The Revolution Will Be Distributed: Wikileaks, Anonymous And How Little The Old Guard Realizes What's Going On

from the strike-me-down-and-i-will-become-more-powerful-than-you-could-possibly-imagine dept

Bear with me, as I try to connect a few different thoughts that are coming together in my mind in this particular post. My thought process kicked off with this monumentally clueless opinion piece by former state department official Christian Whiton, complaining that President Obama and Congress have failed us by not killing the folks behind Wikileaks. I'm not kidding. He specifically says that they've failed by not "exploring opportunities for the president to designate Wikileaks and its officers as enemy combatants, paving the way for non-judicial actions against them." It appears to not occur to Mr. Whiton that Wikileaks is whistleblowing, revealing the fact that our government (apparently during the time Whiton worked for them) flat-out lied. That's a journalistically valuable point, no matter what you think of Wikileaks as an organization itself and its founder Julian Assange, who has come under plenty of criticism lately (some of it seemingly reasonable).

Of course, a few months back, we had noted a similar response from another former government official, Marc Thiessen, who had served as speechwriter to President Bush, and was demanding that the US should effectively declare war on Wikileaks to shut it down. As was pointed out at the time, this is a statement totally clueless about the nature of Wikileaks, and how distributed it is. If you shut down one node, five more would likely pop up overnight, and they'd be harder to track and harder to shut down. Whiton and Thiessen are reacting to Wikileaks as if it were a threat from an individual or a government. In other words, they're treating it like a threat from decades ago, rather than an open effort to distribute leaked information.

Moving on. A few weeks ago, I pointed out that I thought the denial of service attacks ("Operation Payback") on various copyright supporters was a dumb idea. While I understand the rationale for it, and that it kicked off targeting organizations and companies that had claimed to support using the same tactics against file sharing sites, it just seemed to be a case of stooping to their level. I stand by that assessment, and I cringe a bit each time I hear about a new attack -- even in cases where the attacks revealed useful info, such as in the takedown of ACS:Law or when the results lead to folks like Gene Simmons making ridiculous statements in response to such attacks.

However, even if I disagree with the tactics, I do agree with the site TechnoLlama, which recently asked if it's time to take "Anonymous" seriously. I'd argue that the time to take the concept of Anonymous seriously came quite some time ago, actually. Even as people dismiss the group as often immature and naive (at times, quite true), what's impressive about it is that Anonymous is a perfect example of truly distributed, totally anonymous, ad hoc organizations. When the group puts out statements, they're grandiose and silly, but there's a real point buried deep within them. What the internet allows is for groups to form and do stuff in a totally anonymous and distributed manner, and there really isn't any way to prevent that -- whether you agree with the activity or not.

Some think that "a few arrests" of folks behind Anonymous would scare off others, but I doubt it. I would imagine that it would just embolden the temporary gathering of folks involved even more. Going back to the beginning of the post, if the US government really was effective in "stopping" Julian Assange, how long do you think it would take for an even more distributed group to pick up the slack? It could be Anonymous itself, who continues on the tradition of Wikileaks, or it could be some other random group of folks who believe in the importance of enabling whistleblowing.

A few years back, Rod Beckstrom (now head of ICANN) wrote a book called The Starfish and The Spider which more or less predicted much of this. It pointed out that the US government and military was designed to fight opposition that was centralized (like a spider), but that it was not at all well-prepared to handle a totally decentralized organization, where cutting off one arm simply leads the organization to grow another (like a starfish). It wasn't just about the US government, but about general organization philosophies around that concept, and I would think that things like Wikileaks and especially Anonymous would fit well into the book as even better examples than almost all that are in there.

Malcolm Gladwell recently got some attention for a writing a New Yorker piece dumping on Twitter, saying that "real" revolutions come from the strong ties that bind people together, rather than the "weak" ties found on Twitter. But, as many people have already responded, this is totally missing the point. This isn't just about "Twitter," either, or about whether a group of folks online were able to change the course of history yet. They haven't. But, to ignore the rising power (for good or bad) of groups of people who can connect (often anonymously) in a distributed fashion to do things that shake foundations and lead government officials to demand they be killed, suggests something a bit more powerful than just a bunch of folks talking about eating lunch on the internet.

There's no doubt that the various distributed groups either found on Twitter or that make up Wikileaks or Anonymous are prone to statements that appear to exaggerate the power of what they've done or what they're doing. But it's a mistake to think that such groups can't have a pretty serious impact on issues on a global basis -- as we're beginning to see with Wikileaks. The key to understanding how and why that might happen is to certainly get beyond thinking of them in the purely traditional "organizational" sense of a group where if you "take out" its leaders, it goes away. There's something quite powerful about the concepts behind both Wikileaks and Anonymous (again, whether or not you agree with what either is doing), but to think that they either can't impact the world enough, or that the way to stop such impacts is to simply cut down a few key people, seems like a pretty serious folly of folks who don't quite understand the nature of distributed, ad hoc power.

Filed Under: anonymous, distributed, wikileaks


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  1. identicon
    Joe, 26 Oct 2010 @ 3:25pm

    define irony

    Considering the distributed design of the internet was done by the US military as that was the most robust defence against external attack. Direct point to point connections would have been more... well, direct, but easier to break in an attack. It's truly ironic that they are not appreciating the strengths of a system that they were the primary architects of.

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