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...
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,
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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 -
R.K.: I'm involved in some activism and there are
certain people who are more active, who are more leaders
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,
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
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
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
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 -
R.K.: Maybe there's another company that does that
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
R.K.: But wait, I'd really like, first of all, -
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 -
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,
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
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
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.
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
P.L.: That is a, I consider that to be a traditional
military psyops strategy.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
R.K.: But we're going to have to do that another
To watch Rob having a lively conversation with John Conyers, then Chair of the House Judiciary committee, click here. Watch Rob speaking on Bottom up economics at the Occupy G8 Economic Summit, here.