The news took a turn for the worse in 2005 when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer began broadcasting from The Situation Room, a simulation of the legendary presidential techno-bunker. Most recently, Obama was photographed there watching an elite force of Navy SEALs assassinate Osama bin Laden. Blitzer would pace before a screen of his own as if he too might race to the front lines at any moment. He would inexplicably hold pen and paper while reading from the teleprompter and gesture at the life-size spectacle of catastrophe that passed behind his back. Technology was feeding information in from all sides, anything could happen: Blitzer would touch his earpiece, “I’m just being informed that…” The purpose of the program’s set was to make Blitzer look like the pilot of a fact-finding squadron when, in reality, he was something less than the air traffic controller.
The trend toward data-empowered anchoring continued with reporter John King’s “Magic Wall,” a touch screen predating Apple’s “touch” products. With “Magic Wall,” a product originally developed for the military, King would zoom in on this voting district or that, slicing and dicing the California Third until he could tell viewers the very household—nay, the man!—that would swing the election.
Since then, we’ve all had the opportunity to get in on the act thanks to features like the New York Times’s interactive election maps and Twitter’s floods of bite-size revolutionary tweets. But where the tingly feeling of Powerful Data Manipulation is concerned, the public owes its greatest debt of gratitude to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks.
The data dumps that have made Assange notorious have not been WikiLeaks’s only mode of communication. Devotees of the organization will remember that in Spring 2010 WikiLeaks made a huge splash with its “Collateral Murder” video, showing American soldiers firing on and killing Iraqi civilians and two Reuters employees circa 2007. Assange presented the video at a press event that had more in common with broadcast journalism than with data dumping. He offered context and opinion; he tracked down family members of victims beforehand. It was a fully formed story, with its own politics and purpose.
These days, WikiLeaks is somewhat different. Assange has elevated us all to partners in the fight for justice through enormous data releases that require the sorting labor of a crowd: your mission, should you choose to accept, encrypt, and re-route it. Paging through classified documents on wikileaks.ch, I am intrepid keyboard reporter, angry citizen, laptop general. As Micah Sifry points out in WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency, WikiLeaks has tailored its style of presentation to our modern lust for data.
Of course, the people who have been most responsive to enlistment have been WikiLeak’s fellow hackers, a group that takes solidarity seriously. In the words of sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling, “while others stare in awe at Assange’s many otherworldly aspects…I can recognize him as pure triple-A outsider geek. Man, I know a thousand modern weirdos like that, and every single one of them seems to be on my Twitter stream screaming support for Assange because they can recognize him as a brother and a class ally. They are in holy awe of him because, for the first time, their mostly-imaginary and lastingly resentful underclass has landed a serious blow in a public arena.” The culture buccaneers of the Pirate Bay BitTorrent site have helped package and distribute chunks of WikiLeaks data around the Internet. For a while, the two organizations shared a common radical web host (PRQ, based in Sweden). Assange’s greatest defender against a recent coalition of government and corporate censorship was Anonymous, a loose-knit community of anarchistic hackers who briefly brought down Mastercard’s website for refusing to process donations to WikiLeaks. On behalf of WikiLeaks, hackers have organized around the same program they have pursued with music, film, video games, books: making the information free.
As Lewis Hyde suggests in Common as Air, the righteous datatheft asserted by hackers might be traceable to a civic tradition supporting free information for the facilitation of republican deliberation. Enormous copyright restrictions, for example, “lack moral force” in America because they mean “participating in the breach of a centuries-old understanding about the public domain.” But I think there’s a clearer origin. I suspect data emancipation has more to do with the antiauthoritarian tendencies of Web 2.0 enthusiasts than with any genuine concern for constructive political action.
These activists entertain the overwhelming faith in rationality common to anarchists and libertarians. Remove all oppressions, free all information, and mankind will march toward the light. To see political value in a flood of data presupposes a realm of rational, critical subjects with, in this case, an infinite capacity for data processing. But few people seem concerned with processing and presenting. The problem is well-articulated by Dan Hind:
The conversations between equals found online still have only a very tenuous connection with the wider world of broadcast publicity—with the information system that most people rely on in most respects, most of the time. There are highly sophisticated discussions about political economy to be found all over the web, from all kinds of ideological perspectives. But the mainstream coverage of the subject remains all but impervious to them.
If a classified document falls on the Internet, and it doesn’t get debated on CNN, does it make a sound? Only part of what the major media outlets have reported about the WikiLeaks story has to do with the actual content of the leaks, which anyway haven’t been that surprising. Instead they ask: Have the leaks endangered our country? (Not much.) Is WikiLeaks legal? (Almost certainly.) Is Assange a terrorist? (Hardly.) Predictably, the release of an abundance of information has not caused the mainstream media to reassess its fundamental bias toward lazy, easy-to-swallow news. The problem with our news media is not a paucity of facts, but a lack of interest in putting the pieces together to produce structural criticisms or even coherent stories. ‘Twas thus before WikiLeaks, and thus it shall be—at least so long deregulated monsters à la Turner Broadcasting System and News Corp dominate.
The frantic activism on behalf of Assange and his documents recalls the furious demands by liberals for Dick Cheney’s secret visitor logs during the Bush administration. These logs were supposed to provide evidence that corporate executives were writing America’s energy policy. As if we didn’t know. All that was needed to prove the point was the policy itself. The demand for yet another self-evident fact was something of a distraction, and today we again find ourselves so focused on the piling up of facts that we’re not making very many arguments. Perhaps more importantly, we’re not making activism either.*
The most visible gatherings of warm, offline bodies in reaction to WikiLeaks have been to protest the persecution of Julian Assange himself. They have not been against atrocities, like the one depicted in the “Collateral Murder” video, committed by America in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have not been to demand an end to wars or a crashing halt to the military-industrial complex. Data doesn’t rally the troops, nor does yet another New York Times story telling a slightly more graphic version of the same old tragedy. Protesters end up fighting for the right to data, but not against anything that data reveals.
We fight for data because corporate media, blogs, and hacker pronouncements tell us that information is power, and that anarchic explosions of data are the greatest power of all. The parameters of this discussion are: is this power good or bad? The debate is never over whether this power is real.
The images we see—Wolf with his pen, King with the “Magic Wall,” Bradley Manning thrown in prison, Assange pursued—constitute the spectacle of data-as-power. But it’s become a mere diversion. The net result is that activism is targeted toward promoting that which distracts us from our powerlessness. As with cultural products, information seizure has been easy to place on moral high ground. Government transparency! Freedom of thought and expression! And this really is a high ground, even if it’s atop a rather low peak. We sit at our computer screens and manipulate classified documents, which are passed around on an anonymous network of stateless avatars. But the information we pride ourselves on gaining access to is not activism, it’s a spectacle that we watch alone.
*Some have argued that the uprising in Tunisia benefited substantially from WikiLeaked information. Maybe this is so. Another benefit of Sifry’s book, though he doesn’t seem to notice it himself, is its evidence that data floods are much more beneficial in countries with more authoritarian and centrally controlled media spheres than exist in most liberal democracies, where mass media is shallow but lots of facts are available for the taking.