Open Source Design 01: The architects of information

The architecture of John Young and Deborah Natsios is made of information. Their portfolio:, which hosts thousands of suppressed and classified documents.

This article was published in Domus 948, June 2011

In the early days of the Internet, more than a decade before Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks, two New York architects with a successful design practice saw in the Internet a platform for open exchange of information capable of fundamentally altering the asymmetrical balance of power between people, governments and corporations, and began publishing every official document—classified or otherwise—they could lay their hands on. In the last 15 years and 65,000 uploads, has survived dozens of corporate takedown orders and hacker attacks, and Deborah Natsios and John Young are as convinced as ever that all information must be free.

How did Cryptome begin?
Our collaboration started some time late in 1993. We went online in the Internet's early infancy, its seminal moments. Quite quickly we became involved in these new online environments and communities that were positioning themselves on the front line of the politics of information. John's involvement with the Cypherpunk Listserv was a transformative moment—Cypherpunk was dealing with issues of cryptography and freedom of information, and was way more advanced than anything that architectural practice was interested in at the time. For a long time we were the only architects in a milieu of technologists, cryptographers, hackers—we experienced a very peculiar kind of isolation in those years.
John: Cypherpunk was completely different from anything that existed at the time. It was all about taking over the world by undermining institutions and authorities. Cypherpunk did not have any interest in design, or had never heard of it, or possibly just didn't care. On the other side, we were surrounded by architects and designers who were not interested in anything that might disturb the opportunity of getting work, anything that might hinder their careers. It was then that it started to dawn on us that the Internet was going to become an advertising medium, as it has become for designers and architects. Even today, there are thousands of websites about getting work and showing portfolios, but nothing even remotely disruptive. Cypherpunk was out to undermine precisely that.

What made you perceive the disruptive potential of the Internet in relation to the politics of information as something necessary at that time?
I think the politics of these "new technology" people in the design world is very problematic. Architects are by and large engaged in a kind of ornamental politics—a telegenic, photogenic and glossy politics that is unerringly safe. They won't put their careers on the line, they won't be visited by the authorities, they won't be subpoenaed for a federal criminal trial—all of which has happened to us. Is your work pulling the tail of the tiger? Are the authorities appearing at your door with warnings? Very few architects can say that. There is a certain abdication of engagement in the circles of mainstream production as tools of change—exhibitions, magazines and so on play their own role in this game.
John: We are not aware of anyone else in the design world who is engaged in the sort of practice we are engaged in. And even if they were, you would never find out about them through the architectural and design media—they would be too bizarre to be associated with. What the architecture world does have is a particular breed of architects who are highly practised at being embraced for their "outsiderness". Being a professional outsider as a promotional schtick: they are welcome and there are budgets for them. So one option is to be mildly controversial, and get invited to places to give talks and do museum shows. The other is to actually do something that will really piss people off, to the extent they will never want to invite you again or have anything to do with you.
As well as on its website,
Cryptome makes its entire
archive of over 65,000
documents available on DVDs
which it mails to anyone who
requests them by regular post.
As well as on its website, Cryptome makes its entire archive of over 65,000 documents available on DVDs which it mails to anyone who requests them by regular post.
What have the consequences been? How have you been attacked?
The most common way is through copyright law. When Cryptome was shut down by Microsoft last year, it was on a proprietary claim that "copyrighted" material had been published. It turned out that what had been published was a series of documents drafted by major corporations, Microsoft included, in response to new government directives for situations in which corporations are obliged to share user-data with law enforcement. All these companies were asked to produce a manual instructing officials on how to decode and interpret the confidential data residing in their databases. Most of them were made public by the corporations themselves so that the public would be aware that their data could potentially be turned over to the FBI, no questions asked. Microsoft's manual, however, had not been made public. It was provided to us and we put it up on Cryptome. As a consequence, Microsoft had the site taken down. Three days later we were back up again.

What do you think about the emergence of an open-source design culture? In many ways it seems to adhere to the sort of non-proprietary attitude towards information and knowledge that you have been advocating for many years.
To pry open the privatised domain, the realm of copyright interests, the not-public domain, the not-public space of corporate interests—but there are private security guards, global security mercenaries who patrol that boundary. If you are really serious about open source you are going to step on their toes and you will be exposed to the backlash. The push-back is very vigorous—the authorities, the corporate interests, they are not gentle about it. And there is real discomfort among those establishments in associating with this kind of work, especially among academic practitioners who are presumably on the cutting edge but who are actually slaves to job security. As soon as they get a sense that something could be too problematic for them in the academic milieu, they back away.
John: We're great advocates of plagiarism and stealing, and as a result we get ejected from places all the time. They say: "You went too far." That's the marker: you went too far. You can be impolite and controversial and so forth, so long as you don't overstep the mark. A little storm in a teacup will be OK, but if you go and join the Palestinians and attack the Israelis, that's going too far. So being highly politicised is fine, so long as you're careful not to lay it on too thick. Otherwise you are asked: are you insane? It's professional suicide for an architect to do this kind of thing. No one will ever hire you again! It's much the same in the field of architectural design: you can't go too far in taking community issues into account in your designs, for example. But if you do, all sorts of explanations are at the ready for why the project must be cancelled. And it's the same with the media. We're often faced with journalists weaseling out of publishing us—they say we couldn't do this, couldn't publish that, it didn't make the cut, there wasn't enough space, it didn't fit our format, there's been a change since we last spoke.

What do you think about the unprecedented degree of notoriety Wikileaks has achieved with the release of the US diplomatic cables?

There are a number of information activists who are concerned about whistle-blowing organisations going too far, triggering a crackdown on journalism. They say we have to be careful we don't really offend people or it will lead to a crackdown. But if you go ahead and go too far, as WikiLeaks discovered, it is all right; it turns out just fine and you can capitalise on the attention the controversy attracts. It's a strategy: go too far, get noticed, monetise having gone too far, stop going too far, and repeat the process over and over. It's a fairly well-known technique, and one Wikileaks is very familiar with. The markup is phenomenal. That's why I consider all these copycats of Wikileaks pretty obnoxious. They should go beyond riding the coat-tails of the brand name and do something that is truly, extraordinarily different. The reality is that there's big business in branding dissent and whistle-blowing. There is money to be made with these outsider stances, and they will fight fiercely for it. Once you become aware of how insidious it is, it is hard to stay clear of it. Advertising is one of the great undermining forces out there—at least in the world of managing information. We have been taunted about that: how would you like to make money, to fill up your site with advertising? The reality is that it's not that expensive to publish information. It is very cheap, actually, until you need offices, lawyers, public relations managers, your own advertising office and so on.

What about your architectural practice?
This is how we practise. In addition to Cryptome we run a website called Cartome. Deborah is in charge of that one. It deals with similar issues to Cryptome—privacy, cryptography, the politics of information and so on—but from a spatialgeographic perspective. We have thousands of collaborators and clients around the world who help us with "construction documents"—not the kind you would use for that term, but it'll help you understand. Cryptome publishes them daily, dozens of them a week. We are doing construction documents that go well beyond simple buildings. It is a huge, collaborative project, and one we've been invested in long before these other high-profile initiatives came along. We've now got thousands of collaborators, most of them anonymous, contributing and helping us create these "construction documents". We give full credit to all these collaborators—as much credit as they can bear, in fact, but we also offer anonymity. And we don't claim this work as ours—we simply publicise this material as the work of a global network. We are anxious to get this out and share it with others, but we won't ask for a grant from some foundation to support us. That is a key point. We pay for this out of our own pockets.

What do you see as most problematic in contemporary architecture?
We oppose the tele-visualisation and the photogenicisation of the architectural object, product or furniture, its glossy representation. Our interpretation of the architect is as an architect of information—collecting, annotating, combining troves of data, organising it and indexing it. Architects have an extraordinary training in handling complex team efforts. The degree to which they are capable of coordinating huge teams of disparate disciplinary archaeologies that are brought into some kind of a moment of intersection is rarely acknowledged.
John: As far as we know, no global architect is doing anything like this. Foreign policy people are, think-tanks are, but architects have been beaten down into a narrow and insignificant role of creating glossy projects for publication in their own profession's magazines. The problem with the architecture world is that most of its members will not talk about the issues at stake here, and won't admit to being associated with it. I have brought along some of our work in this package: 65,000 files made of videos, drawings, maps, some of them stolen, most of them contributed. It is a set of construction documents that thousands of people have helped us assemble. We don't claim it as our own, and we make it available through DVDs and our website. It is all online and it is there for people to use as they like. Cryptome publishes five or six new files a day—sometimes a dozen—but we have no architectural readers on our site. In the back of their minds there is the fear that this kind of discourse might undermine their relationship with their clientele.
You ran a successful design office that for many years was involved in more conventional forms of practice. What drives you to do this?
I would turn the question round to you: what are your thoughts about anonymity? What do you think about Facebook being a beautiful surveillance device? What do you think about the asymmetry of emergent social tools? They are evidently onerous, but few people are stopping to notice this—they're too busy exulting in the sociability of it all. In the meantime, Amazon, with all its cloud services, now possesses more information than any other single organisation, with the possible exception of Google. What a sweet spot for people who want to steal personal information.

How do you distribute your DVDs?
Regular mail, which is probably the safest means of communication there is. Nothing online can be used for communication if you want privacy, nothing digital for that matter. We caution people: these are digital products, so beware of what is on them. We don't really know what might be in a document sent to us on DVD. This is a macroscopic fallacy in any regulation intended to protect your privacy: it won't work. Every privacy policy is deceptive, and is meant to mislead you. Regulations are meant to mislead you. Governments are meant to mislead you. We continually ask ourselves: how do you explain this, how do you get it across to the public when there is a huge industry out there peddling the other version, the narrative of "trustworthiness"? They say: we will pass a law, we will take care of this for you so leave it to us. What they should be saying is that you have to take care of yourself—that's our view. We state this clearly on Cryptome: do not trust the Internet. Do not trust professionals. Do not trust us, or anybody else.

Interview recorded in New York on May 10, 2011
If you are really serious about open source you are going to step on the toes of the global security mercenaries who defend corporate interests. They’re not at all gentle.

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