Peter Popham: A cyber prophet who lost his way


My son has just started studying philosophy at school and last week over breakfast he reminded me about Plato's Allegory of the Cave. In the dialogue, Socrates posits a scene worthy of Beckett: a line of people chained to the blank wall of a cave, able to see nothing all their lives but the wall and the shadows thrown upon it by a fire raging away behind them. For them, that is reality. What, the philosopher asks, if one man was unchained and dragged out into the daylight, and eventually became acclimatised to reality? If he then returned to his former, slavish situation, would he not be like one who was blind?

The story of Julian Assange is like this. We have lived most of our lives in the world he inhabits but because we are not geeks or hackers we see only the shadows which that world throws on the wall. I have been around computers most of my professional life. When a Japanese publisher commissioned me to write a book more than 25 years ago, they sent me a colossal computer on which to write it, with floppy discs the size of soup plates that were really floppy. To get the thing to work I had to grind through a fat manual and type long strings of code on to the screen. But I was content with the shadows on the wall: I never cared, then or since, to find out more about this unpleasant machine. It was enough that it worked. And the term "computer programmer" remained about the most repellent job description one could think of.

Assange has spent his life immersed in this world, and what emerges from his unauthorised autobiography is that he saw with desperate clarity how a huge cyber-machine was being constructed in our midst, dedicated to documenting and manipulating the rest of us shadow-gazers in staggering detail. He and his fellow-geeks understood that this was not a morally neutral extension of the old state bureaucracies but a new project whose capacity for control would make 1984 appear quaint.

But then the sun-gazer returned to the world of shadows and he was blinded: the clarity with which he saw this big truth made him unable to discern or make sense of the subtle gradations of grey within the cave. His stark world divided cleanly into the powerful and the oppressed, a crudely Manichean system in which he was the dauntless hero.

He described himself as a journalist, but the uber-geek never grasped that a scoop was more than a matter of simply opening floodgates. He refused to see that some diplomatic secrets deserved to be kept secret. Above all, in his mania for transparency he failed to make sense of the idea of intellectual property rights – until his publisher defied his will and the man cried blue murder.

My money is on Jessica Rabbit's absolution

She may look like Harry Potter's scary elder sister but Giulia Bongiorno sent a breath of refreshing, rational air into the stifling medieval fug of Perugia this week. Bongiorno is one of Italy's top lawyers, held in considerable awe for her feat of getting former prime minister Giulio Andreotti's conviction for Mafia association overturned on appeal.

In Perugia she represents Raffaele Sollecito, but on Tuesday she went out to bat for Sollecito's girlfriend, Amanda Knox. She knows that you cannot acquit the one for the murder of Leeds University student Meredith Kercher without acquitting the other.

On Monday the subterranean brick courtroom, with its partially restored ancient frescoes, had rung to the wild rhetoric of Carlo Pacelli, speaking for the wrongly accused Patrick Lumumba, and accusing the Seattle student of being a witch and a she-devil. His four-hour rant was a sulphurous blend of cod psychology and Salem witch-trial. Knox, he claimed, has "a double-faced soul," one side being "good", the other being "Lucifer-like, demonic, satanic, diabolical." It is extraordinary that he should have gone out of his way to remind the jury of the prosecution's "satanic orgy" story, one for which no evidence has ever been adduced.

Then on Tuesday, Bongiorno heaped ridicule on the whole demonising operation. Like the voluptuous Jessica Rabbit in the classic cartoon film, Amanda wasn't bad, she said, "she was just drawn that way." Crucially, there was no forensic trace of either person in Meredith's bedroom.

The verdict in the appeal may be delivered as early as Saturday, and will be broadcast live on Italian TV. If I were a betting man, I would now put money on Knox and Sollecito being cleared. My reason? The mainstream Italian press uniformly ignored Pacelli's rant on Monday, going instead with a story about Amanda being whisked home in a private jet if absolved. As the Perugia jury has not been sequestered, I expect they know a thing or two.

The judge, the boat race and the sickie

Funny thing, Italian justice, whichever way you slice it. On her website, Cecilia Carreri describes her enviable lifestyle: living between the Dolomites and the Mediterranean, she is "a painter, alpinist and navigator" who has "dedicated a great part of her life to exploring the world and nature in the most inaccessible and solitary places." She also took part in this year's Fastnet race in her 60ft yacht, Mer Verticale. What her website fails to mention is that her daytime job is a judge in Vicenza, a handsome city inland from Venice.

She participated in the Fastnet race in 2005, too, but was only able to do so by sending in the sickie to end all sickies. She was suffering she claimed from depression and sciatica, a condition which rendered inadvisable "a prolonged erect posture, as when sitting for a long time" and required "constant medical attention, rehabilitation training, and training in relaxation, gymnastics and stretching". For this fairytale she was earlier this month fined the grand sum of €6,714.28: approximately one month's salary.

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