Consider Me the Wrench and Technological Revolutions: Political Change in the WikiLeaks Age

That big heading up there says “LobeLog. Foreign Policy. Jim Lobe & Friends” — a misnomer, I argued to Eli the other day, because, really, looking at the first page alone, it should be “LobeLog. Iran Policy. Jim Lobe’s Son-Graduates of the IPS Washington, D.C. Bureau.”

I’m not necessarily in the habit of lobbing construction tools, but consider me and my interjections of estrogen and non-Iran-related musings the wrench in this cyber mix.

So, how to begin this inaugural post? With the eponymous, of course: Jim Lobe.

“It’s all because of your damned Internet,” he told me yesterday. I can’t recall to what he was referring when he said this — no doubt he was lamenting the disappearance of some facet of a fast-going print age — but I suppose it could be anything, really.

He doesn’t tweet, doesn’t have a Facebook account (but he has seen the Social NetworkI haven’t even seen the Social Network) and he still cuts out, saves and uses actual, hard-copy newspaper clippings.

But even Jim, a self-professed technophobe, is indispensed to technological accoutrements.

He uses Skype to strategize with Eli in New York and to carp at the IPS editors based abroad. He watches live feeds of briefings held elsewhere so that he can openly mock the panelists from the comfort of his well-worn office chair — well, maybe that’s not why he follows webcasts, but it’s certainly a perk. And he has not one, but two desktop monitors.

The Frontline Club hosted a fascinating discussion this week with a few prominent members of the British mainstream media about the impact of WikiLeaks on journalism today (incidentally, I used two WikiLeaks cables in my latest article). Among the panel was Ian Katz of the Guardian, the newspaper which, as this new Vanity Fair piece shows, first consummated the media-WikiLeaks marriage.

A couple of weeks ago, the Council of Foreign Relations was asking the same question as the London group: Is this new technology changing how the news is made and communicated, and if so, how?

A few years ago, that question was being asked of Twitter and blogs. A couple decades ago, it was the Internet in general. Over half a century ago, it was television, and before that, radio.

In parallel paradigmatic debates, the questions circled around the economic, social and political effects of these information technologies (shout-out to UCSD! – and James Fowler and Dan Hallin, former professors).

I doubt that Jim is a technological determinist in the vein of Marshall McLuhan or Harrold Innis. It’s not all because of my, your, our, this damned Internet.

This damned Internet grew out of economic, social, political — in fact, military — needs, Lelia Green would argue. But now, does it create new ones? Chicken or egg?

I’ll leave the answers to the likes of Manuel Castells and the folks at Berkman, although social science’s favorite answer — and the easy way out — is often “both.”

Elizabeth Dickerson of Foreign Policy proposed yesterday that Tunisia might well be the first “WikiLeaks revolution.” She writes:

As in the recent so-called “Twitter Revolutions” in Moldova and Iran, there was clearly lots wrong with Tunisia before Julian Assange ever got hold of the diplomatic cables. Rather, WikiLeaks acted as a catalyst: both a trigger and a tool for political outcry.

For Clay Shirky, writing in the latest Foreign Affairs about technology, the public sphere and political change, it doesn’t matter whether or not technology is actually, definitively a trigger, just that it’s perceived to be:

Indeed, the best practical reason to think that social media can help bring political change is that both dissidents and governments think they can. All over the world, activists believe in the utility of these tools and take steps to use them accordingly. And the governments they contend with think social media tools are powerful, too, and are willing to harass, arrest, exile, or kill users in response.

Even before Anonymous, Cablegate, the War Logs and Hashtags, there was the EZLN and listservs, People Power and SMS.

This morning, I listened to Cote D’Ivoire’s president-elect Ouattara address a U.S. audience for the first time via teleconference at the Center for Strategic International Studies. Holed up in his UNOCI-protected stronghold in Abidjan, he said the Golf Hotel was “very nice.”

In between taking dutiful notes about Ouattara’s love for democracy (as a product of Western upbringing and education) and his vision for a democratic country — and continent — I followed breaking updates of his northern neighbor’s spiral into crisis here, here and here.

A sample, from Dima Khatib, Al-Jazeera correspondent:

CONFIRMED by Tunisians tweeting; STATE TV in Tunisian has been taken over by journalists calling for revolt #Sidibouzid
BREAKING: President Ben Ali just announced he is sacking his entire government.. Calls for early elections within 6 months #sidibouzid
Clashes are terrible on streets of capital Tunis RIGHT NOW. TERRIBLE.. #sidibouzid
RT @shadihamid RT @kotarski: RT @JawazSafar: are we watching a Military Coup? #Sidibouzid #Tunisia
#SidiBouzid #Tunisia Ben Ali has left the country but some of his family members are being arrested at airport while trying to flee
President of Tunisian Parliament takes over according to constitution which gives him 60 days till new elections #sidibouzid #tunisia
And then, at 12:24 PM EST:
Ladies and gentleman: THE TUNISIAN REGIME IS OFFICIALLY DOWN. #sidibouzid #tunisia

The revolution is live.

What’s next?… This damned technophile is on the edge of her keyboard.

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Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.

4 Comments

  1. I don’t recall ever seeing so many one-sentence paragraphs. This piece cries out for a good editor.

  2. I’d just like to add that, while I am a huge supporter of Wikileaks, the claim made by some that it is somehow responsible for the rising up of Tunisia seems a little simplistic (not that that is what the author here is saying). Tunisians surely didn’t need Wikileaks to tell them that life sucked under the dictator, they knew that already – events just seemed to reach a boiling point here, in part because of the economic hardships and general repression.

    What it did do, along with the new media, was to make US, as “westerners” more aware of the situation, and to see the cables written in black and white just simply confirmed to Tunisians the total cynicism of their government. If this had happened earlier, we could have put pressure on our media to direct their gaze over there to make the regime understand that it was under scrutiny, which would have possibly made change come about even earlier.

    Not that the USG is a great lover of democracy anyway, but still…

  3. Excellent addition to the “boys club”…

    It seems to me that a central part of the debate is whether new media can simply bring events closer to us more quickly, heightening awareness in real time without actually giving the tools to effect concrete change on the ground, or if it can actually be a motor for societal change – or a little of both (as the two aren’t mutually exclusive).

    It’s easy, as more and more sources of information flood our senses, to drown in all the myriad details without necessarily making any sense of it or providing analysis. So, it seems there needs to be some kind of balance.

    David Aaronovitch made some good points in the Frontline Club discussion linked to above, as to whether or not there is a need for a select group (“caste” of journalists) to sift through the cables and war logs, deciding what is relevant and finding the patterns amidst the vast swathes of information. It seems the original idea was to simply give the public access to everything and let it search through and discover what was important (thereby becoming “journalists” themselves, which is a good idea, very democratic) but the Assange eventually realized that most people just do not have the time or the interest to do that, hence the need for some organizations to structure it for public consumption. Aaronovitch’s claim that there is something inherently anti-democratic about that has some merit – at the same time, it seems necessary). So it is good that we, as a public, have access to the original unedited cables without the supporting discussion of them, and the structured presentations by the news organizations with the added discussion as well, giving us both options.

    This was smart on Assange’s part as well, as coordinating the releases with the Guardian protects him from attacks (questioning the “legality” of it all) by putting everyone essentially in the same boat, making it impossible to single him out.

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