Patrice Riemens on Sat, 15 Oct 2016 09:00:43 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> #jakegate explained ... by a Dummy

NB Two days ago, The Guardian newspaper published a long article
about Jacob Appelbaum, the first text in mainstream media since
the two pieces in Die Zeit Online (see refs below), and only the
second publication I am aware of since the storm around 'Jake' abated
somewhere in last Summer.

This post was largely written in Romania a few weeks ago, and hence
is not informed by the article in The Guardian. It also looks at the
whole affair from a different angle, less focused on the person(age)

#jakegate explained by ... a Dummy

Well, since there are so many texts written for dummies, I thought
it would be nice to have one ... written by one. And as you see, I
carefully choose my subject ...

The story going by the moniker #jakegate is, I assume largely known
by nettime readers, but here's for an ultra-short ExecSum all the
same: Jacob Appelbaum, aka ‘Jake’ is a prominent hacker-activist
whose precipitous fall from grace and reputation has stunned the
digerati scene. End May/begin of June this year (2016), organisations
at the forefront of the battles for privacy and security like the TOR
project, the CCC, Debian, and others, quite brutally scuttled him
amidst accusation of (longstanding) sexual and social misbehaviour.
But by now a backlash has also occurred as the same organisations
stand accused of precipitate, non-transparent, and largely unfounded
decision making - all this with 'Jake' himself largely disappearing
from view.

My reason for writing this piece is to try to understand - even if
largely for my own sake – the circumstances and group processes
that have been at work in creating this rather startling, though
not totally unanticipated fracas. As a general disclaimer, I should
reiterate that I am truly a dummy in this, in the sense that I am not
an insider, even if I know a few ones. And all I do know stems from
publicly available sources, of course supplemented by a few private
talks – but don’t expect confidential information to be disclosed,
since there was actually none. I do know Jake personally however,
since 2003, and I have followed his activities ever since, be it
from quite a distance. Also 'Jake' knows who I am and has always be
very friendly to me, but we have always been distant acquaintances
nonetheless. In short, my locus standi is situated at the 'core
periphery' to the circles and activities Jake was or is related with -
to use a swanky term Geert Lovink and I once made up.

It may be needless to add and emphasize that ‘#jakegate’ is a very
‘complicated’ issue (as in Facebook), and that I tried to write
about it, following Tacitus, ‘sine ira et studio’ ...

I have structured this text in four sections (plus a concluding
part): Jake’s persona(ge); his social circle, mostly in Berlin; the
organisations he is (was) part of; and the the wider, bad world of
surveillance and repression this constituency is facing and combating.
These sections cannot, however, be strictly separated, they flow and
must weave readily together towards the concluding remarks on the
#jakegate backlash and beyond.

On Jake’s persona(ge)

It is self evident that Jake's character, as it appears to his social
environment’s bystanders and to observers at large, provides a
substantial, if by way insufficient, explanation of ‘#jakegate’.
Even with some allowances, Jacob Appelbaum might be taken as
exemplary for the phenomenon of a gifted, extrovert geek rising to
prominence, not to say ‘rock star’ status, amidst the general
hacker alternative, and mainstream, media hype. The by now fairly well
documented mix of autism (-lite), mental (over)activity, sociopathy
(-lite), maybe best captured by the German word ‘Drang’ - the
‘urge’ to do ‘something’ - can all be observed, and then in no
small measure, with Jacob Appelbaum. Add precociousness and young age,
and you have the potent combination which might largely – but again,
not entirely – explain how 'Jake' ended up in the predicament that
is now his.

On Jake’s social environment and the groups he is/was in - in
Berlin, mostly.

Another tentative, partial explanation may be found in the nature
and ongoings within the social circles 'Jake' has been moving in the
past years in Berlin, that ‘poor but sexy’ capital which had
overtaken Amsterdam as the place to be if you are young, worldly,
engaged - and poor and sexy. From the early 2000's the city had
become an international magnet to all sorts of creative people and
voluntary organisations, eager to contribute to the “an other world
is possible” idea. Berlin has obvious ‘locational’ advantages
in terms of situation in the geographical and political centre of
Europe and because of its convenience in terms of affordable housing,
cheap food, and a dynamic cultural life (with a frothy night scene to
boot). But it is also the political climate and constitutional set-up
of Germany that had made Berlin a place of choice for ‘technological
refugees’, mostly from the USA, and thanks to its thriving IT scene,
also a hotbed of digital political activism.

Yet at the same time it should be noted that these circles are not
that large - in the low hundreds in terms of number of members –
and that they are more close-knit and culturally, demographically,
and socially homogeneous than is normally the case in the larger
society. In short, young (20/30-ish), single, english speaking, sort
of full time artists/activists in one way or another. Add to this
the pressure of operating against, and hence enduring the special
attention cum repression from the Surveillance Empire, which makes it
easy to imagine a situation where one is living permanently at the
edge, with all its accompanying features like red eye nights, sexual
promiscuity, alcohol and substance (ab)use, and what have you. A
perfect setting for a scenario whose script can easily veer into all
kinds of, err, ‘configurations’ ...

On the organisations Jake works or has worked for

Following on the factual demise of parliamentary political parties,
trade unions, and of the ‘quality’ press as avenues of criticism
and influencing the governance process, the 'NGO-isation of advocacy
and of politics at large has led to the rise of a large number of
voluntary initiatives, whose common characteristics - for the majority
of them - appears to be small in size, and to be run by far too few
underpaid (or not paid at all) people chasing far too many issues at
the same time. This often results in near-mandatory commitment to a
24/7 work schedule, with its concomitant risks of stress, burnout,
wayward behaviour, etc. This is especially the case with those
outfits focusing on the variegated and nefarious manifestations of
the 'deep state' (see below), and then more particularly in the realm
of surveillance and repression. It is clear that such organisations
and their personnel are themselves 'targets', not to say fair game,
for the aforementioned deep state's agencies and services, and this
equally on a 24/7 footing. Another aspect is that such outfits,
despite their small size, 'enjoy' an inordinately large, and usually
sensationalist media coverage every time they manage to uncover yet
another 'scandal', enhancing at the same time their popularity among
some sections of the public (academics, activists, 'progressive'
people). This all makes for a very heady atmosphere, difficult both to
avoid and to resist. And this has been Jake's 'natural biotope' for
quite a number of years past.

Their good work in exposing states' misbehaviour, and even crimes
notwithstanding, such organisations have their dark sides also. Their
small size results in a very limited number of people, or even a
single person (as in a SPO, Single Person Organisation) acting without
very much of an oversight, if at all. To this. organisations involved
in the more 'sensitive' aspects of politics add an extra, justifiable
but nonetheless secretive, opaque layer to their activities. Which
in turn often leads to a permanent state of paranoia, a tunnel
vision due to over-focussing on the outfit's specific issues (at
the expense of looking at the world at large - or at life itself),
and generally a form of dogmatism in both their internal and their
external functioning. It had also as reverse a clear tendency to
delusion of grandeur, exaggerating the importance and the impact of
both the group(s) and the issues at stake among the general public.
And then, also the effects of cut-throat competition in the permanent
hunt for funding and attention among such outfits should not be
overlooked. Finally, both their rhetorics as they working practices
are essentially not that far removed from the modus operandi of
commercial (IT) start-ups, with whom they appear to share (almost)
the same recruitment demographics: young, bright, dynamic, hip - and

The unhappy conclusion is that such organisations are always at risk,
in the end, to veer towards becoming ineffective at best, and morally
bankrupt at worst. Looking, for instance, at the recent management and
political decision-making processes at the TOR foundation triggered by
'#jakegate' don't make one overly optimistic.

On the wider (and bad) world of big government, big corporation, and
their oppressive practices of surveillance and control.

First, I think we need to realize that, in society at large, the
number of people truly concerned, and actively engaging, with the
above issue is incredibly tiny (and shockingly so, even if it is
slowly growing). To most citizens, this is a 'far-from-my-bed-show',
and one they feel utterly powerless about at the same time. Activists
and their organisations sometimes achieve a big media breakthrough and
subsequent, but ephemeral, hype (Wikileaks, Snowden), but most of the
time, awareness, concern, and hence political consequences remain at
a low level, which might in part explain why measures progressively
regulating and restraining citizen's rights and liberties end up so
smoothly in the statute books.

But near-zero awareness is surely not what can be ascribed to the
corporate intelligence contractors banding together with secretive
government agencies, a complex best represented by the concept
of 'deep state'(*). While the former 'partners' are primarily
concerned with protecting and extending their business interests
- which includes supporting, or at least not opposing, the most
outlandish repressive measures by the state agencies when it suits
them, the latter, on the other hand, will go in the end for outright
elimination, physical if necessary, of their opponents and critics, be
it individual or groups. These are the forces groups and organisations
'Jake' works(/ed) for are confronting - making them clear targets.
How precisely and to what extent is difficult to ascertain - beyond
at points of obvious contact, in the form of protracted harassment at
border crossings for instance. This gives rise to speculations fast
drifting into conspiracy theories - something that is not entirely to
the displeasure of aforementioned agencies. I neither wish nor can say
very much more about this, save than to presume that the situation is
both pretty much calamitous and also not amenable to any (re)solution.

Resistance may be the answer to what has probably become the essential
constitutional issue of our times, but I am afraid not to see a
positive outcome evolving unless it mutates into a real law and order
problem for the powers that be. And this is in my view exactly the
point where the above mentioned organisations and their associates,
supporters, and techie-activists fail to enact the effective mix of
political strategy, street-level tactics, and technological fixes,
usually by prioritizing the last option at the expense of the two

In conclusion

As could be read, I have not at all addressed the question of Jacob
Appelbaum's (very?) possible culpability in the matter of sexual
harassment and uncivil/a-social behaviour - the mainstay of the
#jakegate brouhaha. This is on purpose, since all evidence, as evinced
in various interventions by equally various parties, point, to use
Facebook's inimitable phrase, towards a 'it's complicated' verdict.
Nonetheless, what I think is more important at this stage, also in
view of the above mentioned evidence, or alleged lack thereof, is the
conclusions the groups and organisations involved, as well as 'Jake'
himself will draw for the future, and how his personal situation
will evolve as a consequence. Now that he has been expelled from
pretty much all the outfits he was associated with (Wikilekas appear
to be an exception, for reasons that may - or may not - be easily
guessed) the question is one of what 'Jake' is going to do next.
For better or for worse, what has happened is beyond recall. With
his 'rockstar' status clearly revoked - a good thing - I believe
it is important for 'Jake' to start afresh and find sustainable
footing in a much more modest and withdrawn role, something that is
also the responsibility of his (former) 'Umfeld to make possible,
or at the very least not to try to thwart it in a senseless pursuit
of revenge. I am thinking of his pursuance of a Phd at Eindhoven
Technical University, something that could constitute a perfect
opportunity for retreat and 'reconfiguration'.

To people who feel they have been to have been aggrieved by 'Jake'
one way or another, and they might have good reasons to feel so,
I would suggest that some 'truth and atonement' get together be
organised, say in one year from now. In the end, whatever the way one
wishes to describe those concerned by or involved in '#jakegate' in
terms of a community (and that might also include some people in the
nettime readership), then that 'we' must strive, immo, to overcome the
conflict by learning its lessons ("no more rockstars" would be a good
starter), and not repeat the same mistakes, neither at the individual,
nor at the collective level.


(*) A good exposition is Mike Lofgren: Anatomy of the Deep State (2014)

Patrice Riemens
Amsterdam, October 7, 2016

NB (but see the other NB at the head of this post)

I started writing this story in Transylvania, 3 weeks ago. I dropped
it till now, but nothing appears to happened in between, just his
(quite empty) home page at Eindhoven T.U seem to have moved a few
ranks. In fact nothing (afaik) happened since the #jakegate blowup
in May/June (Jake's last Tweet is dated June 6), save for a long
interview in Die Zeit Digital mid-August:


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact:
#  @nettime_bot tweets mail w/ sender unless #ANON is in Subject: