The Files Will Get Out: The Lesson From WikiLeaks, Gawker, Libya

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"Man crossing #Tunisia border says #Libya sec forces at 20 diff checkpts systematically destroying cell phone sim & memory cards w/pix, video." -- Nic Robertson, CNN, 2011

"On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other." -- Stewart Brand to Steve Wozniak, 1984

For a long time, I thought the idea that "information wants to be free" was kind of silly. The information doesn't want anything, I reasoned. Humans made the choices to share or hold back information. To think otherwise was to be naive, to believe too deeply in the transformative power of technology.

But the last few months of our augmented reality have changed my mind. In Brand's full sense here--not the deracinated strawman version often cited--information really does want to be free. Across the globe, no matter how valuable the information is, it's slipping free. The files are getting out because our modern communication system tilts towards availability.

We saw this with file sharing. Business models like iTunes and Hulu might develop to capture some of the value of the entertainment industry. Some kids might get punished by the RIAA. But in the end, the files get out. You can watch any movie you want for free. You can find any song. Ethics aside, it's just too easy to rip and host and download the bits.

We saw it with WikiLeaks, when governments and freelance hackers started going after its main site, WikiLeaks.org. More than 1,400 mirrors sprung up around the world. The files got out.

We've seen it when people try to fix a PR problem by taking down their sites or closing blog or social media accounts. Screenshots and cached versions start popping up. If it's been seen, you can assume it has been recorded. The files, in this case, emerge from the past, and they leak right back into our present.

We've seen it in Gawker scandal after Gawker scandal. All it takes is a few hours and whatever anonymous source they've got has been outed, their records scoured, and home addresses touted. The files will get out.

And now, we've seen it most powerfully in Egypt and Libya. In this case, the information is remarkably valuable: photos and videos of dead protesters are the kind of thing that incites mass movements. The Egyptian and Libyan governments have treated that information as valuable and tried to erect hurdles to make their transmission difficult to impossible. They've unplugged from the Internet, called for media blackouts, fought reporters, and now confiscated cell phone memory cards. But you know what? Despite all that, the files get out.

And the minute a file reaches the vast stretches of the Internet where information flows relatively freely, people accelerate its spread. The costs of reblogging, of tweeting, or posting to Facebook are so low that things move more quickly than any government or company can control. Particularly if information is seen as valuable (i.e. important and/or interesting), the system tilts towards making that it available.

Kevin Kelly has a good way of describing this that is far less inflammatory than the title of his book, What Technology Wants. Kelly's idea gets into trouble when it moves into huge universals, but applied specifically and locally, it helps explain what we're seeing. Kelly says that technology, as a system, has: "Leanings. Urgings. Trajectories. The wants of technology are closer to needs, a compulsion towards something," he writes. "The millions of amplifying relationships and countless circuits of influence among parts push the whole technium in certain unconscious directions."

This isn't a utopianist vision any more than the idea that American car culture encourages travel by single occupancy vehicle. There is a set of component technologies (internal combustion engines, long-lasting tires, oil extraction and cracking methods, roadmaking, bridge construction) that work together with various policies and geopolitical realities (geography/history of the country, highway building, power of car and oil companies in the U.S. during the 20th century, dovetailing with national security interests, pro-suburbanization policy frameworks) to create a transportation system that favors a particular way of doing things. Now that it's in place, there are all kinds of intended and unintended consequences, but the main one is this: if you live in this U.S. system, you are more likely to drive and drive more than most other people. The system tilts that way, so it's easy to do. And that has all kinds of implications for what people do and what governments think they must do to stay in power.

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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.

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