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<nettime> Ten Theses on Wikileaks by Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens
Geert Lovink on Mon, 30 Aug 2010 19:11:10 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Ten Theses on Wikileaks by Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens


Ten Theses on Wikileaks
By Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens

These 0.
"What do I think of Wikileaks? I think it would be a good  
idea!" (after Mahatma Gandhi's famous quip on 'Western Civilisation')

These 1.
Disclosures and leaks have been of all times, but never before has a  
non state- or non- corporate affiliated group done this at the scale  
Wikileaks managed to with the 'Afghan War Logs'.  But nonetheless we  
believe that this is more something of a quantitative leap than of a  
qualitative one. In a certain sense, these 'colossal' Wikileaks  
disclosures can simply be explained as a consequence of the dramatic  
spread of IT usage, together with a dramatic drop in its costs,  
including those for the storage of millions of documents. Another  
contributing factor is the fact that safekeeping state and corporate  
secrets - never mind private ones - has become rather difficult in an  
age of instant reproducibility and dissemination.  Wikileaks here  
becomes symbolic for a transformation in the 'information society' at  
large, and holds up a mirror of future things to come. So while one  
can look at Wikileaks as a (political) project, and criticize it for  
its modus operandi, or for other reasons, it can also be seen as a  
'pilot' phase in an evolution towards a far more generalized culture  
of anarchic exposure, beyond the traditional politics of openness and  
transparency.

These 2.
For better or for worse, Wikileaks has skyrocketed itself into the  
realm of high-level international politics. Out of the blue, Wikileaks  
has briefly become a full-blown player both on the world scene, as  
well as in the national sphere of some countries. By virtue of its  
disclosures, Wikileaks, small as it is, appears to carry the same  
weight as government or big corporations - in the domain of  
information gathering and publicizing at least. But at same time it is  
unclear whether this is a permanent feature or a hype-induced  
temporary phenomenon - Wikileaks appears to believe the former, but  
only time will tell. Nonetheless Wikileaks, by word of its best known  
representative Julian Assange, think that, as a puny non-state and non- 
corporate actor, it is boxing in the same weight-class  as the  
Pentagon - and starts to behave accordingly. One could call this the  
'Talibanization' stage of postmodern - "Flat World" - theory where  
scales, times, and places have been declared largely irrelevant. What  
counts is the celebrity momentum and the amount of media attention.  
Wikileaks manages to capture that attention by way of spectacular  
information hacks where other parties, especially civil society groups  
and human rights organizations, are desperately struggling to get  
their message across. Wikileaks genially puts to use the 'escape  
velocity' of IT - using IT to leave IT behind and irrupt into the  
realm of real-world politics.

These 3.
In the ongoing saga termed "The Decline of the US Empire", Wikileaks  
enters the stage as the slayer of a soft target. It would be difficult  
to imagine it doing quite the same to the Russian or Chinese  
government, or even to that of Singapore - not to speak of their ...  
err ... 'corporate' affiliates. Here distinct, and huge, cultural and  
linguistic barriers are at work, not to speak of purely power-related  
ones, that would need to be surmounted. Also vastly different  
constituencies obtain there, even if we speak about the more limited  
(and allegedly more globally shared) 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.

These 4.
One of the main difficulty with explaining Wikileaks  arises from the  
fact it is unclear - and also unclear to the Wikileaks people  
themselves - whether it sees itself and operates as a content provider  
or as a simple carrier of leaked data (whichever one, as predicated by  
context and circumstances, is the impression). This, by the way, has  
been a common problem ever since media went massively online and  
publishing and communications became a service rather than a product.  
Julian Assenge cringes every time he is portrayed as the editor-in- 
chief of Wikileaks, yet on the other hand, Wikileaks says it edits  
material before publication and claims it checks documents for  
authenticity with the help of hundreds of volunteer analysts. This  
kind of content vs. carrier debates have been going on for a number of  
decades amongst media activists with no clear outcome. Therefore,  
instead of trying to resolve this inconsistency, it might be better to  
look for fresh approaches and develop new, critical, concepts for what  
has become a hybrid publishing practice involving actors far beyond  
the traditional domain of professional news media.

These 5.
The steady decline of investigative journalism due to diminishing  
support and funding is an undeniable fact. The ever-ongoing  
acceleration and over-crowding in the so-called attention economy  
makes that there is no longer enough room for complicated stories. The  
corporate owners of mass circulation media are also less and less  
inclined to see the working of the neo-liberal globalized economy and  
its politics detailled and discussed at length. The shift of  
information towards infotainment demanded by the public and media- 
owners has unfortunately also been embraced as a working style by  
journalists themselves making it difficult to publish complex stories.  
Wikileaks erupts in this state of affairs as an outsider within the  
steamy ambiance of 'citizen journalism' and DIY news reporting in the  
blogosphere. What Wikileaks anticipates, but so far has not been able  
to organize, is the 'crowd sourcing' of the actual interpretation of  
its leaked documents.
Traditional investigative journalism consisted of three phase:  
unearthing facts, cross-checking these and backgrounding them into an  
understandable discourse. Wikileaks does the first, claims to do the  
second, but leaves the issue of the third completely blank. This is  
symptomatic of a particular brand of the open access ideology, whereby  
the economy of content production itself is externalized to unknown  
entities 'out there'. The crisis in investigative journalism is  
neither understood nor recognized. How the productive entities are  
supposed to sustain themselves is left in the dark. It is simply  
presumed that the analysis and interpretation will be taken up by the  
traditional news media but this is not happening automatically. The  
saga of the Afghan War Logs demonstrates that Wikileaks has to  
approach and negotiate with well-established traditional media to  
secure sufficient credibility. But at the same time these also prove  
unable to fully process the material.

These 6.
Wikileaks is a typical SPO (Single Person Organization). This means  
that initiative-taking, decision making, and the execution process is  
largely centralized in the hands of one single person. Much like small  
and medium-size businesses the founder cannot be voted out and unlike  
many collectives leadership is not rotating. This is not an uncommon  
feature within organizations, indifferent whether they operate in the  
realm of politics, culture or the 'civil society' sector. SPOs are  
recognizable, exciting, inspiring, and easy to feature in the media.  
Their sustainability, however is largely dependent on the actions of  
their charismatic leader, and their functioning is difficult to  
reconcile with democratic values. This is also why they are difficult  
to replicate and do not scale up easily. Sovereign hacker Julian  
Assange is the identifying figurehead of Wikileaks, whose notoriety  
and reputation very much merges with his own, blurring the distinction  
between what it does and stands for and Assange's (rather agitated)  
private life and (somewhat unpolished) political opinions.

These 7.
Wikileaks is also an organization deeply shaped by 1980s hacker  
culture combined with the political values of techno-libertarianism  
which emerged in the 1990s. The fact that Wikileaks  has been founded,  
and is still to a large extent run  by hard core geeks, forms an  
essential frame of reference to understand its values and moves. This,  
unfortunately, comes together with a good dose of the somewhat less  
savory aspects of hacker culture. Not that idealism, the desire to  
contribute to making the world a better place, could be denied to  
Wikileaks, quite on the contrary. But this idealism is paired with a  
preference for conspiracies, an elitist attitude and a cult of secrecy  
(never mind condescending manners) which is not conducive to  
collaboration with like minded people and groups - reduced to the  
position of simple consumers of Wikileaks outcomes.

These 8.
Lack of commonality with congenial 'another world is possible'  
movements forces Wikileaks to seek public attention by way of  
increasingly spectacular - and risky - disclosures, while gathering a  
constituency of often wildly enthusiastic, but totally passive  
supporters. Following the nature and quantity of Wikileaks exposures  
from its inception up to the present day is eerily reminiscent of  
watching a firework display, and that includes a 'grand finale' in the  
form of the doomsday-machine pitched, waiting-to-be-unleashed,  
'Insurance' document. This raises serious doubts about the long-term  
sustainability of Wikileaks itself, but possibly also, that of the  
Wikileaks model. Wikileaks operates on a ridiculously small size  
(probably no more than a dozen of people form the core of its  
operation). While the extent and savvyness of Wikileaks' tech support  
is proved by its very existence, Wikileaks' claim to several hundreds,  
or even more, volunteer analysts and experts is unverifiable, and to  
be frank, barely credible. This is clearly Wikileaks Achilles' heel,  
not only from a risks and/or sustainability standpoint, but  
politically as well - which is what matters to us here.

These 9.
Wikileaks displays a stunning lack of transparancy in its internal  
organization. Its excuse that "Wikileaks needs to be completely opaque  
in order to force others to be totally transparent." amounts to little  
more than Mad Magazine's famous Spy vs Spy cartoons. You win from the  
opposition but in a way that makes you undistinguishable from it. And  
claiming the moral high ground afterwards is not really helpful - Tony  
Blair too excelled in that exercise. As Wikileaks is neither a  
political collective nor an NGO in the legal sense, and not a company  
or part of social movement for that matter, we need first of all  
discuss what type of organization it is that we deal with. Is it a  
virtual project? After all, it does exist as a hosted website with a  
domain name, which is the bottom line. But does it have a goal beyond  
the personal ambition of its founder(s)? Is Wikileaks reproducible and  
will we see the rise of national or local chapters that keep the name  
Wikileaks? And according to which playing rules will they operate? Or  
should we rather see it as a concept that travels from context to  
context and that, like a meme, transforms itself in time and space?
Maybe Wikileaks will organize itself around an own version of the  
IETF's slogan 'rough consensus and running code'? Project like  
Wikipedia and Indymedia have both resolved this issue in their own  
ways, but not without crises, forks and disruptive conflicts. A  
critique like the one voiced here does not aim to force Wikileaks into  
a traditional format but on the contrary to explore whether Wikileaks  
(and its future clones, associates, avatars and assorted family  
members) could stand model for new forms of organizations and  
collaborations. Elsewhere the term 'organized network' has been coined  
as a possible term for this formats. In the past there was talked of  
'tactical media'. Others have used the generic term 'internet  
activism'. Perhaps Wikileaks has other ideas in what direction it  
wants to take this organizational debate. But where? It is of course  
up to Wikileaks to decide for itself but up to now we have seen very  
little by way of an answer, leaving others, like the Wall Street  
Journal, to raise questions, e.g., about Wikileaks' financial bona  
fides.

These 10.
We do not think that taking a stand in favor or against Wikileaks is  
what matters most. Wikileaks is there, and there to stay till it  
either scuttles itself or is destroyed by the forces opposing its  
operation. Our point is rather to (try to) pragmatically assess and  
ascertain what Wikileaks can, could  - and maybe even, who knows,  
should - do, and help formulate how 'we' could relate to and interact  
with Wikileaks. Despite all its drawbacks, and against all odds,  
Wikileaks has rendered a sterling service to the cause of  
transparency, democracy and openness. We might wish it to be  
different, but, as the French would say, if something like it did not  
exist, it would have to be invented. The 'quantitative turn' of  
information overload is a fact of present life. One can only expect  
the glut of disclosable information to grow further - and  
exponentially so. To organize and interpret this Himalaya of data is a  
collective challenge that is out there, whether we give it the name  
'Wikileaks' or not.

Amsterdam, late August 2010


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