The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Wikileaks is boring

A stray thought on Wikileaks: it’s actually pretty old-fashioned. Building on Rick Prelinger here: it’s not particularly networked, peer-to-peer, or Web 2.0 at all. Just the contrary, in fact: it’s pure distilled Web 1.0. It’s the collective fantasy of all the 80s cyberpunk novels and spy thrillers made real. It’s a Stieg Larsson story. It’s the heroic hacker standing athwart history telling “Information wants to be free!”—which is fine, but also a bit shopworn. (I guess maybe we’re all just excited that it finally happened?)

After all: the Wikileaks process is top-down and one-way. It’s pretty opaque too, right? Unless I’m totally missing something, the “wiki” prefix is a total misnomer. I mean, yes, the leaked documents come from many different informants, many of them anonymous—but that’s nothing new. Back in the day the documents just came over the transom, and they were printed on paper.

Now, of course that actually provides Wikileaks’ best defense: the scale of the docu-dumps is totally staggering and totally modern. Wikileaks contends with scale successfully: I will give it that.

But there’s more to the modern web than gigabytes, and I think the truly transformative transparency project would be something that was actually distributed and participatory. This is why I continue to be much more enthralled by stuff like Anonymous, which seems to me much more of-the-moment and, frankly, hard to understand. That’s a good thing. I mean, any time the media has a tough time telling a story about something, you know it must be truly new. Wikileaks is an easy story, made for front pages—and for me, that means it’s a pretty boring story as well.

Now, I’m just talking about Wikileaks-as-organization and Wikileaks-as-process here. The good news is that within the leaks, there are plenty of great stories, and breathtakingly modern ones, too. Take it away, Cablegate Chronicles.

Note: I’d love to get talked out of this if you’ve got a different take on Wikileaks. Remember, I’m talking about the organization and the process, not the political impact, etc.

Another note: There were a bajillion great comments waiting in the queue to be approved. Sorry ’bout that. Good stuff!

One more note: Okay, I still think it’s not very Web 2.0, but who cares when the story is this crazy?


From Wikipedia:

“WikiLeaks was launched as a user-editable wiki site and still uses MediaWiki as the content management system, but has progressively moved towards a more traditional publication model, and no longer accepts either user comments or edits.”

So, that’s basically the reason for naming it “WikiLeaks”. Jimbo is not too happy about the name, however (and I do agree that it’s misleading if you think it’s still a user-editable site):

Pierce Presley says…

While I don’t think Wikileaks, the organization and process, isn’t diminished that much by either the foreshadowing in fiction, I don’t think it merits the current hyperbolic commentary, either for or against.
In some ways, this isn’t something we’ve seen in exactly this way or on this scale—or so far outside historical communications pipelines. That last is huge, because when you look at the “extreme leaks” of the past, they’ve either been in the world of espionage (and thus usually seen only in reflected light) or handled by traditional, mainstream news outlets. Not that those outlets have been cut off; Wikileaks just means that if today’s Washington Post or New York Times shies away from publication, the information will still be available to the Chicago Tribune or the Oregonian.
For my money, though, what makes the Wikileaks situation truly novel is that it’s the first time that there’s been the capability to (realatively) easily replicate that data. Not too long ago, the Pentagon attempted to buy the entire first edition of a book that revealed information it wanted kept secret; how will anyone remove anything close to the redundant mass now on 300-plus mirrors?

Sean Loiselle says…

The “fulfillment” of cyberpunk’s fantasy, is pretty exciting procedurally because of its original conception as that – fantasy. Though the plot contrivances have become banal, the fact that a massive dissemination of secret government documents is even possible incredibly excites me. If you downplay the reification of a “fantasy” genre’s cultural discourse, what could possibly excite you? Though we’ve all seen Star Wars, traveling at faster-than-light speeds is going to be pretty cool.

If it weren’t for the once-far-fetched stories of government disruption of William Gibson, Alan Moore, and the like, would groups like “Anonymous” even exist? The difference between these two is only the germination time from inception to execution, which the Internet helps exponentially shorten. There’s also the entire context of scale and consequence – in which Wikileaks’ process titanically overtakes Anonymous. Wikieaks handles documents made in secret from places not meant to expose them. Anonymous is a bunch of people coordinating mayhem. One is top-down, the other lateral.

Secondly, there is a massive “Web 2.0” element to Wikileaks, though it isn’t part of the organization itself (which is important to emphasize): the huge amount of mirrors that have popped up. Talk about crowd (re)sourcing. Though things like that were certainly possible in the yesterdays of the Internet, the continual evolution, education, and growth of the “tech class” makes this pretty simple and evident. And, though, to cede slightly, this is less a procedure of Wikileaks, it is definitely part of the procedure of every important “infodump” from this point forward.

To me, there’s something very gratifyingly Pynchon-esque that someone can walk out of a government office with nothing more than a flash drive containing something powerful enough to embarrass the world’s most powerful economy. The future we always saw is now. We were promised jet packs and maybe they’re just not here yet.

Very well-put all around. This line is sharp: “If you downplay the reification of a ‘fantasy’ genre’s cultural discourse, what could possibly excite you? Though we’ve all seen Star Wars, traveling at faster-than-light speeds is going to be pretty cool.”

And I am, indeed, interested in acquiring a Millennium Falcon and/or a jetpack. But I also think that the truly futuristic stuff—and the truly exciting stuff—is the stuff that surprises us. Even if it has familiar threads of fantasy (e.g. iPhone ~ tricorder) what’s most meaningful is the ways it ends up completely different from anything we imagined in fiction (and indeed, iPhone most definitely ≠ tricorder).

I think that you might be missing the most interesting part of Wikileaks because I think you are focussing on the wrong part of the elephant. You are right that the wiki prefix has become a misnomer. The site used to be organized more along wiki lines but they changed that to ensure attention and authenticity.

But the interesting thing about Wikileaks isn’t in the acquiring or reporting (as you say, this is pretty old fashioned) it’s what happens when Wikileaks goes to press where things get interesting.

Wikileaks publishes a bunch of stuff and the US government goes to shut them down, allegedly pressuring Amazon to drop them, taking away their DNS etc. The response is that random people throw up mirrors, redirects, and torrents. The site essentially shatters and scatters and now how are you going to stop them without turning off the Internet?

Compare that to what happens if a government goes after a traditional printing press. And yes, everything old is new again. In the past there were sneakernets and basement pamphlet printing; and DeCSS and Napster and Bittorrent. But this is a novel combination of political import, distributed publishing, and massive scale.

This is the first time I’ve seen an IP address top Google’s search rankings.

I think there is also something very interesting about how the type of problem is matching up with the means and opportunity of its defenders. One of the most depressing things about the Iran Twitter revolution was that there was little one could do aside from raise awareness online, and so a lot of activism ended up being people changing their user pic and location and then it ending there.

But because Wikileaks and the subsequent attacks are purely about information availability and censorship, you can contribute materially to the cause without leaving your computer. You can contribute simply by downloading a file and leaving your torrent client running when it’s done.

Wikileaks is set up in a way that allows it to aggregate the extremely small contributions of its supporters. Every link helps. Every comment drives attention and participation. How web 2.0 is that?

P.S. It’s funny that you should mention Anonymous as they have waded into the Wikileaks fray calling Assange the “deification” of everything Anonymous stands for. Or one of them did. It’s not like they have a spokesperson.

P.P.S. It’s a stateless news organization. Admittedly, a stateless new organization is basically the most cyberpunk thing we could possibly have been promised but Wikileaks is the first real one. That’s a pretty big deal.

More to the point: Wikileaks is a journalism project that comes with instructions on how to become part of their distributed printing press.

Okay, that’s fair. But that’s not a new thing, internet-wise, is it? The BitTorrent architecture, mirroring of big popular app downloads, etc., etc. This is sorta common practice. In this case, it’s being deployed in service of big bundles of leaked documents.

And—this is going to sound super-Grinchy—I think the primary function of mirroring is to make the people who do it feel like cyberpunk hacker heroes. Which, you know—maybe that’s actually really smart! Maybe it’s a new organizing & movement-building tactic; Saul Alinsky with DNS.

I do like the IP address in Google’s search results. That’s pretty awesome.

And the statelessness of the group is maybe my favorite of your points; you’re right, that IS new, and only newly possible.

I don’t think you are being Grinchy about the people’s motivations, but the whole sale of Web 2.0 was “we make valuable institutions out of people’s weird little motivations”. Most photos that go on Flickr are crap, right?

I’ve been troubled by the figure Assange cuts in all of this; it’s made me wonder what’s so new about Wikileaks, too. Until I look all the mirror sites and torrents, anyway. Tim’s example of the Google search result, too, is pretty fascinating, as it’s a quasi-emergent means of the Internet throwing up a kind of immune-system protection for information that wants to be free. (I say quasi because, well, there *is* someone[s] at the Google controls.)

Maybe Assange is functioning as a wetware linkage between something old and something new–much more than mere whipping boy, but far less than the problem in a nutshell the powers-that-be seem to take him for. It’s striking to see all these jowly senators and scary demagogues calling for his heading (and calling CEOs to get the site taken down)–and meanwhile the documents continue to proliferate…

Assange definitely has something borrowed. 🙂

Assange is definitely a figurehead, the way the organization is set up right now, and if/when he disappears, Wikileaks will struggle a bit, but I think less than we might otherwise think. At some point, you need a visible spokesperson — you have to interact with old media, and old media wants a face. So, you get Assange and the sort of cult of personality that’s grown up around him. It’s not at all clear, however, that this is at all required to keep the organization going or to continue it’s current level of effectiveness. If he does go, I think the flavor of how the organization works will shift a bit, but that’s no different from any time you have a very forceful personality leaving a group — there are plenty of other examples in the open source world of similar things happening, albeit against a very different backdrop.

I think you’re missing something too.

This is a key quote from an ostensibly anti-Wikileaks post (making pretty much the same charge as you):
“SO WE have another WikiLeaks release, and this time it’s secret diplomatic cables. So far the interesting material is on Arab states’ and America’s relationships with Iran. It seems all those fervid background-only reports of Arab states urging America to bomb Iran, which I mistrusted at the time, were true. Call me naïve.”

Every field of debate has a centre. And anything too far from the centre is discounted as ‘fervid’. Nobody gives the moon-landings-are-fake any air time because it’s an ‘out there’ view.

Now, we have a journalist from The Economist casually admitting that something he suspected turns out, after all, to be true.

The centre, the locus of reasonable debate, has now shifted. Stuff you could quite easily dismiss as ‘fervid’ a while ago, is now fair game.

You thing about you is that you write for SnarkMarket. So you’re ‘in the know’. You probably think that the fact that there’s all this corruption going on is obvious.

But it isn’t. Not to my dad. He’s never hung out with journalists. He doesn’t know any authors.

We’re seeing the news’ construction here. The way the news is constructed (there! see! I don’t have to put ‘constructed’ in inverted commas like some Frenchy arty-farty intellectual!) is fairly boring. It’s still a 0.1 thing. This should shake things up a bit.

I agree with you that Wikileaks is opaque. And they could do more to stop Assange being so creepy. But this is a barium enema for our news services. And that’s interesting.


Adam Rothstein says…

Part of a Wiki is not only it’s authorship (the part that rightly gets the notice in the case of Wikipedia) but it’s readership. A wiki is a web page that is easily editable, but also low on formal writing, high on information access.

As you guys are pointing out, there is something new here. This ain’t the pentagon papers in the NYT.

What I most admire in Assange’s writing (e.g. is his insistence on finding ways to use technology to achieve a particular aim. We have always had authoritarian regimes; nothing we have used against them previously has stopped them. Therefore, if there is a solution must lie in novel technologies. His analysis of the conspiratorial model of government is entirely rooted in computer science too.

Sorry, I just don’t see anything especially revolutionary about the essential Wikileaks performance except that changes in tech allowed the data to be taken on a thumb drive and released in bulk.

As a fresh young copy boy, Robert Rosenthal (he now directs CaliforniaWatch) Xeroxed the entire Pentagon Papers, themselves “liberated” by a single individual. The process took longer than downloading to a thumb drive and was distributed as contextual journalism rather than raw data, but I’d say similarities in the two disclosures were greater than the differences. (Before too long, the papers themselves were distributed as well, in a New York Times paperback).

Oops, forgot my coda: Like Robin, I say this not to denigrate the act of this massive release or to disparage the potential consequences.

Second attempt to try and leave this comment but – what is interesting about WikiLeaks isn’t the technology hacks. It’s the legal hacks. That’s what I and perhaps others find interesting.

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