How to Think About WikiLeaks

Evgeny Morozov on whether Assange is actually anti-secrecy. [Christian Science Monitor]

The more I learn about Julian Assange's philosophy, the more I come to believe that he is not really rooting to destroy secrecy or make transparency the primary good in social relations. His is a fairly conventional - even if a bit odd - political quest for "justice."

As far as I can understand Mr. Assange's theory - and I don't think that it's terribly coherent or well thought-out- he believes that one way to achieve justice is to minimize the power of governments to do things that their citizens do not know of and may not approve of if they do...

Here we mustn't forget that Assange made a name for himself in computer circles by being one of the key developers of a software application that helped users - and particularly human rights activists in authoritarian regimes - to encrypt and protect their data from the eyes of the authorities. So I don't think that Assange opposes "secrecy" altogether; for him, it's really all about keeping the government in check. (Added 12/8/2010, 2:19pm)


Aaron Bady on how Assange thinks. [Zunguzungu.wordpress.com]


He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make "leaks" a fundamental part of the conspiracy's  information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the "Collateral Murder" video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy's information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire.

Todd Gitlin on the difference between Assange and Daniel Ellsberg. [The New Republic]
Kevin Poulsen and Kim Zetter from September on how Daniel Domscheit-Berg, founder of OpenLeaks, left Assange's organization. [Threat Level]

"You are not anyone's king or god," wrote Domscheit-Berg in the chat. "And you're not even fulfilling your role as a leader right now. A leader communicates and cultivates trust in himself. You are doing the exact opposite. You behave like some kind of emperor or slave trader."
"You are suspended for one month, effective immediately," Assange shot back. "If you wish to appeal, you will be heard on Tuesday." (Added 12/10/2010, 12:05am)

Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers was a great democratic act that helped clarify for the American public how its leaders had misled it for years, to the immense detriment of the nation's honor. By contrast, Wikileaks's huge data dump, including the names of agents and recent diplomatic cables, is indiscriminate. Assange slashes and burns with impunity. He is a minister of chaos fighting for a world of total transparency. We have enough problems without that.

Mark Pesce on what comes after Assange's WikiLeaks. [The Human Network]

In exactly the same way - note for note - the failures of Wikileaks provide the blueprint for the systems which will follow it, and which will permanently leave the state and its actors neutered.  Assange must know this - a teenage hacker would understand the lesson of Napster.  Assange knows that someone had to get out in front and fail, before others could come along and succeed.  We're learning now, and to learn means to try and fail and try again.

This failure comes with a high cost.  It's likely that the Americans will eventually get their hands on Assange - a compliant Australian government has already made it clear that it will do nothing to thwart or even slow that request - and he'll be charged with espionage, likely convicted, and sent to a US Federal Prison for many, many years.  Assange gets to be the scapegoat, the pinup boy for a new kind of anarchism.  But what he's done can not be undone; this tear in the body politic will never truly heal.

Jack Shafer on the martyrdom of Assange. [Slate]

But throw a nonappealing guy with a cause into jail, and suddenly he becomes a hero. Assange already has a core group of supporters. (I count myself one.) The arrest and jailing will recruit new supporters from their sitting places on the fence; they'll now say, "I don't agree with everything he's done or how he has done it, but these sex charges seem a little trumped up!" Assange's opponents--the honest ones, at least--will rise to say that they'd love to see the pasty-faced bastard dumped into the Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., and become acquainted with the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, FBI traitor Robert Hanssen*, shoe bomber Richard Reid, abortion-clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, and Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. But, they'll add, not on Swedish sex charges.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In