Globalization applies to information as well as corporate CEOs looking for cheap labor. Those high-paid, unionized manufacturing jobs will never again be the ticket to the middle class for unskilled American workers because of global economic competition that is here to stay? Well, the Internet is here to stay, too — and the Internet-fueled phenomenon known as “crowd-sourcing,” or open-source or citizen journalism, is here to stay as well.
Government has used technology to control the public message, and to try to limit access to information and control the political activities of its citizens, for as long as technology has existed. Not just the U.S. government — government in general. Established authorities will use whatever tools are available to them to guard their secrets, because secrets are essential to retaining and wielding power. In the past decade, technology’s reach has greatly increased at the same time that, in this country, an administration with an unprecedented obsession with secrecy came to power and started to use that technology to spy on its own citizens and to disrupt personal privacy to an extent never seen before. The current head of state has made a conscious decision to continue down that road instead of pulling back from the attacks on civil liberties and from the shredding of constitutional rights and protections begun by his predecessor. Which means that every single individual in this country and in the world uses the technological tools of communication — emails, blogs, phones, comment sections on news sites, wireless technology like laptops and IPads — at our own risk. If our emails are surveiled or our cell phone calls recorded, or our chat room conversations monitored and captured permanently with screen grabs, we have no one to blame but ourselves because, after all, you’d have to have been holed up in a cave for the past 10 years to believe there’s such a thing as personal privacy anymore. We may hate that it is that way, but it is indeed that way. That’s the way it is; that’s reality now, and we have to adjust.
And we have adjusted. We have adapted, in fact. We have found workarounds.
Wikileaks is a workaround.
Allow me to back up for a minute. I am not saying that Wikileaks is a direct response to the Bush administration’s war on personal privacy, and the Obama administration’s continuing endorsement of that war. Nothing in politics, or in life in general, is that linear. Wikileaks as an Internet phenomenon is based on the “wiki” technological concept. “Wiki” is a Hawaiian word that means “quick,” and in Internet parlance it has come to refer to a specific kind of software that allows users to collaborate directly on the creation and editing of web content. The Wikileaks website runs on that kind of software — although most of the participatory features are disabled, which is why the prefix “wiki” applies and doesn’t apply at the same time. It doesn’t appear to be the same kind of site as Wikipedia, but it does use the same kind of software.
Wiki software itself, though, is but one aspect of Web 2.0 — which Webopedia defines as “a second generation of the World Wide Web that is focused on the ability for people to collaborate and share information online.” The static World Wide Web that used to be is long gone. Almost everything that we now do online is part of the (not so new anymore) dynamic Internet: social networking and bookmarking sites, blogging, and every kind of informational website from your congressman’s website to the websites where you can design your own computer or your own car.
The “why” of Web 2.0 obviously has nothing directly to do with politics or government secrets. In many ways it was the logical next step for Internet users. People were spending more and more time on the Internet; they wanted more and better ways to make use of it, to communicate with others, to participate in it. But little by little, it has come to address other needs — other gaps between what large numbers of people need and want, and what is available to them. One of those gaps is the gap between the way government and big business operates in the world — without borders, and often without transparency — and the ability of ordinary citizens to know what decisions and actions and policies flow from those operations, and how it all ultimately affects them. Normally, or in theory, the media fills this gap. That is the role of reporters, journalists, and writers in general — to fill in the gaps between what the powers that be want us to know and what we do know, and how it all connects to our daily lives. But the media has done, has been doing, is doing, a terribly inadequate job in this regard. In fact, to a large degree, the media have become active collaborators and enablers, helping government and business to hide what it does not want revealed, and to shape the message about what it does want the public to know, or to believe.
The explosive growth of the blogosphere, and its emergence as serious competition with the traditional media for readers, is a response to this information/knowledge gap. And so is open-source journalism, which is more recent than blogs but which actually developed out of the earlier development of blogger-journalism. The blogosphere wasn’t big enough to contain this burgeoning need. Not everyone wanted to start a blog, or had the time or the writing and/or marketing skills to maintain a blog. Hence, citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing, the open-source information superhighway.
Julian Assange is a private citizen. Yes, his computer skills are far more advanced than most people’s computer skills, and yes also, it’s probably safe to say he is more ambitious and single-minded and driven than most private citizens. But he is still a private citizen. He is not affiliated with any government or corporation or news organization. He created Wikileaks because he felt there was a need for it — and the technological infrastructure was there to support it. But if there had not actually been a need for it — if he was deluded about thinking there was a need for it — it would have gone nowhere. But there was a need for it. Assange did not create that need. That need was created out of decades of government secrecy combined with the growth of a far vaster stage on which to engage in that secrecy (globalization), and a mass media too complacent, greedy, and hungry for “access” to confront it. Eight years of unprecedented assaults on personal privacy only made the need stronger. They say that success lies at the intersection of opportunity and readiness. Well, maybe Wikileaks and the open-source journalism of which it is a part lie at the intersection of government secrecy and media complacency. The British government can arrest Assange, and Interpol can go after him, and the Obama administration can threaten to put him on trial for espionage, and congressional gollums like Joe Lieberman can strong-arm private companies into kicking Wikileaks off Amazon, and PayPal can freeze his account, and on and on. But all of that is just a metaphor for why Wikileaks exists in the first place. Whatever happens to Wikileaks or Julian Assange, the age of unquestioned government and corporate secrecy is OVER. And all the moronic accusations of treason, and vows to “hunt Assange down like Al Qaeda,” and bloodthirsty calls to execute Assange, hang him by the neck until he’s dead, will not change that. Indeed, they will only make the need for organizations like Wikileaks stronger.