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December 1, 2013

Peter Ludlow on Systemic Evil, Whistleblowers, and hacktivism-- Intvw Transcript

By Rob Kall

Peter Ludlow writes frequently on digital culture, hacktivism, and the surveillance state. I got in touch with Peter because he did an oped for the New York Times titled, "The Banality of Systemic Evil" which is mostly about whistleblowers and their response to, well we'll talk about it...

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From http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Metal_whistle.jpg: Metal whistle


Our interview broadcast on September 25, 2013

Click here to listen to the audio podcast.

R.K.: And welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM out of Washington Township, NJ reaching Metro Philly and South Jersey.  My guest tonight is Peter Ludlow.  Peter is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University and he writes frequently on digital culture, hacktivism, and the surveillance state.  I got in touch with Peter because he did an oped for the New York Times titled, "The Banality of Systemic Evil" which is mostly about whistleblowers and their response to, well we'll talk about it.  Welcome to the show, Peter.  

P.L.: Hey, thanks a lot.

R.K.: I really liked your article, very smart and thoughtful and it inspired me to give you a call.  So, the title of the article, "The Banality of Systemic Evil" is a play on the writings of Hannah Arendt.  Can you talk about a little bit about that first?  The banality of evil and then we'll get in to systemic evil?

P.L.: Sure, I keep seeing the movie lately, there is a movie about this which is I think still in theaters and it's about when Hannah Arendt is given the assignment of covering Eichmann's trial and she writes an essay called "Eichmann in Jerusalem" and the thing that she marvels at in this trial is how in some sense Eichmann didn't appear to be a monster but seemed like an ordinary sort of bureaucrat who is wrapped up in carrying out his responsibilities.  She was struck by what she called the banality of evil.  Evil people are not like the monsters that you see on TV shows but rather they're these people that sort of work within a system and they go by the etiquette and rules of the system but in doing so they can bring about unspeakable evil.

R.K.: What was the movie that you refer to?

P.L.: Now I'm blocking on the exact title but it might be something as simple as Hannah Arendt.  

R.K.: Well that's something we can -

P.L.: I think it's got -

R.K.: we can dig up later -

P.L.: sure, yeah

R.K.: - on the podcast page.  So let's talk about systemic evil then.

P.L.: One of the things that was really inspirational to this was a book called Moral Mazes and it came to my attention because Aaron Swartz had written about it, Aaron Swartz was the kid who was prosecuted for, what the prosecutor claims was illegally downloading  scientific journal articles and he had this notion that these sort of things should not behind a firewall, that that sort of knowledge should be available to everybody.  

Anyway, as sort of a motivation for this, or one of the books that really inspired him was this book called Moral Mazes and it's this amazing book by a sociologist who somehow got permission to just sit in on in five different corporations and just see how the bureaucracy in those corporations worked and he wrote about how it was a kind of internal logic to these corporations and rules that you're supposed to follow.  

For example: never dispute your boss.  If there's a problem, don't tell your boss.  You don't want, you don't want to blow the whistle, don't jump over your boss' head, etc,

and Aaron Swartz said at one point, this is a great book because it shows us how such ordinarily, what you would consider good people end up doing so much evil, and it's just because we get locked in to these systems and organizations that are on this course doing harm and we're just in there keeping the gears oiled and so forth, and what we need to do is say wait, where is this machine going?  

We have to step outside of that and blow the whistle or try and stop the machine from going where it's going.  

R.K.: Blowing the whistle.  That's something I write a lot about and publish about and interview people about a lot.  And we'll get there.  But I want to talk about evil first.  Now you're a guy who writes about language and derivations of words and the ontology of words.  Talk about evil.

P.L.: About evil.  Sure.  I think we have this notion of evil and the one that we usually employ involves some sort of really sinister bad guy.  Someone who is like, looks shifty, someone who might be a bad guy in a movie or something like that, but a lot of times the responsibility for evil is completely defused and a lot of times it's like an organization itself that can be evil so, now I'm just using evil to explain that so, but in doing this I am trying to point out that our understanding and definition of evil is too narrow because we focus on, we want to focus on individuals and we should really be focusing on institutions because institutions can do far more harm than an individual can.

R.K.: Well let's go back though still.  What is evil?  Whether it's an individual or and institution.  What is evil?

P.L.: Well I think the simplest way to define it would be that it is doing harm to other people, that it is hurting them in either kind of a physical way or it might be to harm them in a sense of undermining their human dignity, so if you just go from those two premises, don't physically harm someone or don't undermine their dignity, then you see well it would be wrong for example to torture someone for example or to drone people indiscriminately or maybe to just drone them at all.  

And if concerned about human dignity then you have to say well, look, obviously slavery is wrong but what about other things?  What about the dignity of somebody that is working in a fast food restaurant today for example?  And I think those two core things, you know evil is really best defined in terms of other people and what happens to other people and are they being harmed and are they being treated with dignity.  

R.K.: Interesting.  A couple of weeks ago I had as a guest Robert Fuller who has written a couple of books about dignity and dignitarianism and the idea of getting rid of hierarchy.  

P.L.: Right.

R.K. : You know I call my show the Bottom Up Radio Show because I believe we are transitioning from a Top-Down culture to a more Bottom-Up culture which is a move away from hierarchy.  

P.L.: Yeah, well I hope that's true, it's not easily done and there are a lot of institutions that would not like to see that transition take place but it would be nice if it could happen. 

R.K.: My theory is that it's underway and that internet has literally changed the way millennial's brains work.  They see things differently, they interact differently, they cooperate differently.  Although it's very much something that's built in to our genes.  I've recently interviewed a couple of primatologists and from what they tell me it's not only in primate genes, it goes back to mammals, the whole idea of cooperation and helping each other.  

P.L.: That's right.  Well we've learned an awful lot about cooperation, even in game theory, which is a way of mathematically modeling decisions and human behavior for example, we've learned that cooperation is, at it were, a winning game strategy and so there's a kind of way of mathematically modeling evolutionary dynamics so that it looks like cooperation is the most effective strategy.  

I think perhaps in the long run cooperative systems that are non-hierarchical may win out  but  the question is how long is the long run and how far off is that?  

R.K.: Yeah that's a big question because the other side of this Bottom Up revolution that is the Top Down powers have consolidated, they're stronger than ever before.  You know we've got fourteen hundred billionaires in the world -  

P.L.:  Yes, I mean people are alert to that and you  made a really good point about the internet and it sort of opening people's minds to this thing.  The internet is a tricky thing because it's a tool that allows us to collaborate with other people as equals  but it is also a very powerful surveillance tool and it can be used to impose order in a Top Down manner and so the issue right now is that the internet is kind of a battle ground.  

It's a battle ground between individuals that are looking for cooperative behavior in working together in an open manner, and individuals who are somewhat vested in maintaining a Top Down power structure.  It's a problem because the people with the power, in effect, to some extent control the levers of the internet.  That is, the NSA seems to be able to suck down everything that's on the internet at the moment and so that is  tricky.  It's a double edged sword with the internet at this point.

R.K.: Now you just said that the internet can be used to impose order in a Top-Down manner.  Can you get in to that a little bit more?

P.L.: Well I think as a surveillance tool that's one of the key ways it can operate.  So if the government is in a position, thanks to the internet where it's in, basically intercept and eavesdrop on all of our communications if it wants to, that puts us in a precarious position but it's worse than that.  After the sort of NSA leak came out from Snowden everyone was saying things like, oh that's just meta data we're talking about.  But of course, meta data is the most dangerous thing of all to give up as it were because - 

R.K.: Why is that?  Why is meta data the most dangerous thing to give up?

P.L.: Because what it does is show who your contacts are and it shows your network of connections so what it does, it allows the state to know who the central communications nodes are in any sort of protest group so for example, let's just speak hypothetically here, suppose you had a protest group or a bunch of protest groups that were concerned about fracking.  

The meta data would immediately tell you who is connected with those groups and it would be able to tell you who the central nodes of communications are.  It would make it easier to decapitate or neutralize the central nodes of the network so think of it in terms of like air traffic control, I mean we know how there are many, many airports in the country but there is just a hand-full of hubs right?  And if you could identify the hubs and neutralize them, then basically you would bring air transportation to a halt.  And - 

R.K.: It seems to me that what you're saying, it's got me thinking - 

P.L.: Yeah.

R.K.: I'm involved in some activism and there are certain people who are more active, who are more leaders - 

P.L.: Yeah

R.K.: And it would seem to me, I hadn't really thought about it but what you're saying is this meta data makes it real easy to identify the people who are sending out the emails, who are interacting with everybody and it would be so easy and maybe not even illegal for different agencies to just screw up the email so their stuff doesn't get out or they don't get stuff.  I mean -

P.L.: Oh I see

R.K.: The vulnerability is not just in identifying the person and taking them out, literally just disrupting communications, which is the first step in a war, usually. 

P.L.: I think, hypothetically that's possible, I mean I don't know of cases where this has been done but -

R.K.: It's a good FOIA question.

P.L.: Yes, *chuckles*, it is.  If you have a critical node, do people try and cut off lines of communication to that node?  Well I'm not aware of it but you're absolutely right, it would be an effective strategy.  It would be interesting to know if that's been tried.  

R.K.: I want to get back, you said that the internet can be used to impose order in a Top Down manner as a surveillance tool.  What do you mean, impose order?  

P.L.: Well in terms of imposing order the key thing is getting the intelligence off of individuals and that tells you a lot about what people are up to and that tells you who you can or perhaps who you should crackdown on, and I think that just knowing, just having the meta data can help with that, too.  

So once you identify individuals that are communicating in this way you can neutralize those people, however that basically eliminates your opposition and allows you to move forward with your plans.  I think fracking is a great example of this where they targeted groups that were opposed to fracking and then they identify the individuals in those groups, classify them in terms of certain of personality types then figure out who could simply be bought off, who could be persuaded to join some sort of  oecumenical committee or whatever to investigate this further, hence neutralizing them.  

Who has to be neutralized through legal means by ginning up something about how they're a law breaker or something like that and so the way you impose order involves first of all getting information, identifying the structure of your opposition organizations and then neutralizing, taking that information and using that to neutralize the opposition organizations.  I mean, this is not fantasy, we've been getting information through a number of hacks, in which a number of private intelligence corporations like H. B. Garry and Stratfor have actually used military psyops strategies specifically targeting groups like Chamber Watch for example, and Chamber Watch is organization that monitors the Chamber of Commerce and they use just basic straightforward psychological operations, military strategies against these protest organizations.  

That's how you impose order given the information you collect.

R.K.: Wow.  So in a sense a lot of the order that you're talking about is disrupting emerging threats and controlling is to maintain the existing system, or order.

P.L.: Yeah, that's right.  This is not a fascist country where you go around and the military goes and shuts you down in a kind of ham-fisted way, what you do is find clever ways to undermine or neutralize the opposition organizations.  You do a lot of work a public relations firm might do, but always the idea is you impose order by finding ways to dissolve or neutralize your opposition.

R.K.: And that is taking on a whole new meaning.  I've thought a couple of times of Don Siegelman, Don Siegelman was a governor of Alabama, he was running for the election and now he's in a federal prison because of some trumped up charges that were created.  He's a screaming example of how the system can be abused but I imagine that there are thousands of ways that the information can be taken and used to intimidate or disrupt or to, in so many ways, to change the balance. 

P.L.: Yes I think that's right.  I mean there's a reason that since the 1970's protest groups have not been able to successfully organize and what they haven't realized is that there are people actively engaged in undermining them and it's not, there's nothing even secretive about this.  

Justice Potter, well the person who would become Justice Potter wrote or gave a speech to the Chamber of Commerce in the 1970's basically arguing that the Chamber of Commerce and the business community needs to start fighting back against various activist groups whether it be environmentalism or whatever the case might be and they needed to basically engage in public relations warfare and then a number of these public relations firms began hiring up people with military experience.  

One of the first ones was an organization called Pagan International which then later  evolved to Stratfor and they were from the very beginning importing strategies for what we would now call irregular warfare, which is using psychological operations to bend a target population to your will.  So if you just understand irregular warfare in this way, you don't really need to neutralize your enemy with kinetic means, meaning bullets, if you can do it by using psychological operations to undermine your opposition and bend the general population to your will.  

So what we're seeing is a kind of psychological warfare being conducted against the American people frankly, by the business community, often with the help of our own government, and they're working to impose a false reality on us.  To hide certain truths from us and to present other "truths" to us.  

Organizations that speak out and resist the dominant narrative are going to be targets of these private intelligence firms and some cases the government and they are going to be undermined and the government has been very very successful and the private intel companies have been very very successful in undermining protest groups to this point.

R.K.: Now you've mentioned Stratfor a couple times now.  Now recently there was a whistleblower or somebody who did a data-dump about Stratfor.  I can't think of his name off the top of my head.

P.L.: The person who did the hack was a kid named Jeremy Hammond. 

R.K.: That's it! 

P.L.: Who is a Chicago area activist and then there's another figure involved in this which is a journalist named Barret Brown and after Hammond posted the link, or he downloaded the material and put it up on Paste-in which means he posted it online and this was announced in some of the anonymous chat channels and then Barret Brown had a journalistic project in which he was crowd-sourcing the analysis of these data dumps from private intelligence companies and so he copied a link to that data dump in to the chat room for his editorial board and for that he is currently looking at a possible 105 years in prison.  He's in federal custody in Texas right now.  

R.K.: Yes, we just published an article about that recently in OpEd news.  

P.L.: Oh wonderful.

R.K.: So, talk a little bit about Stratfor.  You've used them as an example of irregular warfare on the American People.  Can you give me a little background on Stratfor -

P.L.:  Sure 

R.K.: Maybe there's another company that does that too?

P.L.: Yeah, well one of the first ones that people got in to was a company called H. B. Garry and they were hacked by Anonymous, I guess it's a couple years ago now and in that hack people found all kinds of information about plans to undermine the Chamber of Commerce, plans to undermine the credibility of Glen Greenwald, and they were very specific.  

Things like, send Greenwald a fake document and when he publishes it then come out and say "oh it's a fake" and things like that.  And then the list goes on.  And when that hack came out that's when Barrett Brown's project which was called "Project PM" got in to gear and they started analyzing all the stuff that was in that hack.  Then some months later, around six months later I suppose there was a hack of Stratfor which was a huge data dump.  There was something like five million emails in that data dump and it was just mind blowing.  

Let me just give you one simple example the crystallizes the whole thing.  So in there Coca Cola approaches Stratfor and says "we're really concerned about PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.  What do you have on PETA?"  and then one of the people at Statfor says the FBI has a classified file on PETA, I'll see if I can get that.  Now, let's think about everything that's wrong with that.  First of all, why is Coca Cola concerned about PETA, second why are they going to Stratfor about that, third why does the FBI have a classified file on PETA and fourth, why does the guy in Stratfor know they have a classified file on PETA and fifth why does the guy think he can get it from the FBI?  So it's almost like the FBI is working as a private dick for Stratfor?

R.K.: Yes, we know this, we know that the FBI and the CIA and all the government organizations are now outsourcing to private companies 40 -- 60% of the work that they're doing, at least.

P.L.: The number I've heard is 70%

R.K.: 70%?  Okay.

P.L.: If you've seen the book by Tim Sherrock Private Intelligence Business, the claim is that of every ten dollars that we spend on intelligence, seven of those dollars are going to private contractors.  Which is mind blowing! 

R.K.:And if you look at that it makes sense why they would know that the FBI has whatever, they have become the FBI in a sense.

P.L.: Well they think so.  You could read the emails from Stratfor which, the head of Stratfor is emailing the people in his company saying the CIA is, they know we're way ahead of them, we've shown them the way, they're trying to figure out how we do it, so they're basically bragging that at this point he's better and more powerful than the CIA.  

Now that's probably just bragging to your employees but I'm sure he actually believes it and it is a problem.  I mean, these private intel companies are actually, I mean first of all there's a revolving door between the private intel companies and our intelligence community so most of them are headed for, or have people high in the organizations who were in the FBI or working for Homeland Security or in the CIA or NSA or something like that.  And for the most part I believe they retain their security clearances.  

So you get this intelligence community that is completely unregulated.  There's no oversight.  I mean, at least with the NSA there's at least a facade of oversight, right?  You have the Congressional oversight, even if it's theater at least you have that, but when you get in to an organization like Booz-Allen or an organization like Stratfor, where is the oversight coming from?  The answer is there is none whatsoever. 

R.K.: No oversight at all.  That is terrifying.  So really, to come back to the article that made me aware of you and your work, you've described whistleblowers, Chelsea Manning and Snowden and Thomas Drake and others who have basically seen an evil system as Hannah Arendt did and the book Moral Mazes is going to describe it and they've called it out and the system has hit them back.  

P.L.: Yes, that is what systems do, yes.  

R.K.: You know, I've done another series of interviews and articles about psychopaths and sociopaths, and I've been thinking about it lately having watched the final, next to last show of Breaking Bad and Walter White, psychopath monster, 

P.L.: Yeah

R.K.: and the guy who plays a cop who kills people -

P.L.: You mean Dexter?

R.K.: Dexter, yeah that one just ended.  So you've got some of the hottest T.V. Shows are about psychopaths yet it kind of blends with that banality of evil thing.  I've been trying to sort out why people would be so fascinated by Walter White and I think it's because he comes from such a normal background.  He's a father and a family man and a teacher, and the whole story is about his evolution to manifesting, because I don't think it's becoming, I think it's manifesting the monster within him. 

P.L.: Right.

R.K.: So I've been kind of obsessed almost with the problem we have with sociopaths and psychopaths and I've interviewed people like the guy who wrote the book on corporate psychopaths and someone who teaches therapists how to help victims of psychopaths and sociopaths and narcissists and they all kind of get lumped together, that group of people who are so selfish that they hurt others to take care of themselves.

P.L.: Right.

R.K.: Which kind of fits your definition of evil, I'm kind of throwing that together, so have you thought about that group of people and where they fit in to this picture?

P.L.: Yes I think that to some extent these institutions often need these psychopaths as it were and they tend to be promoted very rapidly in an organization.  They are self-interested but if you read Moral Mazes it's very clear that your self interest means that you do what your boss says, right?  That's how you get promoted through the organization and then you stomp on everyone beneath you!

So you think of a psychopath as being someone who is just a bull in a china shop just wrecking everything, but in point of fact they are very strategic and as they're concerned about their interest they're very very good at maintaining the well-being of the organization, right?  Because that's how they get promoted within the organization.  So what happens is that the people who percolate up in to leadership of an organization tend to be psychopaths, but in doing so they become psychopaths for the organization as well.  

That is they are capable of walling off, or compartmentalizing the evil -- not just what they do in their ordinary lives but they can compartmentalize the evil they do as an organization and I think that's the kind of key thing there.  It's not just in their personal life that they can compartmentalize it, but they can compartmentalize it systemically.

R.K.: So, in other words, these systems, these organizations, be they corporations or agencies, they create or they flush out psychopaths and psychopathic behavior.  Is that what you're saying?

P.L.: Well, to me, flush out means getting rid of and so what they do is they flush out -

R.K.:No when I think flush out I mean get it out and make it visible.  They -

P.L.: Oh right!

R.K.: - exposed it, they get it to manifest more openly and brazenly.  So yeah okay, I won't use flush out.

P.L.: Yeah, I mean it is, let me use a word like filter, because what they do is, they filter out the people of conscience because people of conscience are not that useful to an organization, right?  And the people that are capable of compartmentalizing things and being able to not listen to their conscience, those are the ones that sort of keep percolating up the chain of command within an organization.

R.K.: And what I've been trying to struggle with is we know that there are millions of psychopaths in America.  Eight million sociopaths, you put together the psychopaths and sociopaths and narcissists, you've got three or four or five percent of the population and it's next to nothing what we know about them except that nothing works to heal them or can cure them and that we're doing almost nothing to deal with them.  It seems like, it's almost like it's getting worse and worse, we're protecting them and there's a new Monsanto Protection Act coming out -

P.L.: Yes.

R.K.: - Laws protecting companies that do bad -

P.L.: Sure.  Right.  We're not doing anything to solve the problem, we're promoting those people and making them our bosses is what we're doing and you're absolutely right.  We're in a period, I don't think anyone who is honest can dispute that what we're witnessing is a period of regulatory capture by which I mean the government of the United States has in effect been bought by corporations and so rather than having people be elected by concerned citizens, it's now basically that the strings of government are being pulled by people with money which typically are these psychopaths that you're talking about,  and the strings are being pulled not to help the American people but they're being pulled to help the corporations that they happen to be a part of, and they're concerned about their own interests and the interests of their organization.

R.K.: Frightening.  We're promoting psychopaths.  So in your article you talk about the millennials.  Let's talk about something hopeful here.  It seems like there's something hopeful happening with the millenials.

P.L.: I think that's right, yeah.  I call them Generation W because it was a generation of people who came of age in, well I guess during George W Bush's presidency but also in the age of Wiki-leaks and the age of whistleblowers and I think that there is a real kind of millennial shift here because sometimes it takes a real traumatic event to get a generational rift.  

I think we've in effect had a real traumatic rift with the prosecution of the Bush wars, 9/11, the huge hit that the economy took, just as a lot of people, a lot of these people were coming out on the job market and I know a number of people who lost their jobs during that big crash that happened at the end of Bush's second term and they ended up drifting in to the Occupy Movements, and started becoming politically active.  

So I think there really is a generational rift.  It's not just the young people versus the old people, there is a new way of thinking about these things.  

R.K.: A new way of thinking about these things, talk more about that.

P.L.: I think the new way of thinking, I mean we're all starting to understand how organizations work a bit better and it's becoming more and more obvious that institutions that we're supposed to trust are not trustworthy, and it's very difficult to have any trust in the United States government at this point because I mean, lies just keep coming and furthermore it's very clear that it's not working on behalf of the American people, it's just working for corporations.  

People are coming to understand that and as a consequence they are starting to think about how to respond to this.  There's an understanding that if you have an organization that has gone off the rails like this, and is violating the United States Constitution by spying on it's own citizens then the appropriate thing to do is not close ranks, but the appropriate thing to do is blow the whistle as loud as you can.  That is the moral thing to do and I think it's very apparent to this generation that this was exactly the right thing to do.

R.K.: And thank goodness we have some very brave, very courageous whistleblowers who are putting their lives on the line.  You talk about heroes really, and all these soldiers going over to fight these wars that are corporate inspired and they're nothing compared to the whistleblower heroes as far as I'm concerned.  

P.L.:  Well, you know I -

R.K.: If a young person wants to be a hero I think what they do is get a job somewhere and find out what's going on and then tell the truth to the world.  

P.L.: I get uncomfortable comparing heroism and I don't even like talking about heroes.  I mean, I hear what you're saying, to me when Snowden leaked that information, everyone wants to know, is he a hero? Is he not a hero?  I don't know if he's a hero because I don't know anything about his life and all I know is that was a heroic act, right?  And in a certain sense it shouldn't have even been heroic because it was simply him doing his duty, and so I say  let's not worry about who is a hero, let's worry about what our, each of us, what our individual responsibility is. 

R.K.: But wait, I'd really like, first of all, -

P.L.: Yeah

R.K.: - one, I'm real interested in who is a hero and I've done a lot of work on trying to get my head around Joseph Campbell's idea of the Hero's Journey and the hero archetype and I've had -

P.L.: Ah-ha

R.K.: conversations with smart people about it so I'm not willing to just say I'm not interested in what's a hero, I've really thought a lot about it, 

P.L.: okay

R.K.: and at national meetings but what you said was really important because what is the act of a hero?  Now to me, the big thing with a hero is that it always is an ordinary person faced with a situation where they have to make a choice.  That's the core of the evolution of a hero.  Some people, most people ignore that opportunity and they reject the call to be a hero.  A very few take the call and accept it, very often after rejecting it a couple of times or many times and they cross a threshold and it changes their lives forever.  That's what a hero is.  But it's the act, and that's what you're talking about 

P.L.: Right.

R.K.: There are acts that are involved that are courageous and brave and that is the core, essential step that separates everybody else; the people who accept the system from the heroes.

P.L.:  I don't have a problem with heroes, per se, I'm just saying that as far as Snowden is concerned, I'm more interested in whether he did the right thing than, for me knowing whether or not he's an actual hero.  

Now what is a heroic act then?  I gather that's the next question.  And to me it's just an act that puts the interest of others ahead of your own interests so it was presumably in Snowden's interest to just shut up and continue being a good contract engineer but he didn't do that, so he put himself at risk and Chelsea Manning put herself at risk because she couldn't take the idea that she was participating in these  activities which were,  well, in many cases illegal and to me that's the common denominator in all of this,       that people are saying, look, my interests say I play by the rules, but I have to think about other people and I think I have to think about the good of them all. So soldiers do this, but also [inaudible 43:44] do this, to me that's kind of the key act.  

R.K.: So you've written about hacktivism.  

P.L.: Yes.

R.K.: Can you talk a bit about that?

P.L.: Well, hacktivism is in effect hacking for a political or social cause that is to say it's motivated by some sort of political concern.  By hacking, I take that very generally to mean re-purposing technology for purposes for which it was not originally intended.  So you take a piece of technology, a computer or whatever, you say I'm going to actually deploy this for some sort of political end. And I have been concerned with following some hacktivists in the last few years, what they've been up to and the kinds of trouble they get into.  

R.K.: Can you give a little background on that?  I know you mentioned Aaron Swartz, can you give a big picture about what's going on with hacktivism and how the-- hacktivism, to me seems to be a very Bottom Up activity.  Is it?

P.L.: For the most part, it is.  You get some nominal leaders but they're clustered, but for the most part it's just -, I think one way of thinking about it is that hacktivism is not really a doctrine, it's more of a tactic, and it's a tactic that could be deployed by, basically any sort of political agenda or social concern, and it does, for the most part, remain rather diffuse and a lot of it takes place underground or anonymously.

R.K.: Now there's always Cass Sunstein who wrote about the idea of disrupting protestors and what have you, by using sock puppets and fake personas online and what have you.  Is that a kind of hacktivism?

P.L.: No, that's not.  I mean, so let me give you a couple of examples.  One example would be a distributed denial of service attack where thousands of users would go to somebody's website and keep clicking on it over and over again which basically grinds that website to a halt.  

That's analogous to what would traditionally be called a sit-in.  Where you sit in front of a bank or something like that and make it difficult for people to get in and out.  Then there are others kinds of hacktivists actions that are more aggressive and which target an organization like H. B. Garry or Stratfor and unlock their secrets. So you mentioned sock puppets and one of the things that in fact they did come across in the H. B. Garry hack was that the U.S. Air Force had put out proposals for companies to create basically a sock puppet management system, meaning, what they wanted was a tool, what the U.S. Air Force wanted was a tool that would allow someone to control multiple individuals on social media sites.  

So for example you might have twenty, a hundred accounts, the idea would be that one individual could sit at a desk and flood a website or flood the New York Time comments under an article with separate accounts but they were all under the control of one individual.  

R.K.: So that sort of thing is a way for the state to make it appear that they have support when in fact they don't.  Is that hacktivism or is that just an internet strategy?

P.L.: That is a, I consider that to be a traditional military psyops strategy.  

R.K. Okay.

P.L.: It's like saying, if it goes back to Sun Tzu in The Art of War.  You make it look like you have more supporters and troops than you actually do, so I consider that just a traditional sort of military irregular warfare strategy and it's being done on the internet but it's just because the internet is the new battleground.

R.K.: So what are the different weapons in hacktivism?

P.L.: Well, one of them that I mentioned it the distributed denial of service attack where you get a number of people to descend on a site simultaneously. Another thing you can do, as I said before, is do a penetration of the system and one pivotal way is just to do what they call social engineering where you get someone, you cajole someone in to giving up a password; you do that then the game is over.  

There are other strategies, there's like guessing passwords and there are vulnerabilities that you can get into a system using computational tools.  But the other end of hacktivism is helping people to communicate with each other outside the purview of whoever is oppressing the. So one group did a lot of work with individuals in China for example, first of all because of the firewall for the internet in China and they wanted to help people get through that and to communicate through that and to receive information through the rest of the internet.  

They've also done things in support of the protestors in Tunisia during the initial Tunisian revolution in which they were helping people to carry on their communications without the government intercepting those communications so a lot of it is basically providing logistical assistance and so forth to keep the lines of communications open for individuals that are being stomped on by their government whether it's Tunisia or China or wherever the case might be.  

R.K.: So in a sense hacktivism involves providing activists with defenses against organizations like the NSA?

P.L.: Well the NSA or the Chinese government or the Tunisian government at the time.  Basically any sort of system of power.  See here's the thing, it doesn't, we focus on the United States or we talk about it because we're in the United States, that's the power center that is most salient to us, but you could be in Putin's Russia or you could be in China and you would face the same problems, and the issue here is why are all of these governments so afraid of hacktivists? And the answer to that is that hacktivists have the ability to expose the secrets of Empire and the secrets of power systems.  

And they have the ability to show us how, and this is something that Chris Hedges said, I love the way he put it, Hedges put it like, this is almost word for word what Hedges said that hacktivists have the ability to expose empire and show how rotten it is and what they're exposing is that it's completely rotten.  

They're showing us, what they're doing is like the Wizard of Oz where they're showing us behind the curtain and they're showing us what Oz is really like, only it's not like the loveable guy from the Wizard of Oz but the people behind the curtain are, let's face it, they're the sociopaths that you were talking about earlier.

R.K.: They're the sociopaths.  So, I'm curious, you are professor of philosophy at Northwestern University and are the topics we're talking about part of your professorial work?  Your research?  The things you do at the school or is this something else?

P.L.: It's more of a sideline.  I have taught a course on hacktivism but there the concern is to make sure that students are thinking critically about what hacktivism is and if they do engage in it or if they do engage in fighting it, I mean I give the same lecture to the students that I would give to potential FBI agents at John J College, is that whatever you do, whether you're going to be a hacktivist or you're going to fight hacktivism, you need to think critically about what's right and what's wrong when you do it, so that's one class.  But mostly I'm doing things like in philosophy of language or philosophy of mind or cognitive science.  Something along those lines.  

R.K.: Does that relate at all to this philosophy of mind and cognitive science?

P.L.: Not directly.  It might be, I mean there are certain things that I must be getting informed of from it, I mean one way in which it's related is I sometimes teach a course in epistemology which is the theory of knowledge and what traditionally, when philosophers think about theory of knowledge they want to know, what can I do to make me better at accumulating knowledge and avoiding error?  

If you think about it, then well if you're living in an age where people are out there actively looking to deceive you, then your epistemology has to be a lot more sophisticated than it perhaps is at this point.  You have to start thinking about what kinds of things defeat knowledge, what kinds of systems of deception are out there trying to present an illusory reality to you, and how do you undermine that?

R.K.: And cognitive science?

P.L.: Well I don't know that there's a direct connection but obviously you can see that if you understand, it's helpful to know what kinds of things can successfully deceive us and cognitive science is concerned with how we perceive the world and the kinds of things that do deceive us, right?  

So certain kinds of illusions, for example, some optical illusions are the sort of things you would study in cognitive science, and you're interested in how people form the opinions that they do, and what kinds of things and strategies can change somebody's mind. So if you understand more about how the mind works then you're understanding more about how you can be tricked.  

If there's a connection with cognitive science, that would be the connection.

R.K.: Okay.  That's not much... but it's interesting because I've had a couple of conversations with Noam Chomsky who is one of the fathers of psycholinguistics and I have been relatively unsuccessful in getting him to tie in any connection -

P.L.: Yeah, he refuses to admit that there's a connection there and you know with his technical work in linguistics, it actually is very difficult to see some sort of connection there and I think, I understand why he wants to create that firewall because he doesn't want people to try and read some political interpretation into his empirical work.

R.K.: Yeah I guess that's just fine I guess really to have different worlds that you're working in.  So, what are you going to write about next?

P.L.: Well, I just finished a book that's coming out from Oxford University Press and it's on how we shift or change or modulate word meanings and the idea is that we don't come with word meanings intact when we have a conversation but we form a little micro-language together and we negotiate the meanings of words.  

So you ask me what do you mean by hero?  What do you mean by evil?  And in doing that we build a little language together. So that's one project and then I'm doing another book or co-writing on griefers or trolls, people who basically are engaged in pranking people online.  It's connected with Anonymous and it's about how some social consciousness can emerge from that.  

R.K.: Ah, and you bring this up like three minutes before we got to finish the interview here.  I run Opednews.com which reaches about two hundred thousand unique visitors a month and hundreds of thousands of comments on it. And trolls are a challenge.  So give me some nuggets about trolls and you used another word, griefers?  What was the other word?

P.L.: Well griefer is a word that gets used in online worlds where a griefer is someone who will do something in the online world to disrupt your game play or just to be transgressive in some way or other.  So they might, in a virtual world like a video game where you have control over what you build, they might litter your property with obscene objects for example.  That would be a griefer in that environment.  

I'm just very interested in the fact that I saw a lot of these griefers come in from 4chan and they sort of evolved a kind of weird political consciousness about the same time that Anonymous started to evolve a political consciousness and so what I'm interested in is the kind of connection between the selfneed that these people have to sort of push back and grief, and be at times scatological and at times transgressive and see how they evolved in to these very socially conscious individuals.  

Barret Brown would be a case in point.  He was a griefer in a virtual world called Second Life and eventually over a period of a few years evolved in to this individual who became very concerned about the way in which private intelligence companies were conducting their operations against the America population.

R.K.: So you're saying that griefers or trolls have some positive aspects?

P.L.: I think so.  I think in any political movement you have these people so a classic example would be Abbie Hoffman and the yippies in the 1960's.  I think they played an important role because one of the things that they do, they're not merely challenging the conventions and mores of society but they're also pranking the state and the power system.  

In doing that, by showing they're not afraid of them, they pierce this veil of invulnerability.  Who is this person that's out there making fun of this incredible power?  This incredible Empire?  And so those kinds of people become critical in any sort of movement to make that organization more responsive to people or if the goal is to get the sociopaths out of government and get people back in control of government, you're going to need people to not be afraid of the sociopaths that are running the show. 

R.K.: So it sounds like you're not really talking about the kind of trolls who you see in comments which are people who engage in ad hominem comments or who are paid to be there to disrupt the conversation.  I think you're talking more about digital jesters, court jesters.

P.L.: There you go.  That's right.  That's a better way to put it.  That's exactly right and there is a difference.  The problem trolls, they're another problem for another day I guess.  Which we'll have to talk about some time but you're absolutely right.  It's better to think of these people as being tricksters or a jester.  Yeah that's right.

R.K.: Cool.  Well it's been a great conversation.  We're going to wrap it up now.  I've got to see this book on griefers, it sounds fascinating and to the whole idea of digital court jesters makes a lot of sense to me.  I would love to have a further conversation about the media, too.  I have a feeling you've got some thoughts on that as well.

P.L.: Sure.

R.K.: But we're going to have to do that another time.  



Submitters Bio:

Rob Kall has spent his adult life as an awakener and empowerer-- first in the field of biofeedback, inventing products, developing software and a music recording label, MuPsych, within the company he founded in 1978-- Futurehealth, and founding, organizing and running 3 conferences: Winter Brain, on Neurofeedback and consciousness, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, first presenting workshops on it in 1985) and Storycon Summit Meeting on the Art Science and Application of Story-- each the first of their kind.  Then, when he found the process of raising people's consciousness and empowering them to take more control of their lives  one person at a time was too slow, he founded Opednews.com-- which has been the top search result on Google for the terms liberal news and progressive opinion for several years. Rob began his Bottom-up Radio show, broadcast on WNJC 1360 AM to Metro Philly, also available on iTunes, covering the transition of our culture, business and world from predominantly Top-down (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal, big)  to bottom-up (egalitarian, local, interdependent, grassroots, archetypal feminine and small.) Recent long-term projects include a book, Bottom-up-- The Connection Revolution, debillionairizing the planet and the Psychopathy Defense and Optimization Project. 

Rob Kall Wikipedia Page

Over 200 podcasts are archived for downloading here, or can be accessed from iTunes. Rob is also published regularly on the Huffingtonpost.com

Rob is, with Opednews.com the first media winner of the Pillar Award for supporting Whistleblowers and the first amendment.

To learn more about Rob and OpEdNews.com, check out A Voice For Truth - ROB KALL | OM Times Magazine and this article. For Rob's work in non-political realms mostly before 2000, see his C.V..  and here's an article on the Storycon Summit Meeting he founded and organized for eight years. Press coverage in the Wall Street Journal: Party's Left Pushes for a Seat at the Table

Here is a one hour radio interview where Rob was a guest- on Envision This, and here is the transcript. 


To watch Rob having a lively conversation with John Conyers, then Chair of the House Judiciary committee, click hereWatch Rob speaking on Bottom up economics at the Occupy G8 Economic Summit, here.


Follow Rob on Twitter & Facebook. His quotes are here

Rob's articles express his personal opinion, not the opinion of this website.


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