Twelve Theses on Wikileaks

Wikileaks brengt golven van sensatie door de media, met heftige reacties van vóór en tegenstanders. Maar wat is de werkelijke betekenis op de lange termijn, terug- en vooruit kijkend. Onderstaande in het Engels, op zaterdag 11 december 2010 verscheen er er een Nederlandstalige vertaling in NRC Handelsblad.

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. Phase in an evolution

Disclosures and leaks have been a feature of all times, but never before has a non state- or non- corporate affiliated group done this at the scale Wikileaks managed to with first 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 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. Hype and spectacle

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 sphere of some countries.

By virtue of its disclosures, Wikileaks, small player as it is, appears to carry the same weight as government or big corporations (its next target) - 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, and that looks like to be more and more the case. 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 U.S. government - 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 intensive 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.

Whereas the latter tend to play by the rules and seek legitimacy from dominant institutions, Wikileaks’ strategy is a populist one that taps into widespread public disaffection with mainstream politics. Political legitimacy, for Wikileaks, is no longer something graciously bestowed upon minor actors by the powers that be.

Wikileaks bypasses this old world structure of power and instead goes to the source of political legitimacy in the info-society today: the rapturous banality of the spectacle. Wikileaks genially puts to use the 'escape velocity' of IT - using IT to leave IT behind and rudely irrupt the realm of real-world politics.

These 3. Not global

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 Singapore - not to speak of their ... err ... 'corporate' affiliates. Never mind the big internationals banks and the multinational corporation Julian Assange has identified as Wikileaks' next target.

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 are factors 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. Content provider or simple conduit

One of the main difficulties 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 conduit for 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 Assange 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.

These kind of content vs. carrier debates have been going on for a number of decades among 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.

This might be the reason 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.

These 5. Crisis in investigative journalism

The steady decline of investigative journalism due to diminishing support and funding is an undeniable fact. Journalism these days amounts to little more than outsourced PR remixers.

The ever-ongoing acceleration and over-crowding in the so-called attention economy ensures 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 detailed and discussed at length.

The shift of information towards infotainment demanded by the public and media-owners alike has unfortunately also been embraced as a working style by journalists themselves, thus 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 and even faster social media like Twitter. What Wikileaks anticipates, but so far has not been able to organize, is the 'crowd sourcing' of the actual interpretation of its leaked documents.

That work, very oddly, is left up to the few remaining on-staff journalists in select ‘quality’ news media. Later on, academics pick up the scraps and spin the stories behind the closed gates of publishing stables. But where is critical networked commentariat?

For sure, 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 consisted of three phases: unearthing facts, crosschecking 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 hence neither understood nor recognized.

How the productive entities are supposed to materially 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 and Cablegate demonstrate that Wikileaks has to approach and negotiate with well-established traditional media to secure sufficient credibility. But at the same time these media outlets also prove unable to fully process the material, meanwhile inevitably filtering the documents according to their own editorial policies.

These 6. Julian Assange

Wikileaks is a typical SPO (Single Person Organization, aka 'UPO' - Unique Person(ality) Organisation ;-). This means that initiative taking, decision making, and the execution process is largely centralized in the hands of one single individual.

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, 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, 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 his somewhat unpolished political opinions.

These 7. Hacker and techno-libertarianism culture

Wikileaks raises the question of 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, of conspiracy theories, to acknowledge that the computer was born out of the military-industrial complex.

From Alan Turing deciphering the Nazi Enigma code to the role the first computers played in the invention of the atomic bomb, and then 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 also developed encryption ('crypto'), shutting access to data for the non-initiated. Hence, 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 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 savoury 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 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 condescending manners) which is not conducive to collaboration with like-minded people and groups - reduced to the position of simple consumers of Wikileaks outcomes.

The missionary zeal to enlighten the idiotic masses and ‘expose’ the lies of government, the military and corporations is somewhat reminiscent of a well-known (or infamous) media-culture paradigm from the 1950s.

These 8. The Achilles' heel

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 usually passive supporters.

Assange himself has stated that Wikileaks was resolutely moving away from the 'egocentric' blogosphere and assorted social media and nowadays only collaborates 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, waiting-to-be-unleashed, 'Insurance' document (“.aes256”).

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 savviness 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 risk and/or sustainability standpoint, but politically as well - which is what matters to us here.

These 9. Origin and goal

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 win from the opposition but in a way that makes you indistinguishable 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 what 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?

These 10. New network format example

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, 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 congenial family members) could stand as a model for new forms of organizations and collaborations.

Elsewhere 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 in 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.

We cannot run away from the challenge to experiment 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’.

These 11. Expanding model

The widely shared critique of the self-inflicted celebrity cult of Julian Assange begs to come up with alternatives. Wouldn't it be better to run Wikileaks as an anonymous collective or 'organized network'?

Many have expressed the wish to see many websites doing the same work. Already one group around Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who parted company with Assange in September, is known to be working on a Wikileaks clone.

What is being overlooked in this call for a proliferation of Wikileaks is the amount of specialised expert knowledge required to run a leak site successfully. Where is the ABC tool-kit of Wikileaks?

There is, perhaps paradoxically, a lot of secrecy involved in this type of making-things-public. This is why simply downloading a Wikileaks software kit and get 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 is 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 'how-to' expertise to run a facility like Wikileaks is pretty arcane.

Documents not only need to be received anonymously but also need to be further anonymized before they are released online. And 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 precisely 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 aspire 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 1, 10, many Wikileaks to emerge let's be clear to those involved that they run risks.

First of all, whistleblower protection is paramount. Another issue is the protection of people mentioned in the leaks. As the Afghan Warlogs showed, how much 'collateral damage' can Wikileaks handle?

That is why editing (and eliding) is crucial. Not only OPSEC, also OPETHICS. If publishing is not done in a way that is absolutely secure for all concerned, there is a definite risk that the 'revolution in journalism' - and politics - that Wikileaks is has unleashed will be stopped in its tracks.

These 12. A collective challenge

We do not think that taking a stand in favour or against Wikileaks is what matters most. Wikileaks is there, and is 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, fast turning qualitative, 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 clearly out there, whether we give it the name 'Wikileaks' or not.

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