We’ve reached a critical boiling point, haven’t we? Politics is high drama, in a way it hasn’t been since the 2008 elections. There is, of course, the enormous international maelstrom surrounding WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, and the leaked diplomatic cables. Add in the massive protests in London against a threefold increase in tuition fees, and the face-off between students and police. Add to that the Nobel Peace Prize going to the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was barred by the Chinese government from receiving one of the most prestigious prizes on the planet. Add in the big Smithsonian/National Portrait Gallery censorship debacle involving a contested piece by the artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. The meltdown of the Irish economy. The tremendously flawed tax cut plan going through Congress, and Obama’s support of it — a major disappointment to everyone I know, myself included. I could go on, but let’s stop there for now.
What has changed, in the last month or two? There is always plenty of shocking news in in the world. There’s always more than enough to be upset or galled about. Most of this stuff that’s boiling up to the surface right now has been carrying on for months, if not years, even decades. What makes now different from then? The difference, I think, is a heightened awareness.
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” snarled John Lydon at the end of the final Sex Pistols gig in San Francisco in 1978. It’s a classic line (and the opening line in Simon Reynolds’ great book Rip it Up and Start Again, as it happens.) I had forgotten that line, but then a few people I know brought it up with regards to WikiLeaks. Vale, who runs Re/Search in San Francisco, was one of them. It’s a good line for the protests in London, too.
After everything I’ve read — which is a sizeable amount — I feel that WikiLeaks done right adds value to a free and independent press. I’m a journalist, and I care about the future of journalism. But the greater value of the leaked diplomatic cables is not in the leaks themselves — many of which were vastly blown out of proportion — but the awareness they’ve raised about the inner workings of the government among the general population. (How many people even knew what a “cable” was before all of this happened?) By revealing details on the prosaic, everyday workings of international diplomacy, they’ve thrown the prosaic, everyday workings of government into sharper relief. They’ve illustrated a gap between what people hear from their governments, and what their governments actually do on a daily basis. They’ve bred a sense of skepticism among the public, and I think that skepticism is healthy. It has caused people to read avidly about international news (to give one example, “wikileaks” is now the most-searched-for term on The Guardian‘s website for the year 2010.) Additionally, by inviting people to see huge amounts of raw data for themselves, they help to illustrate how media outlets can ignore or distort facts, as much as they can contextualize and enlighten. And the backlash to WikiLeaks is causing people to see the myriad ways that the seemingly free-form Internet can be controlled, curtailed, and restrained by those in power.
When you think, just from a technical perspective, about what “250,000 cables” actually means, you’re talking about the amount of data that would fit on a USB stick on a keychain. Let’s say that each one of those cables, which look a lot like plain text emails, is maybe 10K in size. After doing some math, that comes out to about 2.4 gigs of data. Let’s round that up to 3 gigs, and it’s still not a whole lot. I’m not trying to downplay the gravity of the situation or the importance of these files. What I’m trying to say is that we have entered a day and age where someone can strike fear into the hearts of whole governments by uploading the contents of a USB stick. And they have released less than 1 percent of these files.
Here’s John Lydon some years later, in 1984, rocking some “World Destruction” with Afrika Bambaataa:
According to popular legend, there’s an old Chinese curse that says, “may you live in interesting times.” The Velvet Underground said, “You know, those were different times.” We can’t rewind back to a more innocent past, and these are indeed interesting times. But let’s separate out the cult of Julian Assange from WikiLeaks for a moment. I find the people who deify him as a savior and the people who damn him as the devil to be equally ludicrous. (And as for the members of Congress who have accused him of treason: Go back to your third grade history class, and read that textbook.) The blinding media spotlight on Assange reminds me, oddly, of what Brian Eno once said about ambient music. “A lot of the stuff I was doing, I think, was the erosion of a single personality being at the center of the music,” Eno said in The Wire in 1995. “I did that in lots of different ways, by sinking the voice in, or singing nonsense … All of these were ways of giving the message: ‘That’s not the important bit, necessarily.’ That’s only one part of the landscape.” When you look at a painting of a landscape, if there is an image of a person in that landscape — or even the suggestion of one — your eyes will naturally settle on the person. Humans like looking at other humans. And so we focus on Assange, and not WikiLeaks, the organization, which is much larger, more diffuse, more decentralized, and harder to understand than just one man.
As confrontational as WikiLeaks has been, or appeared to be, they are, in their own way, ambient journalism. You can choose to take it or not to take it into consideration, but the information flows, and will always flow, regardless. They opened a stream. The continued focus on Assange by the media has been a bit of a red herring, but it makes sense that Assange is a subject of such intense fascination. He’s a compelling bad-boy figure with a vague, shadowy past, who provides ample space for people to project their inner hopes, dreams, fears.
Mark K-Punk, writing about the student protests in London, talked about “Foucault 101.” I just found this passage in a book of lectures by Michel Foucault in Berkeley in 1983, which seems to to be a good place to end this:
“What are the moral, the ethical, and the spiritual conditions which entitle someone to present himself as, and be considered as, a truth-teller? About what topics is it important to tell the truth? (About the world? About nature? About the city? About behavior? About man?) What are the consequences of telling the truth? What are its anticipated positive effects for the city, for the city’s rulers, for the individual?, etc. And finally: What is the relation between the activity of truth-telling and the exercise of power? Should truth-telling be brought into coincidence with the exercise of power, or should these activities be completely independent and kept separate? Are they separable, or do they require one another? These four questions about truth-telling as an activity — who is able to tell the truth, about what, with what consequences, and with what relation to power — seem to have emerged as philosophical problems towards the end of the Fifth Century around Socrates …”
– Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech [Semiotext(e), 2001], pp. 169-170