December 29, 2010

Living in Post-Reality (Re- Wikileaks)

This post unpacks and explores a bit further some thoughts I first touched on here.

The Infowar

As I've long said, knowledge is power, and a balance of power requires a balance of information.

As I've also said, at present, there's a serious imbalance, in that governments and big businesses know everything about us, and we know nothing important about them.

In 2009, Assange gave one of his many good speeches. Below is a transcript of a portion of it (I'm probably including a bit more than necessary for purposes of this post, but I'm not aware that this much of the speech has been transcribed elsewhere, and it may be of interest):
Censorship is actually an opportunity. That censorship is some form of arbitrage, to keep information concealed in a limited market from a bigger market. But politically, what does censorship reveal? It reveals fear. So, China has a lot of fear of freedom of the press. Iran . . . China and Iran do actively censor us [Wikileaks]. Both these countries have a fear of freedom of the press. That means that they perceive that if information is released, it's going to have some kind of reform effect. Now, depending on your position, if you're in that authority or your outside it, you may say this effect is positive or negative. But it does show that their perception, and they probably know best because they are the author of these documents, is that those documents are politically powerful.

In the West we do have a bit more of a problem, in that the basic structural relationships in highly developed Western countries are fiscal, they are not political, and it's much harder to affect fiscal relationships through free speech than it is to affect political relationships. So, is freedom of speech free in the West because the West is so enlightened? Or, is freedom of speech free in the West because . . . relative to China . . . is it free in the West because perhaps it's hard to do much with freedom of speech, that the basic power structures that exist in the West are fiscalized and hidden from social opprobrium?

I think maybe speech is free like the birds and the bees when they have no chance of political impact. Now of course there's many counter-examples; but I think, you know, these fiscal relationships have been structurally engineered in such a way that they're complex and opaque, and so that when we, operating with
The Guardian, have revealed information about complex structural arrangements that Barclays Bank takes to push money through thirteen or fourteen different countries, to 'rob,' if you like, the United Kingdom and other countries of the money that they need to sustain their social system, but it's so complex, how can people become angry with information that's that complex? Well, it's hard; you have to work a lot harder as a journalist to turn that into an emotionally impactful story. So that's a kind of 'tax' on powerful revelation.

But anyway, when countries and organizations fight to suppress things, you know you have a foot in the door, you know you have a chance for reform. In other countries where information seems to be free, maybe actually the basic structures are so locked up that it’s going to be hard to make an effect. Anyway, I encourage everyone to try.

[Assange is warned his time's run out.] On these USB keys is 573,000 intercepted pager messages from September 11th, that haven't been released yet . . . . So, that's a lot of information . . . . We will release this tomorrow on the web, but I will give this to people here who want it now, and you can go and explore it and investigate it. Remember, it's 573,000 messages. We can't do it alone; the idea is that you do it. We spend our efforts getting it to you and allow you to publish it. But you've got to turn it into a story and make it moving to the population.
(Emphasis supplied; from a speech at the New Media Days 2009 conference, Denmark.)
Note that Assange speaks of information as a commodity for which there are manipulable markets; i.e., among other things, knowledge is a form of wealth. This makes sense; perhaps the very definition of real wealth is, after all, power.

We're now witnessing an infowar. It is a war not just using info as a weapon but also about who will control it. In Assange-ist terms, the powerful have been conspiring against the rest of us, in the sense that they've been keeping secret things that were being done to us or in our name and that they feared we'd object to if we knew about them. W.r.t. these things, the powerful have not been giving us all the material info, and/or they've actively fed us disinformation or distractions. The struggle currently led by Wikileaks is to give the rest of us access to the truths that those to whom we've entrusted power have hidden from us.

As Robin Bloor put it, "This is an info war and info wars take place between power structures not countries. It’s the US power structure, not the US itself, that currently has a side in this war. Info wars are, by their very nature, civil wars between groups of citizens that live under the aegis of a given information control structure. One side wishes to conserve it, while the other wishes to change it."

In other words, it's a class war, with "class" defined by wealth measured not in terms of money but in terms of information.

In my prior analysis, I suggested that part of Assange's strategy may actually be to provoke the powers that be to tighten their security. This suggestion was based on Assange's own writings, in which he describes organizations such as governments as computational systems and proposes that, when their secrecy is threatened, they tend to try to tighten their security, throttling down the flow of information internally as well as externally. In that event, as a result of this throttling down, the system becomes "dumber," since those within it become less able or willing to share all the info and ideas needed in order for the regime to act as effectively in its own behalf as it otherwise could. Provoking such regimes to tighten their security should therefore weaken them and hasten their downfall or reform. If this is in fact part of Assange's strategy, the "throttling down" seems to be proceeding like clockwork.

(One might infer that the more corrupt the organization, the more secrets it needs to keep, the more throttling down required, the dumber it becomes. If the corruption gets bad enough, the regime must either get so dumb, or its corruption become so open a secret, then the regime will no longer be able to rely solely on secrecy to maintain itself but must resort to brute force.)

The P.R. War

As I've also suggested, Assange's insight into the cost of tightened secrecy to organizational I.Q. sheds new light on why the inventor of "public relations," Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, was such a godsend to the the powerful – because p.r./propaganda help them manipulate populations through their basic instincts and emotions, rather than through secrecy.

To fully grasp the situation, one has to understand the kind of p.r. being used. We're not just talking about packaging, or looking at the bright side of bad news; and we're not just talking about any old lies. We're talking about techniques designed to reach deep into the most primitive parts of our psyches and stimulate our most basic, powerful instincts – fear, anger, greed, and lust – in ways such that our higher faculties are completely bypassed (see Adam Curtis's excellent Century of the Self, here or here).

When this kind of p.r. is deployed successfully, the truth simply no longer matters. Thus, e.g., revelations in recent years of US propaganda illegally directed at its own citizens (see here and here) have had little effect.

It's clear from Assange's speech above that he recognizes that it's not just info that counts; it's also the art. The initial, non-trivial challenges faced by Wikileaks are to get the information while ensuring the confidentiality of leakers, to verify it, redact it, and get it published. But the next, no-less-vital challenge is – to edit one of Assange's phrases into another – "turning it into an emotionally impactful story." Wikileaks needs not just potential leakers and fellow journalists and publishers, therefore, but also literary and other artists.

For some time, I've had a few quotations have been bouncing around in my head:

I am constantly haunted by a quote from Harry Overstreet, who wrote the following in his 1925 groundbreaking study, Influencing Human Behavior: "Giving people the facts as a strategy of influence" has been a failure, "an enterprise fraught with a surprising amount of disappointment."
– David DeGraw, "Wall Street's Pentagon Papers," Global Research [I haven't located the text referred to online]

Only puny secrets need protection. Big discoveries are protected by public incredulity.
attributed to Marshall McLuhan
And this:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.". . . "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
The source of the term is a quotation in an October 17, 2004, The New York Times Magazine article by writer Ron Suskind, quoting an unnamed aide to George W. Bush (later attributed to Karl Rove) . . . .
From Wikipedia's entry on the phrase, "Reality-Based Community." (Emphasis in the foregoing quotations supplied.)
So part of the challenge for Wikileaks is that this is not just an infowar; it is also a p.r. war. Because, among other reasons, theoretically, within a sufficiently powerful and immersive p.r. environment, efforts such as Wikileaks' to publish truth might simply be rendered moot.

And not just in the sense that most people might no longer care about the truth. But it would also be the case that the regime in power, even if corrupt, would need no longer be so concerned with secrecy. It would have to invest some of its resources in creating and propagating p.r.; but it would not have to reduce the flow of information internally or externally – meaning that it wouldn't have to make itself dumber, and thus needn't hasten its own demise.

(Again, one might infer that if the corruption got bad enough, the regime might need to use brute force to maintain itself. But it would seem that the combination of a moderate level of secrecy with a lot of p.r. might enable a regime to maintain itself longer while engaging in a higher level of corruption than might be possible if it relied on either secrecy or p.r. alone, without relying too heavily on brute force. {Not to mention the fact that since the regime now knows everything about us, it's well-prepared to take out any troublemakers.})


The onslaught of p.r. aimed at neutralizing the threats posed by Wikileaks and Assange has been extraordinary, even in our p.r.-saturated times.

It's interesting to speculate about what it is that prompted the oligarchs to bring out the big guns against Wikileaks and Assange. Was it the content of the US State Dept. cables? Was it that material leaked from within a major US bank is expected to be published next? Or was it the fact that the info is now being reported not just by a lone, rebel website but by the great newspapers of the world?

Because it was when Wikileaked stories covered half the front page of The NYT that citizens began to sit up and pay attention.

But The NYT isn't exactly independent from the powers that be. What if sufficient numbers of people won't listen to the truth unless it comes through outlets like The NYT? What if The NYT et al. refuse to continue to publish it (as it's done so often before)? Are we about to find out that we are, in fact, living in a post-reality world?

Wikileaks also faces financial and infrastructure challenges – a variety of brute force.

To those who predict the internet and hackers will save Wikileaks and us, I can only say, don't be so confident that you fail to do all you can to help.

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