CableGate, Release Acts and the Pharmakon

"While world passengers are made to strip at US airports, US Security gets stripped on Wikileaks . Karma?"

Wikileaks [1] could be thought of as the 2010 Conceptual / Performance Art masterpiece: It reveals and mediates contradictions and tensions from nearly every angle one looks at it. And not just any contradictions, but the key ones for this unfolding century. Let us look at some of these issues in detail.

Freedom / Terrorism

Privacy and transparency

Most governments and corporation seems to have got it into their head that the more they can listen to, hear, follow, intercept,... communication the better off they will be. "If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear" is widely accepted. A british Member of Parliament was heard defending it recently. Laws such as the French Hadopi and the even more ominous Loppsi, the UK Debill, and similar legal manoeuvres in many other countries, attempt to open legal spaces for government agencies to place spy software on people's computers. And in the recent Cablegate scandal, it turns out that Hillary Clinton asked the US diplomats to spy on the United Nations officials [2]. Transparency with no privacy is ok then - as long as it does not apply to me. And so if the latest action by Wikileaks achieves anything, at the very least it has forced the hands of some very powerful players into taking a position against over-strong surveilance and total transparency, in favor of the right to secrecy. Wikileaks has forced each actor to express themselves clearly - through strong an visible (re)action on the world media scene. [3]

Not that full transparency is a logical possibility anyway. There are many reasons for this. The simplest one is that it would be impossible to see anything in a fully transparent world. Solidity is needed to reflect light. Less metaphorically, consider a game of chess, or a game of Go (Wei-Chi). When two grand masters are playing such a game, the only people who really deeply understand the moves are the grand masters themselves. In those games everything is open, and yet the most important things are hidden simultaneously. If this were not the case, then finding the secrets laws of the universe would have been a piece of cake: we would have just needed to look around us to see that the Earth is turning around the Sun.

Full transparency is impossible and Wikileaks clearly is not. It is an organisation that deals secretively with secrets that it partially releases. At present less than 1% of the cables from the US office have been released. What makes us believe that there are more is the incredible theatrics of the US reaction and world reaction to the Wikileaks threat to divulge more. But those could just be theatrics, hollywood style: unlikely perhaps, but it is always good to keep that in the back of our mind.


It is really interesting to see the Security debate evolve here. While anger has been mounting everywhere as airports are being equipped with more and more intrusive scanning equipment in order to prevent minute terrorists threats at the same time the seemingly most important US government papers are just taken off a few servers somewhere and posted for the world to see. What is the problem with this Security Theater [4]? While huge amount is being spent scanning people at airports, anyone with seriously bad intentions need only go through the Mexican border, and millions do... (business needs those mexican workers). There seems to be no relation in the US debate and elsewhere between action and real risk. So while people get scanned at airports for a risk that is less than being killed by a policeman, the largest document leak in US history occur on a monthly basis it seems.

Security has to be democratic and distributed or there is no security. It is clear for one that if the documents don't all get stored on a central server, then it won't be so easy to download all of them in one click. And perhaps making them available to 2 million people as the ex Prime Minister and current foreign minister of Australia pointed out recently [5], is not the best way to keep secrets either. In fact the problem may already lie in making so much information secret. It is well known that if there is not an established cost to making something secret, most people will prefer to make something secret out of prudence - better secret than sorry. But the pressure of the information network effect, means that information is more valuable the more it links up with other information, produced by other people, which of course means more people have to become privy to the "secret", which becomes less secret the more it extends. So the tension between politicians with a knee jerk security reaction that try to solve ever more problems by making them defence problems, as illustrated by Senator Joe Lieberman's immediate desire to introduce new legislation on the breaking of the Cable Gate incident making it illegal to identify the ever growing members of the US secret service [6], is in fundamental tension with the equal need to link information together to make it work well, as when it was discovered that 9/11 could have been averted if the different branches of the security services had communicated with one another.

But distributed security requires that everyone be part of the security debate, be educated in it and for it. This is the way the Swiss defence is built: a full citizen army available to respond at any time. If one does not think this far, then one can only make theatrical gestures that do nothing to solve the problems that really need solving. Education in an information economy is the central pillar of security - one could even say that security is nothing more than that. This does not mean going to security school (the army) necessarily. It can start by simple things, such as by making it very very very easy to make risk comparisons, by linking automatically from any news story to such risk assessment so that people all together have the information to make value judgements. It would also require getting people themselves to be more watchful about their servers, and their privacy, by for example starting to host their content themselves. In the end it requires trust and peer to peer security, which of course requires privacy, a government trusting its people, and the people trusting their government. That is a right not to be snooped on. When people have their own data on their servers issues of privacy and exposure will be part of everyone's life, and so education in the limits of transparency will be common sense.

Freedom of expression

"If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear", is the way trust issues have been currently framed. This of course is an argument to permit intrusion in all private discussions. Widespread low-level fear, enables a security discourse based on the notion of full transparency. States justify themselves to snoop into what people watch or say, by citing the homeopathically dosed terrorists. Publishers want access to everybody's hard drive to stop them from potentially copying their wares. But these same actors - be they governments, banks, or publishers - don't at all use the same reasoning when it is their communication that is intercepted. We should very very carefully document their arguments, because there are good arguments for privacy in communication - it is a key part of what is meant by freedom of expression! And it is in fact essential to the functioning of society.

But freedom of expression also means taking responsibility by those who publish for what they do publish. Publishing just as speaking is an act, and an action in a game with consequences. Once the context in which a document is published is understood (though this itself can perhaps never fully be understood as french philosopher Derrida points out) - is the person on stage for example or is he in front of court? - then the statement will fall in a certain language game, and have specific consequences. Not everything goes: a person on stage is also criticisable, but not the same way and for the same reasons a person in court is. Beware that applying rules in a global space is really not simple - as Assange must have discovered in his adventure in Sweden discussed below - and exceptions have to be made for particular circumstances, for the background of the players, for their history and the society they come from - if we are to allow space for individuality, and for creative undermining and resetting into question of the system, which is what allowed our civilisation to get as far as we have (Think of Keppler or Galileo)


In the meantime Ass-ange(l) - the Angel of full uncompromising transparency - is accused of something which the none-too-critical US media name rape, but whose actual technical term is "sex by surprise". It turns out that he is accused of not using a condom during consensual sex, at the moment of orgasm, by a woman who made those claims a lot later after having seemingly been quite happy of her encounter - jealousy might have played a part [7]. How could something like that ever even become a question for the law to decide? How indeed can it decide objectively such a situation, unless it placed cameras in every bedroom, and microphones under every pillow? Perhaps such a question never came up, because we all have been too much used to watching through keyholes, having thereby lost all shame and so all sense of privacy. Total transparency: only porn stars can succeed in such a world. Only porn stars can stop themselves from releasing sensitive stuff in such a moment of climax...

Speech/Release Acts

Perhaps we should go to the root of this - be radical - by turning to the philosophy of language, and more precisely speech act theory. Austin, and Searle after him pointed out that we cannot just analyse what is said in terms of truth or falsety, that there is no such thing as the "naked truth", but that we must consider the expression of a statement in terms of what type of action it is. Here the context in which something is said matters a great deal to what it means. "Blow up the airport" can be meant as a call to action, it can be quoted as I did here, it can be a line in a play, it can be a joke [8], it can be many things. If the listener does not take this context into consideration, then all communication breaks down -- it will not even be possible to defend oneself against possible threats, since doing that must involve imagining oneself in the shoes of an attacker for example. Freedom of expression is not just freedom of public expression, it is freedom of private and contextualised expression [9]. It is the freedom to create new contexts. It is the freedom to do diplomatic work quietly.

But if belief and knowledge form one aspect of action, let us not forget that the other essential aspect is desire. To release is to desire release, to act is to desire some consequences - even if often the most obvious consequences and long term consequences of a release seem to escape most actors. Protection can help but as we know, information can find it's ways through the smallest tears, from whence it sometimes acquires a life of its own. And so perhaps we should also learn to educate our information releasing desires, but also not be surprised that when one has done everything to make the desirable accessible it does get consumed.

One should therefore either learn not to release, or learn to be careful to what conclusions one comes when receiving that which is released. So when reading something that is said from a context of which one does not understand much, one should refrain from passing judgement. To educate everyone in this type of intellectual self discipline is not going to be easy to say the least. Most people automatically apply the values of their context to every other context, in part because it is very difficult if not impossible to see or recognise all contexts, in part because being able to do this would require being in control of one's subcontious as Derrida points out in "Limited Inc." [10] In other words: there just is a limit to one's self understanding. And so society has built up various warning signs and strategies to help people notice and take responsibility for possible and well documented consequences in engaging in certain desireable activities.


As Bernard Stiegler a student of Derrida and french Philosopher of Technology points out, the Pharmakon is a word that in ancient greece meant all of poison, cure and scapegoat [11]. This is the role in which Assange has placed himself, quite deliberately it seems. As a lightening-rod he has placed himself in a position between heaven and earth and allowed the full power of US rage to be channeled through him, making it visible for a flash of an instant to the whole globe and even to itself, and allowing us to see ourselves perhaps in it transformed. The action of making clear the power and force of the network, the making visible of the distinctions transparent/hidden/secret, centralised/distributed, public/private are each ways the network is suddenly felt as poison by those who thought they could control it. The arrest of Assange for a crime committed at the symbolic level - namely releasing without responsibility for possible consequences - put him in the position of the Scapegoat. Having accepted arrest, he is in the passage through the transforming cycle of redemption now - or is it we? At the exit the script will surely ask him to expiate his sins, to take on the responsibility of his action, in some form of marriage no doubt - the ultimate domesticating, responsibilising institution of man - where everyone can gather together around a table happily sharing bread and wine. I don't doubt Assange's acting skills will allow him to emerge from this ritual unharmed. He was adopted by his uncle, an actor as he was one year old [12].


Let us thank WikiLeaks for raising and opening the debate and for getting the governments to start arguing the case for privacy, in such a way as to have made millions of people interested in the issue. Let us help them make this argument from first principles by helping develop a philosophy of privacy and free speech, an architecture of peer to peer security, let us detail clearly the limits on state intervention and our intervention in other people's private lives, ... [13]


  1. A one hour documentary produced by Swedish television on Wikileaks, covering its history and the key character Assange is available in english here. By many accounts The Guardian is doing the best job analysing the cables and involving the public, in it's US Embassy Cables Section. This article was written without considering the data itself that much, but looking at the theater around the release.
  2. WikiLeaks: US diplomats 'have been spying on UN leadership
  3. It may have also revealed the role of US pressure groups in using diplomacy to help impose internet censorship laws in Europe as reported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in "Not-So-Gentle Persuasion: US Bullies Spain into Proposed Website Blocking Law"
  4. See for example this infographic by BoingBoing Odds of being a terrorism victim on a flight. Also see the Wikipedia Security Theater Article and the article by Bruce Schneier Full Body Scanners: What's Next?
  5. Kevin Rudd ex Prime Minister of Australia, current Foreign Minister said: "Rule No 1 for our friends in the United States is how do you tighten things up a bit? I think that's a fair old question. Maybe 2 million or so people having access to this stuff is a bit of a problem." reported by The Guardian Assange 'not responsible for security breaches' says Kevin Rudd. Time Magazine has a long article that explains how the US came to have so many people being given access to so many secrets in WikiLeaks' War on Secrecy: Truth's Consequences
  6. Wired reports on Dec 2 2010 that Lieberman Introduces Anti-WikiLeaks Legislation "making it a crime to publish information concerning the identity of a classified source or informant of an element of the intelligence community of the United States,or concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government if such publication is prejudicial to U.S. interests."
  7. The Daily Mail The Wikileaks sex files: How two one-night stands sparked a worldwide hunt for Julian Assange A more ominous view can be found in this lengthy article Assange Accuser Worked with US-Funded, CIA-Tied Anti-Castro Group.
  8. As reported by The Guardian Robin Hood Airport Twitter Arrest. Where airports go the attempt to arrive at the naked truth never seems far away: "Inverted Body Scanner Image Shows Naked Body In Full Living Color"
  9. Searle's recent book Making the Social World. I have also heard a lot of good of Helen Nissenbaum's Privacy in Context has been recommended to me a few times.
  10. Limited Inc. by Derrida is a very interesting set of articles where Derrida positions himself in relation to the work of the by then deceased J.L.Austin, author of "How to do Things with Words" and receives the fire of Searle, to which he replies with gusto. A very entertaining but difficult read, that opens a rich set of questions. One might wonder if Searle's notion of the background does not cover some of what Derrida places in the subconscious.
  11. A good explanation of the history of the Pharmakon word/concept
  12. See this CNN interview of Assange's Uncle.
    The other possibility is of course that he end up crucified and that at the foot of his cross two women could be found weeping. But let us hope that the past 2000 years of history will have inoculated the powers that be against taking such a rash action.
  13. For a full description of how to build such distributed secure networks see the audio presentation Philosophy and the Social Web given at the first Web and Philosophy Conference