"How many Google employees are at this party?"
The question hangs in the air at the Babycastles arcade in Manhattan, where Julian Assange's silver-haired visage is being projected onto the walls via video stream. Assange is taking questions about his new book, When Google Met Wikileaks, which rails against the company's ever-expanding ambitions, its ties to the surveillance state, and the increasingly intimate relationship between Silicon Valley and the US political machine in Washington.
Seeing no hands raised in the packed room, Assange offers an incentive: 20 percent off sticker price for Google employees. "And we'll mail the book to you in a brown paper bag," he adds with a grin, the audience's laughter echoing faintly through the stream's audio. And yes, you can buy it with bitcoins.
This is how you throw a book launch party when you're an international fugitive that's been holed up in an Ecuadorean embassy for the past two years.
Of course, Assange's beef with Google is no secret to those keeping tabs on the besieged WikiLeaks boss, who is mostly known these days for beaming surreal anti-authoritarian diatribes into tech events like some kind of cypherpunk Max Headroom. (The conversation, moderated by Motherboard contributor Dan Stuckey, was not, by the way, conducted over Google Hangout.)
This time, he's speaking to a mostly-young crowd of artists, activists, and journalists sipping Club-Mate and cheap beer. He's in a slightly jocular mood; early on he joked that, rather than a book, "maybe I should've made a game." About 20 minutes in, he's joined briefly on camera by British rap star M.I.A., whose lyrics for "The Message" serve as the book's epigraph:
Headbone connected to the headphones
Headphones connected to the iPhone
iPhone connected to the Internet
Connected to the Google
Connected to the government
While critics initially wrote off the anthem as "juvenile" and "paranoid" back before Edward Snowden's mass-surveillance revelations, it nowadays seems like a rough sketch of our fears about the monolithic corporations that we've hard-coded into our daily lives. If that's too heavy for you, M.I.A. said she wrote it while in the California desert, near Burning Man. "Eric Schmidt must have had a bad LSD trip and I tuned into it," she said.
Looking at some of the NSA's top-secret PowerPoint slides ("Collect It All, Exploit It All, Sniff It All, Know It All"), it's not hard to nod along with Assange when he makes the point that spy agencies and all-consuming information empires like Google share eerily similar priorities.
At the same time, it's hard to argue Silicon Valley and the feds are completely in cahoots. Much of what we're seeing recently suggests companies like Yahoo actually paid a hefty price to defend users behind closed doors. Last week, Apple straight-up bragged about engineering out their ability to give cops the contents of your iPhone. Even Google, whose business model depends on monetizing data, has encrypted its data center links and gestured toward providing users with end-to-end encryption so that private communications can't be read in transit.
But as Assange points out, Google's most frightening trait goes beyond its role as a "private sector NSA," storing and indexing everything. Rather, it's the company's seemingly limitless ambition to be everywhere and do everything that sets it apart.
Consider just a small sample of events from the past year: We've seen mysterious Google barges; plans for internet-spewing Google balloons; the first real demonstration of Google self-driving cars; and the purchase of multiple drone and robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics, the creators of everyone's favorite mechanical nightmare, BigDog. Most recently, CEO Larry Page shared his vision for building entire Google cities, complete with Google airports and Google internet.
All this Googlization leads Assange to suggest Google is becoming less like a company and more like a government in its own right—a kind of transnational corporate nation-state, complete with its own diplomatic corps spearheaded by chairman Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, a former State Department wunderkind and current director of the company's "think/do" tank, Google Ideas.
"Google is not a graduate student playroom from California," Assange told the crowd at Babycastles, attempting to dispel the company's friendly veneer. "It's a company just like Lockheed Martin."
"If you can control the present," he added, paraphrasing George Orwell, "you can control the perceptions of what people understand, and if you do that you can control the future."
Assange's book is something you might hesitate to call a "book." In large part, it's a series of essays sandwiching the transcript of his 2011 conversation in Norfolk, England with Schmidt and Cohen, who originally set it up as an interview for their own book, The New Digital Age—a mind-numbing tome Assange describes as "a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism."
Which is to say, Silicon Valley has taken a keen interest in aligning its goals with Washington elites to guarantee favorable conditions for themselves around the world—a dynamic Assange documents and footnotes rigorously, showcasing Google's extensive relationships with the US Departments of State and Defense.
As the company extends its political reach to new markets, "Google is steadily becoming the internet" for whole populations that never had it, he says. The same could be said of Internet.org, Mark Zuckerberg's "philanthropy" effort to essentially give a Facebook-flavored internet to millions living in the disconnected Global South and then slap a sticker on it that says "the internet."
There are some shades of grey, he admitted. "To differing degrees, Google and Facebook are on the same side we're on." All, he said, share a certain frustration with China and dislike certain internet regulation. But Google's political interests have made Google an enemy of WikiLeaks. "Eric Schmidt says the whistleblower sites should be regulated by the state."
Google's co-founder Larry Page "is constructing this giant machine," said Assange, "but it has no color. It's like white rice." But Schmidt "is the soy sauce. He comes along with certain political and geopolitical flavor and he's poured that all over Google."
"If the future of the internet is to be Google, that should be of serious concern to people all over the world," Assange writes in the book. "A 'don't be evil' empire is still an empire."
As for how to fight such empires, Assange has much less to say. His avatar did have one piece of advice for the crowd at Babycastles: "Every time you go to a party and take a picture and post that picture to Facebook, you're being a rat," he said with stone-cold severity. "You're being a narc."
Watch the Motherboard TV episode 'Oral History of Gaming: Babycastles, the DIY Arcade'