The Growing Field of Julian Assange Secondary Scholarship

If you haven’t read Assange’s own self-justifications, then you can read this summary of them to get a sense of what worried me. Now, Peter Ludlow does a proper study of Assange’s political theory:

this is conspiracy in the sense of the original etymology of ‘conspire’ – as in “breathe with” or “breathe together”.  The individuals are acting in concert, whether by plan or not, and the secrecy ensures that the benefits of the network accrue to those inside the network and not outside it. (via Brian Leiter)

As I understand it, when he talks about conspiracies, Assange means a kind of networked informational assymmetry (We know the secret, they don’t) that leads to rent-seeking behavior (we should keep the secret for mutual profit.) Here’s Assange:

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.

If this is Assange’s argument, it seems to be a bit off. Authoritarian regimes have secret plans which would induce resistance. Therefore, all secret plans are authoritarian? And as a corollary: all revealing of secrets will undermine authoritarian regimes? Most people would accept that, for instance, totalitarian Germany or totalitarian USSR would deserve such treatment. Probably China, too. Thus Assange puts it:

Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

But of course, Assange conflates two different kinds of systems: he uses the disjunct “secretive or unjust” but the way he always combines them implies that secretive systems are always unjust, and unjust systems are always secretive. I don’t think this need be the case. Here, I think the use of conspiracy in this loose sense undermines the potentially stronger justifications for Wikileaks like those offered by my friend Dr. J:

“A State ought not exercise totalitarian control over information that concerns its constituents. As it appears to more and more closely approximate this kind of totalitarian information-control, violations of that secrecy are more and more justified.”

Now, we can dispute whether the US constitutes such a state. I don’t believe it does, despite my many complaints about specific policies. But clearly, the problem arises when a conspiracy perpetrates crimes against humanity. Torture counts as such a crime, but it does not appear to have been bolstered by a secret, let alone a conspiratorial one. Sadly, much of the attention to our “enhanced interrogations” was laudatory. Unfortunately, it’s possible for injustice to continue in public, and it’s possible (and sometimes necessary) for justice to be done in secret.

Even before Julian Assange took the stage, some good governance advocates were pushing back against efforts to treat transparency as another panacea. Lawrence Lessig’s article, “Against Transparency” summarizes some of the trouble with “legal leaks” i.e. sunshine laws:

The problem, however, is that not all data satisfies the simple requirement that they be information that consumers can use, presented in a way they can use it. “More information,” as [Archon] Fung and his colleagues put it, “does not always produce markets that are more efficient.” Instead, “responses to information are inseparable from their interests, desires, resources, cognitive capacities, and social contexts. Owing to these and other factors, people may ignore information, or misunderstand it, or misuse it. Whether and how new information is used to further public objectives depends upon its incorporation into complex chains of comprehension, action, and response.”

In short, the problem is salience and attention span:

To understand something–an essay, an argument, a proof of innocence– requires a certain amount of attention. But on many issues, the average, or even rational, amount of attention given to understand many of these correlations, and their defamatory implications, is almost always less than the amount of time required. The result is a systemic misunderstanding–at least if the story is reported in a context, or in a manner, that does not neutralize such misunderstanding. The listing and correlating of data hardly qualifies as such a context. Understanding how and why some stories will be understood, or not understood, provides the key to grasping what is wrong with the tyranny of transparency.

What’s notable about Wikileaks is that they refuse to do any of the work required to contextualize information, fearing that framing would open them to charges of bias or deception. Yet instead they open the spigot of information and flood the marketplace, all on the theory that democracies flourish on an informed citizenry, regardless of what information those citizens focus on, even though Assange demonstrates in other contexts that he knows this:

Since a conspiracy is a type of cognitive device that acts on information acquired from its environment, distorting or restricting these inputs means acts based on them are likely to be misplaced. Programmers call this effect garbage in, garbage out.

“Distorting or restricting” should be amended to “distorting or restricting or flooding.” Hackers have a term for destructive flooding: they call it a “Denial of Service Attack,” which saturates a machine with messages until it shuts down. This is what brought down the internet servers of companies that dissociated themselves from Wikileaks after Assange’s arrest.

Wikileaks owes the public more than simply an infodump. If they have important information, then they owe us journalism. Journalism distinguishes novel information from background details that make up the context. Journalism isn’t as satisfying as infobomb-throwing. Journalism protects both sources and other vulnerable parties.

Of course, journalists may, as Radley Balko charges, suffer from “statism.” So do democracies.

Addendum: Glenn Greenwald reminds us that the latest “leak” has not actually been fully publicized:

they’ve posted only 1,269 of the more than 250,000 cables they possess: less than 1/2 of 1 %

In this sense, Wikileaks seems to have developed an increasing reticence in keeping with a more journalistic mission. We might then blame the individual media outlets with full access to the cables for the flood of irrelevant stories rather than a search for wrongdoing. But I still maintain that shirking the collation and framing in favor of news organizations is a kind of refusal of responsibility. Contrast that with what Wikileaks did with the “Collateral Murder” video, where they did the work of selection and framing themselves, to great effect.

The rest of Greenwald’s post is worth reading. Greenwald suggests that much of the mainstream media is perpetuating this deception about the “flood” of documents in support of a propaganda campaign. I suppose that’s more evidence of journalism’s “statism,” though I believe it also demonstrates that a system need be neither closed nor secretive to be protective of its privileges.

Addendum 2: John D at Philosophical Disquisitions has a much more thorough piece analyzing the Ludlow essay. It’s very good. And it has CHARTS:

8 thoughts on “The Growing Field of Julian Assange Secondary Scholarship”

  1. Thank you. I've been complaining about this transparency fetish as well, and the reminder that Lessig also talked about it is helpful. We shouldn't neglect what Foucault also taught us about the internal, naturalistic, rules of fields of expertise/knowledge. This information, when removed from its proper field of expertise, is no longer properly intelligible and they (Assange, his compatriots, etc) do no additional work of demystification or recontextualization to make it so. I don't even see a primitive theory of ideology at work in what he's been saying.

  2. John D: If I'd read your post before I wrote my own, I'd likely have had much less to say!

    I wonder what you'd think of this: one summary of Assange's argument requires us to read a certain criticism of the wars into his abstract arguments:

    1. (Our) wars are unjust.

    2. (Our) wars depend on secrecy in inception and in daily practice.

    3. Thus, (our) wars can be stopped by eliminating the secrecy in their daily practices.

    Yet clearly this does not follow. Patriotic sentiments eliminate the justificatory need for secrecy in the daily practice of war, such that citizens become defensive of the war when leaking threatens to eliminate our justifications in inception. (Secrecy in daily practice is an operational need, not an existential need.)

    Perhaps our wars might have been prevented (through leaking) but they can't be stopped that way. But even in prevention rather than arresting a war, there's little evidence that transparency helps. When you look at the leaks surrounding Arab support for an attack on Iran, I wonder whether the leaked information can't just be used to further support militancy. War isn't something about which we're particularly rational or data-driven, so transparency may be of little value compared to other strategies. (Which strategies? I don't know: deficit hawks and bond vigilantes? Public protest? Civil disobedience? Armed revolution?)

  3. Thanks for the kind words on my blog post. My presentation obviously has problems, as I have tried to acknowledge.

    I think you hit the nail on the head as to why one of those problems arises, namely: Assange seems to conflate the secretive system and the unjust (authoritarian) system. Thus it becomes very difficult to understand exactly what his objection to conspiracies is.

    Does he object just because they are secretive or because they are the hallmark of unjust regimes? I don’t think the latter is true, because of how he defines a conspiracy, and the former has its problems in that secrecy may not always be a negative. I’ll have to read some of the links you provide to further my education on this matter.

    I also wanted to say I like the basic philosophy you present on this blog re (political) panaceas. It resonates with me.

  4. Well, I agree with your analysis of that particular argument. It does not follow that transparency will help in the prevention of (unjust) wars for the reasons you state. More information does not necessarily lead to empowerment. And there are many issues in which data or rationality are not the primary drivers of our practical judgments.

    But maybe this misses the point.

    (Forgive me if the following is familiar to you. It is not familiar to me)

    Perhaps the goal is not simply to improve existing systems of governance, but to transcend them. I just listened to an interview with a guy called Johnny Ryan (who is an internet expert) on Irish national radio (RTE1) about the whole Wikileaks affair (I’m Irish, incidentally and Wikileaks has not been as big a story over here as compared to in the US – I was in the US earlier this month so have some evidential basis on which to make that comparison).

    Anyway, his suggestion is that increasing transparency is going to be an inevitable consequence of the internet. And that the Wikileaks programme is really only the first step in the transition to a new form of distributed governance. In other words, a step towards a kind of large-scale participative democracy which would have been impractical in previous eras due to geographical and communicative impediments. The internet has removed those impediments and so the traditional (representative) system of governance-by-elites can now be supplanted/attacked. He thinks that this, in effect, is what is now happening and that we will be witnessing the death throes of governance-by-elites over the coming years.

    (And who knows? this distributed system of governance might lead to better decision-making for reasons advanced by, say, epistemic democrats, i.e. Jury theorems etc – although obviously such theorems are built on questionable assumptions.)

    This may all be a little pie-in-the-sky. It certainly raises plenty of important questions: Are the distributed systems of governance going to operate within traditional nation-state borders? What about the truly authoritarian regimes? Can they be dragged, kicking and screaming into this new reality? What about the poor who lack access to the same ICT-infrastructure?

    But perhaps it also explains the attractions of transparency to some and can lead to new arguments in favour of (and against) organisations such as Wikileaks.

    1. Ryan gives a very good and provocative interview. Thanks for the reference: I'll look for it.

      My objections are three: group polarization, the Lessig-style cognitive overload and framing issues, and the gap between audience and institutions that enable action and accountability. All of that is reducible to what Walter Lippmann said about newspapers and radio in Public Opinion almost ninety years ago. But I like the optimistic spin, and I believe this is interested enough for another post!

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