P2P Essay of the Day: Wikileaks’ Liquid Information Leaks for a Liquid Society

* Article: Liquid Information Leaks. By Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey.


“In this essay, (we will) argue that the so-called WikiLeaks global scandal can be understood through the framework developed by Zygmunt Bauman (2000) in Liquid Modernity, where he argues that Late Modernity is characterized by a trend of increasing liquidity. As an extension of this theory, we argue that as information becomes increasingly liquid, it leaks. For this reason, an environment of liquidity is hostile to entrenched, secretive institutions—the sort that WikiLeaks believes are inherently corrupt. To undermine these institutions, WikiLeaks engages in a tactic of enforced transparency, using its networks to gather up the increasing abundance of leaks and further harnessing the environment of liquidity to make these leaks highly visible. We will conclude that WikiLeak’s “cyber-anarchist” philosophy rests on a connected series of principles: increased liquidity leads to greater transparency, which, in turn, leads to better behavior by institutional actors. Both Bauman and WikiLeaks anticipate what the evidence now indicates: institutions attempting to solidify against the growing torrent of liquidity face the prospect of potentially being washed away.”

* Selected Excerpts: The Liquefaction of Society

By Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey:

“While the contemporary information economy predates the public, commercial Internet, the Web has been a (if not the) primary factor in accelerating the trend toward Liquid Modernity. Bauman has written about the Web before, especially about how Internet dating furthers liquid relationships and love (2007); however, further reflection is in order because developments on and around the Web continually seem to reinforce his thesis. In fact, the Web seems to liquefy just about everything it touches; be it things, people, or, of course, information. The rise of the Web has created more liquid markets and products, concerns particularly important to Bauman (2000). With the Internet, there has been a rise of renting products that were once typically owned. The “transumer”1 is, in part, one who encounters “stuff” temporarily as opposed to accumulating it permanently. Zipcar, Netflix, Spotify and an increasing number of other examples where individuals rent rather than own demonstrate that, for many—especially the young and/or affluent—the physical amassing of “stuff” is undesirable; so, they have begun to rent items that previous generations tended to accumulate. “Stuff”, for many, is decreasingly allowed to solidify on our shelves and in our attics, instead flowing in a more liquid and nimble sense through consumers’ lives. Also, the rise of “virtual goods” (Lehdonvirta et al., 2009)—digital commodities such as gifts on Facebook or weapons on World of Warcraft—highlight the trend is towards “lighter” exchange as opposed to the solid and heavier exchange of physical goods. Just as things have grown more liquid, so too have people (Bauman 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007). Social media exemplifies this point: users of sites such as Facebook or Twitter can communicate with more people, more quickly and across more time and space. For example, a photograph of a friend can be taken and immediately posted to a site like Facebook, shared and commented on by “friends” around the globe. The social feedback loop has been intensified and made more rapid. This is in addition to other fairly recent technologies, like commercial flight, that allow us to physical transport our body around the globe, albeit at a pace slower than information can travel. When one of these flights crashed on the Hudson River in New York City, an individual snapped a photo on his mobile phone and posted it to Twitter. Within an hour, that image was disseminated across the globe and the photographer found himself being interviewed on cable television. By the morning, the photo ran on the front page of various print newspapers.2 The examples above demonstrate how the Internet—an informational sphere—has massive implications on the physical world of material products and flesh-and-blood bodies. Liquefaction is a major example of how the offline world is “augmented” by the online (Jurgenson and Rey, paper in progress). Products, markets, people and most everything else is growing more liquid online.”

Moving from Spaces of Places to Spaces of Flows

“Manuel Castells (1996/2009), perhaps, best captured this shift when he said that computer networking technologies were transforming society from a “space of places” to a “space of flows.” The instantaneous nature of such communication technologies collapses or compresses time and space. The effect is to transform the world from a space where certain activities were segmented to certain places at certain times into a space where virtually any activity can be conducted any place at any time. Want to work, shop, chat, play, or pray? There’s an app for that. Of course, by its very nature, it is difficult to keep what goes on in a space of flows contained. Time and space—which once acted as natural barriers, limiting access to institutions, much like a moat—are now easily overcome. Perhaps no organization has more prominently exploited this trend than WikiLeaks.” (http://www.pjrey.net/documents/Liquid%20Information%20Leaks%2011.15.2011.pdf)

Wikileaks as Liquid Politics

“WikiLeaks is more broadly engaged in what we might call liquid politics (i.e., the struggle to either erect or remove barriers to the flow of information). In fact, WikiLeaks has a twofold relationship with liquidity. By enabling leaks, liquidity facilitates the WikiLeaks agenda and the organization, in turn, undermines the solid institutions that act as barriers to greater liquidity. This relationship with liquidity is quite deliberate, and an examination of Assange’s rhetoric reveals a nuanced (and somewhat Utopian) ideology that liquidity is antithetical to corruption. This is because liquidity produces involuntary transparency, and transparency, Assange believes, causes actors to behave virtuously. Indeed, Assange has even been called “the prophet of a coming age of involuntary transparency” (Greenberg, Forbes, 29 November 2010). This broad political agenda is evident in the imagery of the Wikileaks logo, which is designed to valorize fluidity by drawing on the classic light/dark, good/bad trope. Perched atop the logo is a dark, dangerous, solid globe; it melts like a liquid away into a lighter, happier globe that remains partially unformed. At the bottom, the word “WikiLeaks” is written in the same color scheme as the lighter, liquid globe, as if to announce “we’re on the side of this new world order.” It is important to note, however, that liquid politics are not monolithic. Adam Thierer and Berin Szoka (2009) identify two distinct ideologies that emerge in contemporary political discourse surrounding freedom/control of information on the web: cyber-collectivism (which argues that the Internet should be regulated to best conform with our values) and cyber-libertarianism (which focuses on minimizing government regulation). In examining the WikiLeaks agenda, we believe it is pertinent to add a third category, cyber-anarchism (which views the Web as a tool to weaken or dissolve [unnecessary] institutions). Because Assange’s focus is on using the Internet as a mechanism to regulate institutions (through enforced transparency) and not on regulating the Internet, few would argue that Assange is a cyber-collectivist. Most often, Assange is described a cyber-libertarian, but The Wall Street Journal (Crovitz, 2010), for example, has labeled him an “information anarchist” (though this may only be because it sounds more sensational).” (http://www.pjrey.net/documents/Liquid%20Information%20Leaks%2011.15.2011.pdf)


“Are the liquid politics of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange best described as cyber-libertarian or a cyber-anarchist? Assange speaks positively of markets and seems to favor minimal interference in the relationship between supply and demand. In fact, he (Greenberg, 2010) states “So as far as markets are concerned I’m a libertarian.” However, contrary to typical libertarian position, Assange (Greenberg, 2010) is skeptical as to whether private ownership of the means of production (as opposed to collectivist or government ownership) is the best means of accomplishing this goal: “I have mixed attitudes towards capitalism, but I love markets.” He (Greenberg, 2010) explains the thinking behind this nuanced position of supporting markets, while being skeptical towards capitalism: “I have enough expertise in politics and history to understand that a free market ends up as monopoly unless you force them to be free.” That is to say, like government, businesses are inclined to form conspiracies whenever possible. Assange’s primary objective in seeking a more liquid world is not to create a system that better rewards innovators (as the cyber-libertarians hope); instead, Assange’s aim is to disrupt what he views as the conspiratorial practices of solid institutions (i.e., institutions with strong barriers against the flow of information). Assange (November 2006; see also: Sklar, 2010) has unusual and quite specific understanding of the word “conspiracy,” which he describes as a property of networks. Basically, a conspiracy is a dense cluster of individuals who rapidly exchange information to the mutual benefit of the in-group, but to the detriment of the out-group. In such an arrangement, the in-group is motivated to erect barriers between themselves and the out-group in order to further consolidate their mutually beneficial arrangement. In fact, using Bauman’s metaphor, a conspiracy is a solid structure within a network. Assange argues that the appropriate tactic for disrupting a conspiracy is not attack the actors, but to breach its boundaries and divert the flow of information. Without exclusive control over the flow of information, the conspiracy loses its advantage. Assange (December 2006, his emphasis) elaborates upon his tactics: We can deceive or blind a conspiracy by distorting or restricting the information available to it. We can reduce total conspiratorial power via unstructured attacks on links or through throttling and separating. A conspiracy sufficiently engaged in this manner is no longer able to comprehend its environment and plan robust action. This antagonism to solid, conspiratorial institutions positions seems to be Assange’s driving principle. This, paired with his professed skepticism toward capitalism, seems to indicate that Assange better fits the ideal-type of the cyber-anarchist than with the cyber-libertarian barons of Silicon Valley. Assange (Emmett, 2011), in fact, has little sympathy for these figures, saying in one interview: Facebook in particular is the most appalling spying machine that has ever been invented. […] Facebook, Google, Yahoo – all these major US organizations have built-in interfaces for US intelligence. It’s not a matter of serving a subpoena. They have an interface that they have developed for US intelligence to use. In many ways, Assange is more ideologically aligned with the Internet community / hacker collective known as “Anonymous.”


“Assange’s complicated position on secrecy and openness highlight a larger theoretical point regarding Bauman’s liquidity thesis. Just as liquidity helps theoretically situate WikiLeaks, the theory can also be further refined in light of this example. Assange and WikiLeaks’ nuanced position on secrecy and openness betrays a larger point with respect to the political economy of transparency. Assange’s primary goal is to end government secrecy. And he acknowledges the seemingly contradictory point that the government response to WikiLeaks is very likely a long-term move towards becoming more secret. And this, perhaps counter-intuitively, is exactly the point. Assange states that, “in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems.” Simply, what Assange is arguing is that old structures will further solidify, become less porous in response to the threat of liquefaction. The effect will be that already-too-solid structures in our liquid modernity will become even further out of step with the contemporary world. To take the liquid-solid metaphor further, we might imagine how one builds a literal structure to withstand a flood: the structure, perhaps a house, is built on stilts; not only to keep the rooms above the water but also because the stilts, poles or pilings can withstand the same torrent of water that might push over a solid wall. The stilts might be said to be more porous and as such less solid. Assange (December 2006) offers an additional metaphor: When we look at an authoritarian conspiracy as a whole, we see a system of interacting organs, a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls, stupefied; unable to sufficiently comprehend and control the forces in its environment. Drawing from these literal examples, we argue that, theoretically, in an increasingly liquid world, old, heavy structures need to become more porous else they will be washed away in the rising wave of liquidity. Assange’s strategy is precisely to make what he supposes to be corrupt institutions unwilling to reform (e.g., the U.S. government) more secretive and, therefore, less porous. As a consequence, these institutions will be less effective at communicating both internally and diplomatically to others—Assange describes this effect as a “secrecy tax.”

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