Wikileaks provides a familiar glimpse into the future of networked knowledge. It is an effect of the slow erosion of the distinction between classified and declassified information. This erosion is the consequence of the manner in which documents are stored and accessed and the inability of their keepers to make guarantees about their security once digitally archived and networked. This is both familiar and startling at the same time.
Dutch digital culture expert Geert Lovink (2010) put it well last August: Wikileaks is more of a quantitative leap than a qualitative game changer. It provides the leaked materials as content courtesy of those like the data-transferring US Army soldier Bradley Manning, charged in May 2010 with leaking the Afghan War documents (after the hacker-informant Adrian Lamo turned him in; see Goldstein 2010), and does a reasonable job at presentation by offering a few pointers about the characteristics of the kinds of documents at issue, such as the difference between layers of classification, etc. It may edit these documents in some manner, and attempt to verify them, but it doesn’t generate a discourse or context of interpretation; it does provide access to original documents, however, which deepens reportage. For much of this it relies on its established journalist partners, especially The Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde, and on-and-off again The New York Times.
Make no mistake, Wikileaks is putting its shoulder squarely into the mountain of classified documents, and raises a few storms of dust, at least momentarily. Recent attempts to estimate the extent of classification of documents suggests that it outstrips declassification by three to five times (Galison 2004). Wikileaks cannot possibly catch-up and right this democratic deficit or keep pace in any serious way, despite its impressive stock of captured materials. Its source documents are quantitatively arresting, but not in the context of what it is measured against, especially over time.
The fact that Wikileaks is so readily reducible to the figure of non-editor-in-chief Julian Assange is one of the reasons why as an organization it is vulnerable. Certainly, Assange has made some deals with blue chip mainstream news corporations and has a group of hackers – Anonymous – to defend his interests and counter-agitate (via what they call a LOIC Low Orbit Ion Cannon type of DDoS attack under the rubric of ‘Operation Payback’) against the financial service sector players like MasterCard, VISA, and PayPal that have closed its accounts (and the blocking of the site for Library of Congress staff). WIkileaks’s counter-assay that credit card companies like more stable revenue streams from porn and gambling is acute. Still, this is risky behaviour, and remarkably unmurky because use of the LOIC is traceable and, as has been recently shown, not ‘anonymous’ for hacktivists at all (Pras et al 2010). Either this is a bad mistake and everybody downloading LOIC should have been warned or Wikileaks really believes in transparency at any cost.
When Assange is personally threatened, his only recourse is to up the ante by more and more spectacular disclosures. His behaviour becomes less complex and more fragmented. He doesn’t deepen our understanding of what he is doing and why. Rather, he plunges everyone into a politics in which he becomes a case, legally, and psycho-politically, and this is what comes to dominate and drive the story, while the material awaits constructive narratives and actionability.
On the other side of the menu, there are the state agencies which lament their loss of control over secure information, and their right to privatize it, feeding the growing creature of the security industry. Then the security intellectuals enter the fray. Some, like University of Calgary’s Tom Flanagan (Wilton 2010), can’t control themselves and seek frontier justice. The fact is that the universities, too, want in on this frenzied commodification of information. They want to rush through the revolving door arm-in-arm with the state and private business (the ‘cyberprofessionals’ wielding Deep Packet Inspection tools sanctioned under US Cybersecurity Act of 2009; see Project Censored 2010) to get in on the game to which they have been summoned as newly minted entrepreneurs. Academics, too, can play at and with secrecy, despite the openness of the profession and protocols around the presentation of research results. These, too, are changing.
What kind of collaboration does Wikileaks encourage? Its partial namesake Wikipedia recreated collaboration around known, sharable histories, in compact narratives like encyclopedia entries. Wikileaks cooperates with self-entrepreneurial whistle-blowers. Yet as cybertheorist Franco ‘Bfo’ Berardi (2010) has recently stated, there is a growing connective intelligence at work in support of Wikileaks:
The lesson of Wikileaks is not revealed in the content; we knew that diplomats are paid to lie and that the military get paid for shooting civilians. But in the activation of solidarity, complicity and collaboration between independent part-timers, between cognitive workers of various kinds: hardware technicians, programmers, journalists who work together and share the same goal of destabilizing totalitarian power. From this lesson, the rebels find their way to self-organization of the general intellect.
Recourse to a revised Marxian concept of “general intellect” underlines how general human semiosis is mobilized by a self-organizing cognitariat, otherwise exploited within the extensive electronic networks of post-Fordist production, in defence of Wikileaks. The traits of these semiosic modalities are heterogeneous and scattered across the cybersphere, yet seem to lack a corporeal body. The offline bodies of the hackers working to further the Wikileaks adventure have not yet appeared in this drama. For Bifo, diverse elements of the cognitariat are self-organizing and assembling a general intellect that doesn’t require, at least in its preliminary phases, an identifiable body, but rather coalesces semiotically around a common political project against state secrecy and for the catch and release of hitherto removed knowledge. Against security: that is the timely call to the cognitariat to destabilize the master narrative of our time (Neocleous 2008), the critique of which exposes the kinds of subjectivities it produces and the violence it exercises.
The breakthrough into the world of classified information that Wikileaks has provided will need to be followed by more robust and sophisticated qualitative and, ultimately, actionable assessments of the datasets and the consequences of these interpretations will be the measure of this unfolding lesson for the sons and daughters of Wikileaks.
Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “Almost Telegraphic,” InterActivist info-Exchange, http://interactivist.autonomedia.org/node/13862 (19.12.2010)
Peter Galison, “Removing Knowledge,” Critical Inquiry 31 (2004): 229-43.
Emmanuel Goldstein, ” Editorial: Conflict in the Hacker World,” 2600 27/3 (Autumn 2010): 4-5.
Geert Lovink, “Ten Theses on Wikileaks,” http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/geert/2010/08/30/ten-theses-on-wikileaks/ (30.08.2010).m
n.a., “Top Censored Stories of the Year: #3. Internet Privacy and Personal Access at Risk,” Project Censored: Media Democracy in Action,
Mark Neocleous, Critique of Security, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.
Aiko Pras, Anna Sperotto, Giovane C. M. Moura, Idilio Drago, Rafael Barbosa, Ramin Sadre, Ricardo Schmidt and Rick Hofstede, “Attacks by “Anonymous” WikiLeaks Proponents not Anonymous,” CTIT Technical Report 10.41 (Design and Analysis of Communication Systems Group (DACS) University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands): http://www.simpleweb.org/reports/loic-report.pdf (10.12. 2010).
Suzanne Wilton, “Prof may face charge for urging assassination: U of C’s Tom Flanagan spoke out against WikiLeaks boss,” Calgary Herald, http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/Prof+face+charge+urging+assassination/3938210/story.html (December 7, 2010)