Did the Autistic Cohort Beget Wikileaks?

It’s been said that analogy is the weakest form of logic, to which I’ve always wanted to reply, “And Hallelujah for it.”  If analogy is the red-headed stepchild of logicians it finds its true kin in the similes and metaphors of poetry, and as Edward Abbey once suggested, “Poetry – even bad poetry – may be our final hope.”  In that spirit then of poetic truth rather than logical proof I offer the following observations on and comparisons between A) the under-recognized neurodiversity of introverts, nerds, geeks, and autistics both diagnosed and unsuspected which I’ve described (in the prologue to this entry) as the autistic cohort, and B) the similarly under-recognized “distributed system” which has taken on a life of its own and is often referred to in recent headlines only as “Wikileaks,” “Cablegate,” or simply “Julian Assange.”

Central to this comparison is the observation that both A and B above find themselves opposed by “centralized systems” which fail to recognize the distributed nature of the groups they seek to “cure,” prevent, stigmatize, and/or eliminate altogether.  Tech news site Techdirt continues to offer standout coverage of the Wikileaks drama from a perspective of technological and social change, and it was while reading that coverage that I began to get a sense that there are parallels there to the territory covered here at Shift.

That said, a methodical mapping-out of the correspondences has stayed beyond my reach, at least over the past couple of weeks. What I do have is an unruly, runaway collection of bookmarks that lead off in several interesting directions; for now maybe it’s best to back up to where this table got set for me, in Mike Masnick’s Techdirt post from October, The Revolution Will Be Distributed: Wikileaks, Anonymous And How Little The Old Guard Realizes What’s Going On.

Even Masnick starts out as I’m doing here, with a request that readers “Bear with me, as I try to connect a few different thoughts that are coming together in my mind in this particular post.”  Two-thirds of the way in, he offers up the source that pulled things together for him:

A few years back, Rod Beckstrom (now head of ICANN) wrote a book called The Starfish and the Spider which more or less predicted much of this.  It pointed out that the US government and military was designed to fight opposition that was centralized (like a spider), but that it was not at all well-prepared to handle a totally decentralized organization, where cutting off one arm simply leads the organization to grow another (like a starfish).  It wasn’t just about the US government, but about general organization philosophies around that concept, and I would think that things like Wikileaks and especially Anonymous would fit well into the book as even better examples than almost all that are in there.

Then earlier this month Masnick picked up on a piece at The Economist which made what he felt was exactly the same point he had been getting at in October, quoting here with his own emphasis added in bold type:

Yet the debate over WikiLeaks has proceeded as if the matter might conclude with the eradication of these kinds of data dumps—as if this is a temporary glitch in the system that can be fixed; as if this is a nuisance that can be made to go away with the application of sufficient government gusto. But I don’t think the matter can end this way. Just as technology has made it easier for governments and corporations to snoop ever more invasively into the private lives of individuals, it has also made it easier for individuals, working alone or together, to root through and make off with the secret files of governments and corporations. WikiLeaks is simply an early manifestation of what I predict will be a more-or-less permanent feature of contemporary life, and a more-or-less permanent constraint on strategies of secret-keeping.

That, then, is where the frisson happened for me (I do expect to clarify this connection in later posts), as I saw the clamor for “sufficient government gusto” to be cut from the same cloth as the clamor for a “cure for autism.”  A week later Masnick posted Operation Payback And Wikileaks Show The Battle Lines Are About Distributed & Open vs. Centralized & Closed, opening with:

Back in October, I wrote a thought-piece on how “the revolution will be distributed,” comparing Wikileaks to Anonymous’ “Operation Payback” (whose tactics I disagree with). I noted that the two were very different, and were focused on very different issues, but that both were essentially about distributed and open systems taking on systems that were centralized and closed — and that the folks in those centralized and closed systems didn’t seem to understand this. Thus, all of their reactions did little to fix the challenges they were facing.

It seems that my comparison of the two operations was a bit more prophetic than I expected …

Part of what’s been hanging me up here is the burden of establishing that autism does in fact have the nature of a distributed system, and that its opposition – exemplified in the institutional realm by Autism Speaks and in the social realm by the stigma applied to the entire cohort – has the nature of a centralized system.  Again for the most part I’m punting on that and simply leading with my premise, however unsupported or unsubstantiated it may be for the moment.

Here too for me then, making this explicit comparison between the autistic cohort and “Wikileaks,” I am saying that “the two [are] very different, and [are] focused on very different issues.”  And here too, I am asserting that “both [are] essentially about distributed and open systems taking on systems that [are] centralized and closed – and that the folks in those centralized and closed systems [don’t] seem to understand this.  Thus, all of their reactions [do] little to fix the challenges they [are] facing.”

And what’s more, as Bruce Sterling has now put it in an evocative, uniquely well-informed post on Wikileaks and its milieu:

In setting up their SIPRnet [the Defense Department’s private internet from which the diplomatic cables were copied], they were trying to grab the advantages of rapid, silo-free, networked communication while preserving the hierarchical proprieties of official confidentiality. That’s the real issue, that’s the big modern problem; national governments and global computer networks don’t mix any more. It’s like trying to eat a very private birthday cake while also distributing it. That scheme is just not working. And that failure has a face now, and that’s Julian Assange.

Sterling locates the genesis of Wikileaks in American hacker Timothy C. May’s nearly three decade-old romantic, sci-fi tinged idea known as The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, noting that “At last — at long last — the homemade nitroglycerin in the old cypherpunks blast shack has gone off.”  And as much as Sterling is exactly the writer we needed to place this story in the context of recent history, it’s not as if any of us need be told that geeks made Wikileaks.  My own more ambitious claim here is that they did so not because of what sets them apart from autistics as autistics are generally understood, but because of what they share in common with autistics, however well or poorly understood.

Leaving aside the attention being paid to Assange’s evidently autistic cognitive style (fascinating a character as he may be, if it hadn’t been Assange it would’ve been someone else — the title of one of Masnick’s posts and the point of the Economist piece it quotes from is The Inevitability of Wikileaks), and continuing for now simply along poetic lines, consider that the internet itself is a creation of the autistic cohort, that its architecture would be significantly different had it been initially imagined by a cohort with a different nature and a different perspective. Ironically enough in light of that central insight in Beckham’s The Starfish and the Spider, the internet’s predecessor was commissioned by the military specifically to be a distributed system, lacking a command center, and capable of re-routing communications even in the event that major nodes were wiped out in nuclear attacks.

And this was made possible by, it was created by – yes, who else? – geeks and nerds, arguably in their own image, in the image of the autistic cohort, by folks who as described in Jeff Ello’s piece The Unspoken Truth about Managing Geeks (discussed here at Shift in An Autistic Ethos) have little use, taste, or innate regard for centralized authority or top-down hierarchies.

In that sense and in light of the points quoted above, it is at least a poetic truth that the autistic cohort has in fact begat Wikileaks.  That old geek Archimedes seems to have been a cohort member himself; give us in any case a lever and a place to stand, a digital technology and a distributed network, and we will move the world.

One related thought that’s gotten renewed play in light of the focus on Wikileaks is that the internet interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.  It may be worth pondering, then, what the autistic cohort interprets as damage, and how and where we may be – or may need to be – routing around it.  There are a half-dozen or more other intriguing tangents here as well, not to mention the entertainment value alluded to in my previous entry. There’s a lot, I’m finding, to explore at this intersection of distributed and centralized, of Many and One.

on 12/24/10 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 14 Comments | Read More

Comments (14)


  1. Gwen McKay says:

    I was surprised at first when I saw how this article was categorized, as it seems to fit neatly under Internet or perhaps Politics; but the image of routing around damage does have the feel of art and myth to it, in a sci-fi kind of way, and the entertainment value that you mentioned can fairly be counted as play.

    As to the first part of your question, the damage in this analogy would have to be what you described in your previous entry as the idea that there is only one true way to be in the world. We’re routing around it in a great many different ways and places, of course, as one might expect from a distributed system — Shift Journal being one of them. And the process of creating these alternate routes seems to be, in many ways, more about art and intuition than anything else. So, good choice for the category, Mark; it’s quite thought-provoking in itself.

  2. Clay says:

    I’ll just say, “Good for Wikileaks!”, and I look forward to its exposing of Bank of America’s practices. The masses have a new weapon - information.

  3. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Thanks Gwen, good points. In the short view, this entry headed into that category as soon as it became clear I’d be describing an intuitive leap rather than laying out an argument. In the long view, hey, it’s all myth anyways, and nothing “mere” about it. I see what we’re all doing here at Shift, this re-imagining and re-presentation of autism on our own terms, as working — yes, KWombles too — to supplant one set of quite consequential myths with another, one from which quite different consequences follow.

    Re: damage and rerouting, I cut three paragraphs from the end there to save for another post, about the extent to which the cohort has only come to find its strength in numbers and know itself as a community by way of the internet.

    Net Neutrality is where the meat-world concerns of the broad cohort and the longstanding online priorities of Assange’s hacker milieu come together in really interesting ways. While the cohort is in general more aware of what Net Neutrality means than is the general population, I think we’re mostly still asleep to the damage that stands to be done to the communities, present and future, that we’ve built and take for granted.

    The stigma applied to the cohort is one thing as a social phenomenon, but losing Net Neutrality essentially means allowing corporations to monetize it, to turn that stigma into a business model. To whatever extent that happens, routing around such restrictions on our accustomed means of rerouting is likely to require all the artful, imaginative, mythic resourcefulness we can get.

    So yeah, that one I’ll post under “Internet.” :-)

    And of course, related: http://www.shiftjournal.com/2010/12/01/changing-myths/

  4. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Hey, Clay, missed you there. Yep, BoA is apparently up next.

    In your stocking tonight, here’s an excerpt from Owen Paine’s 3 a.m. nsfw critique this morning at Stop Me Before I Vote Again, of the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life:

    “Pelion upon Ossa: Our hero is a banker — a banker, fer Baby Jesus’ sake. His great contribution is that he’s turned some poor hapless working people into “homeowners” — with a mortage, of course.

    “For all his bourgeois sorrows — he doesn’t get the European tour, he has to worry about the bank examiner — the guy doesn’t even lose his big spacious Victorian house with its WBFP’s.

    “On the other hand, perhaps being married to Donna Reed is punishment enough even for a banker.

    [Wood-Burning FirePlaces. I didn’t know either, til I looked it up.]

  5. Stephanie says:

    Your comparison depends on the competition you evaluate. Consider, for example, that Wikileaks is only new in the sense that its centralized-a one-stop-shop for leaks, so to speak. Previously, leaks were released on blogs and in small (or sometimes large) newspapers around the world. And, they still are.

    Wikileaks is less distributed, in that sense, than the alternative. And, it’s more political, as it pertains to the goals and objectives of a money-making organization and those who control it, versus the wide-ranging interests of those who are not collected into the Wikileaks system and do not collect for their work.

  6. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Interesting points, Stephanie. There’s reason enough for skepticism about Wikileaks as an organization. Anglachel and The Confluence have each had solid posts questioning just who benefits from the diplomatic cable leaks (even so, I think the gains at stake are political, with Assange’s lawyers being the only ones likely to gain financially).

    What I’m considering here though is the environment in which the leaks are taking place, along with the nature of the available technology. While it’s true Wikileaks is very prominent right now, your point seems a bit like saying that the one mole with his head above the ground in a game of whack-a-mole is centralized simply because he used a central nervous system to raise his body up through the hole.

    Here is the comparison of competition I would suggest: compare the press of thirty or forty years ago, with its ubiquitous and well-funded foreign news bureaus, and its Woodward and Bernstein-inspired support for investigative journalism, all back before deregulation allowed the news to be treated as a profit center, compare all that with what we have today. Yes, leaks happen — often enough now, this is the only way we get relevant foreign news — and occasionally big newspapers publish them.

    The front page though, has become the place where stories go to die. Traction, legs, momentum are no longer bestowed on a story simply because it appears above the fold. And just as often, investigative journalism is held or spiked or published on Christmas weekend. Deregulation being the goose that lays the golden eggs, why should a “news” organization behave ungratefully, even if the upshot is that the news is effectively cancelled.

    And it is in that changed environment, Stephanie, that I see Wikileaks as new. Leaks today happen in a very different environment than they have in the past, and this current news environment is analogous, I am suggesting, to the way things have always been for autistics. Whether Assange in particular turns out to have been a useful idiot or not, it’s an analogy I’ll stand by.

  7. Stephanie says:

    Mark, I’m going to jump right to the last paragraph of your comment. It’s not that I’m ignoring the rest (it would make for a discussion I’d be interested in), but it seems a separate discussion than the comparison that you’re making.

    Reading Glenn Greenwald’s commentary, I have to wonder why he sees this as new. The, um, journalists he’s referring to are personalities. That is the medium in which they work. Perhaps, some true journalism is involved-I can’t say, as I stopped watching their like years ago. What I can say is that it is less about uncovering the news and more about which ways they spin it. (And this is often controlled by the corporate organization, not necessarily the journalists themselves.)

    A more emphatic comparison would be HuffPo and Fox News. HuffPo is where you go if you want the liberal bias to completely distort the truth; Fox News is where you go if you want the conservative bias to completely distort the truth. Both start with news, and then mangle it to fit the tastes of their consumers.

    The same occurs with just about any major news media to one degree or another, and that has been the case for the whole of my adulthood (over a decade) and perhaps before. The only difference I see is the general population is so desensitized to it that they can be more adamant and polarized now than they could have been ten years ago.

    This isn’t new. This is the reason that, when I considered right out of high school how I could be a writer and make a living, I avoided journalism. The idea that journalists are unbiased is false; an unbiased journalist, one who will not spin the news to fit their employer, is an unemployed journalist.

    I see this as the corruption of journalism. The corruption is systemized, but the news is not a centralized system. Most people can find a news source that fits their views, whatever they are, without trying to try too hard. I would agree that autistics face, collectively and as individuals, a corruption in society; the corruption being how autistics are seen and the perceived worth they are granted, among related things.

    But I don’t see how Wikileaks is being treated or its existence as outside this system. Wikileaks is a distraction from the truth; if it were not, Wikileaks would try to draw attention to its content instead of its self and its funding. The difference I see is in who the organization targets for viewers, not in the use of personality as a marketing tool.

  8. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Stephanie - I’m happy to just go with the fact that you agree with me about parallel corruption; that’s something I’ll be trying to highlight going into this next year.

    But since you got me started ….

    As for when the race to the bottom started in terms of news personalities, Paddy Chayefsky saw it coming in 1976 after the first round of media deregulation (Network), and Bill Clinton signed the second round into effect in 1996 — so yes, it has been over a decade now.

    As Greenwald points out, back in the day Bob Woodward was a hero who inspired kids to go into journalism, and yet even by the time you got out of high school, you yourself could see those kids (and Woodward along with them) were already being co-opted. It wasn’t that they were dumber or more gullible than you were at graduation; it was that the situation had changed. “News” was now allowed and expected to make a profit, not a difference.

    Just as an aside, there was a Rolling Stone interview a few years ago with Jon Stewart in which he was asked about something or other having to do with his criticism of the Bush administration “making a difference.” His reply was that actually, he thought humor tends to blunt the criticism directed at public officials rather than sharpen it. So while he was smart, honest, and right, he’s also part of the problem.

    As to Wikileaks “trying to draw attention to itself and its funding,” I’m not sure what you mean. Whose fault is it that it’s left to a tech blog to raise the point, So WikiLeaks Is Evil For Releasing Documents… But DynCorp Gets A Pass For Pimping Young Boys To Afghan Cops? Assange’s?

    Yes, for the most part we have personalities rather than journalists (see Network, above). That same tech blog, in How The Press Misleads About Wikileaks, goes on to suggest that “certain elements in the press are upset about Wikileaks because it shows what a crappy job they’ve been doing on their own. If we had a functioning press that actually sought to hold the US government accountable, there would be much less of a need for Wikileaks.”

    Here’s Arthur Silber’s take, pulling together quotes from several others, on what the Wikileaks release strategy amounts to. What else needs to be added to that?

  9. Stephanie says:

    I’m not sure newspapers were ever expected not to make a profit-at least, if they were, then they were either funded by donation or by wealthy individuals. Either way, you create a situation dependent on bias. Of course, that is not avoided by funding coming through profit. In that case, the bias of the consumers is paramount. In the case of major news outlets today, you have corporations targeting which consumers they will cater to. Thus, two sets of biases are being catered to-the corporate bias and the selected consumers’ collective biases.

    The fundamental point I would make is that the funding has to come from somewhere and the more funding, the more bias is likely to be inserted into the final product. The way around that is to consume news through sources you trust. From the earliest political papers that I am aware of (the leaflets handed out in the precursor to the War for Independence (US)), the way to find balanced viewpoints was to consume the news from multiple sources.

    Furthermore, regarding the degradation of the news, I don’t think that profit is the primary culprit. If people insisted-and by insisted, I mean refused to consume crappy news-that their news met the kind of standards we’re talking about, then that is the news that would be provided. How many people would rather vote on American Idol than for a senate seat? How many people actually pay attention or care about what’s going on in the world, when it doesn’t affect them directly? Even so, I can’t honestly blame the people either-though, they could change if they chose to, if they realized what they’re missing.

    I attribute much of the degradation of news, of politics, and of thought to our schools and our priorities (which goes, at least in my mind, right back to politics). Had I relied on school to teach me critical thinking skills, I wouldn’t have any. I didn’t learn how to think critically in grade school, middle school, or high school. I didn’t learn how to think critically in college, even though I took a critical thinking course (it only introduced the concepts, letting students know there was such a thing as critical thinking; it didn’t teach how to do it). If my dad hadn’t taught me the rudiments of critical thinking, I probably would never have developed the skills. Had some political bloggers not helped me develop and refine those skills I had, then I would have gone on believing that I could consume the news that set easiest on my mind and not consider that my own thoughts might be misinformed or inaccurate.

    Profit goals rely on giving people what they want; unfortunately, the majority of the American people want easy news and news that is biased according to whatever beliefs they already hold. That profit is a goal doesn’t cause that; it just means people get what the most people are willing to pay for. And if they didn’t, they wouldn’t read it or watch it anyway.

  10. Stephanie says:

    I have to agree with Jon Stewart. I actually was talking about that (among other things) with my husband earlier today. He showed me a political comic that was supposed to be good for a quick laugh. He was surprised when I tore it apart (critically, not physically).

    “As to Wikileaks “trying to draw attention to itself and its funding,” I’m not sure what you mean.”

    In all the commentary I’ve read, those that included quotes from Wikileaks or Assange were all about Wikileaks or Assange, not about the “news” they were supposedly trying to draw attention to. Everything I’ve seen from Wikileaks-off the site-has been 100% standard personal public relations ploys. It’s textbook; brilliantly done, but textbook.

    “Here’s Arthur Silber’s take, pulling together quotes from several others, on what the Wikileaks release strategy amounts to. What else needs to be added to that?”

    For what they seem to be trying to accomplish (discrediting the US), absolutely nothing. To merit an unquoted designation of news, they need legitimate verification (i.e., independently verifiable). Wikileaks could make something up entirely, and those people who trust Wikileaks would swallow it whole, regardless that they have nothing real (which is required by honest, old-style journalism), to back them up. People have claimed that Wikileaks creates an environment of transparency, but they do not require transparency for themselves.

    Would they they make something up? I don’t know. But, considering their current tactics, I wouldn’t put it past them if the attention died down too much for their liking.

  11. Mark Stairwalt says:

    One factor neither of us has brought up about the deterioriation of journalism is that due especially to that second round of deregulation, more and more media outlets have come under the control of fewer and fewer hands — although as Harry Shearer says, “If Jews control the media, then Rupert Murdoch is very late for his bris.” I bring up that point though because it’s relevant to the theme of The One vs. The Many that started these two posts off.

    Anyway, it’s easy to get caught up in Assange as a personality, which is why I made the point above that if it hadn’t been him, it would’ve been someone else. It may be that Assange personally is now acting more like Taylor Swift than Ari Ne’eman, and it may be that Cryptome (which came before Wkileaks) was right to pen the obituary for Wikileaks.

    In the meantime, OpenLeaks waits in the wings, most likely not alone. As that obituary says, “Wikileaks is dead. Long live Wikileaks.”

  12. Stephanie says:

    Yes, I agree that more media companies in fewer hands makes for poorer news selection. But, even that is market driven. The problem with news being market driven is that you get the news the people want, not the news the people need-which you cannot make them consume anyway. Which relates directly to the tyranny of the many, especially as smaller papers and magazines are going out of print for lack of subscribers.

    I guess it would have been easier for me to latch onto the comparison you were making (relating back to the One vs. the Many), had Wikileaks not been involved. Personally, I think Wikileaks is a blip. It’ll come and go like so many Internet rages have. And I suspect Assange’s fame is going to short-lived in comparison to Taylor Swift’s.

    But autism is not new, however much people want to claim it is. And it’s not going away. How people view and how the mainstream responds to people with autistic traits will change, much like how people view and respond to journalism will change; but Wikileaks will come and go and be forgotten by most.

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  14. I seldom leave a response, however i did some searching and wound up here Did the
    Autistic Cohort Beget Wikileaks? | Neurodiversity.
    And I do have a few questions for you if you tend not to mind.
    Could it be simply me or does it appear like some of the comments come across like left by
    brain dead people? 😛 And, if you are posting on other places, I would like to keep up
    with anything new you have to post. Would you list of all of
    all your social sites like your Facebook page, twitter
    feed, or linkedin profile?

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