Some interesting articles tonight. Firstly, from LabourList, we have Simon Wright saying how the Lib Dems may be coming of age:
I certainly believe this is the end of the LibDem magic, that ability to be all-things-to-all-people. I certainly hope it means the incoherence of some of their positions is finally exposed and their failure to stick to a policy will become a very public habit. However, I fear that it might come to be seen as the period when the LibDems started to grow up. The trauma of this experience could give them the resolve not to ever let it happen again. They might learn that people respect parties that can take difficult decisions. There is a long time ahead for this coaliton government – incredibly there are still four and half years planned – and few other topics on which the LibDems are so vulnerable. Our laughing at their current difficulties could seem a bit hollow if they turn out to be teething troubles on the way to becoming a grown-up political party.
Second, we have a lovely piece of traditional logging-the-web from John Naughton, picking up on a piece from Luis de Miranda, where the protocol-riven worlds of diplomacy and the Internet are compared and contrasted:
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.
As de Miranda goes on to point out (the bold is mine):
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.
In this sense, what is happening to the Internet and what it is happening to the Lib Dems are parallel and perhaps mutually informing processes. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Coalition experience should be forcing the latter to grow up as Wright suggests, as Paul bemoans and as I observe … just at the very same time that WikiLeaks consecrates the coming of age of the Internet. For we realise that what we are dealing with is a private space of public use. And just like Liverpool One in the real world, such worlds are not happy places at heart. As Der Spiegel points out:
The different reactions from Internet firms to the WikiLeaks publications reveal a dilemma. Many citizens regard the Internet as a public space, but in fact it is a private sphere. And the companies that control almost all the forums on the Web can, if in doubt, exercise their rights of ownership and ban who they like.
The extent to which citizens are free on the Internet depends on whether these companies want to get into conflict with the state or other firms, for example copyright holders.
They have to work out, on their behalf, how far the right to free speech goes, and when it infringes upon other rights, for example personal or author rights.
There is a saying “pick your battles.” Well, Internet giants Amazon and PayPal have clearly decided not to join the fight for WikiLeaks. They are avoiding conflict and have thrown out the activists by pointing to their terms and conditions. They have the right to do so. Companies should be allowed to be cowards, if the risk seems too high for them.
That risk could be a general threat from the US political establishment — or the fury of US customers, who regard WikiLeaks as a platform for state treason. Such rage could hit the company a lot harder than the revolt by those activists now calling for a boycott of Amazon and PayPal.
And as it then proceeds to add:
Yet these calls for a boycott should be welcomed. They could show the companies that the situation is actually the exact opposite to what they had assumed: that perhaps they have been wrong in their appraisal of the reaction to WikiLeaks and have actually annoyed more customers than expected with the block. Then perhaps the next time they will do things differently.
The underlying issue does, however, remain the same. Private spaces of public use are uncomfortable places to be. As OldTrot tweeted to me the other day:
@eiohel The Social Web is a carefully fostered illusion. Twitter is a private money-making venture. Tweets & trends are traceable & filtered
@eiohel the open forum is as old as Democracy itself, but the Market monetises, corrupts, and yes sells it. Free speech commodified
So it is we discover – through the implosion that is caused by both WikiLeaks and the Lib Dems – that our 21st century world is not honest, sincere or progressive in the least.
Not in its form anyhow.
The most we can hope for – if everything remains the same (if, that is, we are left at the mercy of those who design and write the code) – is a cuddly kind of content that likes to pretend it loves our every being.
But when it comes to creating the protocols … we are at the mercy of those who create. And if we do not create them ourselves – or, at least learn how to regularly deconstruct them – then we are lost.
Perhaps it’s time we all become hackers. As de Miranda’s piece makes only too plain:
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.
And as he concludes:
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.
Perhaps, then, in the light of all the above, we could see the Lib Dems as the hackers of British politics. They could be – in some curious way – reverse-engineering our political code, even if not consciously, even if not intentionally. We’re not quite sure – at least not all of us – that this isn’t being done for entirely undemocratic purposes. But a small chance still exists – a chink of light coming through the political DNA that might, even so, end up being rebuilt – that perhaps some good will come out of all this pain.
As with WikiLeaks, however, and all those gloriously private spaces of public use we have come to so enjoy … from Amazon to Facebook, from blogging to video streaming … well, it is still utterly unclear if the gain will make the pain worthwhile.
See what I mean? We can learn a lot from analysing the virtual world.
Especially when the real world begins to become outrageously indistinguishable from it. Or, alternatively, our thought processes begin to mimic those of the glorious hackers of old to such a degree that absolutely everything becomes reducible to the building blocks of fabulous code.