For the past three hundred years, the relationship between the press and the state has been straightforward: the press tries to publish, the state uses its various mechanisms to thwart those efforts. This has produced a cat-and-mouse steady-state, a balance where selection pressures kept the press tamed and the state – in many circumstances – somewhat accountable to the governed. There are, as always, exceptions.
In the last few months, the press has become hyperconnected, using that hyperconnectivity to pierce the veil of secrecy which surrounds the state; using the means available to it to hyperdistribute those secrets. The press has become hyperempowered, an actor unlike anything ever experienced before.
Wikileaks is the press, but not the press as we have known it. This is the press of the 21st century, the press that comes after we’re all connected. Suddenly, all of the friendliest computers have become the deadliest weapons, and we are fenced in, encircled by threats – which are also opportunities.
This threat is two sided, Janus-faced. The state finds its ability to maintain the smooth functioning of power short-circuited by the exposure of its secrets. That is a fundamental, existential threat. In the same moment, the press recognizes that its ability to act has been constrained at every point: servers get shut down, domain names fail to resolve, bank accounts freeze. These are the new selection pressures on both sides, a sudden quickening of culture’s two-step. And, of course, it does not end there.
The state has now realized the full cost of digitization, the price of bits. Just as the recording industry learned a decade ago, it will now have to function within an ecology which – like it or not – has an absolutely fluid quality. Information flow is corrosive to institutions, whether that’s a record label or a state ministry. To function in a hyperconnected world, states must hyperconnect, but every point of connection becomes a gap through which the state’s power leaks away.
Meanwhile, the press has come up against the ugly reality of its own vulnerability. It finds itself situated within an entirely commercial ecology, all the way down to the wires used to carry its signals. If there’s anything the last week has taught us, it’s that the ability of the press to act must never be contingent upon the power of the state, or any organization dependent upon the good graces of the state.
Both sides are trapped, each with a knife to the other’s throat. Is there a way to back down from this DEFCON 1-like threat level? The new press can not be wished out of existence. Even if the Internet disappeared tomorrow, what we have already learned about how to communicate with one another will never be forgotten. It’s that shared social learning – hypermimesis – which presents the continued existential threat to the state. The state is now furiously trying to develop a response in kind, with a growing awareness that any response which extends its own connectivity must necessarily drain it of power.
There is already a movement underway within the state to shut down the holes, close the gaps, and carry on as before. But to the degree the state disconnects, it drifts away from synchronization with the real. The only tenable possibility is a ‘forward escape’, an embrace of that which seems destined to destroy it. This new form of state power – ‘hyperdemocracy’ – will be diffuse, decentralized, and ubiquitous: darknet as a model for governance.
In the interregnum, the press must reinvent its technological base as comprehensively as Gutenberg or Berners-Lee. Just as the legal strangulation of Napster laid the groundwork for Gnutella, every point of failure revealed in the state attack against Wikileaks creates a blueprint for the press which can succeed where it failed. We need networks that lie outside of and perhaps even in opposition to commercial interest, beyond the reach of the state. We need resilient Internet services which can not be arbitrarily revoked. We need a transaction system that is invisible, instantaneous and convertible upon demand. Our freedom madates it.
Some will argue that these represent the perfect toolkit for terrorism, for lawlessness and anarchy. Some are willing to sacrifice liberty for security, ending with neither. Although nostalgic and tempting, this argument will not hold against the tenor of these times. These systems will be invented and hyperdistributed even if the state attempts to enforce a tighter grip over its networks. Julian Assange, the most famous man in the world, has become the poster boy, the Che for a networked generation. Script kiddies everywhere now have a role model. Like it or not, they will create these systems, they will share what they’ve learned, they will build the apparatus that makes the state as we have known it increasingly ineffectual and irrelevant. Nothing can be done about that. This has already happened.
We face a choice. This is the fork, in both the old and new senses of the word. The culture we grew up with has suddenly shown its age, its incapacity, its inflexibility. That’s scary, because there is nothing yet to replace it. That job is left to us. We can see what has broken, and how it should be fixed. We can build new systems of human relations which depend not on secrecy but on connectivity. We can share knowledge to develop the blueprint for our hyperconnected, hyperempowered future. A week ago such an act would have been bootless utopianism. Now it’s just facing facts.