WikiLeaks Shines a Light on the Limits of Techno-Politics

The hacker ethic, open source, open government, radical transparency and mass collaboration: all these ideas are linked by a belief that the Internet will promote non-hierarchical organization, decentralization, “democratization”, openness and sharing. A  side effect of the WikiLeaks cables is to show that, for all the talk of movements and revolutions, these beliefs are empty of real political content. The cables prompt some tough questions, but the fault lines those questions reveal run perpendicular to digital attitudes, not parallel. When push comes to political shove, open source proponents and so on are found on both sides of the debate. The Internet is a new terrain, but the battles being fought on it are old ones.

For example, Open Government advocates are one group having a tough time reacting to the leaks, and their struggles show that the real issues are not the open source/hacker technological questions of openness, access to data, and transparency, but the old political question of “US foreign policy, for or against?”

“Is WikiLeaks open government?” asks O’Reilly’s Alex Howard, but he doesn’t answer his own question. Tech President’s Nancy Scola writes about “What WikiLeaks Means for ‘Open Government’” and also avoids coming down on for or against WikiLeaks. In typically gnomic fashion, Tim O’Reilly stays firmly on the fence, tweeting that WikiLeaks neither champions nor defies open government, instead it “*challenges* [open government government 2.0] philosophy. Challenges are good if we rise to them.” Whatever that means.

Of those who do take a position, some believe that WIkiLeaks is bad for open government (here, here for just two) and others (fewer, from what I can see) that it is good.

The internal struggle highlights an emptiness at the heart of the Open Government idea. It is based on the idea that more data available to more people will make government work better, either by improving efficiency and access (Open 311 etc) or by highlighting particular problems ( and so on), or perhaps both. But while WikiLeaks is making more data available to more people it has no interest in making the US government work better: quite the opposite. As Assange’s writings and this widely linked essay by Aaron Bady make clear, WikiLeaks is using information exposure to put sand in the gears of the US State Department.

There is one agreement among Internet/Open Government supporters, which is that the cables highlight excessive government secrecy, and that it shows us that government should be more open to start with. From Australia, Stephen Collins admits that “there’s an uncomfortable feeling in the open government world at the moment,” but goes on to argue that “phe­nom­ena such as Wik­ileaks are a symp­tom, rather than the dis­ease itself. Wik­ileaks exists because of the fail­ure of governments around the world to operate openly enough through­out their his­tory.” Jeff Jarvis makes the same argument, suggesting that nothing in the documents is that bad anyway: “the revelation of these secrets has not been devastating. America’s and Germany’s relationship has not collapsed because one undiplomatic diplomat called Angela Merkel uncreative.”

But while there are many cables in the pile that are of no interest to anyone and which seem to be marked as secret for no good reason, to focus on those is to ignore the real revelations that are coming out, day after day. The purpose of the leaks is to derail the American global agenda – if they haven’t succeeded, they will try again.

The openness question is always contingent, and to phrase political questions in terms of data is sidestepping the big issue. Your answer to “what data should the government make public?” depends not so much on what you think about data, but what you think about the government. Everyone is in favour of other people’s openness.

The same fault lines are appearing around issues such as Amazon and PayPal’s refusal to deal with WikiLeaks. Despite all the talk from the commanding heights of Silicon Valley about the Internet as an enabling technology for dissidents in other countries, especially Iran and China, the enthusiasm for dissent at home is muted. I am a dissident, you are a criminal?

(If anyone cares, my view is that the leaking of these WikiLeaks cables was a brave act and if it damages US foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, which I think it will, I’m all for it.)

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  1. I liked the statement: “Your answer to “what data should the government make public?” depends not so much on what you think about data, but what you think about the government.” I completely agree with you that a lot of these are old arguments wrapped with new words.
    I think, to some extent, politicians are like parrots. They learn how other people talk and then mimic that. So when open government guys are talking about real change(tm), the politicians learn that “the people” are listening, so they start talking about how “open data will cause real change, SQWAARK”. However, like parrots, I don’t believe they’ve understood the true meaning behind it. Their world-view is still that of the old-skool politician, the same old ideas are simply flattened and translated into the new rhetoric.
    I was also disappointed with Amazon’s behaviour, who ought to be new-skool, but really didn’t have the balls to stand up to the old. Hopefully ISPs and other “nice guys with servers” will mirror wikileaks in a more effective way.
    However, I also believe that open data has the ability to change politics fundamentally. The reason is based on what Wikileaks does show about the polity: It’s all about perception management. Given, the leaks are between officials of different countries, but surely the same standards apply to the people — we get fed niceties and the realities are buried. A government has no incentive to highlight statistics on hand if they disagree with the conclusions. Sometimes the opposition will ask for the data but other times, say the war in Afghanistan, there is bi-partisan support, and neither side wants data like “there are a bunch of soldiers and civilians dying” to surface.
    In short, I guess I’m saying: Wikileaks is basically what open data looks like, and despite what open data proponents are talking about, the attitude of the government, the stated intentions behind Wikileaks, and the fact that the data in this particular leak hasn’t had much that will cause change, it does serve the purpose of showing how both the “open” and “data” portions ought to be working with respect to how the government does it’s thing.

  2. [David Rieff said something similar:]
    If you believe the United States is fundamentally a force for good in the world (one does not have to traffic in Brooks’s cheap millenarian language to believe this), then you should be appalled by the emergence of Wikileaks, for it does indeed make the job of American diplomats more difficult. If, on the other hand, you believe that America is an empire (one does not have to believe that this makes the United States a malign force, just not a benign one, any more than any other empire has ever been), and, if you are an American, anyway, you believe that this imperial vocation is destroying the country, and therefore you want to see the empire’s end, then of course you will enthusiastically welcome the advent of Wikileaks.

  3. I dunno, sounds like a small group of insiders, maybe even one person, was empowered by a relatively open system to release a massive amount of classified information that has left world leaders and diplomats in a tizzy. Seems pretty revolutionary to me, its just not revolutionary in the way people expected. Regardless of the motivation behind the leak (the real leaker(s) not Wikileaks) or the play-by-play commentary of various pundits, Diplomacy 1.0 is history.

  4. With all due respect I don’t think you understand Assange’s philosophy. It is not about making government unworkable, it is about exposing conspiracies – thus making conspiracies unworkable. This is unequivocally a good thing.
    Here is what Assange said in his interview with Forbes:
    “Let’s say you want to run a good company. It’s nice to have an ethical workplace. Your employees are much less likely to screw you over if they’re not screwing other people over.
    “Then one company starts cutting their milk powder with melamine, and becomes more profitable. You can follow suit, or slowly go bankrupt and the one that’s cutting its milk powder will take you over. That’s the worst of all possible outcomes.
    “The other possibility is that the first one to cut its milk powder is exposed. Then you don’t have to cut your milk powder. There’s a threat of regulation that produces self-regulation.”
    Let me expand on this point. The actors in the marketplace and politics function strategically, according to systemic imperatives. These systems are necessary to manage the complexity of a modern (to some extent global) society, which cannot just rely on cooperation between individuals. But when these systems become distorted, they lead to all the actors in the system behaving according to systemic imperatives which have a negative effect on their social (and sometimes physical) environments. The bonds of solidarity and trust within which these systems are embedded are gradually eroded through the pathological behavior of these agents – leading to a breakdown of solidarity and the potential for consensus. Conspiracies in the marketplace or in politics *always* distort the system in which they operate. There are no healthy or useful conspiracies. The consequences of the resulting distortions are all around us today, and they’re getting worse. Those of us not part of the corrupted systems have to act now, before it becomes too late to do anything about them.

  5. “while WikiLeaks is making more data available to more people it has no interest in making the US government work better.”
    Is it the job of a defense attorney to represent the government or his client?
    The client of the press is the public not the state.

  6. The Rieff article is similar indeed. Thanks for the pointer.

  7. The odd thing here is that the open system was the internal network of the US government, and it wasn’t intended to be open at all. I haven’t followed the Bradley Manning story (if it was indeed him) so I don’t know quite what happened there.

  8. No argument with that – I wasn’t knocking WikiLeaks, just observing.

  9. Then WikiLeaks is not the government and is doing its job as a public advocate: the definition of the press.
    The web is nothing but a billion printing presses and a distribution network controlled by the powers that be.
    The “back woods” are still on official corporate turf. If WL had it’s own fiber optic system as Hezbollah does there’d be something to talk about. Governments have never been open and they won’t be.
    WikiLeaks is not the issue, any more than Daniel Ellsberg was the issue for the Pentagon papers. The central issue, and the one everyone outside the US is talking about, is war.

  10. I don’t think that is the “odd thing” I think that is the main story and a pretty amazing one at that.

  11. “The openness question is always contingent, and to phrase political questions in terms of data is sidestepping the big issue. Your answer to “what data should the government make public?” depends not so much on what you think about data, but what you think about the government. Everyone is in favour of other people’s openness.”
    I think this is exactly correct. In the case of people like you (and me) who are against the US’s imperialist practices, we’ll support the leaks. And also how so many people in the US use the straw-man of “closed China” or “closed Arab states”…but flip their position when, as someone put it almost a decade ago, the chickens come home to roost.
    Do you think though, that’s it’s possible to hold a viable/tenable position always in favor of openness? That perhaps secrecy is always a tool of power and that openness always mitigates power’s influence? Just thinking out loud.

  12. so … you’re a diplomat and you want to send some background to your government … previously you would have said what you thought in a “confidential” e-mail. Now you use a coded form of communication that you know your target audience will understand but will not embarrass anyone if published. Dictators will now “face challenges” and “believed to be considering their succession” whereas previously they would have been wildly unpopular and about to be removed by an internal coup. So wiki-leakes has been a one-off that cannot be repeated, and has not told us anything we didn’t know.
    ps listen to Tim Marshall’s podcast on sky. Interesting view …

  13. Good points.
    With equal respect, I don’t think our interpretations are as far apart as they seem. I read Assange’s article as saying that the US government is inherently an authoritarian conspiracy, and that he wants to make this particular form of government unworkable. You read him as saying that the US government would be a better government if it stopped being conspiratorial. An open, non-conspiratorial government would be a different thing to the current structure.

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