I’ve been thinking about wikileaks ever since the story broke. Most of the stories – like those written by good friends like Taylor Owen and Scott Gilmore are pieces very much worth reading but I think miss the point about wikileaks and/or assess it on their own terms and thus fail to understand what wikileaks is actually about and what it is trying to do. We need to be clear in our understanding, and thus the choices we are about to confront.
However, before you read anything I write there are smarter people out there – two in particular – who have said things that I’m not reading anywhere else. The first is Jay Rosen (key excerpt below) whose 15 minutes Pressthink late night video on the subject is brilliant and the second is by zunguzungu piece Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government” (key excerpt further below) is a cool and calculated dissection of wikileaks goals and its intentions. I’ve some thoughts below, but these two pieces are, in my mind, the most important things you can read on the subject and strongly inform my own piece (much, much further below). I know that this is all very long, and that many of you won’t have the patience, but I hope that what I’ve written and shared below is compelling enough to hold your attention, I certainly think it is important enough.
While we have what purports to be a “watchdog press” we also have, laid out in front of us, the clear record of the watchdog press’s failure to do what is says it can do, which is to provide a check on power when it tries to conceal its deeds and its purpose. So I think it is a mistake to reckon with Wikileaks without including in the frame the spectacular failures of the watchdog press over the last 10, 20, 40 years, but especially recently. And so, without this legitimacy crisis in mainstream American journalism, the leakers might not be so inclined to trust Julian Assange and a shadowy organization like Wikileaks. When the United States is able to go to war behind a phony case, when something like that happens and the Congress is fooled and a fake case is presented to the United Nations and war follows and 100,000s of people die and the stated rationale turns out to be false, the legitimacy crisis extends from the Bush government itself to the American state as a whole and the American press and the international system because all of them failed at one of the most important things that government by consent can do: which is reason giving. I think these kind of huge cataclysmic events within the legitimacy regime lie in the background of the Wikileaks case, because if wasn’t for those things Wikileaks wouldn’t have the supporters it has, the leakers wouldn’t collaborate the way that they do and the moral force behind exposing what this government is doing just wouldn’t be there.
This is one of the things that makes it hard for our journalists to grapple with Wikileaks. On the one hand they are getting amazing revelations. I mean the diplomatic cables tell stories of what it is like to be inside the government and inside international diplomacy that anyone who tries to understand government would want to know. And so it is easy to understand why the big news organizations like the New York Times and The Guardian are collaborating with Wikileaks. On the other hand they are very nervous about it because it doesn’t obey the laws of the state and it isn’t a creature of a given nation and it is inserting itself in-between the sources and the press. But I think the main reason why Wikileaks causes so much insecurity with our journalists is because they haven’t fully faced the fact that the watchdog press they treasure so much died under George W. Bush. It failed. And instead of rushing to analyze this failure and prevent it from happening ever again – instead of a truth and reconciliation commission-style effort that could look at “how did this happen” – mostly what our journalists did, with a few exceptions, is they moved on to the next story. The watchdog press died. And what we have is Wikileaks instead. Is that good or is that bad? I don’t know, because I’m still trying to understand what it is.
But, to summarize, he (Assange) begins by describing a state like the US as essentially an authoritarian conspiracy, and then reasons that the practical strategy for combating that conspiracy is to degrade its ability to conspire, to hinder its ability to “think” as a conspiratorial mind. The metaphor of a computing network is mostly implicit, but utterly crucial: he seeks to oppose the power of the state by treating it like a computer and tossing sand in its diodes…
…The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.
Almost all the media about wikileaks has, to date, focused on the revelations about what our government actually thinks versus what it states publicly. The bigger the gap between internal truth and external positions, the bigger the story.
This is, of course, interesting stuff. But less discussed and more interesting is our collective reaction to wikileaks. Wikileaks is drawing a line, exposing a fissure in the open community between those who believe in overturning current “system(s)” (government and international) and those who believe that the current system can function but simply needs greater transparency and reform.
This is why placing pieces like Taylor Owen and Scott Gilmore‘s against zunguzungu’s is so interesting. Ultimately both Owen and Gilmore believe in the core of the current system – Scott explicitly so, arguing how secrecy in the current system allows for human right injustices to be tackled. Implicit in this, of course, is the message that this is how they should be tackled. Consequently they both see wikileaks as a failure as they (correctly) argue that its radical transparency will lead to a more closed and ineffective governments. Assange would likely counter that Scott’s effort address systems and not cause and may even reinforce the international structures that help foster hunan rights abuses. Consequently Assange’s core value of transparency, which at a basic level Owen and Gilmore would normally identify with, becomes a problem.
This is interesting. Owen and Scott believe in reform, they want the world to be a better place and fight (hard) to make it so. I love them both for it. But they aren’t up for a complete assault on the world’s core operating rules and structures. In a way this ultimately groups them (and possibly me – this is not a critique of Scott and Taylor whose concerns I think are well founded) on the same side of a dividing line as people like Tom Flanagan (the former adviser to the Canadian Prime Minister who half-jokingly called for Assange to be assassinated) and Joe Liberman (who called on companies that host material related to wikileaks to sever their ties with them). I want to be clear, they do not believe Assange should be assassinated but they (and possibly myself) do seem to agree that his tactics are a direct threat to the functioning of system that I think they are arguing needs to be reformed but preserved – and so see wikileaks as counterproductive.
My point here is that I want to make explicit the choices wikileaks is forcing us to make. Status quo with incremental non-structural reform versus whole hog structural change. Owen and Gilmore can label wikileaks a failure but in accepting that analysis we have to recognize that they view it from a position that believes in incremental reform. This means you believe in some other vehicle. And here, I think we have some tough questions to ask ourselves. What indeed is that vehicle?
This is why I think Jay Rosen’s piece is so damn important. One of the key ingredients for change has been the existence of the “watchdog” press. But, as he puts it (repeated from above):
I think it is a mistake to reckon with Wikileaks without including in the frame the spectacular failures of the watchdog press over the last 10, 20, 40 years, but especially recently. And so, without this legitimacy crisis in mainstream American journalism, the leakers might not be so inclined to trust Julian Assange and a shadowy organization like Wikileaks. When the United States is able to go to war behind a phony case, when something like that happens and the Congress is fooled and a fake case is presented to the United Nations and war follows and 100,000s of people die and the stated rationale turns out to be false, the legitimacy crisis extends from the Bush government itself to the American state as a whole and the American press and the international system because all of them failed at one of the most important things that government by consent can do: which is reason giving.
the logical conclusion of Rosen’s thesis is a direct challenge to those of us who are privileged enough to benefit from the current system. As ugly and imperfect as the current system may be Liberman, Flanagan, Owen and Gilmore and, to be explicit, myself, benefit from that system. We benefit from the status quo. Significantly. Dismantling the world we know carries with it significant risks, both for global stability, but also personally. So if we believe that Assange has the wrong strategy and tactics we need to make the case, both to ourselves, to his supporters, to those who leak to wiki leaks and to those on the short end of the stick in the international system about how it is the reform will work and how it is that secrecy and power will be managed for the public good.
In this regard the release of wikileak documents is not a terrorist event, but it is as much an attack on the international system as 9/11 was. It is a clear effort to destabilize and paralyze the international system. It also comes at a time when confidence in our institutions is sliding – indeed Rosen argues that this eroding confidence feeds wikileaks.
So what matters is how we react. To carry forward (the dangerous) 9/11 analogy, we cannot repeat the mistakes of the Bush administration. Then our response corrupted the very system we sought to defend, further eroded the confidence in institutions that needed support and enhanced our enemies – we attacked human rights, civil liberties, freedom of speech and prosecuted a war that killed 100,000s of innocent lives on the premise of manufactured evidence.
Consequently, our response to the current crises can’t be to close up governments and increase secrecy. This will strengthen the hands of those who run wikileaks and cause more public servants and citizens to fear the institutions wikileaks and look for alternatives… many of whoe will side with wikileaks and help imped the capacity of the most important institution in our society to respond to everyday challenges.
As a believer in open government and open data the only working option to us to do the opposite. To continue to open up these institutions as the only acceptable and viable path to making them more credible. This is not to say that ALL information should be made open. Any institution needs some private place to debate ideas and test unpopular theses. But at the moment our governments – more through design and evolution than conspiracy – enjoy far more privacy and secrecy than the need. Having a real and meaningful debate about how to change that is our best response. In my country, I don’t see that debate happening. In the United States, I see it moving forward, but now it has more urgency. Needless to say, I think all of this gives new weigh to my own testimony I’ll be making before the parliamentary Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.
I still hope the emerging conflict between open and closed can be won without having to resort to the types of tactics adopted by wikileaks. But for those of use who believe it, we had better start making the case persuasively. The responses of people like Flanagan and Liberman remind me of Bush after 9/11 “you are either with us, or with the terrorists.” Whether intentionally or unintentionally, an analogous response will create a world in which power and information are further removed from the public and will lead to the type of destabilizing change Assange wants.
I’m bound to write more on this – especially around wikileaks, open data and transparency that I think some authors unhelpfully conflate but this post is already long enough and I’m sure most people haven’t even reached a place where they’ll be reading this.