26 July 2010

No stone unturned.

During the Vietnam War, it became increasingly evident that television had changed the war. Not only did television speed up the home front's access to information about the war, but it also brought it vividly into everyone's evening news. Unlike the newsreels of World War II that were highlight clips available in movie theaters, the news reports from Vietnam showed reporters in the midst of firefights; the chaos of the war entered the living room.

Compared to nightly news reports, newsreel footage is quaint, sterile, distant, and downright naive:

In the decade and a half between the fall of Saigon and the opening of Gulf War I, the government and the televised news media learned some important lessons. For the government's part, they learned they had to control the message, so they released footage of "smart bombs" and held press conferences explaining exactly what was happening (or at least what they said was happening), and that information was dutifully lapped up and disseminated by the various news organizations.

News organizations, in particular CNN, had learned that war was not an event to be reported but a bankable commodity to be exploited. War coverage could be branded and developed: panels of experts could convene, pre-packaged pros and cons could be aired as if they were open debate, and occasionally an overview of the war, complete with military supplied footage and analysis, could occur. CNN saw the war as an incredible visibility boost, and of course marketed their coverage and references to their coverage to convince viewers that they were a reliable source for information:

More importantly, though, they branded the war. It became a show, complete with recognizable graphics and theme music:

But you don't have to take my word for it; you can read Baudrillard's excellent The Gulf War Did Not Take Place for a more lucid analysis of the media victory in the Gulf War I. While some illiterate morons believed Baudrillard was arguing that the Gulf War was a hoax (much like conspiracy theorists argue about the moon landing), Baudrillard's points consisted of a critique of the mediated nature of the event and whether the action actually satisfied the definition of war as opposed to massacre.

The advance of the First Gulf War was live 24 hour coverage and the development of stations devoted to nothing but news (which of course meant nothing but infotainment, since hard analysis doesn't sell and there's not enough news to fill 24 hours unless you repeat it, extend it, manipulate it, and turn it into an event). The advance of the Second Gulf War and the Afghanistan War (perhaps we could label both neatly as "Bush's Boondoggle" or "Middle East Adventurism") is the advent of the internet.

Digital recording has made (to use CNN's term) "iReporters" out of nearly everyone. Cheap cell phone images have fueled the cable channels' speculation shows, while higher quality hand held recording devices and widespread internet connectivity have allowed nearly anyone to produce and disseminate footage (and the accompanying phenomenon of "viral video" simply drives home the point that the production, dissemination, and consumption of images cannot be contained or controlled by the traditional media infrastructure).

Digitized material spreads beyond the control of its producer or its original broadcaster. Derrida argued that all text is "always already" beyond the control of its creator and especially so if it becomes public discourse (and you have to have a sense that Emily Dickinson understood that as well when she wrote that "publication is the auction of the mind"), and in the internet age the avenues of dissemination are simply multiplied and accelerated. They approach "real time," the "real" being more of a tease, a promise of revelation that often doesn't materialize or disappoints. Much like the CNN reporters of the 1990's (and present) who often stand around desperately trying to fill time in order to fulfill the promise of presence, the internet as entity promises everything -- unmediated access to information without respect to broadcast schedules, as well as an unfillable archive of everything that has ever happened.

Into this medium springs wikileaks, a site whose visibility depends upon its access to formerly secretive information; like most news sites, it's raw material is information, but unlike other news sites, it doesn't do anything with the raw material: it simply dumps it on the internet, making it freely available to anyone with an internet connection. Wikileaks represents the next watershed in the public relations of warfare, which is to say in warfare. Prior to the Vietnam War, the military and government could rely on a distance between the war zone and the home front; prior to the First Gulf War, the military and government could rely upon the dominant model of infotainment to spin their messages (and the embedded reporters of Gulf War II simply represented a tremendous advance, both in terms of control and in terms of PR victory, in the military's response to that model); however, the internet age represents a challenge that Lyotard first identified back in 1979 in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge: control of information will be the dominant field of warfare or interstate rivalry:
Knowledge in the form of an informational commodity indispensable to productive power is already, and will continue to be, a major --perhaps the major --stake in the worldwide competition for power. It is conceivable that the nation-states will one day fight for control of information, just as they battled in the past for control over territory, and afterwards for control over access to and exploitation of raw materials and cheap labor.
In other words, knowledge as commodity has always served traditional interests. Wikileaks represents a denial of knowledge as commodity, or at least in the traditional sense. However, the news outlets who have always made information their stock in trade will find no real challenge from wikileaks -- they have simply been given immense raw material with which to work; the real challenge is to the government and the military, who are now finding that just as battlefield television cameras brought their combat actions under intense scrutiny, wikileaks (and the internet in general) will now bring their internal discourse on war into the light and under the same intense scrutiny.


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