wikileaks: narrative shifts

In The Blast Shack, Bruce Sterling offers his perspective of the Wikileaks narrative. He does touch on a number of things that have also utterly fascinated me about all this. I was thinking more of Neuromancer and its like, but Sterling digs a bit deeper and definitely hits it on the head with Crypto-anarchism. The general outlines are simple enough. Privacy activists contend that we need to be able to protect our property (physical, intellectual, etc) from the government and/or state as much as from other people; the government declares an equally strong interest in being able to go through these properties at need. This is a controversy of long standing: the same argument formed the basis of the U.S.’s Bill of Rights, which balanced these needs, protecting the individual against the more powerful state. Through the following decades, these concepts have evolved, the tension going back and forth in a constant dance of checks and balances. We reach today’s day and age, where the argument is now framed as: we should be able to unconditionally protect our data from others; the government, state, and corporatocracy still equally vehemently declare the essential need to pore through all the data. To many hackers and other online intelligentsia, strong cryptography — also made infinitely possible by the very computers giving us the online world — is the answer.

Cryptography is a curious field. In graduate school, you quickly hear of students working on theses who are later asked not to publish their results, or who get sucked into the NSA. Be a programmer of even modest capability and you will easily run into cryptography issues and become aware of long running tensions over protocols such as PGP (banned, in a rather futile exercise, by the Clinton administration for years) and (also a rather futile Clinton-era demand) administrative demands for back door access; of the near constant tension between DMCA and advocates for digital freedom. And all that doesn’t even touch on what corporations would like to do with our personal data. Drop into this volatile mix the fact that our legal and cultural systems have hardly caught up with issues raised by the existence of the online world and it’s no wonder this has developed into the perfect storm. A storm that has been anticipated for decades by many of us online, especially those of us involved in or aware of these early skirmishes.

Who are these online frontier cowboys, these digital neo-hippies? We are not all the same. Some of us are more liberal, others more conservative. Some of us are little more than digital thieves, others of us are taking the long view. Some of us have grievances, others of us are philosophical or conscientious objectors. Some of us are young and fiery; others old and fiery. Some of us have changed positions and viewpoints over time. Like Sterling, like Assange, I grew up on the internets. I am not a hacker per se but I have been on the periphery for over 20 years. When you are online that long, when you work as a sysadmin whether on your own computers or in your line of work, a programmer contributing bits of code and scripts to a vast, sprawling, but entirely workable global system, you learn that you are but a single individual yet at the same time duplicated in many other individuals throughout the net, acting in concert or at least cooperation much of the time (even with completely different philosophies) in order to make all of this stuff just work. Understanding viscerally that this astonishingly complex system that the real world now uses for its own ends has many surprisingly simple concepts at its heart, makes us quite a bit different from the rest.

What draws me in to Wikileaks is that this is a grand narrative on which we can hang these stories. Being online from the end of the 80s to now, from text-based email and usenet to the present day gorgeously displayed email and websites, seeing things come up, sink down, and come back again (what are blogs and their commenters but a reinvented and reimagined version of a usenet newsgroup?). We have our myths, our heroes and as Sterling points out, one of our most enduring ones is the lone hacker exposing the corruption of the real world around him. Wikileaks is providing us with that story at long last. The Crypto-Anarchist perfectly conveys the dual sense of optimism and despair in this subculture, the David vs Goliath — only Goliath really does have serious teeth this time around. And yes, parts of Wikileaks has had that certain sense of inevitability about it, the reaction of the corporate sector, the government and state condemnation, the inability to stamp Wikileaks out, the ability of the latter to clone itself to safety, the simplicity of the poison pill (and the odd inability of many observers to see how simply it is set up and thus make the mistakes they do). And of course we all sense there are major parts of this story unfolding out of sight to most of us — again neatly fitting into the hackers’ mythos.

But then at the same time, Sterling’s vision seems curiously frozen in time, viewing the present too much through the lenses of the past. To begin with, his characterizations of the main players seems off. Even Assange-as-hacker — while he is indeed a more than competant hacker, with a 20 year old conviction under his belt — isn’t quite accurate. Assange is playing public part, a deliberate role of the lightening rod (his words) for the Wikileaks organization. He has commented: “It’s a bit annoying, actually. Because I co-wrote a book about [being a hacker], there are documentaries about that, people talk about that a lot. They can cut and paste. But that was 20 years ago. It’s very annoying to see modern day articles calling me a computer hacker. I’m not ashamed of it, I’m quite proud of it. But I understand the reason they suggest I’m a computer hacker now. There’s a very specific reason.” His present day roles as a journalist and transparency advocate are very explicitly derived from the hacker culture and reinforced by its mythos.

However, while Assange is most assuredly a product of the hacker milieu, we do not actually know much of anything about Manning, and at present he is entirely removed from the narrative except as a point to rally around. We do not even know that he is a hacker — if there’s one thing to notice about these diplomatic cables, it is how poorly they were secured, how poorly access to them was handled. His chat transcripts with Lamo do not echo the cadences of the hacker culture, but more standard right to know and this is wrong tropes. This is another aspect of the narrative I am interested in: how it is breaking free of its original mythology and entering the “real world” issues of, in U.S. parlance, First and Fourth Amendment concerns. I am not even convinced Manning is the one solely responsible for all of the diplomatic cables leaks (for a variety of reasons; I may be right or very very wrong).

Astonishingly, especially for one as immersed in this culture as Sterling is, he offered no commentary on Alastair Lamo, who is himself a gray hat: a former black hat turned white hat (and with all the attendant complexity that that involves, including questions of his motives). But Sterling seems to view the people involved in Wikileaks as stock characters, fixed in place. If there’s one thing about Wikileaks that has riveted me, it is the constantly moving target that it has presented. While Sterling accurately characterizes the hot potato problem that prosecution of Assange will entail, while I think he’ s accurately hit on the way in which the leaks are so problematic for the diplomatic corps and diplomatic relations between nations in general, he seems unrelentingly negative and certainly irresponsibly speculative in summing up both Manning and Assange: the former as a destroyed babyfaced cypherpunk and the latter as a poseur, neither the journalist nor the messiah he’s presenting himself as.

Others have already reacted to issues in Sterling’s article — which received wide online attention precisely because of who Sterling is in the hacker community, among them anthropologist Gabriella Coleman in Hacker Culture: A Response to Bruce Sterling on WikiLeaks and the Economist’s Bruce Sterling’s plot holes. I think the latter sums it up best thusly, after invoking Immanuel Kant:

But Mr Kant is right, as is Mr Assange, that ongoing injustice tends to require secrecy. He is right, as is Mr Assange, that injustice made public is thereby at least somewhat threatened. And he is therefore right, as is Mr Assange, that policies (or strategems or maxims or wars) that survive the test of thoroughgoing publicity are least likely unjust. Liberalism was once a radical, revolutionary philosophy, but it has become hard to believe it. What is most intriguing about the WikiLeaks saga is not the pathology of hacker culture as envisioned by Mr Sterling’s fecund imagination, but the possibility that Julian Assange and his confederates have made dull liberal principles seem once again sexily subversive by exposing power’s reactionary panic when a few people with a practical bent actually bother to take them seriously.

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