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

"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, 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.

In our global communication system including most prominently the Internet, we have a similar system built for profit but that has other implications. And in this case, the people who want to spread information have a structural wind at their back. They are the drivers. The components of the system--very cheap cell phones, wired and wireless Internet access, an ideology of mostly free information exchange, the transnational nature of communication--make some things easier than others. Spreading information: easy. Controlling information: hard.

Spreaders can fit hours worth of video on hardware the size of a toenail. One seed can become hundreds in an hour. Servers that can be reached globally can be set up in any country, providing plenty of freedom to play off the laws of the lands as corporations have long done.

Meanwhile, those who would stop and control information have a few draconian levers. They can track people, probably the most effective. They can turn off the Internet. They can steal individuals' cell phone memory sticks. They can arrest bloggers. But they are shooting flies with guns. Empirically, we've seen the results time and again: The files will get out.

Governments have a lot of ways of holding on to power that have nothing to do with information. The can kill people. But the holding and selective dissemination of secrets is a big part of the job description, particularly for authoritarian regimes. And that's going to get harder for them in this era. I think that's why people in Egypt and Tunisia make signs thanking Facebook. That's why every protest I've seen in the Middle East prominently features dozens of people recording everything with cameras and phones. On the ground, people in the Middle East and North Africa seem to sense an important asymmetry that they can exploit.

Of course, information on its own is often inert in the world. But that's where the humans come in, as spreaders and catalysts and activists. Blogger and friend Tim Maly and I were talking about this one day and he started riffing on the idea. Here's his riff, presented like a poem, perhaps as an homage to the literary flair Stewart Brand has long brought to the study of technologies:

The files will get out.
The files will get tagged.
The files will get linked, indexed, and submitted to a search engine.

The files will get shared.
They'll get liked and tweeted and posted on forums.
They'll be downloaded and printed off.
They'll be emailed around and Snopes'd.
They'll be cut up and mashed up and turned into charts.
There will be comments and complaints and brash opinions from people who didn't read them in full.

They'll be excerpted in books and quoted on TV.
They'll be used in a case study and remembered over a beer.
They'll become proof that
the files will get out.

He didn't add, but maybe we should: the files will fuel revolutions.