The Wikileaks Saga

Author: Patrice Riemens
Date: 4 december 2010

Wikileaks, and the colossal amount of confidential (mostly US) government data it has recently made public, as well as its colourful figurehead Julian Assange have figured prominently in all the newsmedia for quite some weeks and months now. Time to reflect on what has all the appearance to be an epochal phenomenon on the world information scene.

Leaks and 'illicit' disclosures have been of all ages. Embarrassing revelations by independent researchers, investigative journalists, and dissidents within government or corporate bureaucracies have earlier hit the headlines. But the advances in and spread of information technology makes such activities much easier and massive - and so their impact. Wikileaks aims to be at the vanguard of this trend.

But what is Wikileaks? And how does it operate? As far as one can tell - Wikileaks itself states that "it must be completely opaque in order to force others to be totally transparent" - Wikileaks is a 'networked organisation' set up and run by a small group of very dedicated and tech-savvy people having considerable computing resources and an extensive network of supporters and sponsors at their disposal. Wikileaks enables 'whistle-blowers' in all spheres of institutions, private or public, to upload sensitive, confidential data to its servers, while absolutely safeguarding their anonymity in the process. A Wikileaks volunteer team then shifts through the data and publishes what it deems noteworthy. And the documents themselves are made available in raw form on Wikileaks' site.

Wikileaks itself has gone through a number of phases, and very rapid growth, since its inception in 2006. It has only recently been picked up by the mass media, basically since it took the world's biggest super-power head-on. (Wikileaks had featured prominently in Kenya's post-Arap Moi's political battles for instance, but that was not deemed worth of much attention). So 'Collateral Murder', the video showing the gleeful massacre of Bagdhad civilians by an US Army helicopter, the 'Afghan War Logs' exposing the US Army true assessment of the ground situation (not good at all), and now 'Cablegate', embarrassing both the Obama administration and the foreign dignitaries mentioned in the leaked diplomatic dispatches, all have contributed to make Wikileaks a darling of the mass-media in the Global North.

But as the amount, and more importantly, the impact of Wikileaks disclosures increased, almost exponentially so, perception of this 'networked organisation' of a definitely new type started to evolve in all kinds of directions. Many people, already deeply distrustful of governments and other decision makers on account of the financial and political crisis, enthusiastically espoused the cause of Wikileaks, and applauded at the embarrassment it was inflicting upon the powerful. Others are crying foul at the shake-up of well-established and allegedly time-tested practices (aka 'business as usual'), with some in high places clamoring for 'appropriate measures', including the outright assassination of Wikileaks' prima dona, Julian Assange.

Assange meanwhile, has also, whether unwittingly or by purpose, inflicted a celebrity cult upon himself, which has not been helped by his sexual (mis)adventures in Sweden - unlike many wish to believe, that was not a 'set-up' - and this has turned Wikileaks, at least in the eyes of the outside world, into a 'SPO, or 'single person(ality) organisation', and a fairly quaint one at that.

Whether a SPO or not (a massive collective, but with a flamboyant individual taking all the heat and flak in order to hide the fact ?) Wikileaks surely does not qualify as an 'open organisation'. The 'wiki' part in its name is therefore disturbingly misleading - as Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, has pointedly stated. This raises the question whether Wikileaks contributes to a change away from traditional, closed and hierarchic forms of social organisations towards ones based on the ideas of openness, of inclusion and of the 'commons' approach - in this case, the 'information commons'. The jury will probably stay out for quite some time on this.

Pessimists will point out that Wikileaks was tremendously lucky and has merely taken the powers that be by surprise - using the window of opportunity provided by the same top dogs' unbelievable slowness, and remarkable lack of intelligence, in facing up to the transformational challenges of the Net. But they are learning fast, and Wikileaks aloofness (when not downward arrogance) towards potential allies in civil society, while depriving it from substantial support (as opposed to fickle, populist craze), provides the authorities the breathing space for a 'fast track course' on how to cope with this, and future, look-alike, menace(s).

Optimists on the other hand, might say the Wikileaks has considerably damaged the shield of - often meaningless and/or bogus - secrecy governments and corporates (Wikileaks' announced next target, by the way) love to surround themselves with, strengthening even more the popular belief that the power and legitimacy of the mighty is just a fraud and that the Emperor has no clothes.

This sentiment could well trigger a genuine movement to 'take the situation in one's own hands' (like what happened in Argentina in the wake of the crisis in 2001), and go for all kinds of local, grass-root, bottom-up, sharing, no pretense, in one word 'commonist' (Toni Prug) forms of (self) governance. Something that with the deepening economic crisis, the impending financial melt-down, the challenges posed by climate change, and a host of other problems not resolvable in a 'business-as-usual' fashion, we will have make the transition to anyway. By using the 'unintended outcomes' of information technology - which is a baby of the military-industrial (entertainment) complex after all - Wikileaks might have pushed us up a bit in that direction. If, as the saying goes, information wants to be free, it needs to be liberated first!

Patrice Riemens
Amsterdam, 4 december 2010

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