Contain This!

Stalder_84x84 Felix Stalder in Eurozine:

WikiLeaks is one of the defining stories of the Internet, which means by now, one of the defining stories of the present, period. At least four large-scale trends which permeate our societies as a whole are fused here into an explosive mixture whose fall-out is far from clear. First is a change in the materiality of communication. Communication becomes more extensive, more recorded, and the records become more mobile. Second is a crisis of institutions, particularly in western democracies, where moralistic rhetoric and the ugliness of daily practice are diverging ever more at the very moment when institutional personnel are being encouraged to think more for themselves. Third is the rise of new actors, “super-empowered” individuals, capable of intervening into historical developments at a systemic level. Finally, fourth is a structural transformation of the public sphere (through media consolidation at one pole, and the explosion of non-institutional publishers at the other), to an extent that rivals the one described by Habermas with the rise of mass media at the turn of the twentieth century.

Imagine dumping nearly 400 000 paper documents into a dead drop located discreetly on the hard shoulder of a road. Impossible. Now imagine the same thing with digital records on a USB stick, or as an upload from any networked computer. No problem at all. Yet, the material differences between paper and digital records go much further than mere bulk. Digital records are the impulses travelling through the nervous systems of dynamic, distributed organisations of all sizes. They are intended, from the beginning, to circulate with ease. Otherwise such organisations would fall apart and dynamism would grind to a halt. The more flexible and distributed organisations become, the more records they need to produce and the faster these need to circulate. Due to their distributed aspect and the pressure for cross-organisational cooperation, it is increasingly difficult to keep records within particular organisations whose boundaries are blurring anyway. Surveillance researchers such as David Lyon have long been writing about the leakiness of “containers”, meaning the tendency for sensitive digital records to cross the boundaries of the institutions which produce them. This leakiness is often driven by commercial considerations (private data being sold), but it happens also out of incompetence (systems being secured insufficiently), or because insiders deliberately violate organisational policies for their own purposes. Either they are whistle-blowers motivated by conscience, as in the case of WikiLeaks, or individuals selling information for private gain, as in the case of the numerous employees of Swiss banks who recently copied the details of private accounts and sold them to tax authorities across Europe. Within certain organisation such as banks and the military, virtually everything is classified and large number of people have access to this data, not least mid-level staff who handle the streams of raw data such as individuals' records produced as part of daily procedure.

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