Pincus v. Assange: Who Speaks for You?

by , August 27, 2010

What do online gaming entrepreneur Mark Pincus and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange have in common? Other than being ambitious young geniuses at the forefront of two distinct Internet phenomena, absolutely nothing. But their vastly different goals and society’s reflexive response to them say much more about the losing battle for America’s soul than we are willing to admit. 

One has made a fortune by designing seductive online games he readily admits are "goofy" yet are calculated to the pixel to suck revenues from 240 million daily players worldwide. The other has created an online sanctuary for government and corporate whistleblowers, publishing millions of leaked documents exposing crime and corruption, and promoting democratic access to information in hopes of "improving civilization."  

Guess which one is the toast of the tech titans, now partnering with Apple, Facebook, and Google, and which one is a hunted man, hiding out with his hair dyed and dodging spiteful accusations of treason, terrorism — even rape? 

Yes, it’s a funny world when a man like Pincus, CEO of Zynga (which is set to make an estimated $500 million in revenues this year), brags publicly that he found early success by doing "every horrible thing in the book to just get revenues right away" and is rewarded, not only by the market, but by a starry-eyed press and a fawning pop-culture so eagerly seduced by crude ambition and naked self-promotion. Meanwhile, Assange’s own aspirations are consistently met with righteous, cynical derision from the very same establishment, which ironically accuses Assange of — get this — crude ambition and naked self-promotion. 

"With his bloodless, sallow face, his lank hair drained of all color, his languorous, very un-Australian limbs, and his aura of blinding pallor that appears to admit no nuance, Assange looks every inch the amoral, uber-nerd villain, icily detached from the real world of moral choices in which the rest of us saps live. Call him the Unaleaker, with apologies to the victims of Ted Kaczynski."

Gaming guru Mark Pincus, left, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Note to NYU professor and Hoover Institution journalism fellow Tunku Varadarajan: calm down. It’s hardly clever to launch a polemic, even one gracing The Daily Beast, with such turgid ad hominem abuse. But Assange, 39, appears to inspire similar red-faced tantrums all over our parochial ruling class. Michael Moynihan at Reason described him as "Edgar Winter as imagined by Jim Henson; an awkward, lanky Australian with translucent skin …(a) sallow-faced whistleblower …something of a specialist in the obscene, historically illiterate analogy, " and only known as "brave" and "heroic" in the "fetid swamps of the blogosphere." 

To be fair, Pincus, 44, is often chided for his ideas of grandeur, though his sweeping declarations –"we have a chance to change history" — have nothing to do with ending wars, but building an "online entertainment empire", "the next killer app," and a "digital skyscraper" for the benefit of, uh, "users." Because his story is America’s story: making gobs of money with a gut-full of pluck, a patronizing regard for business ethics and plenty of sharp elbows, his braggadocio is easily forgiven, repaid even, with glossy magazine headlines exclaiming, "Why You Should Love the Most Hated Man on Facebook."  

Rather than the pallid Dickensian vulgarity ascribed to his aforementioned contemporary, "(Pincus) is slightly built and boyish-looking," writes Details magazine in a May profile. "Dressed in expensive Nike sneakers, jeans, and an untucked oxford shirt, he looks like any other tech type, but he sounds like a banker — only brasher."  

For those unfamiliar with Pincus, he is the Silicon Valley "visionary" behind Zynga and its online gaming brands, including MafiaWars, FishVille, Zynga Poker and the most popular game on the Web today, FarmVille. Thanks to the Facebook, MySpace and iPhone platforms making them easily accessible to Zynga’s colossal user base, FarmVille and the rest have dragged online gaming, as writer Tim Walker muses, out of "the preserve of youngish men in darkened bedrooms, studying strategy guides for World of Warcraft and Halo" and into the "mainstream, taking in office workers and stay-at-home mums, children and their grandparents." 

In other words, lobotomizing the remaining population into a more perfect realization of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. FarmVille is more than a "time waster," it’s a serious distraction and if you want to go there, a social disease. And for many, according to recent reports, a very expensive habit. Because it’s not all about throwing a "cocktail party" with something to do, as Pincus coyly describes. FarmVille, for example, is about buying and selling virtual goods on a virtual piece of property, forcing players to engage online almost constantly to ensure their investments are maintained. As described by i.switched.com, Zynga didn’t become a $4.5 billion company for nothing.

"There it is: Zynga’s dirty technique for making its $500 million. It ropes players into the game with the promise that absolutely anyone can play. It will even float you coins the first time you run out, not unlike the casino that gives a high-roller luxury accommodations in anticipation of making back the house’s stake. It dangles the prospect of a bigger, prettier, better farm; as the game loads, you’re faced with idyllic images of well-off farms, not unlike the glossy ads for high-end residences. But it’s nearly impossible to get some of those goods without ponying up a buck or two here and there. When Zynga’s got a user base of 61 million digital farmers, it’s easy enough to make ends meet, to say the least. 
 
"But paid-for coins and cash could be considered the long con compared to some of the more unscrupulous methods of revenue generation to which FarmVille and its sister games have been connected … That included selling ad space to sleazy marketers that hooked users with disguised ‘online IQ tests’ and the promise of free trial offers. 
Zynga and Facebook were hit with a class-action lawsuit back in November, which accused the game developer of pulling in nearly a third of its cash from the ‘special offers’ advertised through its games."

In August, Gawker reported how an "army of junkies" fueled by Zynga games are making "tech titans" like Google rich, too (Zynga recently forged a multi-million dollar deal with the Web search giant, giving Google first rights to its new games). "That such companies would associate themselves with the exploitation of children and financially depleted addicts is alarming, even in hyper-aggressive Silicon Valley," said writer Ryan Tate, who reported that Zynga’s easy victims, described callously by the industry as "whales," are typically "people on disability and fixed incomes," and children who filch their parents’ credit cards, who see the games as "all someone has in life" and will drain bank accounts to maintain play. 

"There’s something sad about their investing time and money helping to spread idiotic games designed via spreadsheet to extract maximum revenue from human zombies," Tate noted. 

But these days, Pincus is far from "sad," in fact he is gloating, having first been snubbed by Wall Street and the Silicon Valley snobs, he’s poised to become the tech epicenter’s next billionaire. "The same people who called you an idiot will kiss the ring," he told Details.  

His early story is hardly unconventional, having grown up like one of the Breakfast Club kids or Ferris Bueller in tony Lincoln Park, Illinois. He went to the famed Francis W. Parker School in Chicago through 12th grade, then onto the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and got his MBA at Harvard Business School. He became a venture capitalist and investment broker, and at 33 sold his first start-up, Freeloader Inc, for $38 million. More recently, he hired designer Ken Fulk to glam his "very post-90’s South of the Market loft" in San Francisco’s Cole Valley as well as his Aspen ranch. TechCrunch, which had spent months criticizing Pincus, embarrassedly announced in January that its readers had named him CEO of the Year. 

"You can see Pincus’ swagger as he takes his victory lap in the press," noted Gawker in April.  

These days there is little swagger from Assange, who is more likely in duck and defend mode, having got on the wrong side of the U.S. government, something a savvy entrepreneur and corporate courtesan like Pincus knows never to do. But Assange, a Gen-X cohort whose one public comment even approaching braggadocio came when he told Glenn Greenwald, "I enjoy crushing bastards. I like a good challenge," has never been about the money and the fame, no matter what the peevish toffs in the press want say about it. 

Despite Varadarajan’s incredulousness, Assange was born in Australia, living a reportedly spare, nomadic childhood. According to his Wikipedia entry and a rather balanced, 10,000-word New Yorker profile, Assange was raised by his mother and stepfather in a traveling theater group. His mother eventually remarried and had another son for which there was an ugly custody battle forcing mother and sons to live briefly "in hiding." Assange attended schools periodically and was largely homeschooled and  "self-taught … widely read on science and mathematics." In the late 80’s he joined a group of teenage hackers known as the "International Subversives." He married at 18, had a son, and soon divorced. 

According to the UK’s Sunday Times, Assange and several teens were arrested after the word WANK (an alleged acronym for the hacker group "Worms Against Nuclear Killers") appeared on NASA computers just before an October 1989 shuttle launch. They were never implicated in the prank, but Assange was later charged with 30 counts of computer crime after subsequent hacking exploits. He pled guilty to 24 of them and was placed on a "good behavior bond," because, as the judge said at his sentencing, "There is just no evidence that there was anything other than sort of intelligent inquisitiveness and the pleasure of being able to — what’s the expression — surf through these various computers." 

"He was opposed to Big Brother, to the restriction of freedom of communication," recalled Ken Day, who led the federal investigation, to the newspaper. "His moral sense about breaking into computer systems was, ‘I’m not going to do any harm, so what’s wrong with it?’" 

Assange reportedly abandoned hacking, and went on to study physics, philosophy, and neuroscience at the University of Melbourne, becoming a "prominent member of the mathematics society," according to a BBC profile. He helped research and write a book, Underground, about the Melbourne hacker community, with academic Suelette Dreyfus, who said Assange was "quite interested in the concept of ethics, concepts of justice, what government should and shouldn’t do." 

What a creepy dude. It gets worse, of course, as he spends the early part of his career creating and co-inventing open-source software and technology. According to Wikipedia, Assange wrote Strobe, the first free and open source port scanner, in 1995. He later co-invented "Rubberhose deniable encryption," a "cryptographic concept made into a software package for Linux designed to provide plausible deniability against rubber-hose cryptanalysis," which he originally intended "as a tool for human rights workers who needed to protect sensitive data in the field." 

Inspired by Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the 1971 Pentagon Papers, Assange helped to create a web-based  "dead letterbox" to provide safe delivery for whistleblowers willing to transfer and publish secret information. WikiLeaks was created in 2006 with a "group of like minded people from across the Web." The rest is history: 

"WikiLeaks is a multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistleblowers, journalists, and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public," according to the group’s mission statement.

"…We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government, and stronger democracies. All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information. Historically that information has been costly — in terms of human life and human rights. But with technological advances — the internet, and cryptography — the risks of conveying important information can be lowered.

"In its landmark ruling on the Pentagon Papers, the US Supreme Court ruled that ‘only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.’ We agree."  

Since its launch, WikiLeaks has won awards from both The Economist magazine and Amnesty International UK. While it is seen as a menace to world governments, notably China (which has tried unsuccessfully to block it) WikiLeaks has been credited with advancing critical investigations into state and corporate corruption on at least three continents, including the Peruvian oil scandal, toxic waste dumping off the Ivory Coast, and the Icelandic financial crisis.   

The Icelandic people were so grateful for the information WikiLeaks provided they passed a law to create a safe haven for future whistleblowers. Meanwhile, Kenyan activists have said they would readily "vouch" for WikiLeaks, which helped to publish a long suppressed 110-page dossier exposing the truth about former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi. The WikiLeaks report, "Cry of Blood: Report on Extra-judicial Killings and Disappearances," led to the Amnesty International award.  

From the Mars Group Kenya:  

"No one in Kenya will wisely second guess WikiLeaks for telling Kenyans the cold hard truth about a dollar billionaire who spent his whole life as a relatively low-paid public servant, and the anti-corruption President who betrayed his personal pledge that corruption will cease to be a way of life in Kenya. Neither will Kenyans forget that WikiLeaks also told the world about the extra-judicial executions documented by the Late Oscar Kingara and GPO Oulu of the Oscar Foundation, and later recorded by Philip Alston, an official United Nations rapporteur on Summary Disappearances and Extra Judicial Killings. 

"WikiLeaks, When Kenyans needed you (and when some of our official institutions abandoned their roles) you were there for us."

Unlike Zynga, WikiLeaks has been in and out of financial straits over the years, at one point shutting down due to a lack of funds. It thrives on donations and goes through great lengths to protect its contributors’ identities (why not, when thanks to post-9/11 terror laws, the U.S. government might someday find a way to accuse them of materially supporting terrorism). 

The dead-ended money trail nonetheless frustrates the organization’s critics. "WikiLeaks’s lack of financial transparency stands in contrast to the total transparency it seeks from governments and corporations," The Wall Street Journal huffed this week. 

Assange has come under a rare line of attack by Washington, one fulfilled by a number of fingers on the establishment’s whip hand: the military, the White House, members of Congress, and the corporate mainstream media. Assange first landed himself in hot water back in 2007 when WikiLeaks published the Guantánamo Bay prison procedural guide and in March, a leaked CIA report analyzing how the U.S. government can best manipulate public opinion in France and Germany about the war in Afghanistan. 

But it put itself firmly in the crosshairs when it released the video of a 2007 U.S. military airstrike in Baghdad that killed at least 18 people, mostly civilians, including two Reuters journalists. The U.S. military had been withholding the video despite an outstanding 2008 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.  

Then in July, WikiLeaks released some 90,000 documents under the title, "Afghan War Diary 2004-2010," which included years of classified field reports by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Though the leak highlighted heretofore-unreleased data on civilian casualties, enemy strength, and secret military hit squads, it was largely dismissed in Washington as "old news." Even so, WikiLeaks has been accused of putting Afghan informers and allies at risk of enemy retaliation by allegedly not redacting their names and locations from the reports.  

This has helped bridge Assange’s American mainstream image from noisome foreign oddity to "murderer," "terrorist," and "criminal," though the Pentagon admits it has no idea whether the leaks ever hurt anyone or anything (accept, as Glenn Greenwald points out, the Pentagon’s "perception management" of the war). Plus, a growing number of experts doubt Assange could be charged with anything more criminal than having a bad hair day. 

But the heated accusations, flimsy as they may be, are the persuasive signature of a so-far successful mass media campaign to both delegitimize and destroy Assange. The next step is to shut down WikiLeaks. It’s proven an easy mission so far, as the American public seems eager to indulge in a crude cynicism George Orwell would have been proud of: that a man who aspires to promote global human rights and questions authority must be abnormal, in fact, inherently narcissistic and evil. Much more, than say, a man who spends his entire career trying to scrape a buck off the stooped backs of the meekest among us.  

Plainly put, America doesn’t mind a rebel, just the wrong kind. Pincus the Revered bends the rules to advance himself while driving the American mind and culture over a cliff. Assange the Reviled defies the state to give the people access to information about a war that is being fought in their name. A multi-front, endless war, for which Americans have spent over a trillion dollars, not to mention the 6,765 coalition members killed and tens of thousands wounded. Meanwhile, countless civilians are killed, crippled and displaced every day. 

Forget their individual motives for a second, what do Assange and Pincus really say about us? I’ll bet the Farm it ain’t very good.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos