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Re: <nettime> Call for publication of all Snowden papers gets louder
t byfield on Mon, 17 Nov 2014 20:06:08 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Call for publication of all Snowden papers gets louder

On 16 Nov 2014, at 12:20, Molly Hankwitz wrote:

Go, Geert! Great thought. Also, a great and powerful demonstration of how publishing is out if bounds to censorship today!

I wouldn't bet on that.

Exploring the net's potential as a kind of 'middleware' to facilitate material production has been central to Geert's thinking for a long time -- hence, for example, nettime, which was conceived not just as an end in itself (i.e., a mailing list and a website) but as a means to bring people together around artifacts and productive settings where things like ~books were made and circulated.

But that was at a time when the 'youth' of the net was much more apparent -- when it was seen as a vehicle for younger generations to circumvent the exclusionary logic of ~local contexts and institutions (publishing, the art system, higher ed, etc). So Geert's remarks about Snowden can be seen in that historical light, which of course is just one aspect among many. But, even so, something strange has happened when we look to books to liberate us from the strictures of the net.

I'd like to share your optimism, but I don't. When Wikileaks first published the tranche of documents that came to be called 'cablegate,' one consequence was that Amazon's hosting services came under political pressure and gave them the boot. At the time -- which was only a few years ago -- Amazon was still more closely associated with its roots as a purveyor of books. And since book vendors (awkward term, but it account for the changing constellation of activities in print) have traditionally been one of the front lines for free-speech aspirations and activities for centuries, Amazon's actions struck me as an affront to the obligations that come with the roles they were busy disintermediating. So I did a little experiment, which I wrote up here:


It's safe to assume that anyone and anything involved in publishing the Snowden doc en bloc would be severely punished: people would be jailed, institutions shuttered, assets confiscated, networks put under excruciating pressure -- the works.

And it's not just Snowden. I worked for a long time with public-interest publishers who on occasion were forced to produce some books (e.g., exhibition catalogues that included 'sexual' material like Mapplethorpe photos or literary accounts of incest) with printers that specialized in porn -- because 'normal' printers were afraid any controversy would result in boycotts by rightist culture warriors. That was decades ago. Boycotts by customers probably aren't such an issue now, but clampdowns via financial institutions are probably a much more serious threat.

Publishing the complete Snowden corpus would be a symbolic act -- maybe a very important one, but symbolic nonetheless. I agree with John Young that the way in which they're being released has led to a kind of cottage/hothouse industry with very identifiable beneficiaries. And, right now, that industry isn't doing so well because it magnifies and distorts the actions of a handful of people -- notably Matt Taibbi, John Cook, and behind them Pierre Omidyar -- in ways that undermine Snowden's stated aims and what many people see as the restoration of a more sane world order.

But I also agree with Patrice that a 'completist' approach wouldn't substantially change things. The Snowden corpus, after all, and the Manning corpus as well, are fairly haphazard and incomplete selections. What's the point of completely publishing an incomplete corpus? I wouldn't say I disagree with Patrice that we know the gist, but nor would I agree with him. It's wiser to assume that we don't. But, as he noted, the questions remains *what is to be done?* based on what we know -- and waiting for more is, well, just more waiting. For what? What morsel of info would finally trigger whatever action is needed?

It's unfortunate that, as civil society digests the Snowden material, so much attention has been channeled into 'opsec.' The material is technical, and for that reason it invites a technical response. And some of that response is a good thing, because the social and political forces that benefit from the hodgepodge we call networked communications make for strange bedfellows: intelligence services, criminal networks, and random ankle-biters. But, really, securing all your communications is a trap. Security architectures make perverse assumptions about communications and expression -- about what they are, and most important what they can mean. Opsecifying everything extends those assumptions.

Imagine that books from the very beginning had been encrypted and 'secured' in order to limit who could read them. That's the historical vision proposed by opsec advocates. OK, so let's say we secured everything -- now what?

In many ways, the goal of state security as it's now understood is to ensure that no unexpected eruption, no *event*. The opsecification of everything advances that aim by drastically curtailing much of what we call the public sphere. That may be a shrewd transitional political tactic (I think it is), but it isn't an end in itself, let alone a strategy for building a better future.


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