Thesis 0

"What
do I think of WikiLeaks? I think it would be a good idea!" (after Mahatma
Gandhi's famous quip on "Western Civilization")

Thesis 1

Disclosures
and leaks have been a feature of all eras, however never before has a non-state
or non-corporate affiliated group done anything on the scale of what WikiLeaks
has managed to do, first with the "collateral murder" video, then the
"Afghan War Logs", and now "Cablegate". It looks like we
have now reached the moment that the quantitative leap is morphing into a
qualitative one. When WikiLeaks hit the mainstream early in 2010, this was not
yet the case. In a sense, the "colossal" WikiLeaks disclosures can be
explained as the consequence of the dramatic spread of IT use, together with the
dramatic drop in its costs, including for the storage of millions of documents.
Another contributing factor is the fact that safekeeping state and corporate
secrets — never mind private ones — has become difficult in an age of instant
reproducibility and dissemination. WikiLeaks becomes symbolic for a
transformation in the "information society" at large, holding up a
mirror of things to come. So while one can look at WikiLeaks as a (political)
project and criticize it for its modus operandi, it can also be seen as the
"pilot" phase in an evolution towards a far more generalized culture
of anarchic exposure, beyond the traditional politics of openness and
transparency.

Thesis 2

For better
or for worse, WikiLeaks has skyrocketed itself into the realm of high-level international
politics. Out of the blue, WikiLeaks has become a full-blown player both on the
world scene as well as in the national spheres of some countries. Small player
as it is, WikiLeaks, by virtue of its disclosures, appears to be on a par with
governments or big corporations (its next target) — at least in the domain of
information gathering and publication. At same time, it is unclear whether this
is a permanent feature or a temporary, hype-induced phenomenon — WikiLeaks
appears to believe the former, and that looks more and more likely to be the
case. Despite being a puny non-state and non-corporate actor, in its fight
against the US government WikiLeaks does not believe it is punching above its
weight — and is starting to behave accordingly. One might call this the
"Talibanization" stage of the postmodern "Flat World"
theory, where scales, times and places are declared largely irrelevant. What
counts is celebrity momentum and the intense accumulation of media attention.
WikiLeaks manages to capture that attention by way of spectacular information
hacks, where other parties, especially civil society groups and human rights
organizations, are desperately struggling to get their message across. While
the latter tend to play by the rules and seek legitimacy from dominant
institutions, WikiLeaks' strategy is populist insofar that it taps into public
disaffection with mainstream politics. Political legitimacy, for WikiLeaks, is
no longer something graciously bestowed by the powers that be. WikiLeaks bypasses
this Old World structure of power and instead goes to the source of political
legitimacy in today's info-society: the rapturous banality of the spectacle.
WikiLeaks brilliantly puts to use the "escape velocity" of IT, using
IT to leave IT behind and rudely irrupt the realm of real-world politics.

Thesis 3

In the
ongoing saga called "The Decline of the US Empire", WikiLeaks enters
the stage as the slayer of a soft target. It would be difficult to imagine it
being able to inflict quite same damage to the Russian or Chinese governments,
or even to the Singaporean — not to mention their "corporate"
affiliates. In Russia or China, huge cultural and linguistic barriers are at
work, not to speak of purely power-related ones, which would need to be surmounted.
Vastly different constituencies are also factors there, even if we are speaking
about the narrower (and allegedly more global) cultures and agendas of hackers,
info-activists and investigative journalists. In that sense, WikiLeaks in its
present manifestation remains a typically "western" product and
cannot claim to be a truly universal or global undertaking.

Thesis 4

One of the
main difficulties with explaining WikiLeaks arises from the fact that it is
unclear (also to the WikiLeaks people themselves) whether it sees itself and
operates as a content provider or as a simple conduit for leaked data (the
impression is that it sees itself as either/or, depending on context and
circumstances). This, by the way, has been a common problem ever since media
went online en masse and publishing and communications became a service rather
than a product. Julian Assange cringes every time he is portrayed as the
editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks; yet WikiLeaks says it edits material before
publication and claims it checks documents for authenticity with the help of
hundreds of volunteer analysts. Content vs. carrier debates of this kind have
been going on for decades among media activists, with no clear outcome. Instead
of trying to resolve the inconsistency, it might be better to look for fresh
approaches and develop new critical concepts for what has become a hybrid
publishing practice involving actors far beyond the traditional domain of the
professional news media. This might be why Assange and his collaborators refuse
to be labelled in terms of "old categories" (journalists, hackers,
etc.) and claim to represent a new Gestalt
on the world information stage.

Thesis 5

The steady
decline of investigative journalism caused by diminishing funding is an
undeniable fact. Journalism these days amounts to little more than outsourced
PR remixing. The continuous acceleration and over-crowding of the so-called
attention economy ensures there is no longer enough room for complicated
stories. The corporate owners of mass circulation media are increasingly
disinclined to see the workings and the politics of the global neoliberal
economy discussed at length. The shift from information to infotainment has
been embraced by journalists themselves, making it difficult to publish complex
stories. WikiLeaks enters this state of affairs as an outsider, enveloped by
the steamy ambiance of "citizen journalism", DIY news reporting in
the blogosphere and even faster social media like Twitter. What WikiLeaks
anticipates, but so far has been unable to organize, is the "crowd
sourcing" of the interpretation of its leaked documents. That work, oddly,
is left to the few remaining staff journalists of selected "quality"
news media. Later, academics pick up the scraps and spin the stories behind the
closed gates of publishing stables. But where is networked critical
commentariat? Certainly, we are all busy with our minor critiques; but it
remains the case that WikiLeaks generates its capacity to inspire irritation at
the big end of town precisely because of the transversal and symbiotic relation
it holds with establishment media institutions. There's a lesson here for the
multitudes – get out of the ghetto and connect with the Oedipal other. Therein
lies the conflictual terrain of the political.

Traditional investigative journalism used to consist of three phases:
unearthing facts, crosschecking these and backgrounding them into an
understandable discourse. WikiLeaks does the first, claims to do the second,
but omits the third completely. This is symptomatic of a particular brand of
open access ideology, where content production itself is externalized to
unknown entities "out there". The crisis in investigative journalism
is neither understood nor recognized. How productive entities are supposed to
sustain themselves materially is left in the dark: it is simply presumed that
analysis and interpretation will be taken up by the traditional news media. But
this is not happening automatically. The saga of the Afghan War Logs and
Cablegate demonstrate that WikiLeaks has to approach and negotiate with
well-established traditional media to secure sufficient credibility. At the
same time, these media outlets prove unable to fully process the material,
inevitably filtering the documents according to their own editorial policies.

Thesis 6

WikiLeaks
is a typical SPO (Single Person Organization, or "UPO": Unique
Personality Organization). This means that the initiative taking,
decision-making and execution is largely concentrated in the hands of a single
individual. Like small and medium-sized businesses, the founder cannot be voted
out, and, unlike many collectives, leadership does not rotate. This is not an
uncommon feature within organizations, irrespective of whether they operate in
the realm of politics, culture or the "civil society" sector. SPOs
are recognizable, exciting, inspiring, and easy to feature in the media. Their
sustainability, however, is largely dependent on the actions of their
charismatic leader, and their functioning is difficult to reconcile with
democratic values. This is also why they are difficult to replicate and do not
scale up easily. Sovereign hacker Julian Assange is the identifying figurehead
of WikiLeaks, the organization's notoriety and reputation merging with
Assange's own. What WikiLeaks does and stands for becomes difficult to
distinguish from Assange's rather agitated private life and his somewhat
unpolished political opinions.

Thesis 7

WikiLeaks
raises the question as to what hackers have in common with secret services,
since an elective affinity between the two is unmistakable. The love-hate
relationship goes back to the very beginning of computing. One does not have to
be a fan of German media theorist Friedrich Kittler or, for that matter,
conspiracy theories, to acknowledge that the computer was born out of the
military-industrial complex. From Alan Turing's deciphering of the Nazi Enigma
code up to the role played by the first computers in the invention of the
atomic bomb, from the cybernetics movement up to the Pentagon's involvement in
the creation of the Internet — the articulation between computational
information and the military-industrial complex is well established. Computer
scientists and programmers have shaped the information revolution and the
culture of openness; but at the same time they have also developed encryption
("crypto"), closing access to data for the non-initiated. What some
see as "citizen journalism" others call "info war".

WikiLeaks is also an organization deeply shaped by 1980s hacker culture,
combined with the political values of techno-libertarianism that emerged in the
1990s. The fact that WikiLeaks was founded — and to a large extent is still run
— by hard-core geeks is essential to understanding its values and moves. Unfortunately,
this comes together with a good dose of the less savoury aspects of hacker
culture. Not that idealism, the desire to contribute to making the world a
better place, could be denied to WikiLeaks: on the contrary. But this brand of
idealism (or, if you prefer, anarchism) is paired with a preference for
conspiracies, an elitist attitude and a cult of secrecy (never mind
condescension). This is not conducive to collaboration with like-minded people
and groups, who are relegated to being the simple consumers of WikiLeaks
output. The missionary zeal to enlighten the idiotic masses and
"expose" the lies of government, the military and corporations is
reminiscent of the well-known (or infamous) media-culture paradigm from the
1950s.

Thesis 8

Lack of commonality
with congenial, "another world is possible" movements drives
WikiLeaks to seek public attention by way of increasingly spectacular and risky
disclosures, thereby gathering a constituency of often wildly enthusiastic, but
generally passive supporters. Assange himself has stated that WikiLeaks has
deliberately moved away from the "egocentric" blogosphere and
assorted social media and nowadays collaborates only with professional
journalists and human rights activists. Yet following the nature and quantity
of WikiLeaks exposures from its inception up to the present day is eerily
reminiscent of watching a firework display, and that includes a "grand
finale" in the form of the doomsday-machine pitched, yet-to-be-unleashed
"insurance" document (".aes256"). This raises serious
doubts about the long-term sustainability of WikiLeaks itself, and possibly
also of the WikiLeaks model. WikiLeaks operates with ridiculously small staff —
probably no more than a dozen of people form the core of its operation. While
the extent and savviness of WikiLeaks' tech support is proved by its very
existence, WikiLeaks' claim to several hundreds of volunteer analysts and
experts is unverifiable and, to be frank, barely credible. This is clearly
WikiLeaks Achilles' heel, not only from a risk and/or sustainability
standpoint, but politically as well – which is what matters to us here.

Thesis 9

WikiLeaks
displays a stunning lack of transparency in its internal organization. Its
excuse that "WikiLeaks needs to be completely opaque in order to force
others to be totally transparent" amounts, in our opinion, to little more
than Mad magazine's famous Spy vs.
Spy cartoons. You beat the opposition but in a way that makes you
indistinguishable from it. Claiming the moral high ground afterwards is not
helpful — Tony Blair too excelled in that exercise. As WikiLeaks is neither a
political collective nor an NGO in the legal sense, and nor, for that matter, a
company or part of social movement, we need to discuss what type of
organization it is that we are dealing with. Is WikiLeaks a virtual project?
After all, it does exist as a (hosted) website with a domain name, which is the
bottom line. But does it have a goal beyond the personal ambition of its
founder(s)? Is WikiLeaks reproducible? Will we see the rise of national or
local chapters that keep the name? What rules of the game will they observe?
Should we rather see it as a concept that travels from context to context and
that, like a meme, transforms itself in time and space?

Thesis 10

Maybe
WikiLeaks will organize itself around its own version of the Internet
Engineering Task Force's slogan "rough consensus and running code"?
Projects like Wikipedia and Indymedia have both resolved this issue in their
own ways, but not without crises, conflicts and splits. A critique such as the
one voiced here is not intended to force WikiLeaks into a traditional format;
on the contrary, it is to explore whether WikiLeaks (and its future clones,
associates, avatars and congenial family members) might stand as a model for
new forms of organization and collaboration. The term "organized
network" has been coined as a possible term for these formats. Another
term has been "tactical media". Still others have used the generic
term "internet activism". Perhaps WikiLeaks has other ideas about the
direction it wants to take. But where? It is up to WikiLeaks to decide for
itself. Up to now, however, we have seen very little by way of an answer,
leaving others to raise questions, for example about the legality of WikiLeaks'
financial arrangements (Wall Street
Journal
).

We cannot flee the challenge of experimenting with post-representational
networks. As ur-blogger Dave Winer wrote about the Apple developers, "it's
not that they're ill-intentioned, they're just ill-prepared. More than their
users, they live in a Reality Distortion Field, and the people who make the
Computer For the Rest of Us have no clue who the rest of us are and what we are
doing. But that's okay, there's a solution. Do some research, ask some questions,
and listen."

Thesis 11

The widely
shared critique of the self-inflicted celebrity cult of Julian Assange invites
the formulation of alternatives. Wouldn't it be better to run WikiLeaks as an
anonymous collective or "organized network"? Some have expressed the
wish to see many websites doing the same work. One group around Daniel
Domscheit-Berg, who parted company with Assange in September, is already known
to be working on a WikiLeaks clone. What is overlooked in this call for a
proliferation of WikiLeaks is the amount of expert knowledge required to run a
leak site successfully. Where is the ABC tool-kit of WikiLeaks? There is,
perhaps paradoxically, much secrecy involved in this way of
making-things-public. Simply downloading a WikiLeaks software kit and getting
going is not a realistic option. WikiLeaks is not a plug 'n' play blog
application like WordPress, and the word "Wiki" in its name is really
misleading, as Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales has been at pains to stress. Contrary to
the collaboration philosophy of Wikipedia, WikiLeaks is a closed shop run with
the help of an unknown number of faceless volunteers. One is forced to
acknowledge that the know-how necessary to run a facility like WikiLeaks is
pretty arcane. Documents not only need to be received anonymously, but also to
be further anonymized before they are released online. They also need to be
"edited" before being dispatched to the servers of international news
organizations and trusted, influential "papers of record".

WikiLeaks has built up a lot of trust and confidence over the years. Newcomers
will need to go through that same, time-consuming process. The principle of
WikiLeaks is not to "hack" (into state or corporate networks) but to
facilitate insiders based in these large organisations to copy sensitive,
confidential data and pass it on to the public domain — while remaining
anonymous. If you are aspiring to become a leak node, you'd better start to get
acquainted with processes like OPSEC or operations security, a step-by-step
plan which "identifies critical information to determine if friendly
actions can be observed by adversary intelligence systems, determines if
information obtained by adversaries could be interpreted to be useful to them,
and then executes selected measures that eliminate or reduce adversary
exploitation of friendly critical information" (Wikipedia). The WikiLeaks
slogan says: "courage is contagious". According to experts, people
who intend to run a WikiLeaks-type operation need nerves of steel. So before we
call for one, ten, many WikiLeaks, let's be clear that those involved run
risks. Whistleblower protection is paramount. Another issue is the protection
of people mentioned in the leaks. The Afghan Warlogs showed that leaks can also
cause "collateral damage". Editing (and eliding) is crucial. Not only
OPSEC, also OPETHICS. If publishing is not carried out in a way that is
absolutely secure for all concerned, there is a definite risk that the
"revolution in journalism" — and politics — unleashed by WikiLeaks
will be stopped in its tracks.

Thesis 12

We do not
think that taking a stand for or against WikiLeaks is what matters most.
WikiLeaks is here to stay, until it either scuttles itself or is destroyed by
opposing forces. Our point is rather to (try to) assess and ascertain what
WikiLeaks can, could — and maybe even should — do, and to help formulate how
"we" could relate to and interact with WikiLeaks. Despite all its
drawbacks, and against all odds, WikiLeaks has rendered a sterling service to
the cause of transparency, democracy and openness. As the French would say, if
something like it did not exist, it would have to be invented. The quantitative
— and what looks soon to become the qualitative — turn of information overload
is a fact of contemporary life. The glut of disclosable information can only be
expected to continue grow – and exponentially so. To organize and interpret
this Himalaya of data is a collective challenge that is clearly out there,
whether we give it the name "WikiLeaks" or not.

This is an extended version of an article
first published on the nettime mailing list and
elsewhere in August 2010

Image by mermadon 1967, courtesy of Creative Commons license.