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Weaponising Transparency

And you thought WikiLeaks was radical….

Enter the transparency grenade: Assemble, pull the pin, and BOOM! voice and data flows are sucked into this ARM powered ‘grenade’ that anonymously streams the information to a server “where it is mined for information”.

Specifically, “Email fragments, HTML pages, images and voice extracted from this data are then presented on an online, public map, shown at the location of the detonation.”

Apps are in development your garden variety smartphones (for those unwilling to lob a faux grenade at a meeting) that will carry the same functional payload. The immaterial explosion of the weapon’s ‘effect’ suggests destruction. Of what is the debate.

The framing of warfare and weaponry for transparency is anarchistic and provocative, but is also a reflection of the current networked terrain. Julian Oliver, the artist who created the grenade is quoted as saying “The volatility of information in networked, digital contexts itself frames a precedent for clamoring (and often unrealistic) attempts to contain it. One could even say it’s this desperate fear of the leak that produces images like my grenade, images that will continue to take violent forms in popular culture, journalism and presidential speeches in time.”

Oliver understands himself as a Critical Engineer (complete with manifesto) who exposes by exploit the influence of what is not readily known. There’s a great writeup of Oliver and his projects at we make money not art.

print your own reality “a pixel at a time”

At the massive Consumer Electronics Expo in Las Vegas, two notable technologies are vying for attention. Both are iterations of the 3D printing craze that continues to blur the divide between cyberspace and “reality”.

(Replicator Industries – Makerbot example)

Arneb Sen recently wrote on how life that crosses virtual and the physical boundaries raises new issues, and require fresh approaches in technology and culture. His piece mostly covers digital representations of physical things meshing into new interactions of human and computer, that change how we act, shop, and produce culture and technology – calling on Actor Network Theory to do so. Rather than digress into an agonising ANT critique, I just want to note that these 3D printers represent how the inverse of what Arneb sees coming has already arrived.

Rather than digital artefacts in the real world (i.e. augmented reality, geotagged objects, RFID Passports etc.) the ‘objects’ produced by 3D printers are physical artefacts from the digital world. And not just in the sense of they are born of CAD, but that they represent the network from whence they came – your digital world. They represent the simplest and most personal example yet of what Latour might describe as network actors. Looking at the simple plastic shape printed at your digital behest, Latour would first see it as “contained within itself with well-delineated edges and limits; [only to realise the] swarms of entities that seem to have been there all along but were not visible before and that appear in retrospect necessary for its sustenance.”

The two 3D printers on display for consumers to buy offer two very different models of production that poses open source against a traditional capitalism. Where the “makerbot” ships with thousands of designs and encourages an open community of sharing, its competitor the “Cube” offers apps for a price, one design at a time.

As homebrew designers mix, mangle and create various digital designs to be formed in plastic, and these capabilities increase, the politics involved highlight adversarial modes of producing not only objects, but the networks and societies behind them will come to the fore. Fancy the design of of a certain medical device? make one. Property law, which seems challenged enough in the purely digital world, will become increasingly murky in the blurred cyber-reality of replicators producing objects pixel by pixel. If these capabilities follow anything akin to Moore’s law, or even without such a trajectory still become as commonplace as the car, new ways of thinking about culture, technology and what ‘things’ are will be required indeed.

Participating in Transparency

The plenary panel of a recent Media, Communications and Democracy Conference revisited WikiLeaks, and I was honoured to sit next to two inquisitive thinkers on media and journalism to present some thoughts.

My paper gave a theoretical double take on the participatory transparency that wikileaks had, has, and may inspire in future. Too often political transparency is discussed in a spectrum strung between two poles (transparency v. secrecy – or even, less helpfully, v. ‘privacy’). The paper I gave attempts to act as a prism that refracts a spectrum of transparency across a multiplicity of iterative colours.

Thinking this way allows us to understand how each iteration de-forms to offer unique affordances through the constraints of medium and design with regards to its politics, transparency, and even radical democracy.

Where will this go? Recently, Anonymous claimed it will deploy radical participatory transparency as a weapon against drug lords, where institutional centers of power such as broadcast/print media and the state seem incapable of protecting citizens let alone providing a transparent account of failures of sovereign responsibilities.

WikiLeaks in Retrospective. Already?

In ten days, I’ll be part of a panel at the Media, Communication and Democracy: Global and National Environments Conference at RMIT discussing WikiLeaks. My paper is titled Vigilance to Vigilantes and back Again: Designing Radical Transparency in the Digital World.

Abstractly, From Wiki to Anon to Open leaks, the paper evaluates democratic benefits and harms afforded in the evolving designs to conclude that each iteration deforms ideal types of democracy, or pure transparency, to inform unique empirical instances and effects. WikiLeaks phases are evaluated against critical democratic positions of online democracy to conclude that although ‘affordance’ offers descriptive power in categorising online democracy, explanatory power is held in the conjunction of online democracy’s elements, available relationships and constituting design – an apparatus of new media that performs each ‘leak’ as a relational act of discipline.



The Economist’s News is Social

The Economist’s persuasive summary of the issues facing news and media spreads insights across 5 articles that investigate the modern ecology of news and is worth a quick review.

The first two articles remind readers that global news media is changing not dying, and changing differently around the world: print subscriptions are sharply up in BRIC countries; the basic advertising based revenue model brings a smaller fraction of cash to (subscription dependent) papers in Britain, Germany and Japan compared to (failing) counterparts in the United States; and pay walls, walled gardens and many other innovative money making schemes are afloat.

The last three articles link the digital changes brought to consumption, production and the sociality of news to forecast a return to what sounds like plurality. How liberal of them.

Generally, history remembers the printing press as the bastion of modern freedom, spreading new ideas across lands and forming nations against Kings. Oppressive religions and political regimes fell to printed bibles and pamphleteers. The Economist opines otherwise, calling on the ‘media gurus’ of New York City, including Jay Rosen, to point out that mass printing and distribution also broke the traditional social link of media that existed before the 19th Century. ‘Steam powered’ printing presses put broad-casting power in the hands of few. These few entered a grand bargain to bring the greatest audience possible to their advertisers with ‘objective’ news that had broad appeal vs. narrow political interest. Thus spoke Economist.

Adam Smith’s friends skip the effects on power and control as the opinionated, partisan and polarized were relegated from The Story to the literal margins of the page in ‘op-ed’ columns. In place of overtly political knowledge, a new system of control through mass media was born. The fallacy of an objectivity consensus, or the control in determining which knowledge system is portrayed (as objective, rational or true) is well documented. We do not need to turn to Chomsky (video!) or Derrida to remember ‘the media’s’ treatment of WMDs in Iraq.

Obviating objectivity, new (social) media return the social graph to the forefront of social impact. Friends are who tell you what’s important and why. The Economist figures digital distribution and the related decentralized production of media, flow in social networks – much as they did before the industrial age invented mass media. So before terms like neo-plurality or post-neutrality are bandied about to describe socially connected discursive news communities, we should remember the opinionated, partisan and polarized coffee houses, whisper campaigns and town criers of old. (Not to mention, the 18th Century viral political media networks, the 16th Century ‘friend books’, and the Roman elites sharing letters that were all examples of socially sharing news and enacting social political relationships).

Finally, to replace the trust that objectivity offers for knowledge, The Economist points to transparency.  “Transparency is the new Objectivity” to quote Weinberger. Laying bare motivations, affiliations and biases while holding reporting to accuracy and intellectual honesty opens a new dialogue, and a much sharper discourse than a position-less telling of objective facts that allows no conclusions. Or responsibility.

How far to take this idea of transparency is the battle that can be seen being waged by mass media producers and groups such as WikiLeaks as well as other less anarchistic media organizations. NGOs, internet communities, for profit companies and your twitter friends, are all players in the ecology of a socially built plurality in media.

Whether The Economist’s market ever clears and social plurality reigns, is a contentious and liberal hope counterweighted by ever new schemes of control that creep from the networks. But hey, at least it will be our friends telling us so.