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If you rule by code you will fall by code: the philosophy of Wikileaks

Diplomatic protocols and Internet protocols share rules but differ in their purpose. When the hacker ethic is applied to social code, as Wikileaks does, the result is good for democracy
Luis de Miranda
14 December 2010

Humans are animals of protocol. Our behavior is determined by rules - conscious and not. Until recently, the protocol was an instrument of hegemonic power: the rule-ing elites were makers and masters of the protocols that were used to control the people. The writing and policing of protocol was reserved for the elite.

The Internet today is the place through which humanity is coming to realise that liberty will require that we – the collective we – take control of the building and re-design of protocol. Wikileaks is a real milestone in that process. The word “Wikileaks” has two components, each important. “Leaks”: the hermetically sealed circles of power, those that once seemed as solid as rock, are liquifying and losing their aura. “Wiki”: each and all of us can contribute to the process of active demystification of protocol.

In what way are the Internet and diplomacy similar? Both are governed by very strict protocols, but their strictures are somehow each others’ opposites. Diplomatic protocol lives on the surface of things, a layer of varnish that actually allows all the treachery, hypocrisy and dirty dealings to go on. The protocol is theatre, while shenanigans play out in the shadows. The rigor of the Internet, on the other hand, operates in all that is invisible: the source code, the programming language standards, the networking standards (TCP/IP, HTML, RFCs). What is on the surface on the web is joyful chaos, depravity, free expression, every manifestation of the kaleidoscope of humanity. We have all been somewhat aware of the stuffy old world of diplomatic protocol, the attention to etiquette and to the rank of governments and their envoys. We are less familiar with the new world of digital protocol.

Wikileaks was born of hacker culture. Hackers are not spotty, destructive teenagers who provoke a third world war while tinkering at their computers. Hackers work firmly in the real world: they try to reverse engineer the digital world around us. They try to understand how code has been built, especially code whose goal is to keep people out, to monopolistically restrict access. Once the code is understood, it can be mastered and directed to the hackers’ own uses, often open-sourcing the knowledge. The code becomes usable by anyone who puts the effort into understanding digital protocol. This hacking culture does not apply only to digital programs: the hacking digital natives have this attitude towards the whole world; our politics, society, behaviours, tastes, beliefs, identities, have all been assembled like code and are the instruments by which we are controlled.

The world of diplomacy, the world of the rulers, is certainly no sacred realm. The content of the leaked cables - as has been pointed out - is not all that surprising. But Marshall McLuhan strikes again here too: the message is the medium. The momentous nature of Wikileaks comes in its form, not its content: the digitalisation of our representations of the world around us is a new global DNA. And that digitalisation brings to the foreground – partly by contrast – another, complementary aspect of humanity: what I call crealism, the desire to become self-created, to establish a space of liberty outside the automata by seizing democratic control of of the protocols that rule us. Another word for this is empowerment.

The old, elitist, analog world of double-speak and counter-bluff, the worlds of diplomacy and political institutions, cannot hope to survive the two-pronged attack from digitalisation and empowerment. The message sent by Wikileaks to governments is this: “you are using the digital to organise the world and to control the people; but that means that the people will also have access to your mechanisms of control, the code and the data; the people will be able to hack you – to uncover and subvert your hegemonic uses.” The only way governments could stop this democratising force would be to imprison the coders – a temptation some seem to be tempted by.

Whosoever rules by code will fall by code.  Those who expect to control the masses through biometric identification systems and other electronic controls, must expect that the digital will be turned back against them. And this as long as hackers have access to a free Web and a free press. The freedom needed is not just technical – it requires constructive crticism. Remember the lesson from Orwell: technocratic digitalism alone, without crealism - collective empowerment - will not deliver  more democracy … but only the best of all possible worlds.

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