A Glimpse of a Limit. A Crack in the Horizon.
So, um, #wikileaks.
I invoke the hashtag because it has all become a blur of unending news, analysis and analysis of analysis. This is not media as event, but event as media.
The quiet hum of geopolitics – which to me has always hovered in the background, too big and too depressing to pay it my full attention – suddenly pushed its way into my window on life. And after spending years saying “this internet thing man, y’all don’t know how deeply it will change things” – well, here was some small little glimmer that ‘I was right all along’. Or something.
But rather than some misguided feeling of vindication, I – and I think many others – felt something altogether more sinister.
For the past year I have made it my business to give the optimistic take on technology and the web. It is decidedly and deliberately a polemical move, one meant to counteract the entirely understandable malaise that surrounds me when the subject of technology arises; when you’re a writer and a grad student in English, it’s just to be expected. But part of my Twitter bio reads “I look for the hope in iPads and musty books” – in part to assert that those two things are not as opposed as people say they are, but also because I like to remind myself that it takes work to look for that hope. As I tell myself, someone has to right?
But with #wikileaks, the sorta’ playful nature of my optimism no longer fits. Here was a facet of the web’s decentralized, stateless, anonymous nature that did not lend itself to the polemically positive. To do so seemed somehow irresponsible in a way that optimistically poking at notions of literacy, narrative and print culture do not. This, after all, was about the potential fracture of an established order.
Sure, the conversation has generally been about transparency vs. control, the agency of truth, what constitutes loyalty, plus a thousand other things. But, as Bruce Sterling so carefully pointed out, here were two competing discourses that, it seemed, could find no middle-ground – not just a fight over ‘open vs. closed’, but something more.
Here were some tech publications suddenly talking about this thing called statecraft, a term one associates far more with the Economist. What’s more, it wasn’t just that suddenly tech and geopolitics were overlapping in a way we’d never seen before, it was as if the two suddenly threatened each other – as if the new global network and old global order simply couldn’t work together.
Woah, we all said. And we all breathlessly read Sterling’s piece. And God, it ached man.
A few days after Sterling’s piece came out, a prominent journalism critic–whose name I forget, but whose ‘status’ I remember–said they were disappointed by Sterling’s post – that it was well-written but didn’t deliver in analysis.
But reading the comment, I was reminded: it was the profound, resigned melancholy that underpins Sterling’s post that resonated most clearly and loudly. That, rather than finding a new angle from which to understand this mess, someone gave voice to the creeping sense of fear and worry that even the staunchest technophiles now found themselves – ourselves – feeling.
It’s like, as Sterling writes, you can hear the tired exhalation of breath:
So, well, that’s the general situation with this particular scandal. I could go on about it, but I’m trying to pace myself. This knotty situation is not gonna “blow over,” because it’s been building since 1993 and maybe even 1947. “Transparency” and “discretion” are virtues, but they are virtues that clash. The international order and the global Internet are not best pals. They never were, and now that’s obvious.
The data held by states is gonna get easier to steal, not harder to steal; the Chinese are all over Indian computers, the Indians are all over Pakistani computers, and the Russian cybermafia is brazenly hosting wikileaks.info because that’s where the underground goes to the mattresses. It is a godawful mess. This is gonna get worse before it gets better, and it’s gonna get worse for a long time. Like leaks in a house where the pipes froze.
The nation-state has, since its inception, been about the psychogeographic – the territorialization of space. But it has also, in very intricate, profound ways, not been about the psyche, but about materiality. It has been about these incredibly deep, overlapped networks of money, resources, land and people, these physical things that have physical limits.
Once you paint those lines on a map, it becomes about how you get electricity from one end of the territory to another, how food gets shipped from one city to the next. This is what The Wire was so good at displaying at the ‘micro’ level of Baltimore: it is the sheer weight of bureaucracy that both sustains and chokes the city, and even the most committed psychogeographer recognizes these networks are not so ephemeral that they can be easily dismantled. Layer upon layer upon layer, as these strands threaten to drown us, they also hold us comfortably in place.
These electronic networks, though… these lines made of light dart about so quickly, they sometimes feel dangerous. Here in the world of concrete and bone, I am, if nothing else, bound to my neighbour by the space we share. On one side, her noise impinges into my life, while on the other, the smells of his cooking pushes its way into my mind. If nothing else, this physicality binds us to each other, even when it is in ways we wish didn’t happen.
For years now, I have thought of these digital lines of flight as escape – and in many ways they have been. Aesthetics freed from established physical forms, bodies freed from their skin, personalities freed from a stuttering tongue.
But something about #wilkileaks hovers threateningly, because it seems plausible that the networks of statehood and the networks of the web may be incompatible. What #wikileaks means for accountability and transparency is arguably not quite the same for what it signifies for the future of the state. And maybe we are already too old for it; but maybe we are just young enough that we will live in the upheaval of transition as one global order of states, capitalism, oil tankers and planes gives way to another.
So perhaps that will be it: after the pipes break, we’ll simply wait in water so cold our feet have gone numb, as if we can no longer quite feel what we are standing upon.
As if we are a bit in shock, having just glimpsed some kind of limit. Or a crack, looming just ahead, in the horizon.