As example after example yesterday showed, the response of politicians, media companies, lawyers and large corporations to the interconnectedness offered by the internet has been to reach for legal sanctions to preserve their pre-digital power.
Western democracies and authoritarian regimes had in common a twentieth century habit of interposing themselves between their citizens, co-opting, regulating, repressing, monitoring interaction between people for their own (frequently legitimate) ends. Capitalist society based whole industries on corporations interposing themselves for commercial gain, particularly the old media, which eagerly established themselves as the authorised medium of community communication and shared experiences (a role institutional churches had previously sought). The media even cooperated with other elites — the ones they were supposedly acting as watchdogs on — as necessary to preserve their role, something that has its echoes in the initial and in some cases continuing reluctance of many mainstream media outlets and practitioners to acknowledge that WikiLeaks was no different to them.
Greater interconnectedness threatens all of this. It flattens information-based hierarchies. It also automatically devalues information, because it deprives it of the value of scarcity. Many diplomatic cables, shorn of their secrecy, look banal and poorly-informed. Original music available with a click of a mouse no longer carries the cachet it did when it had to be tracked down and bought as a physical object. Media consumers have little interest in paying for quality journalism despite acknowledging its importance.
The same logic may not always be at work in those cases, but the removal of scarcity does funny things to human brains. A characteristic of the public enthusiasm for interconnectedness is its apparent imperviousness to rational argument. People can’t expect quality journalism for free, the mainstream media argues. They must accept that they need to pay for content online. And yet, rare cases like Crikey aside, consumers refuse to fork out for content. Governments have offered the same sort of logic about WikiLeaks and similar sites like Cryptome. Governments need confidentiality, they insist. The business of statecraft can’t be done in public — governments needs some level of secrecy or they cannot function. All of which is true, if not to the extent governments maintain, but it’s of no interest to either the media outlets retailing the WikiLeaks cables or their users.
And copyright owners have long explained that free downloading of content is theft and destroys the incentive for anyone to produce such content in the first place — with absolutely no effect. Indeed, it’s been amusing to watch Australian content owners — or more correctly the Australian representatives of transnational copyright owners — employ that favoured modern-day technique of rentseekers, the “independent report” to no avail. They’ve conjured reports that “prove” that filesharing costs billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and even funds terrorism but this has had precisely zero impact on rampant downloading.
But interconnectedness also inherently political. The Reformation churches worked this out, learning a lesson the Catholic hierarchy had worked out long beforehand. People have to be locked within institutional structures where their interaction can be controlled, or they might get ideas of their own. The Reformation was, in part, perhaps the first great example of the impact of interconnectedness, which is why I’m talking about it in the middle of an essay on the internet. Reformed churches initially championed literacy and the vernacular, emphasising the empowerment of congregations to read and discuss the Bible in their own language. But eventually they learnt that if congregations took to interpreting the Bible and discussing their faith among themselves, unmediated by any institutional presence, the whole hierarchy of established churches would come under threat as people turned away from the allegedly beneficent representatives of established churches. No priests, therefore no bishops. And, as James I famously remarked, no bishop, no king.
But the internet offers interconnectedness of a far greater order of magnitude than elite institutions have ever before confronted. Only a government, like China’s, that is willing to throw vast resources at regulating its population’s internet usage can hope to partly prevent the impacts of interconnectedness. Or governments may succeed, temporarily, in individual cases. Napster is now the answer to a ‘90s trivia question. But all its destruction really managed was to demonstrate that decentralised file-sharing was the future for illegal music downloading. Julian Assange may be gaoled and Wikileaks destroyed, but the leaking and distribution of sensitive documents is unlikely to end.
This is partly because the very modes that enable online interconnectedness have made elite control methods surprisingly fragile. That’s not just a reference to the decentralised nature of Anonymous or of the extensive mirroring of the Wikileaks site and the dispersed nature of its Doomsday Weapon cable-dump (respectively, the offensive and defensive fronts of the current internet war). The very governmental systems that yielded the cables, it, turns out, are friable, vulnerable not so much to concerted enemy action as, allegedly, one alienated military analyst, staggered at how poorly secured the systems he used were and how easy it was to transfer a library’s worth of material onto a disk that could be easily smuggled out.
But the fragility goes further. The disruption of key transactional sites like Mastercard by Anonymous might have the potential to inflict temporary economic damage. But that is relatively minor compared to the damage threatened by Julian Assange’s casual suggestion in 2009 that Wikileaks has material that “could bring down a bank or two.” That bank is rumoured to be Bank of America, based on Assange’s comment that the material came from a BoA executive. BoA perhaps got its revenge in first over the weekend by shutting off payments to the organisation, ahead of the possible release of material in January. But the speculation prompted one finance blogger to implore Assange not to release the material, as bringing down one bank these days could bring them all down.
Post-GFC, that’s no longer such an extraordinary statement. Globalisation, instead of making our economies more resilient, has made them more vulnerable, giving us a new era in which contagion on one side of the globe is a problem on the other. This is the result of another kind of interconnectedness, financial interconnectedness, which like the personal version, is by degrees of magnitude far harder for traditional gatekeepers and intermediaries to control.
The impact of any Wikileaks material on banks is, experience suggests, likely overstated. But every so often you get the feeling that, with a rush and a push, all sorts of things might be overthrown, toppling like dominoes because they’re all, ultimately, linked together. And then where would we be?