TEDGlobal: Surprises, community spirit, and a goodbye

Our surprise guest on our final day is Julian Assange, founder and editor in chief of Wikileaks. (Okay, not a surprise to me – I had an enjoyable argument with him about singularity theory last night.) Chris Anderson, TED’s founder, interviews him onstage and talks through Wikileak’s mission, structure and history. Julian is in fine form, and when Chris begins by asking if it’s fair to say that Wikileaks has released more secret documents that the collective enterprise of journalism, Julian allows that it’s an embarrassment for journalists to have such a comparison made.

Chris walks through some of Wikileaks’s most notable stories, beginning with the Project KTM report, a corruption report that contained information damaging to the Moi administration in Kenya. The report, viewed as a holy grail for understanding corruption in Kenya, was released by Wikileaks shortly before parliamentary elections and, Julian tells us, shifted the vote 10% according to intelligence reports.

Wikileaks is now best know for the release of the “collateral murder” video that depicts the killing of two journalists and multiple civilians by an Apache gunship in Iraq. Asked by Chris what was important about releasing the video, Julian tells us that it was important for understanding the “gross disparity in force” between potential insurgents with small arms and a helicopter gunship and for the impression that American forces were “looking for excuses to kill, targeting people rescuing the wounded.”

Chris asks why Wikileaks encourages the leaking of secret information. Julian gives the most clear response I’ve heard him offer to this oft-asked question. “There’s lots of information in the world that can achieve reform. Information that organizations spend effort to conceal is a signal that it’s information that could do good.” He acknowledges that not all secrets are fair game, allowing that people’s personal medical records should be allowed to be secret.

There’s not much disagreement in the crowd when Chris Anderson, exploring the tensions between secrecy, journalism and power, asks whether they see Assange as “a people’s hero” or a dangerous provocateur – the vote is overwhelmingly for the former and Assange seems slightly disappointed.

We look at a recently released document concerning an oil leak in Albania, which
new leak – oil leak in Albania which appears the obvious product of corporate negligence. When Wikileaks released the document, they were approached by the company to ask the document be removed. His team engaged with the corporation, asking for confirmation that it was their document, specifics on what the document was about… all of which helped serve as provenance for the document. Julian described this as one of his favorite ways of identifying and verifying materials.

Asked if Wikileaks has documents about BP, he allows that it does, but hasn’t released them. He explains that their “publication rate is minimized by a reengineering and fundraising effort” that’s been ongoing for some months now. The reengineering is to help the site cope with the high loads it faces due to widespread attention. Julian notes that it’s been difficult to grow the organization for fear that expanding too quickly will compromise security.

Chris makes reference to one the details of Julian’s childhood reported in a recent New Yorker profile – that Julian attended 37 different schools growing up. Julian confirms that his childhood was spent with parents who worked in the film industry, and later running from a cult. Chris asks if this is a recipe to create paranoia, leading Julian to quip, “The movie industry?”

Asked further about his background and motivations, Julian offers the thought that “capable generous men don’t create victims; they nurture them.” One way to help victims is to “police perpetrators.”

The interview closes with questions about Wikileaks’s recent work in Iceland. A leaked report on the banking industry and the financial collapse – which had devastating implications for Iceland – was due to be the subject of a television broadcast, but a court injunction moments before the story went to air prevented the release of information. Wikileaks posted the text of the report and Icelandic readers discovered it through the site. The incident led to a sense that Iceland shouldn’t suffer from these restrictions on journalistic freedom in the future. And so Wikileaks has cooperated with Icelandic parliamentarians to pass legislation that helps the country act as a data haven.


I was packing to go after Professor Wolff’s lecture and folding my tent when I got distracted by William Perrin‘s talk and ended up staying later than I’d planned. Perrin is a community activist who has focused on his neighborhood of King’s Cross for the past eight years. He introduces us to some of the neighborhood’s challenges – a rash of cars burned by hooligans for fun, widespread public drug sale and use, a large population of drug-addicted prostitutes, a group of drunken young teens who would steal and race motorscooters during Arsenal football games. All, he tells us, within 400 meters of one of London’s major railway stations.

(This is, amusingly enough, the neighborhood I’m enroute to as I write this, as it’s where the Guardian newspaper’s offices are.)

Perrin reacted by becoming a member of every community organization he could, and found himself flooded with information, both online and off. He began summarizing and sharing his summaries online as a way of coping with the mass of data and discovered that collating this data was a hugely helpful community function. He points to a collection of other community information blogs at Openly Local.

The technology isn’t the most important story in thinking about technology and social change, Perrin tells us. He’s had the most success with extremely simple technology. A short video of the noise from gravel, poured into a metal box, at the cement plant down the road from his flat was enough – plus lots of email – to persuade the CEO of Cemex to change local procedures so the company would be a better and less noisy neighbor. Perrin is openly critical of pundits who posit the utility of new, complex technologies to enable social change – he takes a swipe directly at Clay Shirky and his enthusiasm for platforms that might enable community drafting of legislation. And he tells the TED community that they are general at the bow wave of technological change, while the people living in communities are usually deep in the wake.

So he suggests a possible pledge for young, net-savvy leaders, like Obama and the new UK administration, which he calls the TED Global Internet Pledge:

“For my government, the internet is now the primary means of communications with the public for policy formation and service delivery. We shall extend basic training and support to people who cannot use the internet, enabling them to do so. Our public institutions must change themselves to make this happen within existing budgets, within 12 months.”

The commitment to using simple online tools and to ensuring they are widely available will do more to support revitalized civic life, he proposes, than a wealth of innovation in new tools for civic engagement.


And that’s all, for me at least. The conference had a couple more speakers and punting on the Thames, but I’m off to London, Abuja, Lagos and Accra. While this wasn’t my first time speaking at TED, it was the first time I gave a long talk, and was certainly the most attention I’ve ever gotten at a TED event. I’m very grateful for TED for showcasing my recent work, but I have to say, microfame is a real distraction from the blogging. Sorry that I wasn’t up to my usual levels of prolixity for this event. As always, thanks to the organizers, everyone who spoke and everyone who listened. And back to your regularly scheduled, significantly sparser blogging starting now.

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2 Responses to TEDGlobal: Surprises, community spirit, and a goodbye

  1. Milan says:

    Thank you for great coverage of TED Global, Ethan. Much appreciated!

    But what kind of moderator asks an audience whether an on-stage guest is a peoples hero or a dangerous provocateur”?
    This from the man who dissed his own guest (Sarah Silverman) on Twitter.

  2. Sean Wood says:

    Hi Ethan – We chatted briefly at the Malmaison event. You did a great job speaking and covering the other TED talks. I would have loved being a fly on the wall during the Singularity discussion.

    Take care,
    Sean

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