small medium large xlarge

Shady Illuminations

Wikileaks and the Genie

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  John examines the drama of wikileaks and concludes that the heroes are the genie and the butterfly.  

The internet is a vast and rapidly-expanding store of information. Much like Samuel Johnson. You would have enjoyed knowing Samuel Johnson. In addition to compiling the first dictionary of the English language and annoying his friends with his erudition, the corpulent 18th Century lexicographer suffered from Tourette’s syndrome. So there’s another similarity between Johnson and the internet. OK, maybe you wouldn’t have enjoyed meeting him.

If the internet’s content is vast, its connections are vaster. The number of paths to any piece of information on the internet today is on the order of 2 to the power of mama mia, or umpteen squared. These figures are only approximations, you understand.

My point is, there are a lot of paths. Really, a lot. Take a typical search situation. Say you’re interested in the roots of chaos theory and you want to find the exact quotation in which Henri Poincaré comments on Newton’s three-body problem. I found myself in that situation just the other day, and the first search string that came to my mind was “Won’t somebody kill that butterfly?”

Well, I’ve already tipped you off to the punchline. The search worked. “Won’t somebody kill that butterfly?” led me directly—by which I mean eventually—to “it may happen that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena.” There are a lot of ways to get from here to there on the internet. To me, this would seem to have implications for attempts to censor internet content.

It’s Fun to Say

Which brings us, as so many other paths could have, to Julian Assange.

Twitter account @funtosay posts a new fun-to-say word every few days. @funtosay invites you to tickle your uvula with such fun words as palpitate, periwinkle, verisimilitude, and nincompoop. On December 10, 2010, the chosen word was Assange. Congratulations, Mr. Wikileaks. You’ve got a target painted on your back, but your name is fun to say.

Of course, the place where Assange has arrived doesn’t seem like a very comfortable spot. But just to be different, let’s ignore the tabloid aspects of the wikileaks story. I wouldn’t say I’m not interested in whether Julian Assange is a rapist, or whether he’s a journalist, or whether he’s Not a Nice Person. I ignore tabloid journalism only with great reluctance. But I would say that these questions are irrelevant to the question of whether wikileaks should have released all the documents it has released.

Personally, I find that the more information I have, the less comfortable I am. But since I’ve never been comfortable with being comfortable, I’m all right with that. Just give me the information, is my attitude, and let me ignore it as I will. You may see it differently.

But my opinion and yours may in turn be irrelevant now that the information is out there. It seems to me that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle.

Douglas Rushkoff sees it differently.

Not Free, Never Will Be

Rushkoff is an authority. He is a media theorist, writer, columnist, lecturer, documentarian, consultant to industry and government, former cyberpunk, graphic novelist, and recovering techno-utopian. He teaches, writes books, and regularly appears in GQ and Magical Blend. So you know he’s the real deal.

Rushkoff told a news site, “the stuff that goes on on the Internet does not go on because the authorities can’t stop it. It goes on because the authorities are choosing what to stop and what not to stop.” The internet, he says, is a top-down, authoritarian system that was not designed to be free or open or user-controlled, and never will be.

Which comes as a surprise to those of us who bought the meme that the internet was designed by the DoD to have no central control so that the bad guys couldn’t take it down.

Rushkoff’s point seems to be that the DNS system is a throttle point for the net: you want to shut somebody up, you pull their address from the DNS. And viola—or as soon as the change percolates through the net— has ceased to exist. Which is accurate enough, but it hardly amounts to government control over what information can and can’t be disseminated. Yes, it’s easier to remember a domain name than an IP address, and yes, taking down a domain name is devastating to a corporation, but not so much to, say, an underground political movement. Which I think is more the point if you’re going to throw around phrases like “the authorities are choosing what to stop.”

Be a Moving Target

Rushkoff surely knows that, so I’m guessing the news site sensationalized what he said. And he did go on to talk about creating distributed alternatives to the DNS system. He’s not alone. There are a lot of people looking at the choke points of the internet and considering how to work around them.

James Cowie did a nice blog on the steps wikileaks took to keep its information alive. It reads like a spy story, which I guess it is, sort of. Over a thousand volunteer sites mirrored the wikileaks content. Ultimately, Cowie concluded, “[t]aking away WikiLeaks’ hosting, their DNS service, even their primary domain name, has had the net effect of increasing WikiLeaks’ effective use of Internet diversity to stay connected.” Wikileaks was a target, but it stayed a moving target.

Rushkoff may be an authority, but I’m turning to Mitch Kapor for the real story, because—well, because I found this paper. Mitch says that 99 percent of the internet is under distributed control, and one percent is—sort of—centralized. He and his co-author detail that one percent. Then they point out that this locus of control is a sort of moving target, too, and add, “Ever since journalists began to notice the Internet, they have been reporting the fatal flaws that are going to stop its growth. The list of flaws keeps changing, however. The Internet has survived as long as it has by adapting, and there is no reason to expect this evolution to stop.”

I’ve never been a fan of imaginary creatures. I don’t know what joy vampires and zombies offer the world that piranha don’t bring in spades. I’m also not a fan of adorable insects. But in anarchy and chaos I trust, so when it comes to rebottling the genie or killing the butterfly, my money’s on the genie and the butterfly.

John Shade was born under a cloud in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. He wishes to make clear that it’s not all insects that he’s down on, just adorable ones.

Send the author your feedback or discuss the article in the magazine forum.