There is an old joke I’ve heard in many forms and configurations.  The gist of it is that a “mathematician”  ignores the simple solution to a problem but will go to elaborate lengths to “reduce it to a problem he has solved before.” So it is with journalists.  They reduce problems to ones they have solved before but with a new twist. So it has been with the Wikileaks story.  The story has been presented as an updated version of Daniel Ellsburg’s leaking of the Pentagon papers during the Vietnam war. Much of the conversation has been about charges of “treason”, the danger to  the American military (as if war wasn’t dangerous before),and the debate about the public’s right to know vs. the government’s need to conduct some of its business in secrecy. Wikileaks has released such a mountain of information that almost nobody will read it all and journalists and historians will mine the data for years. Neither terrorists nor foreign leaders will read it, neither warfare nor diplomacy will change much because of it, and the Republic will go on. Ideologues on all sides may cherry pick a little to support their causes and a few words may become soundbites but it will really tell us nothing new. We should have learned by now that governments lie, what diplomats think in private is different from what they say in public, much of international relations is corrupt and there is still a racist tinge to United States interaction with the non-white world. The only possible change is that secrecy will become tighter until new ways are found to leak information and the whole process will begin again.

Yet I also recognize that one of the forms of logical fallacy is to present two things as similar when they are really different. Lost in the popular media uproar about Julian Assange and Wikileaks has been what it tells us about information in the digital age. The important event to me is the leaking of the information in the digital age without the backing of the corporate news media.  The New York Times leaked the Pentagon papers, the Washington Post printed them and they were published by Bantam Press. In contrast the Wikileaks documents were released online by a small independent web site, picked up by the media to be fair, but also instantly available all over the internet. There have been subsequent cyber-attacks on the Wikileaks web site, it has had to move onto new servers and a cyber-war has ignited among hackers either supporting or attacking Wikileaks.  Assange’s and Wikileaks’ resources (bandwidth, servers, money and reputation) have been attacked by hackers, corporations and governments. Who knows if this has been at the instigation of the U.S. intelligence community, after all they keep it secret don’t they?

This emergence as a major player in the leaked documents game  by the small time Wikileaks operation has been made possible by the digital age. It represents the different paradigm of information that underlies the internet. It encompasses an old system where control of and limited access to information are power and money versus a new medium where free access to information is sought and valued.  We see this battle in everything from the attacks on Napster, digital rights management, protection of financial and credit card information, and encryption or passwords. It is clear that the old order cannot stand but it is not clear what will replace it. From the old order’s perspective it is only getting worse as new forms of internet distribution of media develop. There have been court battles and stopgap attempts to slow it down and regain control.  Things like Itunes, Netflix streaming, and ebooks from Amazon or Barnes and Noble are attempts to commercialize the transfer of media bits and bytes. The “illegal” sharing of media whether through bit torrents or grassroots circumvention of the law is the stock and trade of any tech savvy teenager.

The “old order” has argued that the circumvention of copyright laws will curtail the production of media because few will take the risk of investing if their work is “stolen” and disseminated by others. The truth has been just the opposite.  With digital production’s lowering of the initial barriers to break into media production many more independents (that is beyond corporate control) have entered the market.  They are distributing new media content all over the web from the imbecilic creations put on Youtube to new music, writing and art.

Wikileaks to me just represents the “independent” leaker as part of this new media distribution system. It’s threat is greater to corporate media distribution than it is to the U.S. government.

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