As she sat in a metal cage in a tent in the Kuwaiti desert, one thing stood out to Chelsea – then Bradley – Manning, PFC: the cage was made in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
At the time, she also felt she was caged in the wrong physical body.
Despite having a thirty-five year prison sentence commuted after seven years and beginning the process of transitioning to a body that feels more like her own, Chelsea Manning is still living in a cage.
At the New Yorker Festival, Chelsea Manning was interviewed by Larissa MacFarquhar, during which she revealed the outlines of the cage she lives in. She also described how all of us are being increasingly caged in, slowly but surely.
Chelsea’s Current Cage
Ms. Manning’s cage is partially built by legal settlements, and partially built by her own sense of honor, duty, and right and wrong.
The legal sides of her cage come as a result of her court martial from the videos she leaked of the Iraq war.
“There’s a particular statement I read at court martial – that’s what I can talk about,” she said.
Even when she was asked about the most famous video that she leaked, which shows a helicopter attack that killed journalists and children, she said she was legally bound not to talk about what was in the video. That video is all over the Internet, but she still cannot talk about it.
Nonetheless she is adamant that she did not reveal anything that would harm the interests of the United States.
“I knew what was in them. I worked them every day. It is historical data. There’s nothing sensitive in there – no troop movements or mission critical data….We’ve proven that repeatedly. There’s no identity of sources….It’s what happened. It’s historical data.”
But the legal constraints are not the only reason she wouldn’t talk. When asked about the work she did, she refused to give away things that might be military secrets. She described her work in the military as doing data analysis on large data sets, similar to what marketers might do, trying to predict people’s behavior, but when Ms. MacFarquhar asked for details about what she was analyzing and how, Ms. Manning’s response was simple and direct.
“I can’t tell you.”
It was clear she was not going to give up any of the information or methods that she had learned which were secret. This seemed to be less out of any legal responsibility, but more of the sense of duty. Her tone was that of any military person who has reached the limits of what they can tell you.
She also wouldn’t violate the sense of camaraderie she had with her fellow soldiers, refusing to characterize the ribbing she got from fellow soldiers as hazing.
“I’ve never said I was teased and bullied by my colleagues. Maybe it is something we just did in military culture and we justify it. There were times it crossed the line. I don’t think that [the disclosures and transitioning or being picked on by fellow soldiers] are connected.”
Ms. Manning said that she felt she had to share the videos and files that she leaked because Americans needed to know about what was happening in Iraq.
“It was like drinking from a fire hose of death and destruction every day,” Ms. Manning said.
Feeling boxed in was the reason she ended up in Iraq in the first place. After struggling with family troubles, homelessness, and a sense of being in the wrong body, Chelsea Manning was trying to figure out her life. Her father said she should go into the military to gain structure and discipline.
Looking at what was happening in the world she joined the army for two reasons.
“I saw the images of the Iraq war and thought I could make a difference. And I thought I would not be trans. I can’t be trans [in the army]. I joined the army because that is where the fight was and I thought I could help. I was 18.”
The idealism of the 18-year-old Bradley Manning was tempered by death and destruction she saw, and the imprisonment that she endured. After all that she went through, Ms. Manning said that she realized that it did not make sense to try to be someone else. Instead, she had to try to become the person she felt she was and that is when she decided to transition from being a man to being a woman.
The Banality of Cages
Despite leaving the cage of prison and even the confines of a body that didn’t fit her, Ms. Manning thinks the she and all the rest of us are becoming entrapped by two macro trends: 1) the growth of the surveillance state, and 2) the growth of algorithms determining what information we get.
“I got outside, and I said ‘this is a different place. It feels like the most boring and predictable dystopian novel I ever read.’ There is a dystopian element, but it is banal.”
She said that prison has encroached on the outside world. While she acknowledges that her time in prison may have made her more sensitive, Ms. Manning said that she notices how often she sees surveillance cameras and heavily armed police officers everywhere.
“Everything that makes prison bad is starting to happen out here.”
The other thing that she warned about during her talk is that the use of algorithms in technology is creating feedback loops that could end up restricting our knowledge and our choices, which could lead to societal harm.
“There are systems that if misused could be very dangerous to society. There are feedback loops going on.”
She said that we can see this with the way data sets are analyzed. As an example, she used Google search results, which programmers will use to optimize algorithms in order to make the information more relevant.
“What ends up being the top search results changes society over time. It makes [the results] more relevant, which makes it more prevalent, which makes it more relevant. Who’s in control? Us or machines?”
She said that she saw examples of destructive feedback loops in the data she analyzed in Iraq. The military would look for trouble and enemy activity and then go into specific neighborhoods to try to deal with it. By going into those neighborhoods, the military would draw more of the enemy, and sometimes instead of decreasing violence and stabilizing neighborhoods, the data would lead to an increasing spiral.
Can We Escape The Coming Cages?
The question that arises is, of course, what do we do about it?
Ms. Manning brought up three things, perhaps not in direct response to the big question, but both of which were related to the solution.
First, people need to assert their rights. She said that she learned this in the context of being a trans person. What she came to realize is that we all have rights, and that they are not something given to us by judges, or police officers, or institutions.
“We all have rights. No one gives them to us. We don’t win them. It’s how we assert them or demand them. You already have rights; you just have to assert them.”
Second, she said that we need to recognize institutions, no matter how good they may be, sometimes fail. And that is when something like her leak becomes important, because it gives the people the knowledge to hold the institution accountable.
Third, people need to think about what might happen with the work that they do. She said that technologists, software engineers, and others need to think about what can be done with the tools that they are building. They need to think about how those tools might be used in other contexts, and they need to talk to one another, whether formally or informally to get outside perspectives.
“Software developers have an inherent ethical obligation. We need to think beyond meeting deadlines and meeting criteria.”
She recognized that this has real world costs in time and money, but she said that they need to “red team” more of their work – have someone look at it oppositionally – to make sure that the tools they are developing don’t cause harm.
“Let’s take some chunks of time and say ‘what are the consequences of this system.’ How can this be misused?’”
Throughout the interview Ms. MacFarquhar came back a few times to the question of what advice Ms. Manning would give someone facing the decision about whether or not to leak information or take some similar action. But there was no easy answer or guidelines.
“There’s not a one-sized fits all answer. It depends on what is in front of you.”
Ms. Manning said that her leak was a political act. It was done out of the sense that sometimes people need to do something that goes beyond the ballot box to make up for when institutions fail. Individual circumstance and conscience will often determine what should be done, but people need to realize that they have the power to do something, she said.
“Every single person has to make their own decision. Every single one of us has the innate agency to act.”