Fixing a Hole: The Art of the Leak

by Hua Hsu


A seemingly long-ass time ago, I spent half a day in the offices of a major record label, listening to two upcoming releases I had been assigned to review. Fearful of piracy, I was not allowed to actually touch the CDs or listen to them on my laptop. Instead, an intern was assigned to listen to the CDs with me, rewinding, fast-forwarding or adjusting the volume to suit my whim. That morning, everyone at the label was on edge. The day before, one of their most anticipated releases had leaked to the Internet. It seemed that everyone I knew had already downloaded it, and yet, at the label, nobody was playing it—they had to essentially pretend that they hadn't actually been listening to it on their iPods on their way to work that morning. I asked the label representative who had arranged my listening sessions about it, and she speculated that a copy of the finished CD must have been liberated somewhere on its way to the stores, and these things were to be expected. Rather than worrying about the culprit, she was busy trying to study the leak's flow. How to insure that a future leak could be controlled, tempered, properly absorbed for her ends.

This struck me as genius (but slightly ironic—after all, if they didn't care where these leaks came from, why couldn't I be entrusted to not steal a CD-R?). And, sure enough, two things happened. The albums I had been dispatched to preview leaked to the general population within a couple weeks, crippling the sales figures of one of them, and the sites that had previously been responsible for leaking these ill-gotten albums were slowly welcomed into the formal music industry. There were still illegal leaks in advance of major releases, and this was an increasingly useless war to fight. As Eskay of the rap blog Nah Right recently observed:

Once a song has been leaked onto the internet, it's a wrap. It's over. There's nothing you can do about it, and by asking a few bloggers to take it down, all you're doing is pissing off those few bloggers in your futile attempt to stop the unstoppable.

But there were also now ways to generate buzz through legally-gray, label-provided leaks. Or to create the illusion of demand by calling a middling effort a leak, as if the very fact that someone had bothered to leak it was suggestive of its greatness. Or maybe a leak could be punitive, or a trial balloon.

To me, the leak is such a quintessentially "now" phenomenon. It's the logic that divines pure, flowing, overwhelming data--the words, websites, Tweets, etc. that inundate us daily--from data that seems somehow more worthwhile. It's a gloss of intrigue, a wrinkle in the official narrative, a few bytes of data gone astray, a secret liberated for all to share--or so we assume. An NAACP speech? I'd rather re-watch this clip of a dog vomiting. A clip of an NAACP speech someone leaked to someone else, under the hush of secrecy? Tell me more. A listserv? I'm sorry, I dozed off for a second there. But a liberal plot to kill (stories)? A reward to the brave leaker. The announcement of a new iPhone is interesting enough, if you cared in the first place. But the mystery of some insider's misplaced iPhone prototype, hand-delivered to Gizmodo—this is a drama I will follow, even more so after I am assured that this is not a "controlled leak."

We pay attention to a leak presumably because it was worth leaking, and when it comes to the latest Big Boi album (which you should buy) the stakes are fairly low. They're much greater in the info wars of American politics, and yesterday's mess involving Shirley Sherrod achieves a new nadir...how have we become this media illiterate? In an effort to wrestle control of a (completely false) narrative as quickly as possible, someone lost their job, and the actual, powerful story of reconciliation from which that clip was plucked--the story of potentialities we too often ignore—is rendered an afterthought. This isn't a couple copies of the new Weezy falling out the back of the truck on their way to Best Buy, or a dimly lit room of hackers in China flooding message boards with pirated DVDs. These are controlled leaks, readymade narratives, silver platter punch-lines. When so much data seems available to us, constantly, it's perhaps the only way to coat your polemic in something fancy, more eye-catching. Someone didn't want you to see this. Maybe it'll go "viral"—our other great keyword. By the time it all reaches us, the consumers of news, we're at the tail end of someone else's narrative, on a once-sandy shore, dealing with someone else's mess.

Meanwhile, Wikileaks, an awe-inspiring global meet-up of whistle-blowers and classified document-liberators. To paraphrase Eskay: you can't stop the unstoppable. The case of Bradley Manning, by most accounts a despondent, disillusioned U.S. intelligence officer who hoped to "change something," has brought the site and its inconvenient truths back to the public eye. Manning is responsible for leaking thousands of documents as well as sensitive, damaging video of our overseas campaigns. Wikileaks might run out of money and the mirror sites might come down, Manning might not mount a plausible defense and maybe his leaks won't become, as some hope, the '10 version of the Pentagon Papers. But this is a different kind of leak--an uncontrolled, uncontrollable kind. Recently, Manning's method of data theft was revealed. They weren't allowed thumb drives or portable disc drives in the facility, so he smuggled the downloaded files out of his intelligence unit on a CD-R, the old fashioned way, tucked inside a Lady Gaga jewel case. That right there should have been a red flag. Who still buys CDs?

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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