December 8, 2010
– Marshall McLuhan *
This week’s drama has been riveting and surreal. For years I have been describing the era we are embarking on as the End of Forgetting, and imagining the repercussions of this transformation on the fabric of social life. But my relationship with this saga goes well beyond the theoretical and is much more personal.
In December 2006—post-Diebold memos and, synchronously, within weeks prior to Wikileaks’ launch—I began researching the ZyprexaKills campaign (slides), a whistleblowing action implicating the drug company Eli Lilly which soon became the EFF’s first wiki case. That case was a significant milestone in life. The experience was a crash course in First Amendment Law, exposed me to the hybrid dynamics of new and traditional media, prepared me for epocal epistemic shifts, and confirmed the power of my information flow models. On the ZyprexaKills case no one wanted to be forgotten more than the anonymous John Doe, and Eli Lilly undoubtedly wishes the world would forget that they marketed Zyprexa off-label to children and the elderly, even though their executives knew Zyprexa causes diabetes.
Which brings us to today. I am amazed at the wide speculation across the mainstream press around Assange’s motives when his own writings are widely available. Apparently, we are still transitioning to the age of Scientific Journalism Assange dreams about. Bloggers and tweeters have finally helped mainstream news outlets pick up the story–as Todd Gitlin writes, we should “Credit him with a theory”.
The potential fallout of the leaks goes well beyond the substantive contents of any particular document. To understand the potential impact of this communication its important to consider the different types of messages conveyed to various receivers. Some commentators, like Umberto Eco, have taken up the message of the medium itself—What do leaks of this type communicate? Beyond any specific cable or document, what messages do the leaks send, and to whom?
I don’t think the Wikileaks collaborators have much faith in the US political processes. Like the Tea Party, I imagine they aim to usurp the agenda and change the language of the conversation itself. I doubt they are overly preoccupied with any particular exchange.
Some have alleged a preventative coup against Hillary, but I think we need to read this in a more global context. Beyond the narrow lens of partisan, or even geo-politics, there cultural and ideological battles are raging. Wikileaks’ actions model and embody the maturing, politically conscious, hacker ethic—and their actions alter people’s conception of the real and the possible. Their actions are floating and actualizing crucial thought experiments just in time for the showdowns around net neutrality, kill switches, and the future of journalism and the Internet.
All the more reason why They have to try to make an example here. Is the US Govt already caught in a chinese finger trap?
Whatever the outcome, at least its different. Last week’s media-policy talks at the Columbia J-school (Wu/John and Copps) articulated the historic challenges we face at this critical juncture in order to avoid the fate of all previous media revolutions. At this point I’m willing to try just about anything that might snap us out of the repetition compulsion of the 20th century. But, I like backgammon better than chess 😉
BTW – I love that my fact that my idea for this post’s image had already been drawn, and was discoverable within 10 second search. Long live the open, neutral, unkill-switchable, World Wide Web!
Ongoing collection of my favorite Wikileaks coverage here.