Friday, October 29, 2010

Wikileaks and the Affectivity of Openness

In the span of just over six months in the spring, summer, and fall of 2010, WikiLeaks has made headlines in national and international news sources with three different releases documenting ethically problematic practices in the ongoing US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On April 5, WikiLeaks released edited and unedited documentary videos of “a classified US military video depicting three airstrikes from a US Apache helicopter on July 12, 2007 in New Baghdad, Iraq.” On July 25, they released the “Afghan War Diary, 2004-2010,” “an extraordinary compendium of over 91,000 reports covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010.” And on October 22, WikiLeaks released nearly 400,000 additional reports from Iraq, detailing in the Iraq War Logs evidence of previously unreported incidents of torture and tens of thousands of additional unacknowledged civilian deaths.

Each of these releases has garnered WikiLeaks an extraordinary amount of attention, both positive and negative, in print, televisual, and networked news media. WikiLeaks has both been lauded for making available audiovisual and textual evidence of atrocities perpetrated in the conduct of the war and been accused of taking information out of context and of making available confidential information that could further endanger US military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as inflaming anti-American sentiment in ways that could increase the risks of terror attacks on US soil. Almost all of the discussion surrounding WikiLeaks, however, has focused on the question of media content, on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of releasing confidential information to the global media public. I want to pursue a different tack, however, by taking up the formal and affective qualities of these releases, particularly the way in which they function to foster what I would call an affectivity of openness. WikiLeaks works as much by modulating collective affect, or structures of feeling as it does by providing people with information or content about the war that they did not otherwise possess.

WikiLeaks’ mobilization of the affective sociality of militarism, video, and gaming is one way in which it participates in the politics of everyday affects. The release of 92,000 military field reports from Afghanistan and another 391,832 from Iraq is another form of mediality which provides the affective links to accepting the war as part of our screen-based environment. In both the Afghanistan and the Iraq releases US military and political figures simultaneously insisted both that there was very little "news" in the WikiLeaks releases and that these releases have endangered the lives of American military and other citizens in Iraq, Afghanistan, and across the world. How can both of these perspectives be true? One way to approach this contradiction is to look at the way in which the Afghan War Diaries and the Iraq War Logs deploy socially networked media for the mobilization of collective affect.

Word of these leaks first came to me, as to large numbers of people, through social media like Facebook or Twitter, through email updates from political sites like Huffington Post, Politico, or Daily Koz, or through the increasingly socially networked cable news networks. In our current premediated moment, such "news" operates largely through anticipation. Reading a tweet or a shared link on Facebook or an email alert from our political blogs produces in the socially networked media user the affective state of anticipation that fuels our social networks and mobilizes collective affect. Although the Afghan and Iraq releases report on the recent past, the mode in which they have been circulated by WikiLeaks produces an anticipatory readiness, a bodily and perceptual orientation towards the future--perhaps first to an intermediary site like the New York Times or Huffington Post and then to WikiLeaks itself. These tweets and their accompanying links would then be retweeted or shared on Facebook, be picked up by RSS feeds, simultaneously producing the technical and social anticipation of further responses and social media sharing.

Such circulating texts are not just about sharing information but operate affectively as well, not only through being read but also through their premediated formats--indeed often not through reading them but simply through scrolling or scanning or downloading them or just knowing they will be available in the future. The materiality of the screens of mediated texts, and the variety of options provided by Wikileaks—which consisted in the case of the Afghanistan Diaries of “HTML (web), CSV (comma-separated values) and SQL (database) formats, and was rendered into KML (Keyhole Markup Language) mapping data that can be used with Google Earth"—produce and intensify an affectivity of anticipation for the experience of a variety of embodied and technical formats.

In the hours leading up to the formal release of the Iraq War Logs, WikiLeaks tried to orchestrate this anticipation through its Twitter feed, both premediating the upcoming release and then tweeting with links the publication of these leaks in major news sources like The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, Al Jazeera, Swedish TV, and the New York Times. On its site, WikiLeaks describes the significance and magnitude of its action in releasing the Iraq Web Logs in the following self-aggrandizing terms:
"At 5pm EST Friday 22nd October 2010 WikiLeaks released the largest classified military leak in history. The 391,832 reports ('The Iraq War Logs'), document the war and occupation in Iraq, from 1st January 2004 to 31st December 2009 (except for the months of May 2004 and March 2009) as told by soldiers in the United States Army. Each is a 'SIGACT' or Significant Action in the war. They detail events as seen and heard by the US military troops on the ground in Iraq and are the first real glimpse into the secret history of the war that the United States government has been privy to throughout.
"The reports detail 109,032 deaths in Iraq, comprised of 66,081 'civilians'; 23,984 'enemy' (those labeled as insurgents); 15,196 'host nation' (Iraqi government forces) and 3,771 'friendly' (coalition forces). The majority of the deaths (66,000, over 60%) of these are civilian deaths. That is 31 civilians dying every day during the six year period. For comparison, the 'Afghan War Diaries', previously released by WikiLeaks, covering the same period, detail the deaths of some 20,000 people. Iraq during the same period, was five times as lethal with equivallent population size."

Wikipedia offers two different ways to access the documents, each of which works to intensify an affectivity. “Diary Dig” allows visitors to the site to browse and search the reports for key terms or dates or locations, bringing up long lists of reports which match the terms entered into the site's search engine. And “War Logs,” which allows them to browse and comment on the various sigact reports, uses participatory media techniques like tagging, favoriting, and sharing to encourage the wisdom of the crowd to deploy affective or cognitive labor to give shape to the mass of date presented on the site. As an incentive to help tag and thereby provide some kind of order to the nearly 400,000 reports, WikiLeaks has created a kind of War Logs competition, a list of high scores of people who have favorited the most sites. Both modes of interacting with the site work to emphasize and reinforce the feeling of participating in a process of openness that is WikiLeaks' "raison d'ĂȘtre."

In calling attention to the way in which the premediated materiality of the Iraq War Logs mobilize and intensify individual and collective affectivities of openness, I do not mean to minimize the political importance of the leak in making evident, open, or "transparent" (in WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's term) the conduct of the US-led War in Afghanistan. Rather I mean to try to explain this importance in a different way, as resulting less from the specifics of the new revelations contained in the Diary than from the mode in which the anticipation of reading these revelations was circulated and intensified by our print, televisual, and socially networked media and fulfilled by the documents' availability on the WikiLeaks site.

Organizations like WikiLeaks, as well as many “open government” organizations and software design projects, do extremely important work both in making the content of government transparent and, arguably more importantly, designing software that will allow the networked public to monitor the statements, policies, and actions of powerful governmental, media, and non-governmental organizations. What I have been calling attention to here is another, often neglected, element of these open government and open software movements—the way in which they produce, mobilize, and intensify an affectivity of openness among global netizens that operates according to different temporalities and media logics, some of which work almost independently (or even against) the development of open software or government platforms. To understand the efficacy of our print, televisual, and networked media in an era of premediation and social networking, we need to attend not only to the content of the messages circulated by these media but to their affectivity and mediality as well.

1 comment:

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