Alexandre Leray on Sat, 12 Feb 2011 22:55:27 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> CableGate, Release Acts and the Pharmakon

An essay by Henry Story <>.


Read online (and possibly updated) version at

CableGate, Release Acts and the Pharmakon

"While world passengers are made to strip at US airports, US Security
gets stripped on Wikileaks. Karma?"

Wikileaks[^1] could be thought of as the 2010 Conceptual / Performance
Art masterpiece: It reveals and mediates contradictions and tensions
from nearly every angle one looks at it. And not just any
contradictions, but the key ones for this unfolding century. Let us
look at some of these issues in detail.

![Freedom -- Terrorism (c) Unknown][1]

Privacy and transparency

Most governments and corporation seems to have got it into their head
that the more they can listen to, hear, follow, intercept...
communication the better off they will be. "If you have nothing to
hide you have nothing to fear" is widely accepted. A british Member of
Parliament was heard defending it recently. Laws such as the French
Hadopi and the even more ominous Loppsi, the UK Debill, and similar
legal manoeuvres in many other countries, attempt to open legal spaces
for government agencies to place spy software on people's computers.
And in the recent Cablegate scandal, it turns out that Hillary Clinton
asked the US diplomats to spy on the United Nations officials[^2].
Transparency with no privacy is ok then -- as long as it does not
apply to me. And so if the latest action by Wikileaks achieves
anything, at the very least it has forced the hands of some very
powerful players into taking a position against over-strong
surveilance and total transparency, in favor of the right to secrecy.
Wikileaks has forced each actor to express themselves clearly --
through strong an visible (re)action on the world media scene.[^3]

Not that full transparency is a logical possibility anyway. There are
many reasons for this. The simplest one is that it would be impossible
to see anything in a fully transparent world. Solidity is needed to
reflect light. Less metaphorically, consider a game of chess, or a
game of Go (Wei-Chi). When two grand masters are playing such a game,
the only people who really deeply understand the moves are the grand
masters themselves. In those games everything is open, and yet the
most important things are hidden simultaneously. If this were not the
case, then finding the secrets laws of the universe would have been a
piece of cake: we would have just needed to look around us to see that
the Earth is turning around the Sun.

Full transparency is impossible and Wikileaks clearly is not. It is an
organisation that deals secretively with secrets that it partially
releases. At present less than 1% of the cables from the US office
have been released. What makes us believe that there are more is the
incredible theatrics of the US reaction and world reaction to the
Wikileaks threat to divulge more. But those could just be theatrics,
hollywood style: unlikely perhaps, but it is always good to keep that
in the back of our mind.


It is really interesting to see the Security debate evolve here. While
anger has been mounting everywhere as airports are being equipped with
more and more intrusive scanning equipment in order to prevent minute
terrorists threats at the same time the seemingly most important US
government papers are just taken off a few servers somewhere and
posted for the world to see. What is the problem with this Security
Theater[^4]? While huge amount is being spent scanning people at
airports, anyone with seriously bad intentions need only go through
the Mexican border, and millions do... (business needs those mexican
workers). There seems to be no relation in the US debate and elsewhere
between action and real risk. So while people get scanned at airports
for a risk that is less than being killed by a policeman, the largest
document leak in US history occur on a monthly basis it seems.

Security has to be democratic and distributed or there is no security.
It is clear for one that if the documents don't all get stored on a
central server, then it won't be so easy to download all of them in
one click. And perhaps making them available to 2 million people as
the ex Prime Minister and current foreign minister of Australia
pointed out recently[^5], is not the best way to keep secrets either.
In fact the problem may already lie in making so much information
secret. It is well known that if there is not an established cost to
making something secret, most people will prefer to make something
secret out of prudence -- better secret than sorry. But the pressure
of the information network effect, means that information is more
valuable the more it links up with other information, produced by
other people, which of course means more people have to become privy
to the "secret", which becomes less secret the more it extends. So the
tension between politicians with a knee jerk security reaction that
try to solve ever more problems by making them defence problems, as
illustrated by Senator Joe Lieberman's immediate desire to introduce
new legislation on the breaking of the Cable Gate incident making it
illegal to identify the ever growing members of the US secret
service[^6], is in fundamental tension with the equal need to link
information together to make it work well, as when it was discovered
that 9/11 could have been averted if the different branches of the
security services had communicated with one another.

But distributed security requires that everyone be part of the
security debate, be educated in it and for it. This is the way the
Swiss defence is built: a full citizen army available to respond at
any time. If one does not think this far, then one can only make
theatrical gestures that do nothing to solve the problems that really
need solving. Education in an information economy is the central
pillar of security -- one could even say that security is nothing more
than that. This does not mean going to security school (the army)
necessarily. It can start by simple things, such as by making it very
very very easy to make risk comparisons, by linking automatically from
any news story to such risk assessment so that people all together
have the information to make value judgements. It would also require
getting people themselves to be more watchful about their servers, and
their privacy, by for example starting to host their content
themselves. In the end it requires trust and peer to peer security,
which of course requires privacy, a government trusting its people,
and the people trusting their government. That is a right not to be
snooped on. When people have their own data on their servers issues of
privacy and exposure will be part of everyone's life, and so education
in the limits of transparency will be common sense.

Freedom of expression

"If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear", is the way
trust issues have been currently framed. This of course is an argument
to permit intrusion in all private discussions. Widespread low-level
fear, enables a security discourse based on the notion of full
transparency. States justify themselves to snoop into what people
watch or say, by citing the homeopathically dosed terrorists.
Publishers want access to everybody's hard drive to stop them from
potentially copying their wares. But these same actors -- be they
governments, banks, or publishers -- don't at all use the same
reasoning when it is their communication that is intercepted. We
should very very carefully document their arguments, because there are
good arguments for privacy in communication -- it is a key part of
what is meant by freedom of expression! And it is in fact essential to
the functioning of society.

But freedom of expression also means taking responsibility by those
who publish for what they do publish. Publishing just as speaking is
an act, and an action in a game with consequences. Once the context in
which a document is published is understood (though this itself can
perhaps never fully be understood as french philosopher Derrida points
out) -- is the person on stage for example or is he in front of court?
-- then the statement will fall in a certain language game, and have
specific consequences. Not everything goes: a person on stage is also
criticisable, but not the same way and for the same reasons a person
in court is. Beware that applying rules in a global space is really
not simple -- as Assange must have discovered in his adventure in
Sweden discussed below -- and exceptions have to be made for
particular circumstances, for the background of the players, for their
history and the society they come from -- if we are to allow space for
individuality, and for creative undermining and resetting into
question of the system, which is what allowed our civilisation to get
as far as we have (Think of Keppler or Galileo)


In the meantime Ass-ange(l) -- the Angel of full uncompromising
transparency -- is accused of something which the none-too-critical US
media name rape, but whose actual technical term is "sex by surprise".
It turns out that he is accused of not using a condom during
consensual sex, at the moment of orgasm, by a woman who made those
claims a lot later after having seemingly been quite happy of her
encounter -- jealousy might have played a part[^7]. How could
something like that ever even become a question for the law to decide?
How indeed can it decide objectively such a situation, unless it
placed cameras in every bedroom, and microphones under every pillow?
Perhaps such a question never came up, because we all have been too
much used to watching through keyholes, having thereby lost all shame
and so all sense of privacy. Total transparency: only porn stars can
succeed in such a world. Only porn stars can stop themselves from
releasing sensitive stuff in such a moment of climax...

Speech/Release Acts

Perhaps we should go to the root of this -- be radical -- by turning
to the philosophy of language, and more precisely speech act theory.
Austin, and Searle after him pointed out that we cannot just analyse
what is said in terms of truth or falsety, that there is no such thing
as the "naked truth", but that we must consider the expression of a
statement in terms of what type of action it is. Here the context in
which something is said matters a great deal to what it means. "Blow
up the airport" can be meant as a call to action, it can be quoted as
I did here, it can be a line in a play, it can be a joke[^8], it can
be many things. If the listener does not take this context into
consideration, then all communication breaks down -- it will not even
be possible to defend oneself against possible threats, since doing
that must involve imagining oneself in the shoes of an attacker for
example. Freedom of expression is not just freedom of public
expression, it is freedom of private and contextualised
expression[^9]. It is the freedom to create new contexts. It is the
freedom to do diplomatic work quietly.

But if belief and knowledge form one aspect of action, let us not
forget that the other essential aspect is desire. To release is to
desire release, to act is to desire some consequences -- even if often
the most obvious consequences and long term consequences of a release
seem to escape most actors. Protection can help but as we know,
information can find it's ways through the smallest tears, from whence
it sometimes acquires a life of its own. And so perhaps we should also
learn to educate our information releasing desires, but also not be
surprised that when one has done everything to make the desirable
accessible it does get consumed.

One should therefore either learn not to release, or learn to be
careful to what conclusions one comes when receiving that which is
released. So when reading something that is said from a context of
which one does not understand much, one should refrain from passing
judgement. To educate everyone in this type of intellectual self
discipline is not going to be easy to say the least. Most people
automatically apply the values of their context to every other
context, in part because it is very difficult if not impossible to see
or recognise all contexts, in part because being able to do this would
require being in control of one's subcontious as Derrida points out in
"Limited Inc."[^10] In other words: there just is a limit to one's
self understanding. And so society has built up various warning signs
and strategies to help people notice and take responsibility for
possible and well documented consequences in engaging in certain
desireable activities.


As Bernard Stiegler a student of Derrida and french Philosopher of
Technology points out, the Pharmakon is a word that in ancient greece
meant all of poison, cure and scapegoat[^11]. This is the role in
which Assange has placed himself, quite deliberately it seems. As a
lightening-rod he has placed himself in a position between heaven and
earth and allowed the full power of US rage to be channeled through
him, making it visible for a flash of an instant to the whole globe
and even to itself, and allowing us to see ourselves perhaps in it
transformed. The action of making clear the power and force of the
network, the making visible of the distinctions
transparent/hidden/secret, centralised/distributed, public/private are
each ways the network is suddenly felt as poison by those who thought
they could control it. The arrest of Assange for a crime committed at
the symbolic level -- namely releasing without responsibility for
possible consequences -- put him in the position of the Scapegoat.
Having accepted arrest, he is in the passage through the transforming
cycle of redemption now -- or is it we? At the exit the script will
surely ask him to expiate his sins, to take on the responsibility of
his action, in some form of marriage no doubt -- the ultimate
domesticating, responsibilising institution of man -- where everyone
can gather together around a table happily sharing bread and wine. I
don't doubt Assange's acting skills will allow him to emerge from this
ritual unharmed. He was adopted by his uncle, an actor as he was one
year old[^12].


Let us thank WikiLeaks for raising and opening the debate and for
getting the governments to start arguing the case for privacy, in such
a way as to have made millions of people interested in the issue. Let
us help them make this argument from first principles by helping
develop a philosophy of privacy and free speech, an architecture of
peer to peer security, let us detail clearly the limits on state
intervention and our intervention in other people's private

  [^1]:  A one hour documentary produced by Swedish television on
  Wikileaks, covering its history and the key character Assange is
  [available in english][2] here. By many accounts The Guardian is
  doing the best job analysing the cables and involving the public, in
  it's [US Embassy Cables Section][3].  This article was written
  without considering the data itself that much, but looking at the
  theater around the release.

  [^2]: [WikiLeaks: US diplomats 'have been spying
  on UN leadership][4]

  [^3]:  It may have also revealed the role of US pressure groups in
  using diplomacy to help impose internet censorship laws in Europe as
  reported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in "[Not-So-Gentle
  Persuasion: US Bullies Spain into Proposed Website Blocking Law][5]"

  [^4]:  See for example this infographic by BoingBoing [Odds of being
  a terrorism victim on a flight][6]. Also see the [Wikipedia Security
  Theater Article][7] and the article by Bruce Schneier [Full Body
  Scanners: What's Next?][8]

  [^5]:  Kevin Rudd ex Prime Minister of Australia, current Foreign
  Minister said: "Rule No 1 for our friends in the United States is
  how do you tighten things up a bit? I think that's a fair old
  question. Maybe 2 million or so people having access to this stuff
  is a bit of a problem." reported by The Guardian [Assange 'not
  responsible for security breaches' says Kevin Rudd][9]. Time
  Magazine has a long article that explains how the US came to have so
  many people being given access to so many secrets in [WikiLeaks' War
  on Secrecy: Truth's Consequences][10]

  [^6]:  Wired reports on Dec 2 2010 that [Lieberman Introduces
  Anti-WikiLeaks Legislation][11] "making it a crime to publish
  information concerning the identity of a classified source or
  informant of an element of the intelligence community of the United
  States,or concerning the human intelligence activities of the United
  States or any foreign government if such publication is prejudicial
  to U.S. interests."

  [^7]:  The Daily Mail [The Wikileaks sex files: How two one-night
  stands sparked a worldwide hunt for Julian Assange][12] A more
  ominous view can be found in this lengthy article [Assange Accuser
  Worked with US-Funded, CIA-Tied Anti-Castro Group][13].

  [^8]:  As reported by The Guardian [Robin Hood Airport Twitter
  Arrest][14]. Where airports go the attempt to arrive at the naked
  truth never seems far away: "[Inverted Body Scanner Image Shows
  Naked Body In Full Living Color][15]"

  [^9]:  Searle's recent book [Making the Social World][16]. I have
  also heard a lot of good of Helen Nissenbaum's [Privacy in
  Context][17] has been recommended to me a few times.

  [^10]: [Limited Inc.][18] by Derrida is a very interesting set of
  articles where Derrida positions himself in relation to the work of
  the by then deceased J.L.Austin, author of "How to do Things with
  Words" and receives the fire of Searle, to which he replies with
  gusto. A very entertaining but difficult read, that opens a rich set
  of questions. One might wonder if Searle's notion of the background
  does not cover some of what Derrida places in the subconscious.

  [^11]: A good explanation of the history of the [Pharmakon

  [^12]: See this [CNN interview of Assange's Uncle][20]. The other
  possibility is of course that he end up crucified and that at the
  foot of his cross two women could be found weeping. But let us hope
  that the past 2000 years of history will have inoculated the powers
  that be against taking such a rash action.

  [^13]: For a full description of how to build such distributed
  secure networks see the audio presentation [Philosophy and the
  Social Web][21] given at the first [Web and Philosophy


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact: