Heinemann, £12.99, 251pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Revolution Will Be Digitised, By Heather Brooke
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, is being published in January 2014.
Friday 30 September 2011
An investigative journalist and freedom of information campaigner, Heather Brooke is one of a rare breed of heroic hacks, the sort non-hacks like to imagine: Lois Lane, Woodward and Bernstein, John Simm in State of Play. Unlike any of the above, however, she remains a lone freelancer. She has nonetheless been at least partly responsible for the two biggest FoI-related stories of recent years: her three-year battle to expose the scandal of MPs expenses was detailed in The Silent State. Now her involvement with WikiLeaks forms the narrative spine of The Revolution Will Be Digitised, a vivid snapshot of the internet "information war" between the powerful and the people: between governments or corporations and the activist hackers who are calling them to account.
Brooke's reportage takes us to Iraq, where Private Bradley Manning may or may not have illegally downloaded rather a lot of secret data to a disk marked "Lady Gaga"; to the corridors of St James's, where a well-heeled fellow flogs copies of Britain's electoral register; to Iceland, where idealistic politicians want to build a free speech-friendly "data haven"; to the Berlin headquarters of the Chaos Computer Club, Europe's largest hacker organisation. She explains how Western governments rail against Chinese censorship, while trawling the web for information to use against their own citizens; and how web services such as Facebook and Google persist in passing your information to advertisers, however high your privacy settings.
Hackers should be grateful to Brooke for her attempts to elevate them in the public mind. Hackers may be inherently anti-authoritarian but, by and large, their mission is to improve the world, not to attack it. "Hackerspaces" are to the 21st century what coffee-houses were to the Enlightenment: an arena where new ideas can be freely exchanged. Freedom of information is an article of faith in any hackerspace, which is why they make the establishment so uneasy.
Casual readers will perhaps be most compelled by Brooke's portrait of Julian Assange, a man whose work she admires, despite his egomania and transparent attempts to seduce her. Charismatic, hyper-intelligent, paranoid, hygienically-challenged, the white-haired Australian is the first (anti)hero of the information war. Brooke encountered him before his leak of the notorious "Collateral Murder" footage of a helicopter gunship attack in Iraq, and has been involved with the Wikileaks story ever since. She originally thought Assange a "saviour". Later, as he obsessed over his ownership of leaked data, much like the very people he claimed to be exposing, she came to believe that "power when concentrated is dangerous no matter who holds it or for whatever good intention."
Brooke is rightly confident in the significance of her subject, opening with a quote from Thomas Jefferson, and closing with one from Karl Marx. "We are at an extraordinary moment in human history," she claims. "We have the technology to build a new type of democracy but equally we might create a new type of totalitarianism. These are the stakes in the information war." Looking back on WikiLeaks from beyond the Arab Spring, the battle for Facebook privacy, even the English riots, it's clear that the war will be a lengthy one. The Revolution Will Be Digitised is an early and indispensable report from the frontline.
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