Wikileaks etc: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes answered?

If I were an optimist I would write the following:

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates is asked  “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – who will watch the watchers and ensure the morality of those who govern? It is a question that has pervaded the construction (and dissolution) of governance mechanisms since, notably through the separation of powers between different arms of government. Yet at its heart the question frames the paradox that emerges from this question of governance: how can we ascertain who is corruptible and who is not?

Such questions have long remained sequestered to the realm of academics and philosophers, while government and governance eschewed such existentialism and instead functioned on varying notions of power and influence and the pragmatic realities they permitted. And so evolved the world from the time of Socrates to the not-so-distant past.

That all changed in the latter half of the 20th century with the advent of the Internet. Suddenly the massive information, and subsequently power, asymmetries that accrued to states were liable to be usurped. Governments’ inviolable hold on power and governance suddenly faced a purposeful challenger enabled by technology. For prior to the Internet’s arrival, the engagement of private or non-governmental actors in governance was largely defined by territory, and therein according to the legitimacy granted to these actors by the state. Very real limits existed related to the projection of ideas and the power of social movements. Where foundational change did occur, such as the 1960s civil rights movement or the earlier rise of nationalist movements for decolonization, it was largely a product of the convergence of mass civil protest and intra-class alliances, achieved over periods of years, if not decades.

Thereafter, however, technology has allowed for the democratization of participation in the processes of governance, and a dramatic shift in the temporal sequence of participation and change from years to seconds. In the mid-1990s the targets were primarily corporations: Home Depot, Nike, Nestle, DeBeers, Monsanto and others were all placed on the defensive and forced to substantially change elements of their supply chains thanks to the speed of communications technology and the subsequent ability that accrued to trans-national networks to mobilize action against these corporate actors. By the turn of the century, multilateral organizations such as the WTO and IMF were under fire from similarly networked communities.

And today, individual governments find themselves forced to think about accountability beyond the basic electoral kind as technology allows transparency to break through traditionally opaque processes. The most dramatic example of this new transparency is Wikileaks, the online site that since its inception in 2007 has published hundreds of thousands of classified documents in the hopes of exposing oppressive regimes and providing “assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations.”

Whether the release of such documents is constructive is the subject of much debate. What is not, however, is that it represents a significant enablement of those who oppose the state, expedited by the increasingly visible limits of state power on extra-juridical spaces such as the Internet.  Other sites such as Influence Explorer and Sunlight Labs, both of which aim to make visible the sometimes corrupt nature of American political economy, are further examples of how the convergence of data and technology is enabling a new form of accountable-democracy.[i]

So as the world waits for the latest Wikileaks release of classified documents, one can’t help but wonder what this unprecedented level of transparency, albeit forced, means for the processes of government and governance around the world. For millennia, empires and leading states have risen and fallen relative to the competing states around them. Certainly, endogenous factors such as the competition for domestic power between opposing interest groups have contributed to the dialectic between rising and falling states in prior times, however never before have non-state actors been so powerful. Technology has enabled the creation of new spaces for territorially-fluid networks that seek to influence government and governance within and across borders. And in doing so, technology has enabled the tools that might allow us to answer the question posed to Socrates so long ago, and in a manner that aggregates breadth of participation to overcome the risk of corruption.

Who will watch the watchers? Why, we will.


[i] The question remains, however, if citizens want to participate in this reformed alternative.

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One Comment on “Wikileaks etc: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes answered?”

  1. Sean says:

    Interesting thoughts. The classic Leviathan state now has its powers checked by all of us “little brothers” constantly watching over it and fluidly responding to its actions.
    How governments actually respond to this is still an open question. Sure these great, decentralized disparate movements can coalesce around specific issues, but do the governments actually respond? The last major test case of this was in the lead-up to the current Iraq War. There you had crowds of over 100,000 protesting simultaneously in major US and UK cities, plus information already leaking out which were undermining the ostensible rationale behind the war. Despite all this, both of these governments went full steam ahead into the conflict. While I see some interesting developments, I am still skeptical about the power civil society has to directly change central public policies.
    Which leads me to the Wikileaks side of things. Here there are some tools available that strike directly at the information and control structures that governments use to govern and it seems to be having an impact. However, I will note a bit of a caution here… Wikileaks and similar tools have landed a few pretty hard blows on “government” as a concept, but we haven’t seen governments hit back yet. The power of the state to whip up unquestioning nationalist fervor is still strong and we are only just seeing how that looks in practice. The first inklings are coming out of Russia (the still ambiguous digital attacks on Estonia) and China (anti-Japanese demonstrations of 2005, and periodic subsequent attacks) but we haven’t really begun to see how states will function when they learn how to use these tools.
    Yes, there is great potential to retool the state in a more conversational, democratic and accountable direction but its still quite up-in-the-air as to if the digital direct democracy will look more like Jefferson or the Jacobins.


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