The WikiLeaks Panel

February 16, 2011

“Still, why not have the benefit of being thought disagreeable – the luxury of recorded observation?”
– Henry James, The Impressions of a Cousin.
220 Fifth Avenue, Croisic Building, lobby
In late January, the Center for Jewish History hosted a panel of information professionals on the topic of WikiLeaks. I paid the $10 entrance fee and sat in the audience. Scantly did I know other folks at the gathering, and sat alone, having just got off work and still in that unrelieved decompression zone that barnacles one who works a job that you above all do not bring home with you. When I walk out of the Croisic Building on 26th & Fifth Ave it is like the Biohazard agent returning from the Danger Zone in his Hazmat suit to the de-radiation chamber before entering the secret control room where tired analysts eat Fritos.  The security at the WikiLeaks event must have been on to my trip, since I was probed twice going in before they found the loose coinage I didn’t know was in the pocket of my London Fog.

The combined pedigrees of the five panelists, as read off by moderator Peter Wosh, of NYU, spanned a swooning horizon of opportunity for a student hoping to make a living in the Archives field.  A magnum of verbiage which one might paste to one’s name, for sustenance.  The litany of pedigrees cast the panelists in an almost intimidating light as they sat on stage in grouped silence, like bishops of the Church.  But by the end of the event, after all bishops had spoken, the spell drooped.  Like the classroom, some were well-spoken, and others a tax on the good intention of good attention.

When provoked, the panel did not bite, and did not want to bend either way to the topic at hand. Ms. Trudy Huskamp Peterson, an ex-Archivist of the U.S., was smart and informative and broke down some of the bullet points behind the way WikiLeaks functions.  But when it came to the big issues – spying, law enforcement, lack of security – she was mum (the panel aside, Ms. Peterson responded to an inquiry I posted on the SAA listserve with an abundance of archival tips for which I was eagerly and bowingly grateful).  Mr. Pulzello, a “Solutions Architect,” struck one as probably not the consultant most capital for hire, the type who takes 20 mins to answer a question that could have been answered in 2, like an uncle who talks about cars all the time while sitting in his armchair.  An audience member asked a question about the accountability one might find themselves beholden to after a grave breach of security.   The Solutions Architect, with the hunched air of a glib moral stickler, advised the woman that she should prepare her resume for a new job.  She must have had a sense of humor, because she didn’t laugh.

Gman pulpOne should not exactly expect William F. Buckley v. Gore Vidal at an Archivist panel, but there is no shortage of potential agitation regarding the topic of WikiLeaks.  It was as if whale oil merchants had gathered at town hall to discuss the advent of gas light.  I had an existential moment wondering what we were all doing in the audience, staring up at these talking heads, like what happens when you go to a bad movie you thought would be good.  Maybe I was the moral stickler.

The most lively and interesting of the group, a CUNY professor who blogs on information law, concluded with the ironical prospect of “doing nothing” in response to WikiLeaks – the idea that attention-hogs are best disarmed by ignoring them.  He had a lively schpiel, the most performing of the group, but when this idea was challenged by an audience member, the panel responded with silence, as if exercising the Fifth Amendment at a mob trial.Secret Agent X pulp

It would have been encouraging to hear someone at least stick up for Julian Assange.  Whether from personal belief or the risk of peer alienation, no one did.  There were phrases dropped by the panel which I did enjoy, like “stovepipe of information,” and “costless storage,” and “netcentric diplomacy,” which it would seem Julian Assange is a champion of, though no nod was made by the speakers.  As a greenhorn, just a student and intern, and a new audience member to esteemed panels, I ventured to assume that such tiptoeing must be how one gets invited to esteemed panels.  In all, it was encouraging to have WikiLeaks caucused by the Archives world.  I chose to skip the post-panel reception, where I might have, along with wine and cheese, stuffed my maw with the proverbial foot and discouraged any prospect that foot might have of crossing paths in the future with anyone in attendance.  The point is to have a job you don’t have to scrub-off at the end of the day.

The information materials with which Julian Assange barters – the classified cables, videos, documents, etc. – are not “his,” in that he had nothing to do with their generation or recordsmaking, yet Assange has roguishly granted himself the authority to broker deals with the Fourth Estate using these materials as currency.  In a recent New York Times Magazine cover story, editor-in-chief Bill Keller synopsizes the paper’s coterminous relationship with WikiLeaks as if the secrets had not been already planned to be made public on WikiLeaks.  Keller may underestimate the capabilities of the average reader to digest information.  The Times, like Der Spiegel and the Guardian, saddling themselves with a certain responsibility to protect both the public and government, acted as press agents for Assange.  They helped Assange sell tickets to the show.  Like the Wiki-panel, Keller treats Assange offhandedly while at the same time indulging the journalistic intrigue which Assange prompted for the newspaper.  These major newspapers enter into Assange’s black market, and then capitalize on the lawlessness in order to dishonor the agreements previously made, in the style of 1960s spy movies.

Like Bill Keller at the Times, Assange is listed on the WikiLeaks masthead as its “editor-in-chief.” The Times, in its coverage of the release, refers to the collection as an “archive.” Julian Assange is a unique kind of paranoid archivist, and the controversy caused by WikiLeaks portends a society where no power controls information.  Assange avows that WikiLeaks is a work of “scientific journalism,” which “allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true?”

The open media sources which exemplify the creed of WikiLeaks distrust the analog filters of media and the law. Politicians have employed the semantic tropes of Populist agitation against Julian Assange. His actions have been equated with terrorism, and enforcement of the Espionage Act against WikiLeaks has been bandied about in the press. Some have even called for Assange’s assassination. Such Sunday morning talk-show vigilantism casts Assange as both a crusader and an agitator, and serves the behavioral patterns of Populism in the United States. But where Populists after the Civil War drew meagerly from the words of the small town press and travelling speechmakers, the political critics of WikiLeaks fear that the digital data stream is drowning society in information.
Eugene V. Debs
The outcry against Assange has been voiced by both the Right and Left, insofar as such bicameral ideologies make habit of afflicting their own platforms. Politicians aligned with the 21st century, in-vogue monkeywrench reactionary Tea Party have voiced a pick-axed opposition to WikiLeaks, as has Democratic Senator of California Dianne Feinstein, who deliberately used the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal to invoke the Espionage Act against Assange, recalling that the Act is founded on the idea that information can indeed cause injury to the U.S. Government.

By releasing classified State Department cables, which involve the diplomacy of world nations, WikiLeaks frames the United States as a formidable archival central command. If an archive can be defined as a set of materials which has outlived its primary use, then the fact that the New York Times refers to a collection of WikiLeaks documents as the “Iraq War Archive” might suggest to readers that the war is over. For Julian Assange, the secrecy promotes the meaning and gravity of the files, and the context of history loses meaning without the conspiracy that history is presumed to be.

In 1890, Ignatius Donnelly, a Minnesota Congressman, published a novel of pseudo-historical science fiction, Caesar’s Column, to promote his vision of a future doomed by the sickness of the present. Set in 1988, “rapacious business methods, the bribery of voters, the exploitation of workers and farmers by the plutocracy” bring about “a sadistic anti-utopia” whose capital is New York City, where the high bright lights disregard the old dichotomy of day or night.

The future of Ignatius Donnelly is no less cataclysmic than the intentions behind the hackers’ consortia which threaten to demobilize the corporate data-wave in defense of WikiLeaks. An online aggregate of e-protester anti-communities under the name “Anonymous” had indicated the vulnerabilities it is ready to exploit in the digital infrastructure of MasterCard and PayPal. Not unlike the Sedition Laws of the young United States, such cyber-sabotage asserts itself in support of the freedom of information. In turn, Apple Inc., an arkheion of technological lifestyle, subsequently dropped the WikiLeaks application from its iPhone, citing that it “violated our developer guidelines.” Each maneuver between those in favor of and those against WikiLeaks results in the withholding of info.

Populist Cartoon 1894“Democratic societies need a strong media,” Assange argues, because “the media helps keep government honest.” After Assange’s release from police custody in London, a result of sex crime charges, Judge Riddle ordered that Assange must reside, under surveillance, at Ellingham Hall, a Georgian mansion owned by Vaughan Smith, the founder of The Frontline Club, a society of journalists. Perhaps the Judge intended to punish Assange by imprisoning him in a domicile of newspeople.

There has been plenty of blowback against Assange, which he surely must have expected, and indeed might relish.  In this context, the “do nothing” policy offered at the Wiki-panel might serve the purpose of transcending revenge paradigms.  Assange’s alleged profile on OK Cupid, the hook-up website, has been leaked, as well as a continuum of legal documents regarding his rape investigation.
Solitary Confinement
Meanwhile, Assange is not the true whistleblower.  The documents posted on WikiLeaks were retrieved by Private First Class Bradley Manning (downloaded to CDs marked “Lady Gaga,” which serves the patterns of pop culture and secret information exemplified by the Watergate scandal voiced by “Deep Throat”).  Bradley Manning now languishes under 23-hour solitary confinement in a military prison, while Assange drinks tea and decks himself in British-spun raiment.  News coverage of Manning’s incarceration indicates that the case against the PFC is foundering.  A detailed breakdown of how Manning was able to access the secret documents is described here by the National Journal – essentially an indirect result of mismanaged intelligence overhauling by the U.S. government after 9/11.

The lifestyle of technology excites the hope that information is subject to its users rather than the users subject to it. The U.S. government has retorted that the information in the WikiLeaks documents itself is not of gravest consequence, but that the act of defying classified status is an act of espionage. The file means nothing without the technology by which it is coded. Populists fabricated the evidences of knowledge in fantastic novels and town square hamhock oratory. WikiLeaks bases its actions on the open record, kept secret less because of security, than because of power. The consequence is history.

The New Human

December 18, 2010

This past weekend, I was asked by a friend to moderate a discussion panel for “The Doomsday Film Festival” in Brooklyn, a day-long event of 1980s apocalypse movies and guest speakers.  The theater space fit about 30 people on foldout chairs.  The panel I moderated followed a screening of the movie Hardware (1990), which depicts the scavenging survivors of nuclear war menaced by self-regenerating robot killing machines. The movie provokes ideas about technology, Man, art and the future of the species, while providing an artful dose of psychedelic sex and gore.

The panel was an invigorated foursome of writers and academics, including Paul Schrader, a highly respected filmmaker and film scholar. I am a devoted fan of Paul Schrader’s movies and film writing, so to get a chance to be part of a discussion with the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and to have Sake and edamame beans with him before the talk, was something of a milestone. The other panelists, Steve Jones, Heather Urbanski, and Evan Calder-Williams, were highly-charged and imaginatively critical voices.  The talk moved swiftly from disaster movies to Luddites to the New Human. Schrader told an anecdote about a conversation with George Lucas in the 1970s about the future of movies and digital technology: “Soon we won’t need costume designers, make-up people, lighting…”   Between the panel discussion, and the bus tours I gave that day – where I moderated a panel of frantic tourists stuck in midtown holiday traffic and fearful of missing their train, Broadway show, etc. – it was a good day for the art of the public schpiel.

… To protest the villainization of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a computer hackers consortia called Anonymous hacked the websites of MasterCard and Paypal, where I have accounts. Maybe they will erase my balance as part of the sabotage. I would be psyched. But this act of Anonymous would be to destroy information in support of the freedom of information. The group calls itself Anonymous the way you call a fat guy Tiny.  Julian Assange was taken into custody over a sex crime charge, and the sensitive nature of the accusation correlates the insensitivity of questioning it as a conspiracy against Assange. There is precedent, and the U.S. is a vengeful personality. To bandy about the Espionage Act, as have some politicoes, is to resonate the old FBI, which calls to mind J. Edgar Hoover, another paranoid archivist of private files, and who often accused his enemies (interlopers of information) of sexually deviant behavior.

As Baby Boomers age, new proof is discovered to support the endurance of youth, as suggested in the following quote from tech theorist Nicholas Carr :

“The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. ‘The brain,’ according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.’”

Smoking PigThe signs are not so promising for the enlightened treatment of the digestive system. Sure, smoking is bad for you, but it is not a habit which fulfills a primitive appetite. The connection between drugs and brain response is complex, even though the idea that “smoking is bad” is quite simple. If anything, as the electric stimulation of society increases with the advents of technology, nicotine itself is a synapse inducer. It is just that smoking is not healthy – as is sometimes technology.

Eating is a primal habit. More than just appetite, you eat to live. So to conceive this new crop of “foodies” (a derivative of the Online Age) is really just to recognize a bunch of food snobs, who take something that everyone does and self-inaugurate a vacuous superiority. So when you see that the new trend is to put Bacon in everything, like Bacon Marmalade or Bacon ice cream, and it is accepted and devoured and purveyed through the discourse by urban bourgeois intelligentsia, it is not to witness the rudiments of the New Human, but to be reminded of some of the more depressing remnants of the Old.Foodie couple

Sex, too, is an appetite. You either have sex, or you auto-eroticize. People love to speculate upon the ambiguous sexuality of certain people, and say with a smarmy tone, “O, did he come out of the closet yet?” And so they mistake their ghostly”gaydar” for deep psychological insight. Sex drive is akin to hunger.  The stomach wants to get filled, as the balls want to empty. That is why priests are celibate, and monks fast, in belief that the inanely mystical abstention of the body will bring them closer to the baneful God which they have created for themselves so as to comprehend the absurdities of the human condition.  If you are horny and starved, you will have ecstatic visions of what Is the Void. “So is he gay or what?” Try to grab his wang and note the reaction.

Archivism

November 20, 2010

As a result of my Archives classes, it happens more and more that I find links and references and connections and suggestions to this field, no matter the subject, no matter the angle.  It would probably be the same if I studied medicine or business, or stenography.  In movies (from the B-movie docu-melodrama The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) or the David Mamet short internet video Lost Masterpieces of Pornography), in books, conversation, the newspaper, on TV.  When I moved this past summer, I viewed all my crap as an absolute organic archive that needed to be organized, indexed in boxes, and partly de-accessioned.  I am not so much an obsessive person, and didn’t grow up in an obsessive household, but I try make nods of justice to the things I spend time being interested in.

Couple weeks ago there was a big story in the NY Times about WikiLeaks, a rogue primary source website, which released over 300,000 classified documents about the Iraq War.  WikiLeaks is run by Julian Assange, who is posed in the news as a maverick, paranoid information scientist from Australia.  He looks like a character in the movie Inception.  The US government has condemned the leak, but claims the documents don’t report anything previously undisclosed.   Three months earlier, WikiLeaks let out 77,000 secret documents on the Afghan War.  As an archive student, this is about as close to the TV show 24 as the profession gets.  Julian Assange may not be Jack Baeur, but is he an archivist?

Assange has a certain amount of control over these documents, which he obtained through alleged contacts in the military and elsewhere, and then entered into an agreement with the Times, Der Spiegel and the London Guardian to publish the papers.  Assange had nothing to do with their original creation, but now claims them with a supreme authority, against the will of the U.S.

Assange recently spoke in Sweden with Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 outed 1,000 pages of  Pentagon documents with secret information about the Vietnam War. But Daniel Ellsberg was a political insider, an analyst for the RAND Corporation.  He was hired to do research on the war, collecting a body of documents, and make a report, the conclusions of which Congress ignored.  Julian Assange is a civilian with the pedigree of a computer hacker; he is a laymen agitator.  But he got the info before the news media did.  The Fourth Estate does not need yet another reminder of its decomposition, even in New York, the biggest newspaper city in the country.  History makes cataclysms, then repeats itself, like the river in the movie Deliverance.

Julian Assange is not without precedent, as neither are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Wars are conducted on grand scales by secret information, and the 20th century has been witness to both a geyser of awareness of human civil rights, and a staggering commitment of atrocities typically documented with painstaking archival detail. All in all, the average American is not so easily ticked off by the higher order of things, unless personal livelihood is going to be affected, either when the President goes “Socialist” on health care, or one’s relative is fighting in the war overseas.

. . . . New York, a port city, at the forward guard of civilization, urbane and smug, fiercely multi-ethnic, super-crowded, spewing wealth, is at an advancing stage of acting as its own curator.  San Francisco might have followed this sort of juncture of metropolitan self-awareness, but the technology industry has kept San Fran’s attention on the future, rather than the past. In The Social Network, that new Facebook movie, the money and the action is in Northern California, not New York, where old business paradigms are a stifle.

NYC, in the guise of curating its past, which thinks ahead to the uses of the future, also destroys it.  NYC established the Landmarks Preservation Commission in the late 1960s: it took 300 years for the city to recognize itself as a work of art, which is strange for a town so vainglorious.   And still, as social theorist and New York Intellectual Nathan Glazer says in From A Cause to a Style, “New York is not – not yet – a museum city,” that despite its low manufacturing base and high cost of living, its population increases each year (as does its volume of sightseeing tourists).

Every New Yorker has a moment when a favorite place closes for good. Sometimes I wish, as Chumley’s, McHale’s Pub, Carmine’s and Gino have lately disappeared, so would “Saturday Night Live.”

Gino, Lexington Avenue

Gino, Lexington Avenue, crowd, two days before closing

Charlie Sheen on the rampage at the Plaza isn’t exactly F. Scott and Zelda jumping into the Pomona fountain. And when people like Dick Miles, the table tennis champion, pass away, a piece of the city dies too.  And so I have been a tour guide for the last 6 years and am studying for work in Archives.

Dick Miles