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WikiLeaks: Networked Action for a Networked Age

December 27, 2010

There can be little doubt that for those of us interested in peer theory, the WikiLeaks story is a great interest. The WikiLeaks organisation is organised as a peer network, it now relies of peer action (mirroring) to keep it’s site up an running. It has inspired a host of peer-actions in response both against it and in support of it. What is less well documented is the excellent networked theorising behind it’s actions. In an insightful essay that draws on another insightful essay, Aaron Bady examines Julian Assange’s writings to get to the heart of what WikiLeaks is about:

[Julian Assange] begins by positing that conspiracy and authoritarianism go hand in hand, arguing that since authoritarianism produces resistance to itself — to the extent that its authoritarianism becomes generally known — it can only continue to exist and function by preventing its intentions (the authorship of its authority?) from being generally known. It inevitably becomes, he argues, a conspiracy:

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.

The problem this creates for the government conspiracy then becomes the organizational problem it must solve: if the conspiracy must operate in secrecy, how is it to communicate, plan, make decisions, discipline itself, and transform itself to meet new challenges? The answer is: by controlling information flows.

And there is the theory of WikiLeaks in a nutshell. By building a framework that allows for the interruption of information flow, you dissolve it’s ability to act. In effect openness hacks it’s internal networks.

[Assange] wants to address the aggregative process itself, by impeding the principle of its reproduction: rather than trying to expose and cut particular links between particular conspirators (which does little to prevent new links from forming and may not disturb the actual functioning of the system as a whole), he wants to attack the “total conspiratorial power” of the entire system by figuring out how to reduce its total ability to share and exchange information among itself, in effect, to slow down its processing power. As he puts it:

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).

Because he thinks of the conspiracy as a computational network, he notes in an aside that one way to weaken its cognitive ability would be to degrade the quality of its information…

In summary, Assange thinks that authoritarian systems (be they government or corporate) operate using a semi-autonomous mesh of networks. Attacking links or nodes in this network of networks has a limited effect because they can re-grow/re-constitute fairly easily. However by creating a system that exposes the information being guarded within the networks, to external peoples, the authoritarian system finds it’s ability to act corroded and so it faces a choice.  Either open up and change the way it operates to add more layers of secrecy and so further erode it’s operational functionality.

And that is ultimate the power of peer theory – to make change almost inevitable.

(First published on the p2p foundation blog)

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