toxic dumps in the Ivory Coast and the infamous US embassy cables.

Editor-in-chief Julian Assange claims that WikiLeaks’s actions are validated by its commitment to freedom of information and its intent to hold authorities to account, but his intentions are the subject of frenzied debate with a determined face off between those who consider him a freedom fighter, and others, including US politicians, who consider him a dangerous information terrorist disguised under a cloak of righteousness. And now a Hollywood film is attempting to get to the heart of a man who, despite being on an avowed crusade of openness, remains ever opaque. The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon and starring the eerily bewigged Benedict Cumberbatch, opens today in cinemas, to a querulous mixture of rapture and censure from critics, politicians, viewers and Assange himself, currently holed up in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy evading sexual harassment lawsuits and deportation orders, who has described the film as "a hostile act".

To mark this cinematic addition to the debate, we revisit an interview with Assange from AnOther Magazine 21, where Hans Ulrich Obrist delved into the past to try and understand an extraordinary figure who is lauded and lambasted, like few others, across the world.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: How did it all begin?

Julian Assange: I grew up in Australia in the 1970s. My parents were in the theatre, so I lived everywhere – in over 50 different towns, attending 37 different schools. Many of these towns were in rural environments, so I lived like Tom Sawyer – riding horses, exploring caves, fishing, diving, and riding my motorcycle. I lived a classical boyhood in this regard. But there were other events, such as in Adelaide, where my mother was involved in helping to smuggle information out of Maralinga, the British atomic bomb test site in the outback. She and I and a courier were detained one night by the Australian Federal Police, who told her that it could be said that she was an unfit mother to be keeping such company at 2.00am, and that she had better stay out of politics if she didn’t want to hear such things.

I was very curious as a child, always asking why, and always wanting to overcome barriers to knowing, which meant that by the time I was around 15, I was breaking encryption systems that were used to stop people sharing software, and then, later on, breaking systems that were used to hide information in government computers. Australia was a very provincial place before the internet, and it was a great delight to be able to get out, intellectually, into the wider world, to tunnel through it and understand it. For someone who was young and relatively removed from the rest of the world, to be able to enter the depths of the Pentagon’s Eighth Command at the age of 17 was a liberating experience. But our group, which centred on the underground magazine I founded, was raided by the Federal Police. It was a big operation. But I thought that

I needed to share this wealth that I had discovered about the world with people, to give knowledge to people, and so following that I set up the first part of the internet industry in Australia. I spent a number of years bringing the internet to the people through my free speech ISP and then began to look for something with a new intellectual challenge.

HUO: So something was missing.

JA: Something was missing. This led me to using cryptography to protect human rights, in novel ways, and eventually as a result of what I was doing in mathematics and in physics and political activism, things seemed to come together and show that there was a limit to what I was doing – and what the rest of the world was doing. There was not enough information available in our common intellectual record to explain how the world really works. These were more the feelings and process, but they suggested a bigger question, with a stronger philosophical answer for explaining what is missing. We are missing one of the pillars of history. There are three types of history. Type one is knowledge. Its creation is subsidised, and its maintenance is subsidised by an industry or lobby: things like how to build a pump that pumps water, how to create steel and build other forms of alloys, how to cook, how to remove poisons from food, etc. But because this knowledge is part of everyday industrial processes, there is an economy that keeps such information around and makes use of it. So the work of preserving it is already done.

HUO: It’s kind of implicit.

JA: There is a system that maintains it. And there’s another type of information in our intellectual record. (This is a term I interchange freely with “historical record”. When I say “historical record”, I don’t mean what happened 100 years ago, but all that we know, including what happened last week.) This second type of information no longer has an economy behind it. It has already found its way into the historical record through a state of affairs which no longer exists. So it’s just sitting there. It can be slowly rotting away, slowly vanishing. Books go out of print, and the number of copies available decreases. But it is a slow process, because no one is actively trying to destroy this type of information.

And then there is the type-three information that is the focus of my attention now. This is the information that people are actively working to prevent from entering into the record. Type-three information is suppressed before publication or after publication. If type-three information is spread around, there are active attempts to take it out of circulation. Because these first two pillars of our intellectual record either have an economy behind them, or there are no active attempts to destroy them, they do not call to me as loudly. But, this third pillar of information has been denied to all of us throughout the history of the world. So, if you understand that civilised life is built around understanding the world, understanding each other, understanding human institutions and so forth, then our understanding has a great hole in it, which is type-three history. And we want a just and civilised world – and by civilised I don’t mean industrialised, but one where people don’t do dumb things, where they engage in more intelligent behaviour.

HUO: Do you mean a more complex behaviour?

JA: Right, more complex and layered behaviour. There are many analogies for what I mean by that, but I’ll just give a simple one, which is the water ritual. If you sit down with a friend, and there’s a pitcher of water on the table, and there are two glasses, then you pour the other person’s water before your own. This is a very simple ritual. But, this is better than the obvious step, which is to pour your own water before the other person’s. If we can see a few steps ahead, the water ritual is a more intelligent way to distribute water at a table. That’s what I mean by civilisation – we gradually build up all these processes and understandings so we don’t need to make bad moves with each other or the natural world. So with regard to all this suppressed information, we’ve never had a proper understanding of it because it has never entered our intellectual record, and if we can find out about how complex human institutions actually behave, then we have a chance to build civilised behaviour on top of it. This is why I say that all existing political theories are bankrupt, because you cannot build a meaningful theory without knowledge of the world that you’re building the theory about. Until we have an understanding of how the world actually works, no political theory can actually be complete enough to demand a course of action.

[The will behind Wikileaks] was not just the intellectual challenge of making and breaking these cryptographic codes and connecting people together in novel ways. Rather, our will came from a quite extraordinary notion of power, which was that with some clever mathematics you can, very simply – and this seems complex in abstraction but simple in terms of what computers are capable of – enable any individual to say no to the most powerful state. So if you and I agree on a particular encryption code, and it is mathematically strong, then the forces of every superpower brought to bear on that code still cannot crack it. So a state can desire to do something to an individual, yet it is simply not possible for the state to do it – and in this sense, mathematics and individuals are stronger than superpowers.

HUO: Was this the epiphany that led to WikiLeaks?

JA: Well, there is no singular epiphany. WikiLeaks is many different ideas pulled together, and certain economies permit it to be cheap enough to realise. There are some epiphanies, such as my theory of change, an understanding of what is important to do in life, an understanding of what information is important and what is not, ideas having to do with how to protect such an endeavour, and many small technical breakthroughs that go along the way. They’re building blocks for my final view about what form things should take. It is a complex construction, like a truck, which has wheels, cranks, and gears, all contributing to the efficiency of the whole truck, and all of which need to be assembled in order for the truck to get to the destination that I want it to get to by a certain time. So to some degree the epiphany is not in the construction of this vehicle, because there are many little epiphanies in each part, but rather it is that there is a destination that this truck should go to and a way to get out of there.

The Fifth Estate opens today. For the full article, and for all 25 issues in the AnOther Magazine archive, visit Exact Editions.

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