Liquid Information Leaks

Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey

International Journal of Communication

Publication Date: 2014


The notion that “information wants to be free” has long been a mantra for much of Silicon Valley and the digital technology world. This slogan captures the belief that, as in formation technologies become cheaper and more accessible, those trying to limit and control the flow of information will find those efforts increasingly difficult, and, instead, information will resist impediment, restriction, and obstruction. High - profil e information breaches — such as those associated with Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks organization and Edward Snowden — that used the Web to leak large quantities of government documents, at least on the surface, seem to confirm this sentiment. How will government s and other institutions react to an environment where information proves increasingly difficult to control? Can they continue to operate in largely the same manner as they have prior to the Internet, or must they undergo substantial transformations in ord er to retain their power and legitimacy?

While these questions are highly speculative, the issues at stake are of such gravity that they merit considerable reflection. We make one attempt at this here, arguing that these global information - leak scandals ca n be productively understood through the framework developed by Zygmunt Bauman (2000) in Liquid Modernity , where he argues that Late Modernity is characterized by a trend of increasing liquidity. As an extension of this theory, we argue that as information becomes increasingly liquid, it leaks . For this reason, an environment of liquidity is hostile to entrenched, secretive institutions — the sort that leakers and transparency activists tend to view as inherently corrupt. To undermine these institutions, high - profile Internet leakers engage in a tactic of enforced transparency , using networks to gather up the increasing abundance of leaks and further harnessing the environment of liquidity to make these leaks highly visible. We conclude that “cyber - anarchist” philosophy — which we argue best characterizes Assange and other transparency activists — rests on an interconnected set of ideological assumptions: Increased liquidity leads to greater transparency, which, in turn, leads to better behavior by institutional ac tors. Both Bauman and Assange anticipate what evidence now indicates: Institutions attempting to solidify against the growing torrent of liquidity face the prospect o f potentially being washed away.


PDF: Jurgenson-Rey-Liquid-Information-Leaks.pdf