War has broken out! So scream headlines on various websites and blogs. Bowing to pressure from the US, major credit card companies and Pay Pal stop allowing citizens to contribute to and support Wikileaks, leading to a massive cyber attack against those companies, even shutting down Mastercard’s on line system. Groups opposed to Wikileaks have struck back against the group “anonymous” who has been leading these attacks — as of this writing, if you click that link you’ll get an “account suspended” page. Wikileaks has also been removed from servers; four days ago I went there and read their self-promotion; now the site is off limits. You can still reach it, but only through round about means.
Watching all the scampering about in response to a large but relatively vanilla set of leaks, it occurs to me that this isn’t so much about the leaks themselves, but a generation of politicians and leaders who don’t quite understand the new world they now inhabit. Old methods of controlling information and responding to threats don’t work. This case is important less for its substance (it’s unlikely the leaks did much if any real harm to the US) and more for what it symbolizes. It demonstrates that the new cyber-world we’ve created doesn’t play by 20th Century rules. Technology may be rendering traditional politics obsolete, and at this point leaders don’t know how to respond.
It happened before. Before 1439, printing a book required extensive work to copy by hand the words, and bind them in a usually lavish form. Few people could afford books, Latin was the language in which most were written (though in the 14th century there started to be more vernacular literature — Dante’s Inferno, for example). The church controlled most of the books, and the flow of ideas across Europe or even cities was limited. Oral communication, including oral histories, was the standard way people shared ideas. That meant, of course, that disseminating ideas was difficult, and if you challenged authority you got noticed before too many people had latched on to the challenge.
In 1439 Johannes Gutenberg developed the first (western) printing press. Suddenly the mass production of books and pamphlets was possible; an information revolution began. Even after the printing press had been developed it took awhile before literacy to advance to the point that there was a public demand for the printed word. But by the 1500s ideas could spread quickly.
The Catholic Church learned what this meant the hard way. When the Pope decided that St. Peter’s basilica needed to be rebuilt to reflect the grandeur befitting the center of the Roman Catholic church, he allowed the printing press to be used to print off papal indulgences, giving people time off from purgatory. These could be in effect “sold” — given to people who donated to the new basilica. It worked, giving us the splendor we now find at the Vatican. Yet it also led to the decline of church power, as one Catholic monk, Martin Luther, appalled by what he saw as a practice which threatened peoples’ salvation, put together a list of 95 issues about church practices he thought should be questioned and discussed. He penned them in Latin, and nailed them to his university-church’s equivalent of the common bulletin board: a large church door.
He expected an academic debate. He got much more. Some of his friends translated the list into German, and used the printing press spread Luther’s complaints across German speaking lands. Soon a revolt was brewing, called the reformation. It wasn’t that suddenly people started to agree with Luther’s argument; rather, these ideas proved able to unite Germans already chaffing at following dictates from Rome. Luther’s complaint sparked a rebellion which led to over 100 years of instability and war, culminating in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. The treaty put forth a new political entity: the sovereign territorial state.
The Church was pushed from the pinnacle of power for good, the old medieval political system of decentralized and local authority was destroyed. An entire new political and cultural world was created, all because communication changed and ideas were able to be spread rapidly and with ease. The printing press allowed mass education, helped create modern nationalism, and made the industrial revolution and enlightenment possible. Propaganda, advertising, and even consumerism could not exist without the printing press. We live in era of the printing press, though that era may be giving way.
The internet and corresponding information technology could impact our political world with as much force and substance as the printing press did the medieval world. In other words, it could render current political structures and practices obsolete, forcing the entire system to transform. Like Gutenberg’s invention, it has allowed ideas and information to flow in a fundamentally different and more widespread manner. Information can be stored electronically and then publicized for the world to see. Such documents can’t be destroyed, do not suffer physical limits, and cross borders and continents with ease.
The modern Nation State may be the functional equivalent of the 16th Century Church. It dominates politics, and has considerable control over information available to its citizens. The state’s control over information allows it to maintain physical control of territory, holding a monopoly on the legitimate use of political violence. A state can go to war, but if non-state actors do so, it’s despicable terrorism.
Does this new technology threaten the sovereign state? Will the state find that the wide dissemination of diverse views and information previously unobtainable threatens its status? Will the politics of the Westphalian era, beginning in 1648, give way to a new era, one where sovereignty, territoriality and statehood no longer define the fundamentals of global politics? If so, what will the new world look like, and how violent/difficult will the transition be?
As the “cyberwars” over Wikileaks rage, this whole issue is symbolic of the “world in motion.” We live in a Wikileaks kind of world now, and no one is quite sure what that means for the future.