WikiLeaks: Documents, Journalism and History

WikiLeaks und die Folgen, Die Hintergründe. Die Konsequenzen, Berlin 2011

Review with respect to Digital Humanities

The scenario could be that of a spy novel: Hackers publish hundreds of thousands of secret and confidential documents of the US and other governments. Who is going to evaluate and interpret all this information? What are the motives for this action? What are the consequences of the affair?

Suhrkamp published 2011 a collection of (preliminary) answers from different authors to these questions. This review highlights a selection of them in term of their importance for the Digital Humanities.

Jaron Lanier is considered the inventor of the concept of “virtual reality”. The activists of WikiLeaks act on an ideology, he thinks, according to which information in large quantities represent the truth: an increase in information makes the world more just. Lanier, however, is skeptical about whether this strategy actually helps to make things better. The “raid” of WikiLeaks primarily harms  institutions that are already largely transparent, closed systems are not affected, he says.

Geert Lovinck, Professor for Media Theory in Amsterdam is of the opinion, that a point has been reached, where quantity is transformed into quality. For him WikiLeaks symbolizes the transition into the information society. To that belongs the unclear status of this platform and its interface between supply, placement and interpretation of information. WikiLeaks anticipates the crowdsourcing, in which a group of players in a digital network takes over the evaluation and interpretation of the material. Should be noted that WikiLeaks delegated the analysis of the dispatches of the US Departement of State to US and European newspapers; an interesting special case of Charles Leadbeater’s Pro-Ameuter-Revolution; see my separate post about him.

Particularly interesting is the intervention of Mercedes Bunz, an “energetic and generally optimistic digital thinker” about digital technology & society, as she says on her Site. For her, journalism unlike politics is committed to the truth. This division of work is realigned with the digitization that automates the management of knowledge. Explosiv in the case of WikiLeaks was not the material, but the “act of publishing”.

“Source material” becomes “a special explosive power”, Bunz says, borrowing it from reality, knowledge and the material nature: Sources act as a relic, a testimony to a past reality. They “draw on the strength of authenticity”. That something really is, does not mean, that it is – or must be – true. “This gap of the real” is checked with knowledge. This is the way in which data become facts. In the case of sources, the authenticity of the material is testified. That makes sources to “strong, consistent witnesses”. All this puts them in the vicinity of truth, Bunz says.

What does this debate about WikiLeaks means for the Digital Humanities? I think it shows pretty much the dilemma in which historians are today: As “worker on the critical truth” they support public transparency; but journalists and amateurs more and more contest their competence to discover and publish documents (please see my separate post to Kiran Klaus Patel to that). Naturally, the interpretative work of classification into the historical context remains the task of historiography. But is questionable whether the old business model of the historians still has a chance in the future. Information is increasingly available anywhere, anytime. So we are moving more and more in(to) an era of constant presence. Time as a structuring element of history disappears – hence also the desire for big stories, meta-narratives, so to say ( see my separate post to Wolfgang Schmale ). What remains is the desire for good stories. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht relates to these in his exciting experiment about the feeling to be “In 1926” (see my post to him). As already announced in my post to Jacques Derrida, I will try to handle all this in an intervention about the future historiography.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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