Blog Post

Hacking the State: Wikileaks

Conspiracies are cognitive devices. They are able to outthink the same group of individuals acting alone. Conspiracies take information about the world in which they operate (the conspiratorial environment), pass through the conspirators and then act on the result. We can see conspiracies as a type of device that has inputs (information about the environment), a computational network (the conspirators and their links to each other) and outputs (actions intending to change or maintain the environment).
-Julian Assange

My friend Aaron Bady recently had an excellent, well-linked post in light of the latest Wikileaks document dump that looks at some of Julian Assange's early writings on the state as a conspiracy [PDF]. In these writings Assange argues that the military-diplomatic nexus of the U.S. state functions as an information network with multiple lines of communication between its nodes:

Information flows from conspirator to conspirator. Not every conspirator trusts or knows every other conspirator even though all are connected. Some are on the fringe of the conspiracy, others are central and communicate with many conspirators and others still may know only two conspirators but be a bridge between important sections or groupings of the conspiracy Conspirators are often discerning, for some trust and depend each other, while others say little. Important information flows frequently through some links, trivial information through others. So we expand our simple connected graph model to include not only links, but their importance.

This, in turn, suggests a strategy of political resistance designed to reduce the effectiveness of intra-conspiracy communication by disrupting the ability of participants in the network to communicate reliably with one another:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive secrecy tax) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.


If total conspiratorial power is zero, then clearly there is no information flow between the conspirators and hence no conspiracy. A substantial increase or decrease in total conspiratorial power almost always means what we expect it to mean; an increase or decrease in the ability of the conspiracy to think, act and adapt An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think is powerless to preserve itself against the opponents it induces.

Or, as Aaron summarizes:

The leak, in other words, is only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction; Wikileaks wants to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat. As it tries to plug its own holes and find the leakers, he reasons, its component elements will de-synchronize from and turn against each other, de-link from the central processing network, and come undone. Even if all the elements of the conspiracy still exist, in this sense, depriving themselves of a vigorous flow of information to connect them all together as a conspiracy prevents them from acting as a conspiracy.

This is hacker politics. In the face of something like Wikileaks, the proprietors of closed systems have a choice: (1) stay with their now-compromised closed system, wasting resources and constricting network capacity in futile pursuit of ever-tighter security; or (2) move to a more open system. If they stay, at least now they're comparatively weaker; and if they move to more open systems, Assange argues that these actors will now be less able to employ secrecy in the service of doing bad things, benefiting the disadvantaged and the powerless.

Of course Wikileaks provokes a wide variety of reactions, from those who believe its attacks on the U.S. military-diplomatic nexus are unjustified to those who believe it operates from faulty premises or moves the anti-war Left in the wrong direction. At my own blog a post simply sharing Aaron's prompted a long and surprisingly heated discussion about the adequacy of Assange's theory of the state to real-world conditions, as well about the overall desirability of inhibiting U.S. military-diplomatic operations, the probable effectiveness of the Wikileaks program, and its likely consequences. What I find interesting and important for the HASTAC context, however, is the way Assange has employed new-media network theories in the service of his desired political end; he intriguingly imagines Wikileaks as a kind of autoimmunological computer virus that will either slow down the processing power of international state actors by forcing them to throttle and misallocate their own cognitive resources -- or else force them to move to an open-source OS.


1 comment

Thanks for pointing me in this direction Gerry. 

I just learned about last night and had filed the link to the wayback machine for future consideration. You and Aaron have helped to jumpstart the conversation of source material, as opposed to critiquing the representation of the media uptake of Assange. That's moving the conversation in the right direction, IMHO.