As a historian of science and technology, I am fascinated by Wikileaks. But I’m also guilty of benefiting from it as a scholar, because I’ve used the cables for research in my work, much in the same way that I’ve used the Pentagon Papers for research. As a scholar, it’s impossible to resist punching keywords into the various online search engines that tap into the vast network of exposed classified diplomatic cables and other documents. After all, if it’s in the New York Times, surely I don’t have to feel guilty, right? Maybe.
As an American citizen, I find myself uncomfortable with the disconnect I feel between my desire to read the cables and the hard-line stance about the cables taken by the United States government. Daniel Ellsberg (the Pentagon Papers whistleblower) is one of my heroes, exposing the lies of successive presidents during the Vietnam war era. And let’s be honest, he probably is revered by the same people in today’s government who would like to see Julian Assange hang from a tree. It’s hard to reconcile. Forty years from now, I wonder how Wikileaks will be perceived. Actually, I don’t wonder. I’m pretty sure I already know.
Still, following Wikileaks requires one to stomach a lot of sanctimonious verbage, and more than a little of what Han said to Leia when he learned that Luke had been strutting around calling himself a Jedi: “talk about delusions of grandeur.”
It’s clear that Assange and others at Wikileaks are giddy at their role in facilitating what they perceive as the decentralization of technological control. To hear Assange talk with other “cypherpunks” (you can watch this at assange.rt.com), one might get the impression that they over-dramatize their roles. They think they are at the cusp of a massive reconfiguration of social power, largely because of the internet’s ability to strip governments of tight controls of information. And they may be right. But it is still a little… well… here’s a quote from Assange, which admittedly is just an intro to the program, but it gives you a sense of the drama:
“A furious war over the futures of our societies is underway. For most, this war is invisible. On the one side, a network of governments and corporations that spy on everything we do. On the other, the cypherpunks: virtuoso geek activists who make codes and shake public policy. This is the movement which spawned Wikileaks.”
Using the word “war” has some consequences. Mainly it forces us to ask, which side am I on? I’m not just talking about those who will want to use this as an excuse to throw out the rule of law and just “take him out,” as an endless stream of jingoistic pundits have done and will continue to do. What I’m talking about is the notion that the decentralization of cyberspace will lead to more voices being heard, less ability of governments to stifle information, and presumably greater democracy around the world. But who really is the war against?
Watching Assange interact with hackers is an interesting experience, and it is not unlike sitting in a graduate seminar and discussing the ways that technology shapes our lives. It reminds me of the revelatory experience of reading Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society or Lewis Mumford’s multi-volume The Pentagon of Power. Ellul was distrustful of technology, seeing it taking on an oppressive life of its own, directing us onto paths not of our own choosing. And Mumford, taking a position that always surprises my students, compared American technological projects during the Cold War arms race and space race to the Pyramids of Egypt. They were mega-technologies, built on the backs of the masses whose direct interests were hardly involved at all. When I read these books for the first time, I began to question my own role in facilitating technological control by others.
I think of Mumford in the context of Assange because, in an era when China and Russia continue to clamp down on freedom of speech and—at least in China—internet access is severely censored, it is remarkable to see the United States portrayed as the epitome of information control, as if it stands for the forces of evil. But it is even more remarkable to see the United States and the United Kingdom taking the bait, acting in reactionary ways, which surely just makes matters worse. The witch-hunt model is counterproductive, especially when the entire strength of Wikileaks is its ability to disseminate widely each step and misstep that any government takes against it. The Wikileaks affair is a textbook case on how to lose a PR war.
This past week we watched two important and very disappointing events unfold. The United Kingdom, evidently against the advice of its own very sensible lawyers, threatened to enter the Ecuadorian embassy, where Assange currently resides, despite this being a self-evidently bad idea. Presumably the British did not want to lose face by allowing Assange to get out of their hands. Once the government realized what a horrible idea it was, it backtracked. In the meantime, the UK’s commitment to the rule of law (treaties, anyone?) was momentarily shaken. Predictably, Assange’s stock went up in the eyes of the world and the US and UK’s stock plummeted. I couldn’t help but think of all the Cold War era spy movies I’ve seen, in which the principal goal was to get someone safely into an embassy, where he could not be touched. Did I misunderstand that detail?
But the other event was the sentencing, in Russia, of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, who played their loud guitars in a church, sang an anti-Putin song, and got two years in prison because they had “crudely undermined the social order.” The romantic in me says that rock music might have such power, but the realist in me says that this is just another genuine example of a government disallowing dissent.
It will be interesting to see what comes of Wikileaks, and the self-described hacker warriors who are fighting the “war over the future of our societies.” Something tells me that even if Assange himself is contained by one means or another, he will become representative of a form of subversion that will be with us for some time. Will they simply be an irritant to North American and European diplomats, or will they actually empower people who today cannot express themselves?