First off, we have yet more evidence that the great Spirit in the Sky has a taste for comic irony. Consider, what have we learned from the leaks themselves, specifically the gargantuan flood of US government ‘SECRET’ diplomatic cables? Well, it seems to me, the ‘biggies’, in a nutshell are that American officials when speaking for clarity rather than diplomacy say stuff like this:
1. North Korea, complete arseholes–even the Chinese have outgrown them.
2. Russia, a whole country run like The Sopranos only with less charm and public spiritedness.
3. Iran, such manifest dips***s that even their neighbours want them dead.
I paraphrase, of course, but only a bit. How does this set back the goals of the United States? Not at all is my guess. In fact, these messages (true and accurate), conveyed in this way, add credibility to America’s generally lamentable official strategic communications efforts. Uncle Sam comes off looking pretty good–a bit hapless for a superpower, often fumbling and confused, but generally working for what it hopes is the good in a world composed of shades of gray. The leaks provide no comfort at all to conspiracists hoping they’d reveal the sinister machinations of some dark master.
Which makes all the more amusing the efforts of the defenders of Julian Assange to prop up his image. He, as of course you have heard, is outraged about leaks of police documents containing details of his alleged sexual assault of two Swedish women. Frankly, the details (such as they are) are not all that important; they basically reveal that Assange is a creep and a self-centred predator, which was also kind of obvious a priori. At Christmas time you’ll forgive me for getting all Biblical, I cannot help but think of Paul’s email to the Galatians: ‘Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’
Assange, in my opinion, has always been a stalking horse for anti-Americanism (not that that’s particularly surprising, America-haters are cheap as chips). But what’s helpful about this situation, from an American public relations perspective, is the sight of the likes of Michael Moore, Ken Loach and John Pilger rushing to this cretin’s defence claiming that the CIA has put these two women up to it in order to smear Assange. Yeah, right, I’d sooner believe the CIA had recruited Bin Laden’s beard-trimmer than these two Swedish lefties. It wasn’t his looks these women admired it was his politics; they don’t appear to bear any ideological grudge against him, it’s just that he’s the ‘worst screw ever‘ (which apparently is against the law in Sweden).
But all of the above is ephemera–there’s nothing particularly revelatory in the leaks about the United States or about Assange. Lots of salacious and amusing tittle-tattle but not much else. Underneath, however, there are some really quite important things going on which this story helps to bring into focus.
The neo-Marxian scholar Manuel Castells has been saying for a while now has argued, in voluminous length and detail, that we are becoming a Network Society:
… as an historical trend, dominant functions and processes in the Information Age are increasingly organized around networks. Networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies, and the diffusion of networking logic substantially modifies the operation and outcomes in processes of production, experience, power and culture. While the networking form of social organization has existed in other times and spaces, the new information technology paradigm provides the material basis for its pervasive expansion throughout the entire social structure. Furthermore, I would argue that this networking logic induces a social determination of a higher level than that of the specific social interests expressed through the networks: the power of flows takes precedence over the flows of power. Presence or absence in the network and the dynamics of each network vis-a-vis others are critical sources of domination and change in our society: a society that, therefore, we may properly call the network society, characterized by the preeminence of social morphology over social action.
If you fancy yourself a contemporary strategist you really need to be reading Castells. If, as Clausewitz tells us, the supreme act of strategy is to understand the nature of the war one is in then the place to start surely is with some understanding of the precepts of the society from which it emerges. Honestly, I find Castells hard going–a source of both startling illumination and irritating puzzlement–but there’s no doubt that he more than any other has plotted the contours of the Network Society and what it means for social action of varying types from industrial and financial enterprise, politics and cultural endeavour, to war. In plain English what I think he means about the Network Society, as it might relate to the Wikileaks story, is that in the Information Age:
1. If the world wants to see your naughty bits then by hook or by crook most likely they will see them. This is a general rule which applies to states as well as individuals, ask Hillary Clinton, or Julian Assange, or Hermione Granger for that matter.
2. Power is being radically reshaped in the way that it manifests, shifting away from static power-wielding entities towards something more formless and perhaps insensate–to the flow itself. Again this is true generally, whether for states or individuals. Assange is not the interesting part of this story, neither are the unguarded reports of American diplomats the conclusions of which are no surprise I should think to even casual newspaper readers, or the actions of the United States government acting, wisely or not, on the collective behalf of Americans.
Think about the first point for a second. More than a decade ago John Arquila and David Ronfeldt of RAND wrote a terrific monograph on the Advent of Netwar in which they described the emergence of a new form of warfare conducted by networked social actors. The piece still bears reading–it’s prophetic and there is still something to learn in every chapter. But 15 years later we can now say a few more concrete things about the concept. For instance, in chapter 5 on ‘Challenges for US Policy and Organization’ they write,
The Information Revolution is about both technology and organization. While technology innovation is revitalizing the network form, one must not ignore the importance of organizational innovation. Indeed, every information revolution has involved an interplay between technology and organization that affects who wins and loses.
Now, let’s remind ourselves of how this stuff leaked in the first place: 3 million people including the actual leaker, army PFC Bradley Manning, had access to these ‘SECRET’ communications in a digital form which means they’d fit on a data stick–or as in this case a CD cunningly disguised as carrying Lady Gaga tracks by the amazingly crafty technique of writing ‘Lady Gaga’ on the case. Hierarchical organizations, as Arquila and Ronfeldt note, have real difficulty with adopting/adapting to network forms–they have a lot of baggage to shift over–but the degree of incompetence and failure of imagination which contrived such a system as the above is mind-boggling. Presumably the DOD paid for the RAND study. Did they read it? American organizational innovation for ‘Netwar’ is pretty obviously atrocious.
I would add, however, that the Information Revolution is also about culture. And here’s where people should be really alarmed. As a former student of mine put it:
Wikileaks is a wonder. Does any one remember the old days when a ‘leak’ was something reserved for heads of state and done only to the paper of record? Then secretaries and congressmen/MPs did it to the prominent paper of fellow travelers… then Generals and senior bureaucrats to regionally important media… then simple government employees and officers with an axe to grind to whatever media would listen… and now finally we have the perfect democratic leaker: a malcontent Army private with a conflicted view of his own sexuality leaks to you, dear reader, directly. Strategic corporal meets Oprah–the natural outcome of the marriage of ‘Netwar’ with the reality of sort of people armies actually recruit.
As far as Assange goes, personally, I think the appropriate historical comparison is not, as some have imagined, Spartacus, but Typhoid Mary. By this I don’t mean a value judgement (though obviously I don’t like him) but rather to suggest that Assange, like Mary Mallon, possesses less historical agency than the Spartacus analogy will support. Early Industrial Age society was highly vulnerable to outbreaks of infectious disease because viruses thrived among workers living in cramped urban conditions before society evolved better public health and hygiene systems. The Network Society will suffer similar ailments until it evolves better data hygiene practices.
A friend has argued that the Typhoid Mary analogy freights transparency, or ‘some level of truth’, with communicable disease and is therefore loaded and pejorative. ‘If the disease afflicting Wikileaks’, he says, ‘is the tendency to tell the truth about war better than the democracies that prosecute them then, please, poison me with the ailment and I hope I never get cured.’ I take his point which is a good one. I too am rather in favour of transparency, generally; I just don’t think that Wikileaks is particularly interested in a ‘truth’ other than the one they had preconceived which is the same as that long championed by reprobate minds like Moore’s and Pilger’s who believe the United States to be acutely malign and who reckon (contrary to reason) that the leaks actually demonstrate this to be true. Anyway, leave that. I’m open to suggestions of a better analogy.
Of late there has been a tendency to think of cyberspace as a part of the ‘global commons’–see, for instance, this Atlantic Council report on ‘Protecting the Global Commons‘ (warning: gigantic .pdf). There is a lot of merit to this concept, I think. But it has also got a major drawback. The ‘global commons’ is typically thought to comprise the maritime domain as well as space and aerospace (or the atmosphere). Cyberspace, however, is in several, I believe highly significant, respects completely different from these other domains. For one, people don’t live in these domains–they pass through them, they work in them, they exploit their potential as a vector of attack or observation, but they don’t inhabit them in the way, oddly, we are coming to inhabit cyberspace (more precisely, that the distinction between cyberspace and ‘real space’ is looking increasingly indeterminate). For two, in these other elements there is an inherent distance which is to be conquered if they are to be exploited, usually by some platform designed to carry frail humans and protect them from the hostility of the environment. Cyberspace is not like that. Hostile it may be but platform-centric it is not–unless you imagine yourself riding your iPhone like Tron’s light-cycle through the CPUs of the world’s interconnected computers or some other anthropomorphic nonsense. The barriers to entry to cyberspace are so low that the chances are better than 1 in 2 wherever you are in the world that the person next to you owns a mobile phone and the whole point of cyberspace is that it collapses distance. If cyberspace is the global commons then the global commons is in your head and so too, potentially, are 6 billion others. Bringing this back to Assange, let me quote my former student again:
Gone for the press is the last element of control. We have no need of middle men to interpret reality. We also have no need for ‘old hands’ full of rolodexes or Blackberries that can talk to the right guy and in this department or that staff and get the juicy detail. Any old joker with an axe to grind can now go direct to the masses. Whatever happens to Mr. Assange, he has changed the world in that regard. Mr. Assange no doubt knows the great Aussie idiom ‘Cut down the tall poppies’. His moment is at hand, his attempt to set up a cult with him at the helm won’t last in a democratized age: just as the leakers don’t need the media, they don’t need him, or wikileaks, or anybody. They just need you.
Man, sorry for this long post. Are you still there or did you get stuck at Hermione’s underpants? My student is a plain-talker. How might Castells say the same thing? I think he might say something like de-territorialized insurgency is the paradigmatic conflict type of the Information Age: ‘The conflicts of our time are fought by networked social actors aiming to reach their constituencies and target audiences through the decisive switch to multimedia communication networks.’ And whether he realizes it or not Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, thinks this way too, if I understand correctly what he meant in a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies earlier this year in which he said, ‘Conflict today, especially because so much of it is effectively fought through the medium of the Communications Revolution, is principally about and for People – hearts and minds on a mass scale.’
Now what exactly he means by ‘through the medium of the Communications Revolution’ I’m not sure and I doubt that he is either. To be honest, I think ‘hearts and minds on a mass scale’ is not right. It has a strong whiff of the Industrial Age; mass scale is not a concept which translates to the Information Age which is all about individuation very seamlessly. Now readers of this blog will recall that before all this happened I was pointing towards ‘Anonymous‘ as an emergent web-based threat which merited a lot more scholarly attention. Excuse me while I congratulate myself for being two months ahead of the curve. Hey, in Internet time two months is a lot. Someone should write me a large research grant cheque.