Wikileaks, the New Network News Ecology, and the Super-Empowered Individual

Good insights in a Metamute article.

Excerpts from Felix Stalder:


“WikiLeaks is one of the defining stories of the internet, which means by now, one of the defining stories of the present, period. At least four large-scale trends which permeate our societies as a whole are fused here into an explosive mixture whose fall-out is far from clear. First is a change in the materiality of communication. Communication becomes more extensive, more recorded, and the records become more mobile. Second is a crisis of institutions, particularly in western democracies, where moralistic rhetoric and the ugliness of daily practice are diverging ever more at the very moment when institutional personnel are being encouraged to think more for themselves. Third is the rise of new actors, ‘super-empowered’ individuals, capable of intervening into historical developments at a systemic level. Finally, fourth is a structural transformation of the public sphere (through media consolidation at one pole, and the explosion of non-institutional publishers at the other), to an extent that rivals the one described by Habermas with the rise of mass media at the turn of the 20th century.”

2. The Super-Empowered Individual

“There is a vast amount of infrastructure – transportation, communication, financing, production – openly available that, until recently, was only accessible to very large organisations. It now takes relatively little – a few dedicated, knowledgeable people – to connect these pieces into a powerful platform from which to act. Military strategists have been talking about ‘super-empowered individuals’ by which they mean someone who

is autonomously capable of creating a cascading event, […] a ‘system perturbation’; a disruption of system function and invalidation of existing rule sets to at least the national but more likely the global scale. The key requirements to become ‘superempowered’ are comprehension of a complex system’s connectivty and operation; access to critical network hubs; possession of a force that can be leveraged against the structure of the system and a willingness to use it.1

There are a number real weaknesses to this concept, not least that it has thus far been exclusively applied to terrorism and that it reduces structural dynamics to individual actions. Nevertheless, it can be useful insofar as it highlights how complex, networked systems which might be generally relatively stable, posses critical nodes (‘systempunkt’ in the strange parlance of military strategists) which in case of failure that can cause cascading effects through the entire systems.2 It also highlights how individuals, or more likely, small groups, can affect these systems disproportionately if they manage to interfere with these critical nodes. Thus, individuals, supported by small, networked organisations, can now intervene in social dynamics at a systemic level, for the better or worse.

This picture fits WikiLeaks, organised around one charismatic individual, very well. It is both its strength and its weakness. Its strength because it has been able to trigger large-scale events quickly and cheaply. If WikiLeaks had required multi-million dollar investment upfront, it would not have been able to get off the ground. Yet, it is also its key weakness, since it remains so strongly centred around a single person. Many of the issues that are typical of small groups organised by a charismatic leader seem to affect WikiLeaks as well, such as authoritarianism, lack of internal procedure, dangers of burnout and internal and external attacks on the credibility of that single person (if not worse). Such charismatic leadership is often unstable and one must suspect that all of the issues – positive because of the super-empowerment, as well as negative because of the pressures baring down on it – are multiplied to an unprecedented scale in the case of WikiLeaks and its leader, Julian Assange. It’s hard to imagine how this can be sustainable.”