There are a few things worth noting about the latest Wikileaks document-dump, the first and most obvious being how utterly unsurprising (though still deeply saddening) the contents were; for me at least (and I suspect for many others) it’s more of a confirmation of long-held suspicions than anything else.
The second is the reaction from the US and UK governments, which have focussed on the supposed risk to military personnel that the leaks will create; we heard that warning last time, too, and it turned out to be hollow. But it’s proving a very effective distraction to career journalists and their readers, most of whom have overlooked one very telling fact – namely that the aforementioned governments have made no attempt to claim the leaked documents are false. “OK, so we lied… but we were doing it to protect you!” Oh. That has worked out well, hasn’t it?
Thirdly is an observation from Mike Masnick of TechDirt, who compares Wikileaks with everyone’s favourite internet-prankster boogiepersons, Anonymous. The common themes are that they’re both products of our newly-networked era, and that they’re both being underestimated by the very powers that they most threaten.
I’d argue that the time to take the concept of Anonymous seriously came quite some time ago, actually. Even as people dismiss the group as often immature and naive (at times, quite true), what’s impressive about it is that Anonymous is a perfect example of truly distributed, totally anonymous, ad hoc organizations. When the group puts out statements, they’re grandiose and silly, but there’s a real point buried deep within them. What the internet allows is for groups to form and do stuff in a totally anonymous and distributed manner, and there really isn’t any way to prevent that — whether you agree with the activity or not.
Some think that “a few arrests” of folks behind Anonymous would scare off others, but I doubt it. I would imagine that it would just embolden the temporary gathering of folks involved even more. Going back to the beginning of the post, if the US government really was effective in “stopping” Julian Assange, how long do you think it would take for an even more distributed group to pick up the slack? It could be Anonymous itself, who continues on the tradition of Wikileaks, or it could be some other random group of folks who believe in the importance of enabling whistleblowing.
And yes, there’s a smattering of self-aggrandisement on my part here, because I made a similar suggestion back in July:
It’ll never be a big-bucks business, I’d guess, but the accrued counter-authority power and kudos will appeal to a lot of people with axes to grind. But what if they manage to make it an open-source process, so that the same work could be done by anyone even if Wikileaks sank or blew up? An amorphous and perpetual revolving-door flashmob, like Anonymous without the LOLcats and V masks? It’s essentially just a protocol, albeit one that runs on human and electronic networks in parallel.
Nowadays I flinch from making bold statements about profound change, but I find it very hard not to look at distributed post-geographical movements like Wikileaks and Anonymous and not see something without historical precedent. Whether it will last (let alone succeed in toppling the old hierarchies) is an open question that I’d not want to gamble on just yet, but what’s pretty much undeniable is that the nation-state is under attack by a virus for which its immune system has no prepared response.
No, I’m not about to start bitching about Apple’s flagship gizmo and what it can or can’t do (although, if you want to buy me a beer or two in meatspace, I’d be more than happy to give you my two uninformed but moderately passionate cents on that).
Instead, I’m just going to point to evidence of exactly what I’ve been saying would happen: that within a very short amount of time after the iPad’s launch, you’d be able to get cheaper hardware with the same or greater functionality, and run a FOSS operating system on it that lets you get applications from anywhere you choose. So, via eBooknewser, here’s a guide to hacking the US$200 Pandigital Novel tablet device so it’ll run the Android operating system. Come Christmas time this year, there’ll be dozens of machines just like that kicking around all over the place, only cheaper still.
Speaking of Android, there’s a lot of noise about the way that Google are working on a kind of visual development system that’s designed to let folk with minimal coding knowledge to develop apps that will run on Android – again, a stark comparison to the walled-garden quality control of Apple’s development kits. Sure, the Android market will be flooded with crap and/or dodgy apps as a result… but letting the good stuff bubble to the top is what user rating systems and [editors/curators/gatekeepers] are for, right?
More from John Robb: rewiring agitprop and non-violent protest movements as open-source games.
… in modern western societies, this elite group and their specialists are able to dissociate themselves from jobs when it comes to their private lives. They live unencumbered within our impersonal society. This window of vulnerability creates a yawning opportunity for innovative forms of disruptive non-violent protest. One that pierces the organizational and societal veil of anonymity for these individuals by turning them into systempunkts (vulnerable nodes within the targeted organization’s network that would cause the most damage if disrupted).
Essentially, if you can successfully deter/coerce individual decision makers in this decision making group, you will win (and quickly).Early work on this type of protest can be seen in the work of 4Chan’s Anonymous and China’s human flesh search engine. Both of these open source movements have shown to be surprisingly powerful at targeting single individuals (and poor at disrupting organizations).
An aside: I find Anonymous fascinating, because (whether deliberately or not) they’ve created a fluid non-identity that can be picked up by anyone anywhere for any purpose. It’ll be one of those names that haunts the sidebars of news sites for decades, if not longer… and there’s always the possibility of a schism or interfactional split, which should be fascinating (and doubtless horrific and hilarious) to watch from the sidelines.
But back to Robb:
… any online group of sufficient size could launch an effort like this. However, to really zoom the effort and turn it into a coercive tool, one modification should be made. It should operate as an online game.
Well, pretty much everything else operates as an online game, even democracy itself. [/snark] More seriously, though, using the reward structures of games to entice people toward certain real-world behaviours has been proposed (and put in to action) by others, and has a certain resonance not only with the times we find ourselves in, but also our nature as homo ludens. Indeed, Robb himself proposed a kind of real-life Farmville to spread permaculture farming, but I suspect the amount of real physical work needed to achieve those sorts of goals will deter all but the most tenacious.
That said, science fiction writers got there first: Stross’ Halting State, and Walter John Williams’ This Is Not A Game, for instance. Maybe human society was always a game, and we’re only now waking up to a fact that politicians and uber-entrepreneurs have always understood instinctively?
Regular readers will know I follow John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog quite closely; Robb cropped up yesterday as an interviewee on Boing Boing, restating his case for turning our backs on our governments (who have, in many ways, turned their backs on us) and building grass-roots “resilient communities”:
BB: Do you see a diminishing role for the state in large-scale governance? Does this compel communities to do it for themselves?
JR: Yes, large scale governance is on the way out. Not only are nearly all governments financially insolvent, they can’t protect citizens from a global system that is running amok. As services and security begin to fade, local sources of order will emerge to fill the void. Hopefully, most people will opt to take control of this process by joining together with others to build resilient communities that can offer the independence, security, and prosperity that isn’t offered by the nation-state anymore. However, this is something you will have to build for yourself. Nobody is going to help you build it.
Robb’s is a potentially grim vision (and he appears to rather revel in that grimness from time to time, like any good gadfly); some commenters have pointed out to me that a pinch of salt added to Robb’s posts is a sensible precaution, and I’d agree, but I still think there’s a lot of useful stuff in what he has to say. That said, it’s good to question received wisdom, especially when it confirms what you already believe to be true… so via Technoccult, here’s a critique of Robb’s last book at Reason:
… Robb claims global guerrillas can successfully wage strategic war on nation-states. But a successful strategic war is one in which a guerrilla group attains its strategic goals. If global guerrillas really just want failed states, the world has no shortage, and Robb is correct. If they want the things guerrilla groups have always wanted—regional autonomy, a greater share of the economic pie, dominion over ethnic or sectarian rivals, an end to foreign occupation, social revolution, national control—it’s much harder to say that any global guerrilla group has yet been “successful.”
What most of the global guerrilla groups have managed so far is to not lose. It’s a truism of counterinsurgency that “guerrillas win by not losing,” but successful guerrilla movements eventually win by winning. It’s much harder for global guerrillas to “win” than Robb thinks, because most of these groups have larger goals than he acknowledges.
These peer-to-peer networks of resistance would be pretty easy to hijack, I suppose; we’re rather attached to hierarchies as a species, though whether that’s a predisposition or a psychological artefact is beyond my knowledge. So, what starts as a scattering of people who think of themselves as freedom fighters can be corralled together and steered by another group with a wider agenda and more resources… or maybe just a bigger axe to grind. But perhaps I’m naively assuming that most small insurgencies start as a valiant resistance to some sort of oppression. More research needed (my hourly mantra).
Still, Robb’s points about having to look out for ourselves as nation-states decline and stability decreases ring pretty true, even if they have a Mad Max-esque vibe of dramatic overstatement to them. Security can be offered to you (in exchange for taxes, or whatever else, and not necessarily delivered on when it comes to the crunch), but resilience you must make for yourself. Resilience can fail as well, of course, but then you can blame no one but yourself… perhaps that’s why we’re all so resistant to the idea?