Understanding Conspiracy: The Political Philosophy of Julian Assange

One of the core goals of Assange's project is to dismantle what he calls conspiracies, but he doesn't mean 'conspiracy' in the usual sense of people sitting around in a room plotting some crime or deception.
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There has been plenty of venom spewed about the recently arrested Julian Assange, ranging from calls for his assassination to claims that he is an anarchist and even (according to Newt Gingrich) that he runs a terrorist organization. On the other side there have been those who view him positively as a prophet of the "information wants to be free" hacker ethic. I used to agree with the latter group, but I now understand that this is a gross oversimplification of his views.

I've been reading some of Assange's more philosophical writings, ranging from blog posts to position papers. While this work is scattered and at times technical (and certainly enthymematic) I think I have the gist of his position. My goal in this note is to explain his philosophical position as best as I can. Since my goal is pedagogical, I won't weigh in pro or con, but I will conclude with some questions for further discussion.

To keep things as tight as possible, I've organized my summary of his position into three parts. First, I'll look at his view of what conspiracies are and how they are formed. Second, I'll examine his views about why conspiracies are necessarily harmful. Third, I'll turn to his reason for thinking that leaks are optimal weapons for the dismantling of conspiracies.

What are Conspiracies?

One of the core goals of Assange's project is to dismantle what he calls "conspiracies." I use scare quotes here because he doesn't mean 'conspiracy' in the usual sense of people sitting around in a room plotting some crime or deception. As I understand Assange's view it is entirely possible that there could be a conspiracy in which no person in the conspiracy was aware that they were part of the conspiracy. How is this possible?

I'll get into details in a bit, but first I think the basic idea of a conspiracy with unwitting agents can be illustrated in a simple way. Suppose that you have some information that is valuable -- say some inside information about the financial state of a corporation. If you immediately make that information public without acting on it, it is worth nothing to you. On the other hand, if you keep it to yourself you may not fully profit from the information. Ideally, you would like to seek out someone that you could trade the information with, and who you could be sure would keep the information close so that it remained valuable. Let's say that I have similar information and that we trade it. You may trade with other friends and I may do likewise. In each case we have simply traded information for our own benefit, but we have also built a little network of information traders who, hopefully, are keeping the information relatively close and are giving us something equally valuable in kind. We may not know the scope of the network and we may not even realize we are part of a network, but we are, and this network constitutes a conspiracy as Assange understands it. No one sat down and agreed to form a network of inside information traders -- the network has simply naturally emerged from our local individual bargains. We can say that the network is an emergent property of these bargains.

Emergent conspiracies like this needn't be restricted to the business world. Suppose that I am a reporter. I would like to have some hot news to report. You agree to give me the inside information, but you do so with the understanding that you and your network friends will act on your information before you give it to me and it becomes worthless when published. I get my scoop, and you get to control the conditions under which the information is made public. I, as reporter, am now unknowingly part of the conspiracy. I am participating in the conspiracy by respecting the secrets that the network wishes to keep, and releasing the secrets (and sometimes misinformation) only when it is in the interest of the network to do so. I have become a part of the network, and hence part of the conspiracy.

The network need not start out as a conspiracy. Suppose we have an organization (say the US State Department) and some of our communications lead to embarrassment or political blowback. Naturally, we want to avoid such unpleasantries, so we begin to communicate in secret. Assange puts the point this way:

Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial. ["Conspiracy as Governance," Dec. 3, 2006, p. 3 - available here]

We can illustrate with a recent example. Suppose that the leader of an Arab country wants the United States to take strong action against Iran. If the Arab leader's people knew he took such a position there would be strong political blowback and resistance (and possible political risk for him), hence he conducts his discussions with the United States in secret. He has become part of a conspiracy.

These three illustrations all show the central feature of what Assange takes to be a conspiracy -- secrecy and exchange of information within a closed network. In the next section I will address why Assange thinks these closed networks are problematic, but for now it is important to stress that this is conspiracy in the sense of the original etymology of 'conspire' -- as in "breathe with" or "breathe together". The individuals are acting in concert, whether by plan or not, and the secrecy ensures that the benefits of the network accrue to those inside the network and not outside it.

Assange's view seems to borrow from recent work on network theory, emergent systems, and work on self-synchronizing systems. Let's start with network theory, and Assange's own illustration of the way a network functions.

We will use connected graphs as a way to apply our spatial reasoning abilities to political relationships. First take some nails ("conspirators") and hammer them into a board at random. Then take twine ("communication") and loop it from nail to nail without breaking. Call the twine connecting two nails a link. Unbroken twine means it is possible to travel from any nail to any other nail via twine and intermediary nails...Information flows from conspirator to conspirator. Not every conspirator trusts or knows every other conspirator even though all are connected. Some are on the fringe of the conspiracy, others are central and communicate with many conspirators and others still may know only two conspirators but be a bridge between important sections or groupings of the conspiracy... [Conspiracy as Governance, p. 2]

Conspirators are often discerning, for some trust and depend each other, while others say little. Important information flows frequently through some links, trivial information through others. So we expand our simple connected graph model to include not only links, but their "importance."

Return to our board-and-nails analogy. Imagine a thick heavy cord between some nails and fine light thread between others. Call the importance, thickness or heaviness of a link its weight. Between conspirators that never communicate the weight is zero. The "importance" of communication passing through a link is difficult to evaluate apriori, since its true value depends on the outcome of the conspiracy. We simply say that the "importance" of communication contributes to the weight of a link in the most obvious way; the weight of a link is proportional to the amount of important communication flowing across it. Questions about conspiracies in general won't require us to know the weight of any link, since that changes from conspiracy to conspiracy. ["Conspiracy as Governance," p. 3]

What Assange is describing here is what network theorists might call a "scale free network". It is not a network with evenly distributed links, but it is designed somewhat like an airline flight route map, with a handful of heavily connected hubs (not one, but several). Such networks are highly resilient (the internet is also such a network, as is the human brain) because you cannot destroy the network by randomly destroying nodes; you would have to carefully target the hubs (more on shutting down the network in a bit).

One point that Assange does not speak about directly is the way that members of the network -- especially the ones with heavily weighted connections will enjoy intensive information flow between each other. For example, two "conspirators" who routinely exchange much information with each other will not merely exchange information but may well develop tight social relationships as a result. So, for example, military contractors and congressmen don't merely exchange information but they also socialize together -- be it at expensive Washington restaurants or duck hunting in South Dakota. This suggests the possibility of attitudinal entrainment.

Entrainment is a term in psychology that refers to the way in which human agents sync up with each other. They might sync up in the way they speak or how they use terms, or for that matter they may sync up in their political attitudes. The point seems obvious enough; people who spend time together start to think in similar ways. What is interesting in this instance is that the closed network becomes a system in which as attitudes propagate and normalize within the network, network members come to have shared values. In an existing network, sharing the requisite values may be a prerequisite for entering the network. Because the network is closed the shared attitudes in the network need not and probably will not be in tune with those outside the network.

The other thing to understand about conspiracies like this is that the sum is greater than the parts. Because the network is complex and interconnected Assange thinks of it as an information processing system in its own right:

Conspiracies are cognitive devices. They are able to outthink the same group of individuals acting alone Conspiracies take information about the world in which they operate (the conspiratorial environment), pass through the conspirators and then act on the result. We can see conspiracies as a type of device that has inputs (information about the environment), a computational network (the conspirators and their links to each other) and outputs (actions intending to change or maintain the environment). ["Conspiracy as Govenance", p. 3]

Is this bad?

Why conspiracies are necessarily harmful

What's wrong with conspiracies? In a certain sense closed networks are ubiquitous. Problems arise when they become extremely powerful, because whatever the intentions of the individuals within the network, the network itself is optimized for its own success, and not for the benefit of those outside of the network. Again, this is not by design, it is just an emergent property of such systems that they function in this way. The military/industrial/congressional complex is of this form. People that do not act to benefit their neighbor nodes in the network will eventually be expunged from the system because their neighbor nodes will minimize contact. Those acting in concert with their neighbor node/conspirators will form stronger ties and will benefit from the information and financial goods that participation in the network delivers. This is true even at the edges of the network. Reporters that violate the trust of their neighbor nodes in the network will be cut off from the network -- they will no longer get their hot scoops.

All of this sounds good if you are in the network. Obviously if you are not in the network you are not benefiting. Conspirators in the network may think they are working for the benefit of others (the individuals in the military/industrial/congressional complex may well think they are acting for the benefit of the American people, but this only so much self-deception); they are actually acting for the network.

Even if you are a member of the network it is not clear that you ultimately benefit except in the obvious ways that one has power and wealth -- the cost of this Faustian bargain is that one must surrender one's creativity. Assange also talk about such networks/conspiracies acting against "people's will to truth, love and self-realization", and here I can only speculate that he means members of the conspiracy are not acting for love of other individuals or for finding truth outside of the network but rather are acting for the survival of the conspiracy/network. If your actions do not ensure the health of the network the network will expunge you.

How do we dismantle conspiracies?

Earlier I mentioned the etymology of 'conspire'. It's also interesting to reflect on the etymology of 'anarchy' because it means "without leader." The reason that is interesting is that traditional anarchists are interested in targeting leaders or heads, just as the United States government seems obsessed with targeting heads of terrorist networks and indeed Assange himself as the head of the Wikileaks network. But the genius insight of Assange here is his observation that these conspiracies don't have heads. It is pointless to try and target a single leader, or even a handful of leaders. The conspiracy is a scale free network; it is too hard to take down.

Let's go back to Assange's illustration of the nails connected by the twine. Imagine that this board had 100 nails all connected by a single length of twine wrapped around the nails. How many nails would you have to pull out before the network of twine fell apart? 10? 20? 50? Assange thinks that this is not the way to target the network; Rather what we want to do is to intercept and cut the information flow in the network so that the twine unravels of its own accord.

There are two ways in which this might play out. One possibility is that once the information flowing is leaked it is no longer closely held and is no longer valuable -- it is no longer a source of power for the network. The network no longer has an advantage. Now, the network may detect a leak, and will act to preserve its information. In this case the network undergoes a kind of fission. It severs the leaky link and in effect separates from the part of the network where the leak occurred.

How can we reduce the ability of a conspiracy to act?...We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating important communication between a few high weight links or many low weight links. ["State and Terrorist Conspiracies," Nov. 10, 2006, p. 4, available at iq.org/conspiracies.pdf]

Thus even if the network survives it may well be forced to split into parts. In this case the network becomes less powerful, even though it still exists and is still a conspiracy. It is simply a weaker conspiracy.

There is another advantage, however, in Assange's view. Leaks place a cognitive tax on the network. If the conspirators cannot trust each other with their information they are less likely to exchange it -- there is an added cognitive expense to the information processing that the network undertakes. This is how Assange puts the point:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive "secrecy tax") and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.

Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.
(The Nonlinear Effects of Leaks on Unjust Systems of Governance." Dec. 21, 2006 blog post available at "http://web.archive.org/web/20071020051936/http://iq.org/#Thenonlineareffectsofleaksonunjustsystemsofgovernance)

In other words, leaks make it harder for the conspiracy to conduct its business and that is all to the good.

As I said earlier, my goal is primarily so I am merely describing his views without much editorializing. There are some interesting questions that are raised, however, and I close with those.

1) Is it necessarily the case that the conspiracy can't act to the benefit of others? Arab leaders are conspiring with the United States to defeat Iran's nuclear program, but isn't this a good thing? Alternatively, it might be observed that rogue states like Iran are often the product of a population's push back against some puppet that was part of a US involving conspiracy (e.g. the Shah of Iran). Perhaps conspiracies end up creating the very rogue states they refer to justify their existence?

2) The conspiracy relies on lots of innocent people to do its business (Iraqi civilian informants, for example). Leaking network secrets may put these people at risk. What safeguards should an operation like Wikileaks have to protect such people? Alternatively, could you argue that if there was no conspiracy such people would not be put at risk in the first place? Is it credible to think that in the long run breaking apart conspiracies protects innocent people from being caught up in dangerous spy games?

3) While acting against the conspiracy might place a cognitive tax on it, does it not also make the network stronger in the end? That is, won't the conspiracy become more secretive and more draconian in its actions?

4) To what extent is Wikileaks itself a conspiracy? To this end, are there good conspiracies and bad conspiracies? Should we distinguish between conspiracies of the powerful and conspiracies of those who seek to level the playing field? At what point would a network like Wikileaks become too powerful?

5) Assange is now in jail, but does it really matter? If Wikileaks is itself a kind of conspiracy then only one nail has been pulled from the board. Will the network unravel? Will it undergo fission resulting in the proliferation of many LittleWikileaks? Or will it lead to copycats and possibly the emergence of Leaker culture? If the latter, then what consequences will there be for traditional conspiracies of the powerful?

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