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In a recent feature article at The Blog called “Striving to be Snowdenlike”, I look at the example of Edward Snowden and use his precedent to make a prediction about “transhumans”, the first people who will pioneer our evolution into a posthuman form, and the political upheaval this will necessarily cause.

Transhumanism makes a prediction that people will obtain greater personal abilities as a result of technology. The investment of more political power (potentially) in a single person’s hand’s has been the inexorable result of advancing technology throughout history.

Politically, transhumanism (not as a movement but as a form of sociocultural evolution) would be radically different from other forms of technological change, because it can produce heightened intellect, strength and capability. Many have assumed that these changes would only reinforce existing inequality and the power of the state, but they are wrong. They have failed to note the political disconnect between current government authority figures and political classes, and those people actually involved in engineering, medicine, military trials, and the sciences. Transhumanism will never serve to reinforce the existing political order or make it easier for states to govern and repress their people. On the contrary, transhumanism can only be highly disruptive to the authorities. In fact, it will be more disruptive to current liberal democratic governments than any other challenge they have witnessed before.

There are several realities to this disruption that will convey a profound political change, and would do so whether or not transhumanism pursued political power in the form of the Transhumanist Parties (I still support those parties wholeheartedly due to their ability to raise awareness of transhumanism as a concept and an observation by futurists) or took a political stance for or against these realities. I would narrow the disruption down to these very compelling points of political significance. Please advise any more that you would like to bring to my attention:

  • Some of us will evolve into posthumans prior to others.
  • Such evolution will not be contingent on station, celebrity, political office, political ideology, leadership ability, or other traditional elite criteria.
  • Such evolution will be contingent on injuries (in the case of medical enhancements), vocation (e.g. astronauts), military trials (power armor or other, more invasive enhancements), long before it is marketed to members of the political elite or government authority figures who prefer to stay aloof and avoid taking risks with their lives.
  • This will create a disconnect, early on, between the political elite and the first evolved, posthuman persons.

Therefore, the posthuman elite will not be the current elite, but a completely different elite. Not only this, but they will have a completely different attitude towards authority that will be very disruptive to the status quo:

  • The evolution will create a high-tech “elite” (but only in the sense of capability, and not rule) with a high degree of autonomy.
  • Since all members of the new elite will have the same ability to function alone beyond the abilities of a normal human, they will be able to function without reliance on a hierarchy, even among themselves.
  • Since all will have superior capabilities to those who are not evolved, they will have no desire or need to rule over the people who are not enhanced, as they will not need them.
  • They will function as titans — extremely powerful individuals capable of achieving their political aims single-handedly, independently of organizations or governments (much as Snowden did).
  • The evolved people will be a potential “rebel elite” or “smart rats” (to use Julian Assange’s term from Cypherpunks) because they will not be part of the government authority structures. Their ethos and their political behavior will be the same as hackers, with the exception that they will be able to effect change in the real world in the way that hackers were only able to achieve them via computer systems.
  • Like hackers, they will be dismissive of government authority, able to overcome government safeguards and defenses, and cognizant of government lies. And, like hackers, their power to subvert government authority will cause them to subvert it.

What happened with Snowden is not the first time we are going to witness a single heroic individual challenging existing power structures and winning against the world’s most powerful state.

If technology is going to invest greater power and responsibility into the hands of lone individuals who have been given privileges because of their personal abilities, those individuals are by definition going to be futuristic “insurgents”, at least some of whom will go as far as to dismantle the state. A government, being paranoid of anyone having merely the capability to undermine it, will by definition attempt to curtail the freedoms of enhanced people.

Posthumans, including their early predecessors, will find themselves in the same situation as the current-day “cypherpunk” elite consisting of whistleblowers and hackers. They will listen to few authority figures, they will have the utmost disrespect for the government, and they will be more interested in sharing their abilities indiscriminately with others than adhering to rules laid down by authority figures or obeying the state.

The evolution into posthuman forms will bring with it a clash of ideas about how society should be governed.

Julian Assange’s 2014 book When Google Met WikiLeaks consists of essays authored by Assange and, more significantly, the transcript of a discussion between Assange and Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen.
As should be of greatest interest to technology enthusiasts, we revisit some of the uplifting ideas from Assange’s philosophy that I picked out from among the otherwise dystopian high-tech future predicted in Cypherpunks (2012). Assange sees the Internet as “transitioning from an apathetic communications medium into a demos – a people” defined by shared culture, values and aspirations (p. 10). This idea, in particular, I can identify with.
Assange’s description of how digital communication is “non-linear” and compromises traditional power relations is excellent. He notes that relations defined by physical resources and technology (unlike information), however, continue to be static (p. 67). I highlight this as important for the following reason. It profoundly strengthens the hypothesis that state power will also eventually recede and collapse in the physical world, with the spread of personal factories and personal enhancement technologies (analogous to personal computers) like 3-d printers and synthetic life-forms, as explained in my own techno-liberation thesis and in the work of theorists like Yannick Rumpala.
When Google Met Wikileaks tells, better than any other text, the story of the clash of philosophies between Google and WikiLeaks – despite Google’s Eric Schmidt assuring Assange that he is “sympathetic to you, obviously”. Specifically, Assange draws our attention to the worryingly close relationship between Google and the militarized US police state in the post-9/11 era. Fittingly, large portions of the book (p. 10–16, 205–220) are devoted to giving Assange’s account of the now exposed world-molesting US regime’s war on WikiLeaks and its cowardly attempts to stifle transparency and accountability.
The publication of When Google Met WikiLeaks is really a reaction to Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s 2013 book The New Digital Age (2013), co-authored with Google Ideas director Jared Cohen. Unfortunately, I have not studied that book, although I intend to pen a fitting enough review for it in due course to follow on from this review. It is safe to say that Assange’s own review in the New York Times in 2013 was quite crushing enough. However, nothing could be more devastating to its pro-US thesis than the revelations of widespread illegal domestic spying exposed by Edward Snowden, which shook the US and the entire world shortly after The New Digital Age’s very release.
Assange’s review of The New Digital Age is reprinted in his book (p. 53–60). In it, he describes how Schmidt and Cohen are in fact little better than State Department cronies (p. 22–25, 32, 37–42), who first met in Iraq and were “excited that consumer technology was transforming a society flattened by United States military occupation”. In turn, Assange’s review flattens both of these apologists and their feeble pretense to be liberating the world, tearing their book apart as a “love song” to a regime, which deliberately ignores the regime’s own disgraceful record of human rights abuses and tries to conflate US aggression with free market forces (p. 201–203).
Cohen and Schmidt, Assange tells us, are hypocrites, feigning concerns about authoritarian abuses that they secretly knew to be happening in their own country with Google’s full knowledge and collaboration, yet did nothing about (p. 58, 203). Assange describes the book, authored by Google’s best, as a shoddily researched, sycophantic dance of affection for US foreign policy, mocking the parade of praise it received from some of the greatest villains and war criminals still at large today, from Madeleine Albright to Tony Blair. The authors, Assange claims, are hardly sympathetic to the democratic internet, as they “insinuate that politically motivated direct action on the internet lies on the terrorist spectrum” (p. 200).
As with Cypherpunks, most of Assange’s book consists of a transcript based on a recording that can be found at WikiLeaks, and in drafting this review I listened to the recording rather than reading the transcript in the book. The conversation moves in what I thought to be three stages, the first addressing how WikiLeaks operates and the kind of politically beneficial journalism promoted by WikiLeaks. The second stage of the conversation addresses the good that WikiLeaks believes it has achieved politically, with Assange claiming credit for a series of events that led to the Arab Spring and key government resignations.
When we get to the third stage of the conversation, something of a clash becomes evident between the Google chairman and WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, as Schmidt and Cohen begin to posit hypothetical scenarios in which WikiLeaks could potentially cause harm. The disagreement evident in this part of the discussion is apparently shown in Schmidt and Cohen’s book: they alleged that “Assange, specifically” (or any other editor) lacks sufficient moral authority to decide what to publish. Instead, we find special pleading from Schmidt and Cohen for the state: while regime control over information in other countries is bad, US regime control over information is good (p. 196).
According to the special pleading of Google’s top executives, only one regime – the US government and its secret military courts – has sufficient moral authority to make decisions about whether a disclosure is harmful or not. Assange points out that Google’s brightest seem eager to avoid explaining why this one regime should have such privilege, and others should not. He writes that Schmidt and Cohen “will tell you that open-mindedness is a virtue, but all perspectives that challenge the exceptionalist drive at the heart of American foreign policy will remain invisible to them” (p. 35).
Assange makes a compelling argument that Google is not immune to the coercive power of the state in which it operates. We need to stop mindlessly chanting “Google is different. Google is visionary. Google is the future. Google is more than just a company. Google gives back to the community. Google is a force for good” (p. 36). It’s time to tell it how it is, and Assange knows just how to say it.
Google is becoming a force for bad, and is little different from any other massive corporation led by ageing cronies of the narrow-minded state that has perpetrated the worst outrages against the open and democratic internet. Google “Ideas” are myopic, close-minded, and nationalist (p. 26), and the corporate-state cronies who think them up have no intention to reduce the number of murdered journalists, torture chambers and rape rooms in the world or criticize the regime under which they live. Google’s politics are about keeping things exactly as they are, and there is nothing progressive about that vision.
To conclude with what was perhaps the strongest point in the book, Assange quotes NYT columnist Tom Friedman. We are warned by Friedman as early as 1999 that Silicon Valley is led less now by the mercurial “hidden hand” of the market than the “hidden fist” of the US state. Assange argues, further, that the close relations between Silicon Valley and the regime in Washington indicate Silicon Valley is now like a “velvet glove” on the “hidden fist” of the regime (p. 43). Similarly, Assange warns those of us of a libertarian persuasion that the danger posed by the state has two horns – one government, the other corporate – and that limiting our attacks to one of them means getting gored on the other. Despite its positive public image, Google’s (and possibly also Facebook’s) ties with the US state for the purpose of monitoring the US pubic deserve a strong public backlash.