xkcd Comic Reveals Common Misunderstanding of WikiLeaks

This xkcd comic humorously highlights a seeming tension in WikiLeaks’ so-called “anti-secrecy agenda:” While secrecy facilitates the systemic aabuses of institutional power that WikiLeaks opposes, it also protects extra-institutional actors working to disrupt conspiracies (i.e., uneven distributions of information) that benefit the few at the expense of the many. However, as I discuss a recent Cyborgology post and a chapter (co-authored with Nathan Jurgenson) for a forthcoming WikiLeaks reader, Julian Assange’s approach to secrecy is far more sophisticated than just unconditional opposition. For example, he explains in a 2010 TIME interview:

secrecy is important for many things but shouldn’t be used to cover up abuses, which leads us to the question of who decides and who is responsible. It shouldn’t really be that people are thinking about: Should something be secret? I would rather it be thought: Who has a responsibility to keep certain things secret? And, who has a responsibility to bring matters to the public? And those responsibilities fall on different players. And it is our responsibility to bring matters to the public.

Assange is saying that secrecy is not a problem in and of itself; in fact, society generally benefits when individuals and extra-institutional actors are able to maintain some level of secrecy. Secrecy only become a problem when it occurs in institutional contexts, because institutions have an intrinsic tendency to control information in order to benefit insiders. This conspiratorial nature of institutions is what WikiLeaks truly opposes, and enforced transparency (i.e., leaking) is merely a tactic in that struggle. For this reason, WikiLeaks and Anonymous (the extra-institutional Internet community and hacker collective) are allies, despite the superficial tension highlighted in this comic.

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