Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Wikileaks, analysis and speculative fiction

It’s a few days before Christmas, ten days before the end of 2010, and there’s the wonderful sense of deceleration as I flip through my browser tabs. The blizzard of email has slowed to a few, scant flakes, the roaring river of Twitter updates is a trickle. There’s time to read, and evidently, time to reflect and write at more length.

In the past couple of days, a couple of excellent essays – and some flawed, but interesting ones – have been posted reflecting on Wikileaks, Anonymous and the philosophical motives behind these projects. For me, they’re a reminder that the opinions offered the most rapidly aren’t always (aren’t often?) the most insightful. Wikileaks’s release of diplomatic cables and the actions taken by individuals, organizations, corporations and governments in response have implications for dozens of ongoing debates, about transparency, privacy, internet architecture and ownership, free speech, human rights. It’s not a surprise to me that very smart people have needed a while to think through what’s happened before offering their analysis.

Much of the best writing I’ve read has been either published on or linked to via The Atlantic. Alexis Madrigal is maintaining a great collection of links to commentary on different facets of the case, and he’s also edited a few of the most interesting pieces I’ve recently had the time to read.

One – which I’d put in the “interesting but flawed” pile – is Jaron Lanier’s “The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks“. As one respondent to the piece notes, it’s not really an essay about Wikileaks. Instead, Lanier connects some of his recent thinking on the internet as a threat to individual creativity, expressed at length in his recent book, “You Are Not A Gadget“. (This review is a sympathetic overview of the book.) Lanier sees a philosophical stance implicit in Wikileaks’s actions and Assange’s motives – the belief that a huge accumulation of data leads towards understanding or truth. Openness by itself isn’t necessarily productie, he argues – it’s possible that openness leads to the breakdown of trust, in each other and in institutions.

In the most interesting part of the essay, Lanier connects Wikileaks to the early days of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where very smart crytographers and digital pioneers explored the idea that hackers could change history, leveling the playing field with a superior understanding of technology. He sees this perspective as overly romantic and tells us he made the decision to step away at that point. In turn, he’s critiquing current Wikileaks supporters, and especially the Anonymous DDoSers as ineffective and potentiall dangerous romantics, a critique that might be better received had he not slammed them as “nerd supremicists” in his title.

Lanier asked Madrigal to disallow comments on his essay, as he wanted people to engage with the text and not skip ahead to refutations or responses. Madrigal agreed, but evidently didn’t understand how to actually shut off commenting within the Atlantic’s publishing system – the story began accumulating comments, and Madrigal felt compelled to step in and shut down the thread. This, in turn, led to tough questioning by smart folks like Jay Rosen about the wisdom of disallowing comments on a controversial essay. I found Madrigal’s post explaining what happened, why he acted as he did – and the open comment thread that followed his explanation – to be one of the best examples of an online community manager engaging with criticism and looking for a solution going forwards.

Madrigal also gets my respect for featuring an excellent essay from Zeynep Tufekci responding to Lanier’s missive. (Hers is the observation that Lanier isn’t writing about Wikileaks, but about his own framing of issues about technology, privacy and individuality.) She offers a thorough critique of Lanier, pivoting on the idea that Lanier errs in blurring the line between individuals and organizations, especially governments, and ends up trying to protect the privacy of powerful institutions that don’t have the same rights as individuals, no matter what the Supreme Court may have said in Citizens United.

In a neat rhetorical move, Tufekci accuses Lanier of using Wikileaks to promote his own agenda before explaining that Wikileaks really tells us something important about the tension between public and private spaces online (which happens to be her agenda… :-) I share her concerns, and though I don’t come to the same conclusion she does – don’t fear Anonymous; fear corporate control over the Internet – it’s an excellent essay and a great summary of important concerns about the challenges of public discourse in private spaces.

The essay I found most useful in thinking through Wikileaks early in Cablegate was Aaron Bady’s “Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy“, which took a close read of a 2006 essay by Assange to elucidate a possble set of motivations behind the release of diplomatic cables. Bruce Sterling takes a very different approach – he uses his knowledge of geek culture and his gift for speculative fiction to map Julian Assange and Bradley Manning onto hacker architypes and declares the situation surrounding Wikileaks inevitable and melancholy. It’s far from fair – we’re dealing with an Assange who’s a projection of Sterling’s understanding of hacker culture rather than a real individual – but it offers insights that are often easier to deliver in fiction.

Specifically, Sterling does a beautiful job of unpacking the lure of encryption, the romance of the cypherpunks, the tension of “secrets” that aren’t especially secret or exciting, the difference between leaks and journalism. Some of the commenters on the essay challenge Sterling’s understanding of the facts – I think that misses the larger point, which is that Sterling offers a picture of Assange and the logic behind Wikileaks that falls short as a work of biography, but is extremely helpful in understanding why he and his project have captured the attention of so many geeks.

Looking forward to more reflections on Wikileaks and its implications, and to the best part of the year – some extended reading about topics that have nothing at all to do with the internet… Happy holidays, everyone.

4 Responses to “Wikileaks, analysis and speculative fiction”

  1. Why is Jay Rosen, himself a certified nerd supremacist, “smart” merely because he pounced with a geek’s gotcha?

    I’m no fan of keeping comments closed, Lord knows, but Jay doesn’t come to yelp when Deanna Zandt deletes my comments or the New York Times never opens comments at all on many Google and other tech stories. It’s highly selective. Jay himself blocks and bans. It’s merely to attack what Lanier is saying.

    And you, too, Ethan. Not about WikiLeaks? Really? A story about how hackers arrogated to themselves the powers of democratically elected governments, acting in undemocratic and coercive ways by hacking and stealing and dumping, all through the Internet and its hacker’s culture, and it’s “not about” WikiLeaks, which celebrates these views?

    Madrigal’s “excellent” list? All one-sided? All part of the same choir? why isn’t this society ever open and pluralistic? Madrigal puts in one link to Feinstein and the crowd goes wild, these, um, “Internet freedom fighters” scared even of a link.

    If you read what Aaron Bady dug up, you will come away less celebratory of Assange — he is not opening, but closing the US government, and deliberately, as a revolutionary conspiracy to bring it down. Lanier is absolutely right to call this out as being the nihilism it is, induced by geeks attacking an already liberal and open state *because it can* — China and Russia are harder to crack.

    Specultative fiction?! Because it diagnosis the tribe you are a member of very aptly?

    You claim you don’t come to Tufekci’s conclusions, but you never in fact condemn Anonymous, and are more often after the condemnation of corporations.

    You should be honest about your own views, that is all I wish.

  2. I’m not surprised that Lanier’s comments are about Lanier and Sterling is talking as much about his perspective as about the “real Assange” (if there is such a thing) or the facts of the case. Who’s had the time and attention to dig deeply by now?

    BTW as one who was deeply involved in early EFF discussions, I think Lanier gets it wrong. I don’t recall “a fascination with using encryption to make hackers potentially as powerful as governments,” at least not within the broader EFF circles. I think he’s confusing EFF with Cypherpunks via the John G. connection. To say that citizens should have access to encryption is not necessarily 1to argue that they should be “as powerful as governments.” What does that point say about Lanier? Does he believe that a line should be drawn between governments and citizens, and that governments should be “more powerful”? Slipping along this slope, we might reach a conclusion that governments should have the right to keep secrets, but ordinary citizens can keep no secrets from government. The sense here of government as an abstract and superior entity, and not a collection of people as flawed as the rest of us, is troublesome. Lanier’s spent too much time in virtual reality, I think.

    I think the Wikileaks point is not that government should have no secrets, but that many things that are kept secret should not be. There’s a real tension between the need for confidentiality in some contexts and the public’s right to know, and Wikileaks reminds us that this tension exists in a context of real complexity, not easy to resolve.

  3. quixote says:

    Surely, the most interesting thing about Wikileaks is not the leaks but the reaction.

    Rational governments would be worrying about how to stop committing crimes of state more than about stopping leaks. Leaks aren’t actually the biggest problem of those two.

    Rational people would be worrying about their governments, not diving into gossip about an individual, even an Assange individual.

    Your analysis, Ethan, has looked at larger issues of the internet and free speech (too true that protecting it is hard!), but that’s rare.

    The reason Wikileaks had so much to leak is because we, people in general, are too bored to keep tabs on government. And we’re doing it again in the reaction to the leaks themselves.

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