Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

05 Jun 2011, 21:01 p.m.

A Loose Constellation of Thoughts on WikiLeaks

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2011 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

This is a good time to remind my readers that this, my personal website, does not necessarily represent the views of my employer or anyone else.

Around 2000, I took a political science class with Steve Weber, International Politics perhaps. He said that the major question of international relations was: why isn't there a substantial international alliance of non-US countries countering the US in a battle for global dominance? That's how balance of power works, after all.

Now we see the answer: not countries but networks, like Al Qaeda and WikiLeaks. They use individual countries, the way one uses a coffeeshop that has a particularly lenient free wifi policy. Bruce Sterling once predicted that a really effective global civil society would look "kind of like Al Qaeda, only not murderous," and indeed now you have WikiLeaks. I'm half a year late talking about this (the weird timestamp is because I started this piece in India half a year ago), but after reading all those history of technology pieces, I figure why not.

If you haven't read Geert Lovink & Patrice Riemens's "Twelve theses on WikiLeaks" (formerly ten theses) and Aaron Bady's "Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; 'To destroy this invisible government'" yet, they're pretty foundational texts. Most recently I read Finn Brunton's "Keyspace", which may as well have been written for me.

Thinking of all the things WikiLeaks is reminds me of teaching "Politics in Modern Scifi" and filling up a blackboard with the names of all the writers the Wachowski brothers ripped off.

WikiLeaks is a crowdsourced panopticon; it's open source, distributed antistatism; it's a descendant of Indymedia, samizdat, Drudge Report, Salon, bootlegs, the Rodney King video, and human flesh search engines; it's as audacious as a terrorist attack, showing what a soft target certain infrastructure is; it's invading the government's privacy just as the government's invaded ours; it's a backswing of the secrecy pendulum.

Brunton muses, "WikiLeaks, and what it portends, is all about working with and managing our points of failure and overload, as human minds and as social creatures." Which makes it rather like Agile software development, and polyamory -- organizational forms deliberately constructed as workarounds for human failings. As the framers of the US (federal) government constructed checks and balances, because we're not angels, so these new systems aim to help us play jiujitsu with our workflows and our secrets. Which, if organizational forms are kinds of technology, are technical fixes to social problems.

Science fiction again: did you ever read Asimov's "The Dead Past"? The one where it turns out the government was right to suppress that one secret?

"Nobody knew anything," said Araman bitterly, "but you all just took it for granted that the government was stupidly bureaucratic, vicious, tyrannical, given to suppressing research for the hell of it. It never occurred to any of you that we were trying to protect mankind as best we could."

"Don't sit there talking," wailed Potterley. "Get the names of the people who were told-"

"Too late," said Nimmo, shrugging. "They've had better than a day. There's been time for the word to spread. My outfits will have called any number of physicists to check my data before going on with it and they'll call one another to pass on the news. Once scientists put [spoiler] and [spoiler] together, home [spoiler] becomes obvious. Before the week is out, five hundred people will know how to build a small [spoiler] and how will you catch them all?" His plum cheeks sagged. "I suppose there's no way of putting the mushroom cloud back into that nice, shiny uranium sphere."

Araman stood up. "We'll try, Potterley, but I agree with Nimmo. It's too late. What kind of a world we'll have from now on, I don't know, I can't tell, but the world we know has been destroyed completely. Until now, every custom, every habit, every tiniest way of life has always taken a certain amount of privacy for granted, but that's all gone now."

He saluted each of the three with elaborate formality.

"You have created a new world among the three of you. I congratulate you. Happy goldfish bowl to you, to me, to everyone, and may each of you fry in hell forever. Arrest rescinded."

That's the fear. The flip side, the hope, you see in Warren Ellis's Global Frequency, the wish-fulfillment fantasy about a vigilante team of experts:

"These are the things I formed the Global Frequency to deal with. The litter of the way we live. The unexploded bombs. There has to be someone to rescue people from the world they live in...."

"Life goes fast. And we seem to spend most of it dancing around all these landmines left in the dirt. All this stuff left over from the last century that some bunch of bastards thought we didn't have the right to know about. Bert? You remember the crap we took from NASA just for wanting to go to space? Like they owned the gate to the world? Screw them all. We'll do what we like. We'll save our own lives and grow our own wings."

Miranda Zero, the leader of the Global Frequency team, is a lot more personally appealing than Julian Assange (look for more wince-inducing media coverage on July 12th).

Relatedly: "On Getting People Mad And Winning Anyway" and "We Are The That Ones We Have Been Waiting For". It is possible to use technology (hardware, software, and workflow processes) to recursively build leadership. I'm learning how.

I feel as though I'm alternating between platitudes and uncracked thought-nuts. It's a nice day out, I see through the window, and I should shower and dress and join it. My thoughts turn to Orwell, the ending of his "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad", which turns even enjoying nice weather into antiauthoritarian resistance:

At any rate, spring is here, even in London N. 1, and they can't stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can't. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.


05 Jun 2011, 22:49 p.m.

"I see a man taking a break in his highly structured life, reading a newspaper in the park, or a young man sitting on a curb eating a sandwich and reading a book, taking the moment for himself. I celebrate these moments in bronze." - J. Steward Johnson, Jr.