Power in the olden days was constituted by those who had the ability to muster means to make people comply to their wishes. The ability to hold life and death in one's hands, i.e. military might, was power. The acquisition of military power, in turn, meant being able to organise society in ways so as to extract economic surplus to fund war machines, which can then be deployed to engage in wars of expansion and the amassing of more wealth to fortify power-holders.
Naked displays of power are still apparent today. However, overt displays of violence and coercive force are now frowned upon, unless you are the preponderant hegemon (the United States). It is perhaps no accident that Julian Assange and the entire motive force animating Wikileaks have targetted the US in their 'exposes'. The 'US' is not so much a territorial entity here as an ideational construct representing who and how power is wielded in the world. Since entities such as Wikileaks cannot contest the 'US' in terms of the old definition of power, they find ways to diminish newer ways in which power is exercised today.
Military might still matters, but its successful deployment rests on other structural capabilities. Sheer force has not uprooted terrorist networks. The most sophisticated combat technology has not won the Afghan front. In the 21st century, most citizens will not tolerate being made to comply at a gunpoint. In time, power has come to rest on holders' ability to penetrate the lives of the governed and to convince them of the existing holders' legitimacy.
Compliance is won through the production of knowledge and the ways in which this
shapes the governed's behaviour. The struggle to win people's assent rests on shaping how people think about authority. The fourth estate then becomes a battle ground of sorts, where competing factions attempt to influence producers and gatekeepers of information.
Today technology has made it possible to decentre the production and distribution of knowledge. Some of the old gatekeepers have closed shop as the world prepares to make way for new means for information to reach its intended audience. It is not the content of Wikileak's dispatches that matters, it is the concept of Wikileaks itself. Commenters have called this the first global 'infowar', a war of information. At stake, first and foremost, is control. Old media - newspapers, radio, television - have been struggling to keep market shares in competition with the internet. Today it is not unusual to claim that one no longer watches television. For those of us with the luxury of access, the internet is king.
Wikileaks has thrown power-holders for a loop. It has shown that information, in this day and age, can be likened to water. No matter how tightly we screw on the lid, or how carefully we seal the cracks, information will leak. The idea itself may not be novel. There have been whistle blowers before. What is new are the players and the terrain in which this phenomenon has unfolded. It is an infowar of a truly global scope. How many hundreds of mirror sites have sprouted in the past few days? The 'soldiers' are the computer-savvy of many nations who hold no allegiance to flags - only a shared set of values - whatever they may be.
The struggle to plug the leaks has meant coercing other 'territorial' players like PayPal and banks. Julian Assange has recently surrendered himself to the British police. Wikileaks may be under intense pressure, and the sheer might of the 'US' will probably manage to bring it down one way or another. But this event has happened, the first global skirmish in the struggle to control information, i.e. power. It cannot be unheard or unseen. It is now in the collective memory of the global public.
Wikileaks has shown that it can be done - that the secrets of those to whom we entrust the power to govern - can be divulged in such a scale. Has this 'diluted' the authority or legitimacy of our governments? Perhaps not. Are we necessarily surprised by the information revealed to us? Perhaps not. We probably already know some of these things, the conspiracy theorist in us has always wondered. What matters is not that we have lifted the veil of ignorance to actually 'see'. What matters is that Wikileaks has shown that it can be done. The organisation has targetted not only the mightiest conventional power, but perhaps the preponderant technological power as well. The US military-industrial-scientific complex created the internet. It was designed to survive a nuclear holocaust. Cyberspace is as vast as fibre optic cables and data havens will allow.
In the past decade, power-holders have been successful in colonising the internet for commercial purposes. Now, if they are to maintain power, they must find ways to control it. There have been attempts in the past to 'regulate' the internet. The likes of Julian Assange now assure that the clamp-down will now sit on top of the agenda. The question is, for those of us who share, in varying degrees, the same values and principles animating Wikileaks, how do we respond?