Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ripples on the Pond: How Big is WikiLeaks?

I don’t mean the organization. I mean the phenomenon. Forget about whether or not it’s a bad thing, or a good, thing, or just a messy and confusing thing. How big is it?

Here’s a crude analogy: Drop a pebble into a small pond. The pebble makes waves the ripple out from the point of impact. How long before waves damp out and the pond’s surface is calm once again?

Think of a WikiLeaks information release as a pebble and . . . well, just exactly what is the pond? That’s a very good question, one I’ll leave to your imagination. The current round of releases is having what we can call first-order effects on US diplomatic relations throughout the world.

That, of course, is not all that’s going on. We’ve got second-order effects. Amazon kicked WikiLeaks off its servers. MasterCard, Visa, and Paypal won’t handle donations. And so forth. In response, 100s of mirror sites have cropped up around the net and denial of service attacks have been launched against companies that have backed out of relations with WikiLeaks. Judging by Aaron Bady’s analysis of Assange’s essays, he’s looking for second order effects. He wants to change the world-wide information ecology.

Then we have the various calls for Assange’s head on a platter. What are the effects of such hysteria on public discourse? – not that there’s anything new about it. The Secret Council of Rulers, Oligarchs, Hegemons, Fat Cats and Big Cheeses is worried and sending out signals of panic – or are they just feints?

Is Assange’s arrest on sex charges a part of this dynamic, or is it something completely separate? Abstractly considered, the charges have nothing whatever to do with what WikiLeaks does as an organization. But the timeline is suspicious and some folks strongly suspect, or out-right believe, that this matter is being used as a device to corner Assange. Such belief erodes the social fabric. Would a trial simply amplify this component in the second-order effects?

How long with such things go on? As far as I can see, there’s no way to tell. And we’ve not yet seen the documents from the un-named but large American bank we’ve been promised in the new year. The first-order effects of those leaks will affect a different set actors. How will this release impact the second-order effects? Will it amplify them or cause new phenomena within the second-order realm?

It’s the second-order effects that I have in mind when I ask: How big is WikiLeaks? To return to the pebble and pond analogy, I figure the first-order effects will damp out. But the second-order effects, will they blast the water out of the pond?

The analogy breaks down at this point. What I’m looking for is an analogy that gives us a way to suggest that the pond, the system, will be changed forever. Such change might be good, it might be bad, we can’t tell.


  1. If you throw a diamond "of first water" into a punch bowl it may not be seen and people will continue on as before ... but if you drop a turd you get everyone's attention.

    I suspect Assange of this.

  2. Perhaps, but, at this point is it even about him?

  3. No, and perhaps never was. Assange describes himself as a member of the Wikileaks board, but he is not "Wikileaks" himself.