[Viewpoint] WikiLeaks is a taste of things to come

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[Viewpoint] WikiLeaks is a taste of things to come

Beyond the headlines, the embarrassment of governments, and the blow dealt to the secrecy of diplomatic correspondence, WikiLeaks’ exposure of U.S. diplomatic cables offers a raw illustration of how deeply the essence of power has been altered in our information age.

Since its inception, the state has been the main vessel of power; access to power usually meant control of the state, whether by election or by violent takeover. This model, within which individuals are subjects or, at best, taxpayers and voters, is being undermined by several recent trends that have empowered the individual.

Consider the Internet, a network of connected nodes invented in the 1960s - at the height of the Cold War - to preserve the United States from total chaos after a nuclear attack on its nerve centers. It was deliberately constructed with no hierarchy, no core, and no central authority, though few at the time could have suspected where, given the numerous breakthroughs of the digital revolution, the Internet’s built-in trend toward decentralized power would lead.

It has led to a second trend: a metamorphosis of the production process. Information has become much more than a message conveyed by technology; it is now the raw material of service-intensive advanced economies, and the building block of modern social and productive organization.

The third trend concerns the room this has opened for individual and collective action. In “The Human Condition,” philosopher Hannah Arendt linked politics to the human capacity not simply to act, but to “act in concert.”

While concerted action is a familiar notion, it used to be aimed mainly at influencing the state - exemplified by the way civil society prompted America’s withdrawal from Vietnam.

Today, however, collective action is of a different magnitude. Because of the universality of the digital language, its ease of use, and the virtual absence of marginal costs for producing or disseminating information, the state’s tools of control have been weakened and depleted.

Global finance has been one of the most eager beneficiaries of these trends, using Internet networks not just as a tool to conduct operations with greater efficiency and velocity, but also as a means to circumvent state supervision. Corporations have dwelled on connectivity to globalize their markets, R&D, ownership, tax domiciliation and leadership, thoroughly transforming their relationship with states, whether in their country of origin or elsewhere.

In September 1992, it took George Soros $10 billion to bring the Bank of England to its knees and impose devaluation on the pound. It now takes only a computer and Internet connection to cause serious trouble: intrusion by hackers into protected networks, or the introduction of havoc-wreaking software viruses and worms in sensitive information systems.

While the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 - the deadliest of all time - had nothing “virtual” about them, their perpetrator, Al Qaeda, projects a cloud of threat and power by using cyberspace to promote its bloody “successes,” spread hatred and recruit jihadists.

Of course, access to a networked world has also balanced state power in positive ways, by giving a formidable boost to independent advocacy, as seen in the online campaign to ban land mines and the treaty that ratified its success - despite opposition by powerful states. Many similar organizations have flourished, gaining the ability to shape political outcomes and public policies.

But there is no place where the transformative power of connectivity is potentially greater than in China, with its reported 420 million Internet users. No matter how eager China’s authorities are to keep the Internet under their control - for example, by blocking foreign Web sites - they are also aware of how much their economy now needs the Internet.

As a result, the room for “concerted action” has never been so large for individual Chinese to gain access to uncensored information, share opinions, and communicate country-wide to expose official misconduct. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was jailed for circulating on the Internet his proposal for a truly democratic constitution, “Charter 08,” which gathered 10,000 signatures online in only 24 hours.

In the late 1980s, glasnost - transparency - was one of the nails in the coffin of the Soviet Union. While WikiLeaks has certainly not had a similar effect, it epitomizes the extent of the individual’s empowerment in a networked world. All that was necessary to challenge the world’s mightiest power, after all, was a disgruntled U.S. Army intelligence analyst, some hacking knowledge, a few computers and a handful of determined activists enrolled under the contested banner of transparency.

At the time she was named Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a respected scholar of international affairs, boldly heralded the advent of a networked world.

“War, diplomacy, business, media, society .?.?. are networked,” she wrote in Foreign Affairs in January 2009, and “in this world, the measure of power is connectedness.”

Having the greatest potential for connectivity, America has the edge in a “networked century.”

This drive prompted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January 2010 to proclaim the “freedom to connect” as the cyber-equivalent of the more familiar freedoms of assembly or expression. Of course, Clinton added, these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing, and can be misused for darker purposes. But her list of the potential abuses of the connected world contained nothing similar to the WikiLeaks storm.

*Copyright: Project Syndicate/ Institute for Human Sciences, 2010.
The writer, a former French diplomat, was an associate professor at Sciences Po, Paris.

By Pierre Buhler
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