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19 Points On Wikileaks

Don’t worry, it’s not another prolix post from me, just commentary on Jack Goldsmith’s Seven Thoughts on Wikileaks and Lovink & Riemens’s Twelve theses on WikiLeaks. (And here’s an FAQ for those confused by the whole controversy.)

Goldsmith, who takes cybersecurity very seriously, nevertheless finds himself “agreeing with those who think Assange is being unduly vilified.” He believes that “it is not obvious what law he has violated,” and Geoff Stone today said that many Lieberman-inspired efforts to expand the Espionage Act to include Assange’s conduct would be unconstitutional. Goldsmith asks:

What if there were no wikileaks and Manning had simply given the Lady Gaga CD to the Times? Presumably the Times would eventually have published most of the same information, with a few redactions, for all the world to see. Would our reaction to that have been more subdued than our reaction now to Assange? If so, why?

Lovink & Riemens provide something of an answer:

Traditional investigative journalism used to consist of three phases: unearthing facts, crosschecking these and backgrounding them into an understandable discourse. WikiLeaks does the first, claims to do the second, but omits the third completely. . . . What WikiLeaks anticipates, but so far has been unable to organize, is the “crowd sourcing” of the interpretation of its leaked documents. That work, oddly, is left to the few remaining staff journalists of selected “quality” news media.

Later, academics pick up the scraps and spin the stories behind the closed gates of publishing stables. But where is networked critical commentariat? Certainly, we are all busy with our minor critiques; but it remains the case that WikiLeaks generates its capacity to inspire irritation at the big end of town precisely because of the transversal and symbiotic relation it holds with establishment media institutions. . . .Therein lies the conflictual terrain of the political.

Perhaps the difference between the treatment of Assange and the NYT is a widespread sense that the “paper of record” simply must publish important news once it’s been revealed. But the Wikileaks situation confounds any model of objective journalists “finding facts” in the world. As the FAQ explains, “Wikileaks is only releasing cables in coordination with the actions of . . . five selected news organizations.” Like search engines, it challenges the traditional distinctions between conduit and content-provider that have governed our thinking about communications. As L & R put it,

One of the main difficulties with explaining WikiLeaks arises from the fact that it is unclear (also to the WikiLeaks people themselves) whether it sees itself and operates as a content provider or as a simple conduit for leaked data (the impression is that it sees itself as either/or, depending on context and circumstances). This, by the way, has been a common problem ever since media went online en masse and publishing and communications became a service rather than a product. . . . This might be why Assange and his collaborators refuse to be labelled in terms of “old categories” (journalists, hackers, etc.) and claim to represent a new Gestalt on the world information stage.

I have to admit, my initial read of this story was over-influenced by media reports that described Wikileaks as “dumping” documents. In fact, they have been selective; as Glenn Greenwald explains, “They have not released “thousands” of cables; they’ve released 1,193 — less than 1/2 of 1% of the total they possess.”

But I do think I was right about one thing: the Wikileaks story reveals a dangerously overstretched “superpower.” When Russia recommends a Nobel Prize for Assange, you know that they are pretty confident in their ability to decouple from the US’s overindebted, hollowed out economy. Just as trillions of dollars in war spending have emptied our coffers, military prerogatives also led to the DOD’s “data deluge blowback.” As Lovink puts it:

In the ongoing saga called “The Decline of the US Empire”, WikiLeaks enters the stage as the slayer of a soft target. It would be difficult to imagine it being able to inflict quite same damage to the Russian or Chinese governments, or even to the Singaporean — not to mention their “corporate” affiliates. In Russia or China, huge cultural and linguistic barriers are at work, not to speak of purely power-related ones, which would need to be surmounted. Vastly different constituencies are also factors there, even if we are speaking about the narrower (and allegedly more global) cultures and agendas of hackers, info-activists and investigative journalists. In that sense, WikiLeaks in its present manifestation remains a typically “western” product and cannot claim to be a truly universal or global undertaking.

The irony, of course, is that in its quest for openness, Wikileaks is likely to provoke extraordinary responses from government that make our country more like that of Russia or China. Lovink notes some uncomfortable parallels between Wikileaks and those it opposes:

WikiLeaks displays a stunning lack of transparency in its internal organization. Its excuse that “WikiLeaks needs to be completely opaque in order to force others to be totally transparent” amounts, in our opinion, to little more than Mad magazine’s famous Spy vs. Spy cartoons. You beat the opposition but in a way that makes you indistinguishable from it.

WikiLeaks is also an organization deeply shaped by 1980s hacker culture, combined with the political values of techno-libertarianism that emerged in the 1990s. . . . Lack of commonality with congenial, “another world is possible” movements drives WikiLeaks to seek public attention by way of increasingly spectacular and risky disclosures, thereby gathering a constituency of often wildly enthusiastic, but generally passive supporters.

Assange reminds me a bit of the obsessed protagonist of Samuel Delany’s sci-fi novel Nova, with sensitive information playing the role in the Wikileaks drama that Illyrion plays in Delany’s work: a resource that can utterly shift the balance of power if it comes into the right hands. Assange sees an utterly corrupt status quo, and wishes to upset it. Projects like Wikileaks may well succeed in doing so. But, if the status quo could speak, it might warn, “Apres moi, le deluge.” (And Zhou Enlai is probably still correct to say that it’s “too soon to tell” what the impact of that power shift was.)

X-Posted: Concurring Opinions.