The view from inside Mediastan

mediastan-the-documentary-about-wikileaks-that-assange-does-want-you-to-see-trailer-700x500The Kyrgyz have a proverb which goes, “Balaluu üi bazar; balasyz üi mazar”: “When there are children, the house is a bazaar; When there are no children, the house is a cemetery.” Although intended as an admonition for people doubting whether they want to become parents, it’s equally fitting as a warning to governments about the dangers of limiting the freedom of the press.

However, what Julian Assange and Johannes Wahlström seem to have discovered in their new film Mediastan is that there are, and shall always, be limits to the press – the expected political, legal, and financial limits, but also cultural, cognitive, and ethical limits. And as they endeavor to argue in the American context, it’s also dreadfully easy to mistake a mazar for a bazaar.

I’ve been asked by WikiLeaks-Press.org whether I have any reactions to the film. They came to me because a little over two years ago, I published an academic essay about WikiLeaks’ complicated impact upon the region. I’ve decided to take this as an opportunity to update some of the things I said therein, as well as to articulate what I imagine will be the view on Mediastan from within Mediastan itself.

Today is Kurman Ait (Eid al-Adha), the Feast of the Sacrifice in the Muslim faith. It’s a universal holiday commemorating the necessity of sacrifice in the name of one’s beliefs and for the sake of the greater good. So, I suppose it’s an appropriate day on which to pen this review, since journalism should be, first and foremost, about such self-sacrifice.

In the spirit of sacrifice, then, I ask viewers to spend their hard-earned dollars, euros, rubles, tenge, etc. on Mediastan, rather than waste them on the Hollywood spectacle The Fifth Estate. In the least, reviews of the latter indicate that you will have a much more meaningful experience from the former. And even if you strongly disagree with Assange and his belief system, you should nonetheless trust the Kyrgyz proverb: ultimately, it’s definitely better to have those noisy children from WikiLeaks in the house than not.

But no matter which film you choose to see, keep the critical faculties of your cerebral cortex activated. For instance, Mediastan has been criticized as anti-American “agitprop” and biased by some, but this is an empty and facile criticism. The entire purpose of Mediastan is to raise questions – certain questions that arise from a certain perspective, yes, even a certain bias.

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Looking through a prism darkly: citizen-spy epistemology

prism

So, this post is regarding the Prism program, and the phenomenon of mass-level metadata accumulation and pattern analysis that it represents. ProPublic has published an extremely useful timeline about how the United States intelligence community has developed to this point (such as we can know on the outside, given the high amount of top secret classification). Meanwhile, my colleague Joshua Foust (who has testified before Senate about over-classification and other problems in the intelligence industry — among other things, that it’s an industry), has published nine points about Prism that the public should think about. The most important are points #3, 7, and 8.

Joshua’s remarks border on the cynical, but nonetheless he is onto something. With respect to his last point, my job here is to explain about why this shouldn’t be a temporary outcry. And the explanatory methodology is simple (and I would say, spiritual). The consequences, however, are complex. (I) On the one hand, the citizen and the spy need to put themselves into each other’s shoes; and (II) on the other hand, the citizen needs to really understand what is being asked of him/her by the spy, but also why the spy shouldn’t be asking this of the citizen, either.

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Totemism and Panopticon

This blog has been quiet for almost a month, first because I was happily secluded in the Alps for the better part of two weeks, and then because it’s examination season here in Leuven. Not only exams, but also PhD applications, grant applications (for neweurasia), and budget paperwork are all due this month. I’m somewhat frayed at the edges at the moment, as there’s not enough me (and what there is, isn’t especially great at time management).

Nevertheless, I would like to share something I have worked hard on these last few weeks for my “Media Ethics” course. Admittedly, it’s an academic Frankenstein’s monster: a paper entitled, “Totemism and Panopticon” (click on the link to read a pdf version), that fuses Foucault, Durkheim, and an immanent critique of Assange’s now well-known essay, “Conspiracy as Governance”, to explore the conflict between WikiLeaks and the United States under the Obama Administration. My use of Durkheim is key, as fundamentally I am proposing a spiritual and identity dimension to the debacle. Here’s my conclusion:

WikiLeaks as a reverse, grassroots panopticon with a peculiar ratio of liberal and democratic beliefs, a murky conception of the publics at stake in its Bolshevik-like endeavor to mobilize and transform the world, and an ambivalance between a Kantian and utilitarian understanding of the proverbial leak has collided headlong with the full totemistic power of the American national self as embodied in national security and the soldier, prompting in turn an equally Kantian response in terms of secrecy. This response is perhaps evidenced by the dogged manner in which the Obama Administration is pursuing legal action against Manning and Assange, the latter under the Espionage Act of 1917, a federal law which, as I understand it, has in mind the concept of leaking toward a specific enemy in officially declared wartime, not a general mass during what is still formally peace time (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan never receiving formal Congressional declarations), even if that leaking occurred for journalistic-activistic-historical (much less contre panoptic) purposes. Even more remarkable — and all the more telling of the totemistic crisis at stake — was when United States Senator Joseph Lieberman expressed his confusion/disappointment on Fox News that Assange [had not yet been] tried for treason a sentiment echoed by several other pundits on the station, even though he is not a United States citizen.

My interests in monopsychism and panpsychism also extend to the notions of “mass consciousness” and “public opinion”, hence why I thought using Durkheim would be at least interesting, hopefully a bit funky and creative. The goal in the paper is to get a fix on the public ethos that Assange et al have engendered, specifically in my homeland. By the Greek term “ethos” I mean something akin to the English notions of character, disposition, and fundamental values. With respect to WikiLeaks — specifically WikiLeaks as its own variety of mass media (by dint of it being a digital entity) and as a response to and element of the broader mediascape of today — I also mean ethos along the lines of how the Greeks used the term to refer to the power of music to influence its hearer’s emotions, behaviors, and even morals.

Besides trying to find an interesting new angle to the issue, I also felt duty-bound as a Baha’i journalist to get a fix on what WikiLeaks means for me. Assange et al are a moral confrontation right at the intersection between my religiosity and my professional work. The philosopher, in an essay such as this, tries to sort out the resultant mess – although the philosopher is also torn, between Hegelian and Gandhian instincts.

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Scientific journalism un-redax

I’ve been a bit remiss on my “WikiLeaks beat” duties, as like much of the rest of the world I have only recently discovered the revelation of the entire unredacted cache of American diplomatic cables. In trying to figure out the situation — first and foremost ethically — I basically follow the version of events by Nigel Parry, who asserts that he was among the first people outside of the Guardian-WikiLeaks agreement to crack the cache, as well as the views of his more astute readers in the comments section. It’s clear that the snaffu emerges from a critical oversight on the part of Assange, an outright blunder on the part of Leigh (which was what made Assange’s oversight critical), and Lord only knows what game some ex-WikiLeakers and online snoopers are playing.

Immediately, my first instinct is that this has been a terrible development, as it runs the risk of putting careers and lives in danger, from the many State Department in-country human intelligence assets to the well-intentioned and often empathetic embassy employees whose inner worlds were revealed by the cables. Now, I’m familiar with all the ins and outs of the “blood on hands” debate/dispute, but I do not agree with most of the argumentation either way. My own experience as a journalist working in Central Asia, an informationally unfriendly region to put it nicely, teaches me some very fundamental, if complex facts: informants’ motivations are vastly varied, which means that there will always be someone around willing to talk, but also that authorities’ motivations are equally varied, which means that talking always carries with it an inherent scale of danger depending on the Who and What factors.

In other words, Assange et al cannot shirk responsibility for any one who will be hurt as a result of WikiLeaks’ actions — but then again, they should not have gotten into this business if they are not willing to bear this responsibility — nor can the State Department hide from the light under the veil of security and safety — because again, they should not have gotten into this business if they are not willing to bear certain culpabilities. WikiLeaks can be responsible if authorities track down informants using the leaks and the State Department knows full well that in most cases it can re-generate lost intelligence assets. These two parties are facilitating certain processes and realities, wanting to reap the positives but heap the negatives onto the other (at least in terms of their public relations; privately, I suspect they are more regretful, for the State Department is not so “imperial” nor Assange so “cavalier” as their mutual detractors would have us all believe).

By the same token, a debate that’s been missing has been the one regarding the moral culpability of the informants themselves. That’s because for every informant who is motivated by high ideals and the desire to improve his or her society, there is another who is seeking narrow personal gain. What I find striking is that, although discussing the motivations of informants and the morality of working with them is routine for journalists, diplomatic officers, and intelligence officers, the public discourse about these cables, almost from the get-go, seems to have presumed the innocence of the informants as a whole. If my assessment here is correct, then this is a huge lacunae in the ethical analysis of WikiLeaks — much less the State Department, who is working directly with these informants — about which simple rationalizations like “they’re traitors who deserve what they get” or “sometimes the good guys have to work with bad guys” I feel are unsatisfactory.

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A conversation with an anti-mafia Slavoj Žižek

In a very short time, I’ve been interviewed by Voice of America, al-Jazeera, BBC, a plethora of smaller media outlets, and several academics, but few have been as interesting — or as conceptually and professionally dangerous — as one I did last night with my friend Vincenzo Fatigati, a fellow Leuven student from Naples who is also an anti-Camorra activist.

Vincenzo explodes with enthusiasm, and he’s very quick on the theoretical draw. He reminds me a lot of Slavoj Žižek, except he’s far more serious: for him philosophy is not just a theoretical tool for cultural criticism, but actually a weapon for justice in his personal crusade against organized crime. For example, one of his most interesting philosophical projects is working out — I kid you not — a phenomenology or epistemology of the mafia. And believe me when I say that the guy is really putting his life on the line to do this. I’ve seen proof of what he’s up against. I admire him.

So, our conversation was in two parts:

(1) The advantages and dangers of blogging from professional development and personal perspectives, with glances to various related subjects: http://soundcloud.com/vincenzo-fatigati/interview-to-christopher

(2) The challenge of understanding WikiLeaks, with glances to Julian Assange and Barack Obama (given that both men are personifications of the Internet) and the question of digital Orwellianism: http://soundcloud.com/vincenzo-fatigati/chris-schwartzs-interview-part

The second part is much more free-wheeling than the first, and I say things therein that could potentially get me in trouble with, well, a lot of people. With that in mind, I’d like to take a moment to remind readers/listeners that like any intellectual, my views are always evolving. Nevertheless, I realize that for many, such flexibility might smack of promiscuity or inconsistency. I also concede that my perspective in general is probably idiosyncratic, so I welcome any criticisms.

Social leaking / social whistleblowing

I’m thinking over this story about the Facebook group plotting to overthrow the Turkmen government. I’ve already pondered the journalistic ethics about publishing it (“Did I just kill a revolution?”), but there are some really interesting aspect I want to take a moment to discuss.

In terms of the technology: first, this remarkable feature of modern communication applications to serve as a mirror for humanity, revealing ourselves to ourselves, blemishes and all; second, the darkside of this mirror, namely, its potential to turn against us and become a tool of self-oppression; and third — and this is the pat I want to focus on right now — is the way in which it’s making our civilization vastly more leaky and transparent.

Back in April I was interviewed by Dr. Suelette Dreyfus, an international expert on digital whistleblowing. We had a long conversation on the definition of “whistleblowing”, and it occurred to me that besides the traditional, Daniel Elsberg-style leak, or its Julian Assange update, there may now also be “social leaking” or “social whistleblowing”. This is essentially unintentional releasing of information by the rank-and-file of an organization that at an authority, whether it be cultural, governmental or corporate, would have preferred not to be released.

So, as I see it, such leaking may often take the emotional form of venting. For example, neweurasia‘s Annasoltan has recounted the following anecdote about two Turkmen apparatchiks:

“Once I met two Turkmen diplomats who behaved as though they were in a race with each other to expound on the great achievements of our president. But when one them went to the toilet, the other quickly made scandalous revelations about the government and seemed desperate to convince me that he despised the regime. Imagine: a diplomat, our nation’s representative to the outside world!”

Or, as in the case of this Facebook group, the various reactions of everyday people confronted with a terrifying new idea, namely, the downfall of their government. In this latter example, the outside world has learned something very important about the current collective mindset within Turkmenistan — something we could not have easily determined before:

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Wiki-Orwellianism

Could transparency be used as a tool of oppression? The idea occurred to me soon after filing my most recent blog post with RFE/RL on the latest — and scariest — WikiLeaks spawn, Porn WikiLeaks.

What strikes me about Porn WikiLeaks is that it appears to essentially be the community of the pornography industry turned upon itself, as one vigilante ex-member seeks to expose the private identities of the industry’s pseudonymous actors and actresses. Many men and women have taken recourse to stints in front of the camera to pay for university or just put food on the table.

So, what’s at stake here are normal people — lawyers, doctors, teachers and home makers — with real reputations to lose, which is why the institution of the pseudonym is so important (society’s own double-standard of using the product but condemning the producer is the crucial factor to this sad reality, but that’s a topic for another blog post). This is counter to the logic of the original WikiLeaks, which Guy Rundle eloquently explains thus:

WikiLeaks has never been about an unedited, unconsidered process. Assange has argued that the degree of power exercised and the right to leak should also be considered in implicitly mathematical terms: total power licenses total exposure; zero power implies a total right to personal privacy. Such an ethic presumably lies across the boundary of a single life – the personal circumstances of someone in power should not be fair game for leaking, unless the circumstances of that private life are generating corrupt activities.

But here’s the really disturbing catch: besides the fact that Porn WikiLeaks’ webmaster may have had some help from inside the industry in terms of gathering the basic profile data of over 23,756 individuals that serves as the foundation of the site’s database, the deeply private data that he’s also accruing — from photographs of residences and family members to phone numbers — is most likely coming from colleagues and otherwise normal people like you and me, i.e., neighbors, supposed friends and other acquaintances. In other words, emphasis here is on the Wiki part of the site’s name.

On one level, the whole enterprise is sickeningly masturbatory: Porn WikiLeaks is itself pornographic, for the site essentially applies crowdsourcing to voyeurism. On another even more disturbing level, for me the site constitutes nothing less than Wiki-Orwellianism, that is to say, crowdsourcing used as a means to invade privacy. That’s profoundly worrying because this is a methodology that could be put to authoritarian ends. Imagine: what if the East German secret police had access to today’s Internet technology, and one day simply decided to publish their vast database of the citizenry’s private lives as a mass-readable/mass-editable Wikipedia-like website?

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Fightbook: “Gnōthi seauton, Zuckerberg”

So, I’ve finally seen the latest David Fincher film, The Social Network, about the founding of Facebook. I thought it was an excellent film, and not only because of the relevance of its central topic. Beneath the compelling acting and tight film composition are some interesting comments about its director, insight into our society, but also some lacunae, too.

First, was it just me, or does this film have surprising resonances with Fincher’s 1999 cult hit Fight Club? Consider: the neurotic, fast-talking intuitively perceptive main character (Jack the Narrator/Mark Zuckerberg), the struggle between a devil-on-his-shoulder idealized self (Tyler Durden/Sean Parker) and an angel-on-his-shoulder voice of compassion (Marla/Eduardo Saverin), and the emergence of a powerful, even cultic, social movement (Project Mayhem/Facebook).

The inner processes and effects of identity and innovation, to say nothing of their outward manifestations as charisma and social engineering, seem to be one of the major motifs of Fincher’s work and includes the terror of the serial killer (the fictional Seven killer/the real-life Zodiac killer) and the (quite literal) descent of the alpha figure into themselves (Ripley from Alien 3/Van Orton from The Game). However, Fincher explores this motif in a very deconstructive manner, especially in Fight Club and The Social Network — the ecstatic uplift of, say, The Game, is not to be found in the oddly deflative destruction of Wilmington or Zuckerberg sadly hitting refresh on his laptop. In Fincher’s world, there’s often a high price to pay for gnōthi seauton.

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Working the WikiLeaks beat (updated)

The old round-up of my WikiLeaks coverage was starting to get unruly, so here’s a new, chronological index, which I will update regularly. I must say, it’s kind of weird being a “WikiLeaks observer,” because not only is this an incredibly fast-moving story, but the learning curve is quite steep, as it entwines simultaneously the most theoretical and most lived parts of biography, ethics, history, international diplomacy, war, journalism, and cryptography. It’s very exciting and meaningful material, and in all due seriousness, I thank God, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and neweurasia.net (not to mention Julian Assange!) for the opportunity to cover it in such an in-depth manner.

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How secret are these cables really?

Here’s a quickie, also from “History Punk”: at least one of WikiLeaks’ exposed diplomatic cables (75TEHRAN2069) was already previously released by none other than the State Department itself.

This highlights the small but notable fact that most of these cables would eventually have been declassified via the Mandatory Declassification Review Process (you can see the dates for when this review process is supposed to happen in the headers of several of the cables) or via FOIA. And, in turn, that raises questions about what WikiLeaks and its source were hoping to achieve by releasing the cables now — a huge discussion.

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The other diplomatic cables leak…

At the same time that WikiLeaks began making diplomatic history this past Sunday, November 28, another piece of diplomatic history was being made—or, to be more precise, being revealed—in a less noisy corner of the Web.

The historian blogger known as “History Punk” published on his blog a large collection of declassified State Department cables from the period immediately after September 11. The cables’ primary focus is logging global reactions, journalistic, diplomatic, and anecdotal, to the earthshattering terrorist attacks.

“These cables, largely unredacted, provide an inside look into how the world, foreign governments, and the staff at American embassy reacted to the horrors of that day,” History Punk wrote in his blog on Sunday.

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Central Asian views on WikiLeaks: trust, truth, and tech

WikiLeaks may end up becoming Central Asia’s best hope for bringing to light their leaders’ many dark secrets, say neweurasia’s bloggers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Yet, there are many problems, not least of which is trust, all of which WikiLeaks or other whistle-blower websites will have to overcome.

This editorial has been cross-posted from neweurasia. It’s a slightly different version of my “Our Take” editorial for our partner site, Transitions Online, with two additional quotes and block quotes. Thanks to Barbara Frye for copy-editing the original.

The whistle-blower website WikiLeaks has made international headlines for its leaks of sensitive information related to the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet a little-known aspect of the organization is its work in the former communist world, including Central Asia.

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Talking with Julian Assange

Unless you’ve been living on Mars, by now you’ve probably heard about the leak of a huge cache of American digital military logs by the enigmatic website, WikiLeaks.  It’s stirring a heated debate in journalism, intelligence, and legal circles.  This is an important one for the world to have, because entities like WikiLeaks may be changing the way journalists and sources, as well as governments and citizens, relate to information.

I was actually able to speak yesterday with the website’s founder, Julian Assange, in a phone interview on behalf of RFE/RL.  It was a brief conversation, unsatisfactory to the philosopher in me but satisfactory for my immediate journalistic needs.  In truth, I’d like to know more about WikiLeaks’ ideology, as well as how the group views itself vis-a-vis other “underground”, “alternative”, or “anti-authoritarian” news operations like ZNet and IndyMedia.  I’m also curious about their views on the relationship between information and society in general.

Consequently, I decided today to dig deeper into who they are, as well as the larger “Cypherpunk” and cryptographic subculture, something I’ve only very lightly touched upon in my studies of New Media.  The next time I track them down, I want to be able to ask them much more interesting and probing questions, the kind that leave both the inquirer and inquired enriched.

Key to this approach is to focus not so much on Assange as those who know him well and have worked with him.  Trust me when I say that’s no easy feat.  Some of his friends, allies, and co-workers are unknown even to him; some aren’t particularly friendly to nosy types like me; and most of all, theirs is a world of pseudonymity and anonymity.  This is new terrain for me.

In the meantime, and in lieu of the eventual fruits of this much deeper analysis, I’ve posted my very preliminary views on neweurasia, and I’m also collecting reader responses in this fairly simple and woefully unscientific poll: