How can we contribute historically to the discussion of WikiLeaks itself?
It’s not as if we’re still up against the Vietnam War; and everybody has a right — no a duty, to play Daniel Ellsberg. But this is extremely dangerous, given the imperatives of diplomacy. Is there some profound deception of the American people and the world going on which, as with Ellsberg, requires an insider to, in effect, blow the whistle? I don’t get that sense. I get the sense that there are people out there, like the WikiLeaks people, who have a simpleminded idea of secrecy and transparency, who are simply offended by any state actions that are cloaked.
I think historians can add significantly to the conversation about WikiLeaks by thinking carefully about such historical analogies….though I’m prone to disagree a bit with Wilentz both about WikiLeaks motivations and about the state of the world today. Unlike Ellsberg, who was a pretty classic whistleblower, dealing in information that he himself had helped produce, WikiLeaks presents itself as a kind of new form of journalism.** They are a platform of sorts for potential whistleblowers and other leakers from all imaginable organizations and states. And whatever else one may think of WikiLeaks, the charge of simple indiscriminateness is not entirely fair: they’ve released a very small set of the material they’ve collected and have expressed a concern with protecting vulnerable personnel. Their vetting of their material may be inadequate, but they are not behaving as an organization (if that’s what we should call them) who embody such a simpleminded idea of secrecy and transparency.
How will the WikiLeaks document dumps contribute to the practice of history?
Some historians, like Timothy Garton Ash, have responded to the WikiLeaks documents in the way most non-historians have predicted that we would, seeing them as a great gift that will, at the very least, speed up historians’ understanding of the recent past. In a December 1 NPR interview
, Garton Ash welcomed the US diplomatic documents released by WikiLeaks:
It’s very, very rich material. The only other time you have that opportunity is when a state collapses, like communist East Germany or Nazi Germany. Then historians get to see all this stuff. But it’s incredibly unusual and strange for it to happen with a functioning superpower.
But in a December 5 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education
, the political scientist Daniel Drezner argues that their effects will be negative in the longterm for political scientists and diplomatic historians, as governments (and, one might add though Drezner doesn’t, corporations which WikiLeaks is also apparently tracking) become much more stingy with their information.
As a number of the participants in a recent discussion on WikiLeaks at Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society
pointed out, WikiLeaks may well be the Napster of the new age of political information. Just as the recording industry mistakenly believed Napster itself to be the problem when that file-sharing service first appeared, it’s easy to misperceive WikiLeaks itself (or even Julian Assange, who while a founder of WikiLeaks is not even WikiLeaks itself) as the issue. The real issue here is what 21st-century information technologies do to 20th-century secrecy regimes. And if the story of digital audio file trading is any indication, what will likely succeed WikiLeaks is a much more anarchic set of players who really will try to make all
information available to everyone (something that WikiLeaks has not, in fact, attempted to do).
And while I have little doubt that states and other entities invested in secrecy will take new steps to limit the spread of information, there’s great truth in Stewart Brand’s dictum that “information wants to be free.” It’s certainly true that the US government’s post-9/11 emphasis on information sharing made it much easier for someone like Bradley Manning to gain access to what eventually became the WikiLeaks documents. But the deeper technological and social forces here go far beyond such political decisions.
This new world of information raises an additional challenge for historians (one that historians of the 20th century already deal with in a more limited form): a crushing increase in the shear volume of information available. Of course, digital technologies also give us new tools to process this information….and that opens up a whole separate area of discussion.
How might intellectual historians understand the “WikiLeaks Manifesto”?
Two 2006 essays by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange have been circulating to much discussion on the internet. Entitled “State and Terrorist Conspiracies” and “Conspiracy and Governance,” they are available in a .pdf here
. Although sometimes referred to as the WikiLeaks Manifesto, these represent the thinking of only the most prominent person involved with WikiLeaks…and his thinking may have changed in the four years since they were written.
Nevertheless, there are ideas here. And intellectual historians presumably have something to add to the conversation about them….as well as to the meta-conversation about them, which seems to me often to be treating them as the pseudo-thoughts of a kind of cyber-bomb thrower, turning Assange into a sort of Unibomber of information.