The Inevitability Of Wikileaks

from the if-you-strike-me-down... dept

Yet another excellent post over at the Economist highlighting the key mistake that those arguing against Wikileaks seem to be making: it's the idea that these kinds of things can be stopped. It's this idea that if Julian Assange is killed or if Wikileaks loses its domain or even if people are brought to trial over this, that somehow, somewhere, such data leaks won't happen any more. As the Economist notes:
Jailing Thomas Edison in 1890 would not have darkened the night.
This is exactly the point I was trying to make a couple months ago, in pointing out the impossibility of stopping truly distributed systems through conventional means (whether the distributed systems are doing good or bad things), and how little the people in power recognize this.
Yet the debate over WikiLeaks has proceeded as if the matter might conclude with the eradication of these kinds of data dumps--as if this is a temporary glitch in the system that can be fixed; as if this is a nuisance that can be made to go away with the application of sufficient government gusto. But I don't think the matter can end this way. Just as technology has made it easier for governments and corporations to snoop ever more invasively into the private lives of individuals, it has also made it easier for individuals, working alone or together, to root through and make off with the secret files of governments and corporations. WikiLeaks is simply an early manifestation of what I predict will be a more-or-less permanent feature of contemporary life, and a more-or-less permanent constraint on strategies of secret-keeping.
This is about dealing with reality, but so many of those in charge are working from the wrong playbook -- the one that doesn't realize that this is the new reality.
The basic question is not whether we think Julian Assange is a terrorist or a hero. The basic question certainly is not whether we think exposing the chatter of the diplomatic corps helps or hinders their efforts, and whether this is a good or bad thing. To continue to focus on these questions is to miss the forest for the texture of the bark on a single elm. If we take the inevitability of future large leaks for granted, then I think the debate must eventually centre on the things that will determine the supply of leakers and leaks. Some of us wish to encourage in individuals the sense of justice which would embolden them to challenge the institutions that control our fate by bringing their secrets to light. Some of us wish to encourage in individuals ever greater fealty and submission to corporations and the state in order to protect the privileges and prerogatives of the powerful, lest their erosion threaten what David Brooks calls "the fragile community"--our current, comfortable dispensation.
Again, this is why I have pointed out the similarities between the whole Wikileaks situation and the entertainment industry's response to file sharing. In the latter, it was never about whether or not file sharing was good or bad, moral or immoral, or even (really) whether or not it helps or hinders the creative lives of certain individuals or companies. What happened with file sharing was an inevitability, and the focus from the beginning should have been about figuring out "what do we do now, knowing this reality."

For years, I've said that one of the reasons I focused so much on the music industry was that I hoped other arenas that faced similar questions would learn from the mistakes of that one industry. And, yet, we see time and time again that this almost never happens. We've seen the movie industry, the software industry, the video game industry, the publishing industry and more follow the same path making the same mistakes. And now we're seeing the US government do it too -- and this is a case where the stakes may be much, much bigger.

Filed Under: technology, trends, wikileaks
Companies: wikileaks


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Dec 2010 @ 1:36pm

    Welcome to the distributed world!

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