Affecting Change or Knowledge Workers as a Political Class?

In my heart of hearts, I’m apolitical. In an ideal world, I just wouldn’t care about the political dealings on a national scale, and I used to look at shows like Meet the Press as the equivalent of E!TV – Sunday morning gossip shows talking about things that I don’t care about. It’s with a sense of irony that I realize that I treat politics in rather the same way that bad companies treat IT – as long as it’s working well enough that it doesn’t cause me major problems, I can pretend it’s not there.

But lately, politics has stopped being quite so “set it and forget it” for me. Not only are there the normal ever-present threats to my online world (like net neutrality), but in the past year or so, it has become apparent to everyone that conspiracy theorists were onto the right idea despite themselves, and that the US government is, in fact, into everything, as deeply and often as possible. (As an aside, if you haven’t heard about TAO yet, make sure to check it out and then re-consider your thoughts on the possibility of BadBIOS).

Anyway, political crap is leaking over into my world, and it’s annoying.

The part that makes it interesting to me is that the biggest revelation in all of this was from Ed Snowden, a system administrator. It’s a little bit like Hobbits in Lord of the Rings…no one knows we exist for years until suddenly the fate of the world hinges on the activities of one of us.

Other people are recognizing that we work in an important intersection of knowledge and responsibility, too. I came across a presentation from this year’s Chaos Communication Congress in Germany. It was a talk by Jacob Appelbaum and Julian Assange, who were introduced by Sarah Harrison. The name of the talk was SysAdmins of the World Unite.

Most of the talk is on YouTube, but there are some cutouts. The audio recording, in its entirety (at least as far as I can tell) is available on SoundCloud. To save you the time, I’ve transcribed some of the more interesting parts:

Sarah Harrison: Why are sysadmins playing an important role in this fight for freedom of information?
Jacob Appelbaum: All of us have agency, but some of us have more agency than others, in the sense that you have access to systems that give you access to information that help to found knowledge that you have in your own head. So someone like Manning or someone like Snowden, who has access to these documents in the course of their work, they will simply have a better understanding of what is actually happening. They have access to the primary source documents as part of their job.

This, I think, fundamentally, is a really critical, I would say a formative thing. When you start to read these original source documents, you start to understand the way that organizations actually think internally. This is one of the things that Julian Assange has said quite a lot. It’s that when you read the internal documents of an organization, that’s how they really think about a thing. This is different than a press release.

And people who have grown up on the internet, and they are essentially natives on the internet, and that’s all of us, I think, for the most part. It’s definitely me. That essentially forms a way of thinking about organizations where the official thing that they say is not interesting. You know that there is an agenda behind that, and you don’t necessarily know what that true agenda is.

And so people who grow up in this and see these documents, they realize the agency that they have. They understand it, they see that power, and they want to do something about it, in some cases. Some people do it in small starts and fits. So there are lots of sources for lots of newspapers that are inside of defense organizations or really really large companies, and they share this information.

In the case of Chelsea Manning and in the case of Snowden, they went big. And I presume that this is because of the scale of the wrongdoing they saw, in addition to the amount of agency that was provided by their access and by their understanding of the actual information that they were able to have in their possession.

Sarah Harrison: And do you think that its something to do with, being technical, they have a potential ability to find a way to do this safer than other people, perhaps? Or…

Jabob Appelbaum:
I mean, It’s clearly the case that this helps. There’s no question that understanding how to use those computer systems and being able to navigate them, that that is going to be a helpful skill. But i what it really is, is that these these are people who grew up in an era, and I myself am one of these people, where we grew up in an era where we were overloaded by information but we still were able to absorb a great deal of it. And we really are constantly going through this.

And if we look to the past, we see that it’s not just technical people, it’s actually people who have an analytical mind. So for example, Daniel Ellsberg, who is famous for the Ellsberg paradox. He was of course a very seriously embedded person in the US military, he was in the RAND corporation, he worked with McNamara, and during the Vietnam War, he had access to huge amount of information.

And it was the ability to analyze this information and to understand, in this case how the US government during the Vietnam War, was lying to the entire world. And it was the magnitude of those lies combined with the ability to prove that they were lies, that I believe, combined with this analytical skill, it was clear what the action might be, but it wasn’t clear what the outcome would be.

And with Ellsberg, the outcome was a very positive one. In fact, it’s the most positive outcome for any whistleblower so far that I know of in the history of the United States, and maybe even in the world.

What we see now with Snowden and what we’ve now seen with Chelsea Manning, is unfortunately a very different outcome, at least for Manning. So, this is also a hugely important point, which is that Ellsberg did this in the context of resistance against the Vietnam War. And when Ellsberg did this, there were huge support networks. There were gigantic things that split across all political spectrums of society.

And so it is the analytical framework that we find ourselves with still, but additionally with the internet. And so, every single person here, who works as a sysadmin, could you raise your hand?


You represent, and I’m sorry to steal Julian’s thunder, but he was using Skype, and um, well… [applause] … we all know Skype has interception and man in the middle problems, so I’m going to take advantage of that fact. You see, it’s not just the NSA.

Everyone that raised their hand, you should raise your hand again. If you work at a company where you think they might be involved in something that is a little bit scary, keep your hand up.


So here’s the deal. Everybody else in the room lacks the information that you probably have access to. And if you were to make a moral judgement; if you were to make an ethical consideration, about these things, it would be the case that, as a political class, you would be able to inform all of the other political classes in this room, all of the other people in this room, in a way that only you have the agency to do. And those who benefit from you never doing that are the other people that have that.

Those people are also members of other classes as well, and so the question is, if you were to unite as a political class, and we are to unite with you in that political class, we can see that there is a contextual way to view this through, uh, an historical lens, essentially, Which is to say that when the industrialized workers of the world decided that race and gender were not lines that we should split on, but instead we should look at workers and owners. Then we started to see real change in the way workers were treated and in the way that the world itself was organizing labor.

And this is a hugely important change during the industrial revolution. And we are going through a very similar time now with regard to information politics and with regard to the value of information in our information age.

I’m not sure I’m a big fan of framing our role as that of a political class. That being said, there really are some distinct parallels between today’s information worker and yesterday’s factory workers, and that I suppose you could look at this through a Marxist lens and see us as a modern day proletariat, but I’m vaguely uninterested in framing the discussion in that light. Someone else can hold that banner if that’s what they care about.

I’m much more concerned with is how we make decisions about what we should do with the responsibilities we have, and the knowledge we have, and the information that we have access to. The idea that we have a unique responsibility to society at large because of the privileged role we play in the modern workforce is an intriguing one. It’s not over-romanticizing to see that people in our positions, in the right circumstances, can make huge impacts – Edward Snowden is prime evidence of that. But every bit of leverage that we have which could be used for good can also be used for ill. And it’s not just black and white, either.

All of us only know what we know, and sometimes, we know what we don’t know. We never know what we don’t know we don’t know – the unknown unknowns, in other words.

If you are involved with military planning, or if you just play RTS games, you’re familiar with the concept of the fog of war, a lack of situational awareness because your information is incomplete. And so, decisions that you make because you believe them to be right may wind up being hamartia because your knowledge was incomplete.

That being said, every decision that we make, in our jobs and in our lives, can only be made with the cognizant knowledge that our information is lacking and incomplete. When it comes to making decisions that can dramatically affect others, though, that places an extra onus of correctness. Not only are we affecting ourselves, we’re affecting others, and in potentially unknown ways.

If someone were in a position to leak information that was extraordinarily damaging to an organization that was doing a perceived ill, is the wrongdoing enough justification by itself to publicly release that information? How much wrongdoing is enough? To employ some reductio ad absurdum, how much intentional littering does a company need to do before it turns into industrial waste?

And all of this presupposes that we’re essentially incidental non-combatants in this war on the public. If you answered the wrong job posting and found yourself as a sysadmin for Hank Scorpio, that’s one thing, but what if you suspected that a company were guilty of wrongdoing? If you go “undercover”, so to speak, as a sysadmin in that organization, in order to uncover wrongdoing, how is that inherently different than vigilantism?

And yet, that’s exactly what Julian Assange was promoting in the talk. Here’s the transcription:

The system that exists globally now is created by the interconnection of many individual systems, and we are all, or many of us, are part of administering that system, and have extraordinary power, in a way that is really an order of magnitude different to the power that industrial workers had back in the 20th century. And we can see that in the cases of the famous leaks, the wikileaks was done, or the recent Edward Snowden revelations, that it is possible now for even a single system administrator to have a very significant change to, or rather, apply a rather significant constraint, a constructive constraint, to the behavior of these organizations.

Not merely wrecking or disabling them, not merely going out on strikes to change policy, but rather shifting information from an information apartheid system which we are developing, from those with extraordinary power and extraordinary information into the knowledge commons, where it can be used to, not only as a disciplining force, but it can be used to construct and understand the new world that we’re entering into.

Now, Hayden, the former director of the CIA and NSA, is terrified of this. In Cypherpunks, we called for this directly last year, but to give you an interesting quote from Hayden, possibly following up on those words of mine and others:

We need to recruit from Snowden’s generation“, says Hayden. “We need to recruit from this group because they have the skills that we require. So the challenge is how to recruit this talent while also protecting ourselves from the small fraction of the population that has this romantic attachment to absolute transparency at all costs“. And that’s us, right?

So, what we need to do is, spread that message and go into all of those organizations. In fact, deal with them. I’m not saying don’t join the CIA. No. Go and join the CIA. Go in there. Go in the ballpark and get the ball and bring it out. With the understanding, with the paranoia, that all those organizations will be infiltrated by this generation, by an ideology that is spread across the internet. And every young person is educated on the internet.

There will be no person that has not been exposed to this ideology of transparency and understanding of wanting to keep the internet which we were born into, free. This is the last free generation. The coming together of systems of government, the new information apartheid, the linking together, is such that none of us will be able to escape it in just a decade. Our identities will be coupled to it, the information sharing such that none of us will be able to escape it.

We are all becoming part of the state, whether we like it or not, so our only hope is to determine what sort of state it is that we are going to become part of, and we can do that by looking, and being inspired by some of the actions that produce human rights and free education, and so on. Why people recognizing that they were part of the state, recognizing that their own power, and taking concrete and robust action to make sure they lived in the sort of society that they wanted to, and not in a hellhole dystopia.

While I can’t agree with a lot of what he says, there are some good points. The continuing digitization of our live is inevitable – there’s no going back from that. And I believe that we absolutely do need to work to determine the future of the world that we live in. It’s this gradual realization of mine – that it’s finally dawning on me, I’m just not able to blindly ignore the politics of the situation with my head in the sand. Things do seem to be flying off the rails.

So here’s where I put it to you, my readers. What do you make of this? Do you see any credence to the view that information workers are, in essence, their own political class (or do you see value in that)? I don’t want to live in a “hellhole dystopia” either, but I’m not yet convinced that becoming an active combatant in the battle for “knowledge commons” is the right way to go about it. Do you think it’s possible to affect change inside the system, as I hope it is?

Please, comment below and share your thoughts.

  • Nathan A.

    Democracy only works when people are familiar with the stuff they’re running. I need to pay more attention to these things, though I have the same feeling when I see things like “Meet the Press.”

    The reason vigilantism is bad is because we have people assigned to execute the law. They have policies. Vigilantes don’t have to follow those same policies- they tend to be loose cannons. But in this case, who polices the Internet? And for that matter, who watches the watchmen?

    Right now, vigilantism is the only thing that’s providing a balance to the abuses that are going on. Because the people who are supposed to protect people are the ones doing the abuse. It’s like being in a country with crooked cops.

    We need something better than vigilantism. But for now, that’s all we have, so that’s all we can expect.

    Are we information workers a political class? It’s complicated. Nothing is ever that black and white. But in a way, we do have that look and feel. And not just IT people. If you’re in Accounting and see bills or invoices that look weird; if you’re in HR and hear grumblings; if you’re in Sales or Marketing and you’re told to march in a direction that makes the hairs on your neck stand up… you’re in the same group as the information workers.

  • Lloyd Collins

    At this point my opinion is that we as System Administrators should try not to get involved yet with any “fighting” but at the same time we should remain prepared, and even practice, the “warfighting” part of our roles. Which side we fight on is personal choice and I won’t comment further on that.

  • Matt- Excellent article yet again! We included it in our Monthly Resource Roundup and wanted to let you know.


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