Books – Incisive portrait of a pioneer

2011-11-26 14:41

He hates religion and thinks the mainstream of Western journalism is made up of “wankers”.

For Christmas, he blows up Barbie dolls and toy dragons with his son using liquid nitrogen.

The man behind WikiLeaks is strange, peculiar, weird – even creepy. He also revolutionised the way we think about secrecy and access to information.

Particularly those documents corrupt governments and armies would have preferred to keep away from public scrutiny.

There is no question that Assange is an oddball, an obsessive computer junkie who grew up in a dysfunctional household headed by a hippie mother with an interesting taste in men.

This is apparently the first “unauthorised autobiography” ever published. Unauthorised because after reading a draft, Assange refused publication.

But there was a contract in place and his publisher decided to go ahead with the project.

It is a pacy book and provides intriguing insights into the mind of one of the most influential people of our time.

Growing up with his mother in rural Australia, Assange moved around frequently as a child. Self-actualisation took place through the empty screen of an elementary computer. He says: “You were typing into this wonderful emptiness, waiting to be populated with minds.”

And so Assange became hooked on the power of computers, networks and, later, the internet. And he made friends – fellow hackers who made it their goal to crack security systems.

His hatred of closed systems intensified and Assange set out to find like-minded people elsewhere in the world. He eventually ended up studying mathematics and physics.

He became increasingly frustrated with Western journalism, and eventually set out to create a platform for whistleblowers on which to dump their information, while remaining wholly anonymous.

And that is how WikiLeaks started – the “former hacker” called himself a journalist and published “classified” documents.
One of the biggest criticisms levelled against WikiLeaks is its lack of editing – long seen as the basic function of journalists. Assange disagrees, saying that technology should be used to remove all forms of influence.

No wonder Assange had huge fallouts with the newspapers with which he cooperated in publishing the Afghan war logs and Cablegate, most notably The Guardian and The New York Times.

Assange doesn’t like to be told what to do and thought these newspapers didn’t credit him or WikiLeaks sufficiently.

For somebody who advocates openness, it is a great irony that Assange himself is now facing an attack on the most private part of his life. He is being accused of rape and sexual assault in Sweden and is fighting attempts by Britain, where he lives now, to have him extradited.

His response is vintage Assange: “I may be a chauvinist pig but I am no rapist, and only a distorted version of sexual politics could attempt to turn me into one. They each had sex with me willingly and were happy to hang out with me afterwards. That is all.”

Assange is arrogant, obsessive and egotistical to the point of narcissism. The book doesn’t sugar-coat these things, but it does leave you with an understanding of why Assange will be remembered as one of the pioneers of our time.

Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography as told to Andrew O’Hagan
339 pages; R207.95 

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