Creating One’s Own Reality

‘Jesus! You've started to believe the things they say of you.
You really do believe this talk of God is true.’ Judas, from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

Julian Assange is arguably a game-changer.  He may quite possibly go down in history as the first master of cyber-warfare.  Or he might disappear from public view as soon as the last underwhelming message in his stash of intercepts has been leaked.  I am no psychologist, but I don’t think it requires nuanced psychology to identify his personality type as dysfunctional.  Here is a man who began with the belief that his life is dedicated to a quasi-messianic mission, and with the conviction that he would be persecuted for his devotion to that mission – his destiny.  He then – quite possibly cynically – began to assemble the tools with which he would pursue that mission and fulfil his destiny.  According to TIME magazine, at the age of 16 Assange began hacking computers, reportedly assuming the name Mendax — from the Latin splendide mendax, or "nobly untruthful."  So this is hardly an unexpected role for him; he can’t realistically argue that circumstances beyond his control led him to take up this cause.

Two evil pairings already quite familiar to us are (1) genius and mental illness, and (2) narcissism and notoriety.  History is full of remarkable, memorable, sometimes loathsome personalities that correspond with one or both of these matched pairs.  Beethoven, Napoleon, Van Gogh, Hitler, Stalin … the list is as long as humans have populated this planet.  By comparison, the list of sadly self-deluded but thankfully harmless persons is even longer by many orders of magnitude.  Any major city is filled with pitiable, often homeless persons who are lost in the dynamic of tragic personality disorders.  Likewise, there are sad combinations of the two, such as the great Serbian-American inventor Nicola Tesla, who ended his days wandering the streets of New York City.  Finally, twentieth-century America – especially Hollywood – seems to have created yet another category: The Celebrity.  These are persons who are famous for being famous.  Talent – at least in some cases – is optional.

But occasionally there are genuine exceptions – true prophets and seers – people gifted with overwhelming intellectual faculties who, usually in retrospect, are deemed ahead of their time.  In such cases, the appearance of eccentricity is deceiving; and it is the contemporaries of such individuals who fail to comprehend the leap forward that such genius embodies – the advances that such persons usher in.  Here I would readily identify Leonardo, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Freud.  To broaden the scope just slightly I might also include Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, Karl Marx (grudgingly) and – closer to our times – Picasso and Stravinsky.  These are all intellectuals who fundamentally changed history by changing our understanding of who we are and the world around us.  To take just one example, Einstein taught us that time is elastic and relative to the position and perspective of the observer.  Time should be viewed as little more than a feature such as perspective on an artist’s canvass.  This shattered everything that was previously understood about the universe and, accordingly, our place in it.

I offer these admittedly random and cliché thoughts specifically to bring perspective to the Julian Assange phenomenon – if that’s what he is.  Here is a figure who seems to be making a name for himself by sifting systematically through electronically stored property – including garbage – that belongs (please note) to others, collecting it, and then releasing it to the public to maximum effect – that effect being, apparently, self-aggrandisement.  Some of this information was simply given to him by disgruntled employees of various organisations such as the American armed forces.  For years, spam ‘worms’ have been performing the same hacking function automatically but – herein lies the difference – without pursuing a specific goal or implementing a premeditated plan. 

To give Mr. Assange his due, the results have been remarkably successful.  There is now ‘buzz’ about his suitability as TIME magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ and even for a Nobel Prize.  He seems to have positioned himself as the Robin Hood of the Internet Age.  The American filmmaker Mike Moore – a kindred spirit, even if a less suave, more proletarian iteration – has offered to pay a portion of Mr. Assange’s bail so as to facilitate the latter’s release pending appeal of his arrest in London. 

Indeed, this appears to be the first time that information has been used as the means of engaging in asymmetrical warfare.  The release of information, like an army blanketing an enemy’s territory with ammunition, is itself the means of warfare.  Until now, information – obtained usually via espionage – was a means toward facilitating traditional parameters of warfare.  This is quite novel.

But the questions of ‘Why?’ and ‘To what end?’ remain unanswered – or rather, unconvincingly answered, besides the obvious burnishing of Mr. Assange’s dashing, anti-authoritarian image.  Unlike Marx or even Hitler, Mr. Assange has failed to articulate a convincing polemic.  And with a handful of noteworthy exceptions, the content of the leaked State Department cables are remarkably unenlightening.  Diplomats attend diplomatic events – briefings, press conferences, soirées, and summits – and send their impressions and analysis back to HQ.  Sometimes their messages are conveyed in language that is, well, undiplomatic.  Angela Merkel seems, at times, ‘risk averse and rarely creative’ whilst French President Sarkozy is ‘an emperor with no clothes’ and Russia’s Putin and Medvedev are assigned the respective roles of Batman and Robin.  This is news?  It’s more like the uninspired graffiti of bored diplomats.

A ‘happy ending’ for all parties concerned cannot be ruled out.  Mr. Assange may escape a long prison sentence – but not prison altogether, if you please, because that would seriously diminish his dissident credentials.  The US Government – and possibly other institutions – might internalise a long-overdue and much-needed lesson in the necessity of upgrading IT security systems to catch up with the twenty-first century.  And the public can gawk and snicker at this tawdry little drama.  Enjoy the show. 

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