The human being is an animal of protocol. Our behaviors – whether consciously or not – obey codes. Until just recently, protocol was an instrument of hegemonic power. The more one mastered the rules and their construction, the more one controlled the population. The writing and policing of protocols were the privilege of the dominant elites.
Today, the Internet is the site through which humanity is in the process of realizing that freedom occurs by the collective reclamation of the construction and reinvention of protocols. Wikileaks’ name will remain one of the milestones of this democratization. In the word Wikileaks, leaks is important: it is thanks to the leaks that the decision-making circles which once appeared solid as rock liquefy and lose their magnificence. But wiki is just as significant: it means that everyone and anyone may contribute to this active demystification of protocols.
What do the Internet and diplomatic circles have in common? They are two worlds governed by very strict protocols, but in opposite ways. Diplomatic rigor is a surface varnish which enables every sort of hypocrisy, low blow and betrayal underneath. Protocol is a stage set, while the action remains in the shadow. The Internet’s rigor, to the contrary, is located in all that one does not see: in its source codes, in its universal standards for program writing and data treatment (for example, on the Internet, RFC standards, TCP/IP or HTML). What is immediately visible on the Net is a joyous chaos, turpitude, freedom of expression, all the manifestations of the human kaleidoscope. We have long been more or less familiar with the codes which govern the more or less muted life of embassies, those more or less tacit rules of etiquette, precedence and relations between states and their emissaries. We are less familiar with the recent operating logic of digital technology.
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Wikileaks is the product of hacker culture. A hacker is not some pimply miscreant who provokes the Third World war by fiddling around with computers. A hacker is an actor in the real: his practice is based on “reverse-engineering,” or retroconception. Which is to say? It’s a matter of deconstructing the programs, the rules or the protocols constructed by groups with a monopolistic purpose in order to understand how they are engineered at the source, in order to modify them and become an actor with one’s own communication instruments, if possible, in open-source, that is, in conformity with the spirit of free software, modifiable by all those who take the trouble to learn the protocols’ digital logic. However, hackers don’t limit this modus operandi to digital programs: by dint of spending most of their time on the Internet, the younger generations have by now totally absorbed algorithm. They know the extent to which our worldly protocols, our political and social rules, our behavior, our tastes, our beliefs and our identities have been constructed and are instruments of control.
The diplomatic world, the world of the rulers, is certainly not sacred. Many people have repeated in their analyses: the Wikileaks leaks are not very surprising in their content. But let us not forget that “the medium is the message,” according to Marshall McLuhan’s famous and still-illuminating formula. The power of the historic event underway, of which Wikileaks is a particularly potent manifestation, resides in its form rather than its content. This event is called numerism. To wit, the global codification of our representations into binary electronic sequences is a new universal DNA. This numerism, through a contrast effect, brings evermore to light a complementary human tendency: crealism, that is, the will to make oneself autonomous, to freely eschew automatisms, all the while taking in hand a democratic re-creation of protocols. In English, that’s called empowerment; in classical French, capacitation.
Confronted with this double logic, the old elitist analogue worlds of doubletalk and bluff – notably, those of politics and diplomatic institutions – cannot but be rattled. The message Wikileaks, among others, is sending to those who rule is the following: At present, you may resort to digital logic to organize the world and control the masses; know that, like you, the masses shall be able to access – like you – this universal protocol to divert or unmask its uses for hegemonic ends. This democratization seems inevitable, unless all those who know computer programming are to be put in jail, a temptation some leaders, including in France, seem to be itching to succumb to.
Who rules by the code, will fall by the code. Those who mean to control the masses through biometrics and electronic control must expect to see these digital protocols backfire thanks to the vigilance of some – provided the Internet and the press remain free. A freedom must not be technical only, but critical and constructive. Let us, along with Orwell, never forget that numerism alone, in the absence of collective crealism, will not lead to more and more democracy, but only to the best of all worlds.
Translated by Truthout’s literary editor, French translator and sometime book reviewer, Leslie Thatcher.