Geert Lovink on Tue, 7 Dec 2010 14:44:54 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Twelve Theses on Wikileaks by Geert Lovink & Patrice Riemens

Geert Lovink & Patrice Riemens
Twelve theses on WikiLeaks

Web version:

Thesis 0
"What do I think of WikiLeaks? I think it would be a good  
idea!" (after Mahatma Gandhi's famous quip on "Western Civilization")

Thesis 1
Disclosures and leaks have been a feature of all eras, however never  
before has a non-state or non- corporate affiliated group done  
anything on the scale of what WikiLeaks has managed to do, first with  
the "collateral murder" video, then the "Afghan War Logs", and now  
"Cablegate". It looks like we have now reached the moment that the  
quantitative leap is morphing into a qualitative one. When WikiLeaks  
hit the mainstream early in 2010, this was not yet the case. In a  
sense, the "colossal" WikiLeaks disclosures can be explained as the  
consequence of the dramatic spread of IT use, together with the  
dramatic drop in its costs, including 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  
difficult in an age of instant reproducibility and dissemination.  
WikiLeaks becomes symbolic for a transformation in the "information  
society" at large, holding up a mirror of things to come. So while one  
can look at WikiLeaks as a (political) project and criticize it for  
its modus operandi, it can also be seen as the "pilot" phase in an  
evolution towards a far more generalized culture of anarchic exposure,  
beyond the traditional politics of openness and transparency.

Thesis 2
For better or for worse, WikiLeaks has skyrocketed itself into the  
realm of high-level international politics. Out of the blue, WikiLeaks  
has become a full-blown player both on the world scene as well as in  
the national spheres of some countries. Small player as it is,  
WikiLeaks, by virtue of its disclosures, appears to be on a par with  
governments or big corporations (its next target) -- at least in the  
domain of information gathering and publication. At same time, it is  
unclear whether this is a permanent feature or a temporary, hype- 
induced phenomenon -- WikiLeaks appears to believe the former, and  
that looks more and more likely to be the case. A puny non-state and  
non-corporate actor, in its fight against the US government WikiLeaks  
nonetheless does not believe it is punching above its weight -- and is  
starting to behave accordingly. One might call this the  
"Talibanization" stage of the postmodern "Flat World" theory, where  
scales, times and places are declared largely irrelevant. What counts  
is celebrity momentum and the intense accumulation 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. While the latter tend to play by the rules  
and seek legitimacy from dominant institutions, WikiLeaks' strategy is  
populist insofar that it taps into public disaffection with mainstream  
politics. Political legitimacy, for WikiLeaks, is no longer something  
graciously bestowed by the powers that be. WikiLeaks bypasses this Old  
World structure of power and instead goes to the source of political  
legitimacy in today's info-society: the rapturous banality of the  
spectacle. WikiLeaks brilliantly puts to use the "escape velocity" of  
IT, using IT to leave IT behind and rudely irrupt the realm of real- 
world politics.

Thesis 3
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.

Thesis 4
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. Julian Assange cringes every time he is portrayed as the  
editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks; yet WikiLeaks says it edits material  
before publication and claims it checks documents for authenticity  
with the help of hundreds of volunteer analysts. Content vs. carrier  
debates of this kind have been going on for decades among media  
activists, with no clear outcome. Instead of trying to resolve the  
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 the  
professional news media. 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.

Thesis 5
The steady decline of investigative journalism caused by diminishing  
funding is an undeniable fact. Journalism these days amounts to little  
more than outsourced PR remixing. The continuous acceleration and over- 
crowding of the so-called attention economy ensures there is no longer  
enough room for complicated stories. The corporate owners of mass  
circulation media are increasingly disinclined to see the workings and  
the politics of the global neoliberal economy discussed at length. The  
shift from information to infotainment has been embraced by  
journalists themselves, making it difficult to publish complex  
stories. WikiLeaks enters this state of affairs as an outsider,  
enveloped by the steamy ambiance of "citizen journalism", DIY news  
reporting in the blogosphere and even faster social media like  
Twitter. 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. There's a lesson here for  
the multitudes -- get out of the ghetto and connect with the Oedipal  
other. Therein lies the conflictual terrain of the political.

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. This is symptomatic of a  
particular brand of open access ideology, where content production  
itself is externalized to unknown entities "out there". The crisis in  
investigative journalism is neither understood nor recognized. How  
productive entities are supposed to sustain themselves materially is  
left in the dark: it is simply presumed that 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  
and Cablegate demonstrate that WikiLeaks has to approach and negotiate  
with well-established traditional media to secure sufficient  
credibility. At the same time, these media outlets prove unable to  
fully process the material, inevitably filtering the documents  
according to their own editorial policies.

Thesis 6
WikiLeaks is a typical SPO (Single Person Organization, or "UPO":  
Unique Personality Organization). This means that the initiative  
taking, decision-making and execution is largely concentrated in the  
hands of a single individual. Like small and medium-sized businesses,  
the founder cannot be voted out, and, unlike many collectives,  
leadership does not rotate. This is not an uncommon feature within  
organizations, irrespective of 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, the organization's  
notoriety and reputation merging with Assange's own. What WikiLeaks  
does and stands for becomes difficult to distinguish from Assange's  
rather agitated private life and his somewhat unpolished political  

Thesis 7
WikiLeaks raises the question as to what hackers have in common with  
secret services, since an elective affinity between the two is  
unmistakable. The love-hate relationship goes back to the very  
beginning of computing. One does not have to be a fan of German media  
theorist Friedrich Kittler or, for that matter, conspiracy theories,  
to acknowledge that the computer was born out of the military- 
industrial complex. From Alan Turing's deciphering of the Nazi Enigma  
code up to the role played by the first computers in the invention of  
the atomic bomb, from the cybernetics movement up to the Pentagon's  
involvement in the creation of the Internet -- the articulation  
between computational information and the military-industrial complex  
is well established. Computer scientists and programmers have shaped  
the information revolution and the culture of openness; but at the  
same time they have also developed encryption ("crypto"), closing  
access to data for the non-initiated. What some see as "citizen  
journalism" others call "info war".

WikiLeaks is also an organization deeply shaped by 1980s hacker  
culture, combined with the political values of techno-libertarianism  
that emerged in the 1990s. The fact that WikiLeaks was founded -- and  
to a large extent is still run -- by hard-core geeks is essential to  
understanding its values and moves. Unfortunately, this comes together  
with a good dose of the less savoury aspects of hacker culture. Not  
that idealism, the desire to contribute to making the world a better  
place, could be denied to WikiLeaks: on the contrary. But this brand  
of idealism (or, if you prefer, anarchism) is paired with a preference  
for conspiracies, an elitist attitude and a cult of secrecy (never  
mind condescension). This is not conducive to collaboration with like- 
minded people and groups, who are relegated to being the simple  
consumers of WikiLeaks output. The missionary zeal to enlighten the  
idiotic masses and "expose" the lies of government, the military and  
corporations is reminiscent of the well-known (or infamous) media- 
culture paradigm from the 1950s.

Thesis 8
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 himself has stated that WikiLeaks has deliberately  
moved away from the "egocentric" blogosphere and assorted social media  
and nowadays collaborates only with professional journalists and human  
rights activists. Yet 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, yet-to-be- 
unleashed "insurance" document (".aes256"). This raises serious doubts  
about the long-term sustainability of WikiLeaks itself, and possibly  
also of the WikiLeaks model. WikiLeaks operates with ridiculously  
small staff -- probably no more than a dozen of people form the core  
of its operation. While the extent and savviness of WikiLeaks' tech  
support is proved by its very existence, WikiLeaks' claim to several  
hundreds of volunteer analysts and experts is unverifiable and, to be  
frank, barely credible. This is clearly WikiLeaks Achilles' heel, not  
only from a risk and/or sustainability standpoint, but politically as  
well -- which is what matters to us here.

Thesis 9
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. Claiming the moral high ground afterwards  
is not helpful -- Tony Blair too excelled in that exercise. As  
WikiLeaks is neither a political collective nor an NGO in the legal  
sense, and nor, for that matter, a company or part of social movement,  
we need to discuss what type of organization it is that we are dealing  
with. Is WikiLeaks 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? Will we see the rise of national or local  
chapters that keep the name? What rules of the game will they observe?  
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?

Thesis 10
Maybe WikiLeaks will organize itself around its own version of the  
Internet Engineering Task Force's slogan "rough consensus and running  
code"? Projects like Wikipedia and Indymedia have both resolved this  
issue in their own ways, but not without crises, conflicts and splits.  
A critique such as the one voiced here is not intended to force  
WikiLeaks into a traditional format; on the contrary, it is to explore  
whether WikiLeaks (and its future clones, associates, avatars and  
congenial family members) might stand as a model for new forms of  
organization and collaboration. The term "organized network" has been  
coined as a possible term for these formats. Another term has been  
"tactical media". Still others have used the generic term "internet  
activism". Perhaps WikiLeaks has other ideas about the direction it  
wants to take. But where? It is up to WikiLeaks to decide for itself.  
Up to now, however, we have seen very little by way of an answer,  
leaving others to raise questions, for example about the legality of  
WikiLeaks' financial arrangements (Wall Street Journal).

We cannot flee the challenge of experimenting with post- 
representational networks. As ur-blogger Dave Winer wrote about the  
Apple developers, "it's not that they're ill-intentioned, they're just  
ill-prepared. More than their users, they live in a Reality Distortion  
Field, and the people who make the Computer For the Rest of Us have no  
clue who the rest of us are and what we are doing. But that's okay,  
there's a solution. Do some research, ask some questions, and listen."

Thesis 11
The widely shared critique of the self-inflicted celebrity cult of  
Julian Assange invites the formulation of alternatives. Wouldn't it be  
better to run WikiLeaks as an anonymous collective or "organized  
network"? Some have expressed the wish to see many websites doing the  
same work. One group around Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who parted company  
with Assange in September, is already known to be working on a  
WikiLeaks clone. What is overlooked in this call for a proliferation  
of WikiLeaks is the amount of expert knowledge required to run a leak  
site successfully. Where is the ABC tool-kit of WikiLeaks? There is,  
perhaps paradoxically, much secrecy involved in this way of making- 
things-public. Simply downloading a WikiLeaks software kit and getting  
going is not a realistic option. WikiLeaks is not a plug 'n' play blog  
application like Wordpress, and the word "Wiki" in its name is really  
misleading, as Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales has been at pains to stress.  
Contrary to the collaboration philosophy of Wikipedia, WikiLeaks is a  
closed shop run with the help of an unknown number of faceless  
volunteers. One is forced to acknowledge that the know-how necessary  
to run a facility like WikiLeaks is pretty arcane. Documents not only  
need to be received anonymously, but also to be further anonymized  
before they are released online. They also need to be "edited" before  
being dispatched to the servers of international news organizations  
and trusted, influential "papers of record".

WikiLeaks has built up a lot of trust and confidence over the years.  
Newcomers will need to go through that same, time-consuming process.  
The principle of WikiLeaks is not to "hack" (into state or corporate  
networks) but to facilitate insiders based in these large  
organisations to copy sensitive, confidential data and pass it on to  
the public domain -- while remaining anonymous. If you are aspiring to  
become a leak node, you'd better start to get acquainted with  
processes like OPSEC or operations security, a step-by-step plan which  
"identifies critical information to determine if friendly actions can  
be observed by adversary intelligence systems, determines if  
information obtained by adversaries could be interpreted to be useful  
to them, and then executes selected measures that eliminate or reduce  
adversary exploitation of friendly critical information" (Wikipedia).  
The WikiLeaks slogan says: "courage is contagious". According to  
experts, people who intend to run a WikiLeaks-type operation need  
nerves of steel. So before we call for one, ten, many WikiLeaks, let's  
be clear that those involved run risks. Whistleblower protection is  
paramount. Another issue is the protection of people mentioned in the  
leaks. The Afghan Warlogs showed that leaks can also cause "collateral  
damage". Editing (and eliding) is crucial. Not only OPSEC, also  
OPETHICS. If publishing is not carried out in a way that is absolutely  
secure for all concerned, there is a definite risk that the  
"revolution in journalism" -- and politics -- unleashed by WikiLeaks  
will be stopped in its tracks.

Thesis 12
We do not think that taking a stand for or against WikiLeaks is what  
matters most. WikiLeaks is here to stay, until it either scuttles  
itself or is destroyed by opposing forces. Our point is rather to (try  
to) assess and ascertain what WikiLeaks can, could -- and maybe even  
should -- do, and to 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. As the French would say, if  
something like it did not exist, it would have to be invented. The  
quantitative -- and what looks soon to become the qualitative -- turn  
of information overload is a fact of contemporary life. The glut of  
disclosable information can only be expected to continue grow -- and  
exponentially so. To organize and interpret this Himalaya of data is a  
collective challenge that is clearly out there, whether we give it the  
name "WikiLeaks" or not.

Amsterdam, December 2, 2010

(This is an entirely rewritten and updated version of the Ten Thesis  
on Wikileaks, posted on nettime, August 30, 2010. This version was  
translated in German and published in the Frankfurter Rundschau  
newspaper, December 7, 2010)

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