But the data Fish and friends got their hands on showed a very different picture closely paralleling cutting-edge statistical research in Tennessee and also reinforcing the No-Child-Left-Behind philosophy of Richards' rival, George W. Bush. When Fish was able to get his hands on it and decode it, the data showed that schools could teach poor kids up to the same level as rich kids by the third grade, mainly by hiring and training the right teachers, while spending less money on administration.
State and local officials fought Fish's information demands on the grounds that they were protecting the privacy, security and welfare of the children. But his version of things is this: that when he finally got his hands on it, the information actually betrayed an effort by the educators to manipulate test scores, mainly by gaming the number and type of kids allowed to take the tests.
"We concluded that there had to have been collusion for this to have taken place on as broad a scale as it did," he says now, "because it took place in every district in the entire state."
And, as I say, that is Fish's version. I am confidant that people who were on the other side of those battles would offer a different construction. That's not the point here.
He believes that his version of the education battles in Texas in the '90s is the right one. Passionately believes. He also believes the Texas education saga demonstrates a kind of engineering problem in the structure of society.
"It's a question of asymmetrical information," he says.
Like water, too much information is elevated in secret reservoirs. Not enough flows down to the fields. But like water, information always must seek the sea.
"Ultimately I believe that information widely disseminated is beneficial to society. With asymmetry of information, you wind up with a secret order of people who get to see stuff."
An information aristocracy.
Is that true? The point is that Fish and a whole bunch of very smart and very independent-minded engineers all over the world believe it is true. They are the Levellers of the Information Age. In their view, asymmetry is a problem, an imbalance, a bowed arrow that must fly.
By the way, they also have the technological means to make it fly. And Fish believes—ardently believes—that the rest of us lack the ability to catch that arrow in the air.
For example: He says the first impulse of governments trying to keep information from their citizens is to apply pressure on the keepers of the half-dozen domain-name servers—the digital pumps that make information flow on the Internet—to remove the addresses of sites they find objectionable.
If your Internet ID is not on the domain-name server, the theory goes, then no one can find you. For all digital intents and purposes, you will no longer exist.
But Fish describes an army of geeks and hackers who are already devising ways to wire around the main domain-name servers. In fact, it is in the very nature of the Internet to wire around obstacles, he says, and the ability to do wire-arounds will always outpace the ability to create blocks.
"There is a saying that the Internet detects censorship as a failure and wires around it," he says.
I always love talking to Fish, because it's sort of like playing a computer game—something at which I am not otherwise adept. I asked him what the geeks and hackers would do if I devised an Internet "robot," a fiendishly clever program able to fly all over the Internet faster than spit, finding all their new wire-arounds installed to defy my blockades and then re-block them.
"The geeks will kill your robot," he said quietly.
KILL MY ROBOT?!!! How can they kill my robot?
"They can," he said quietly again.
And if they can't kill my robot, he said, they'll kill me.
Well, no, not me, myself and I, but my agency, my business, my website, my mainframe. How will they kill my mainframe?
"Denial of service attacks," he said. "In denial of service, the defense can never equal the offense."
That's what the geeks have already done to the businesses that have joined the anti-WikiLeaks death squads. They bombarded their sites with service requests from thousands of computers so the sites couldn't do business.
Fish is certainly correct in saying that the standoff between Assange and the U.S. government is historic and structural. If the Internet can't be shut up, and if every important secret is going to wind up on the Internet, then we are about to occupy a very changed planet.
In fact, I can only think of one area where I know he is wrong. He cannot kill my robot. Not MY little robot. With that single caveat, I have to agree with him on the rest. Julian Assange probably is the least of our worries.