Fillip 15 — Fall 2011

Smashing Windows with Windows: Transparency, Design, and WikiLeaks
Metahaven and Jeff Khonsary

In the winter of 2011, a white paper entitled “The WikiLeaks Threat” began 
to circulate on the Internet.1 The report, prepared by a team of network security firms led by Palantir Technologies for a presentation to Bank of America CEOs and leaked by the cyber-activist group Anonymous, provides an outline (in rather board terms) of the whistleblower Web site WikiLeaks’ personnel and its network infrastructure. Prefacing the paper’s discussion of “Potential Proactive Tactics” (basically a disinformation and cyber-espionage campaign targeting WikiLeaks and its editor-in-chief, “Julien” [sic] Assange), the document provides a speculative schematic map of the WikiLeaks’ organization: its staff, associates, and public supporters (often incorrectly labelled “volunteers”). One such “volunteer,” journalist and former constitutional law and civil rights litigator Glenn Greenwald, is particularly singled out in a dedicated slide that sketchily outlines his past support for WikiLeaks—a “level of support that needs to be disrupted.”

This poorly prepared and ethically questionable study was part of a larger coordinated effort to know (and subsequently undermine) WikiLeaks, which developed through various legal, financial, personal, and extrajudicial attacks and threats against the organization and its founder Julian Assange.2 
It is partially in contestation with this context that a new project by the Amsterdam-based design and research studio Metahaven developed: Axis of Reputation (2011) maps the “soft power relations” (rather than the exact jurisdictions and software architecture) of WikiLeaks though its interactions with various media, corporate, and governmental actors. This map is being distributed as a free newspaper in conjunction with this issue of Fillip (download file as 16meg JPEG). The work is part of Metahaven’s ongoing Transparency, Inc. project (2010–), 
a research effort investigating the image politics of transparency. Transparency, Inc. began through an attempt to outline the constantly fluctuating image economy of (and potential alternative visual representations for) WikiLeaks. It has since evolved with the aim of addressing the issue of transparency more generally.

What follows is a discussion with 
Metahaven founders Vinca Kruk and
Daniel van der Velden conducted September 2011. More information about the poster is available here.

Jeff Khonsary: I remember when you first told me about the Transparency Inc. project—it was last summer during Vinca’s residency at Motto Storefront in Vancouver. I had just watched Icelandic activist and parliament member Birgitta Jónsdóttir on Democracy Now! discussing her work with WikiLeaks on Collateral Murder, a video which shows the death of Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists at the hands of US Army helicopters in Baghdad in July, 2007.3

WikiLeaks clearly has precedents—perhaps most notably the partnerships created in an effort to release the documents that became known as the Pentagon Papers—yet forty some years after Daniel Ellsberg leaked the United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967 to the New York Times, Collateral Murder still feels quite radical. At the time of its release, it shifted the discourse dramatically. As a model, the WikiLeaks organization still feels quite new. How do WikiLeaks’ activities differ from a whole matrix of pro-transparency organizations currently operating worldwide?

Metahaven: The spectrum begins with pro-transparency and ends with anti-secrecy. Some organizations redesign government; others scrutinize and expose it. There are the “right to know” non-governmental organizations, which want more information disclosed to citizens in daily life so that they can make better-informed decisions—for example, these warning signs you find on buildings stating that they contain certain chemical agents or the increasing amount of informative messages on food. It’s transparency, but more like a legal disclaimer aimed at mitigating culpability. There are the think tanks that promote and design citizen political participation and “open government.” There are watchdog organizations that monitor corruption and censorship, like Transparency International and Index on Censorship, and those that monitor human rights abuses, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Civil liberties organizations defend the rights of citizens under democratic, rather than authoritarian, regimes. There is the media—once considered a true “fourth estate”—a (theoretically) independent check on power, for which WikiLeaks constitutes an enormous challenge; in fact, no less than for the governments that it cracks open. There are whistleblowers—not exactly organizations, but individuals who bring out facts of wrongdoing from inside organizations and governments. There is WikiLeaks, which transformed whistleblowing into a process of secure file upload. WikiLeaks became a global focal point for whistleblowers and also their media amplifier, thus taking two separate problems together: the persecution and silencing of whistleblowers and the failure of much of the media to act as an independent check on power. And finally there are hacktivist groups like Anonymous, retrieving secrets from behind the firewalls.

Jeff Khonsary: This scheme also represents a legal and ethical spectrum as well—one that necessarily speaks to certain power relations.

Metahaven: Clearly somewhere we cross the border from pro-transparency to anti-secrecy, from institutions to institutional insurgency. WikiLeaks is not an old-style media outlet. As the legal scholar Yochai Benkler describes it, WikiLeaks is the “networked fourth estate,” 
circumventing the social and organizational frameworks of traditional media, which played a large role in framing the balance between freedom and responsibility of the press. At the same time, the WikiLeaks episode forces us to confront the fact that the members of the networked fourth estate turn out to be both more susceptible to new forms of attack than those of the old, and to possess different sources of resilience in the face of these attacks.4

Benkler goes on to explain that there is an emergence of a new model of watchdog function, one that is neither purely networked nor purely traditional, but is rather a mutualistic interaction between the two. It identifies the peculiar risks to, and sources of resilience of, the networked fourth estate in a multidimensional system of expression and restraint, and suggests the need to resolve a major potential vulnerability—the ability of private infrastructure companies to restrict speech without being bound by the constraints of legality, and the possibility that government actors will take advantage of this affordance in an extralegal public-private partnership for censorship.5 
WikiLeaks is that turbocharged check on power. Slavoj Žižek goes a step or two further: WikiLeaks is a threat to—rather than merely a check on—power and authority proper. He wrote in the London Review of Books that there has been, from the outset, something about its activities that goes way beyond liberal conceptions of the free flow of information. We shouldn’t look for this excess at the level of content. The only surprising thing about the WikiLeaks revelations is that they contain no surprises.6 Žižek concludes that what WikiLeaks threatens is the formal functioning of power. The true targets here weren’t the dirty details and the individuals responsible for them; not those in power, in other words, so much as power itself, its structure.7 
The Axis of Reputation maps out the position of actors in relation to WikiLeaks based on and x and y axes, one scaling from Ally to Adversary, the other from Support to Exploitation. Many of these actors are vehemently anti-WikiLeaks, yet refer to its work for their own benefit—and so are, unwittingly, in a position of exploitation, in particular when their judgment of WikiLeaks comes after a prior collaboration with the site. The promotional blurb on the back cover of Guardian Books’ WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy (2011) is, perhaps as a safety precaution, written in the past tense: It was the biggest leak in history. WikiLeaks infuriated the world’s greatest superpower, embarrassed the British royal family and helped cause a revolution in Africa. The man behind it was Julian Assange, one of the strangest figures ever to become a worldwide celebrity. Was he an internet messiah or a cyber-terrorist? The debate would echo around the globe as US politicians called for his assassination. As a matter of fact, Julian Assange recently brand-protected his name.8 Film rights for most of the WikiLeaks books were sold to Hollywood. 

Jeff Khonsary: How does the work you are producing under the umbrella of Transparency, Inc. engage the diverse set of constituents within the different pro-transparency, open-government, and anti-secrecy groups, and, more specifically, deal with the power relationships surrounding WikiLeaks?

Metahaven: Our interest in transparency began with the ideology of participatory government, which we elaborated on in a project called Stadtstaat (2009). Clearly it did not begin with an interest in the fourth estate, but rather with an interest in the corrosive effects of the ideology of participation. The key speculation of Stadtstaat was that anti-terrorism would become a matter of crowdsourcing rather than central oversight. Stadtstaat, produced by Künstlerhaus Stuttgart and Casco in Utrecht, offered a bleak-yet-humorous look at participatory government as a totalitarian ideology. In particular, we used the dictum “Extreme Democracy,” which is also the title of a collection of blog posts and articles in book form. Our interpretation—designed as a large installation including a video piece, a collection of print collateral, and “paper architecture”—is analogous to the Dead Kennedys’ idea of “hippie fascism” in their song “California über Alles” (1979).

WikiLeaks is a much more transformative project than most “participatory government.” The WikiLeaks hosting model—on which we’ve elaborated in a diagram called The Architecture of WikiLeaks—is premised on the tax haven, by which the site becomes, in its own words, “uncensorable.” Information is routed and stored in a redundant, transnational chain of servers. Our work on WikiLeaks—which began as an echo of an earlier project on the Principality of Sealand, a would-be tax haven of its own—is premised on a certain admiration for what they have accomplished. There also is a fascination and intent to understand how their global reputation is constructed.
 Black Transparency is the working title of a new Metahaven book that’s currently in preparation. Which means, we are currently writing it. It will not be just about WikiLeaks proper, but it does try to look at WikiLeaks as a pop culture phenomenon, co-responsible for the popularization of the transparency ideology. Never before has there been an entity similarly embroiled in geopolitics, celebrity, merchandising, and crowdsourcing. WikiLeaks’ presence as something between an organization and a movement, and its absence as an institution, generates an asymmetrical confrontation between two types of organizational practice. On the one hand, there is the established institution (say, an NGO or a mainstream media outlet) that is formally accountable, and yet, also (to some extent) complicit with what it keeps in check. On the other, there is the fluid and transient organization for radical justice (say, WikiLeaks), which is anti-institutional, barely accountable, yet trusted by a certain audience. This faceoff defines the contemporary moment. Obviously it is not like one will replace the other, but rather the two will exist in a sort of new equilibrium, which Benkler calls “a free irresponsible press.” Black Transparency will also contain some of our own proposals for identity design and merchandising like T-shirts, scarves, and even mugs—keeping in mind that WikiLeaks has imagined its own accountability as a double dependency on the trust of sources and donations and purchases by the public. Various proposals were developed as research projects in other contexts at, for example, the 2011 Gwangju Design Biennale in Korea. 
Another segment of Transparency, Inc. deals with cloud computing and the spatial-legal regimen of the cloud. This will hopefully see Metahaven design its first mobile app. 

Jeff Khonsary: Thinking back to the initial release of Collateral Murder, there seemed to be a sense of hope that the horrific images portrayed in the leaked footage would somehow ignite a sustained, vocal outrage against the US occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. It seems significant that in the months that followed, WikiLeaks moved from the visually emotive microview of Collateral Murder to the comparably abstract statistical impressions provided by the Afghanistan War Logs and the United States diplomatic cables leak (Cablegate).9 It’s a distinction similar to that between the potential impact of something like the Pentagon Papers and that of Nick Ut’s 1972 photo of Phan Thị Kim Phúc. I wonder if you could talk about the way WikiLeaks developed as an organization through an aesthetic shift from the specificity of data curation to the abstraction of an encyclopedic archive.

Metahaven: Jonathan Zittrain distinguishes WikiLeaks’ development in three phases. He writes: In its first phase...WikiLeaks operated very much with a standard wiki model: the public readership could actively post and edit materials and had a say in the types of materials that were accepted and how such materials were vetted. The documents released in that first phase were more or less a straight dump to the Web: very little organized redacting occurred on the part of WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks’ second phase was exemplified with the release of the Collateral Murder video in April of 2010. The video was a highly curated, produced and packaged political statement. It was meant to illustrate a political point of view, not merely to inform. The third phase is the one we currently see with the release of the diplomatic cables: WikiLeaks working in close conjunction with a select group of news organizations to analyze, redact and release the cables in a curated manner, rather than dumping them on the Internet or using them to illustrate a singular political point of view.10

These three initial phases were followed by WikiLeaks’ collaboration with “non-Western” media outlets, for example the Hindu in India. And, by now, we seem to have entered yet another phase, where the organizational fallout and the folding of the mainstream media collaboration with the Guardian and the New York Times has boomeranged back on WikiLeaks. For its latest release of cables, WikiLeaks has returned to crowdsourcing. Twitter, rather than the organization’s home page, is now the focal point for this process, using the hashtag #wlfind. All these distinct phases have their own aesthetics.
For the crowdsourcers, there may be a kind of “pleasure” involved in sifting through these cables, like digging for hidden gold. Much of what amounts to news in these cables is about injustices, corruption, and the cruelty of political and military violence. Cablegate2, as WikiLeaks calls this phase, is a crowdsourced, journalistic version of Francisco de Goya’s Atrocities of War (1810–20)—clearly, a piece of work of high aesthetic value, but it isn’t curated, on the level of content, by a central actor, as Collateral Murder was. The intake and interpretation of raw information is something that people apparently do like to do—as opposed to consuming it in a carefully “contextualized” newspaper story. Politicians and media incorrectly assume that we are incapable of understanding facts by themselves. It is quite the opposite: we increasingly do not wish to be “entertained” by our news outlets but want to read and hear about things in a pure and honest language. After Cablegate, praise was given to the writing skills of American diplomats. Perhaps that was because the language of these cables is plain and honest—a welcome departure from the type of crafted, processed PR speech that defines press briefings. Transparency is un-designing PR. People are learning to see through the aesthetics of mainstream media news, including its imperative to package facts in “stories.”
Collateral Murder was attacked by the press for being a curated political narrative, whereas Cablegate was criticized for being the exact opposite: a “data dump” rather than a newsworthy story. The recent return to crowdsourcing seems to work for WikiLeaks, at least for now. A modest core group of DIY researchers has hedged and amplified these #wlfind revelations far beyond their Twitter home base. There is the ongoing concern about the security of confidential sources exposed in the unredacted cables released in early September. However, a September 10, 2011, review by the Associated Press states that so far, no threatened sources were found11—implying that claims to such end are wildly overstated. If sources were to be threatened, or worse, that would be horrible. 

Jeff Khonsary: The exceptional scale of WikiLeaks’ most recent releases seemed to open them up to escalation in the rhetoric and seriousness of the attacks by its many detractors. These threats seemed hinged on attempts to position WikiLeaks as a foreign terrorist organization, while, at the same time, the mainstream media was used to deflect attention from the content of the organization’s work through attacks against WikiLeaks’ “spokesman/leader,” Julian Assange.

Metahaven: In early spring 2011, the WikiLeaks “controversy” was at its pinnacle, the downpour of the US diplomatic cables was in full swing, Bradley Manning was detained in Quantico, Virginia, and a grand jury investigation had been opened into WikiLeaks. There had been a fallout of former WikiLeaks associates. Assange was held under house arrest in the UK, pending the Swedish extradition case.

There was the suggestion, vocalized especially by left-wing liberals, that WikiLeaks was an imperfect and irresponsible organization, yet still one representing a “good idea.” To many of its detractors, WikiLeaks was impaired by celebrity and authoritarianism. Twelve Theses on WikiLeaks, an essay by Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens, argues that lack of commonality with congenial, “another world is possible” movements drives WikiLeaks to seek public attention by way of increasingly spectacular and risky disclosures. Or: WikiLeaks is a typical SPO (Single Person Organization, or ‘UPO’: Unique Personality Organization)...largely concentrated in the hands of a single individual.... The founder cannot be voted out, and, unlike many collectives, leadership does not rotate.” Later, they add: The functioning [of this type of organization is] difficult to reconcile with democratic values. This is also why they are difficult to replicate and do not scale up easily.12 
The sudden celebrity of Julian Assange surely has alienated him from some of his like-minded peers. This type of alienation is common to celebrities who outgrow the confines of their initial fanhood and, in the perception of their home base, “sell out.” However much we respect and admire Geert Lovink, to our knowledge “democracy” (as in “voting” or “rotating leadership”) does not ensure (or even create) the ability for an organization to “scale up.” This is a sad fact, but Steve Jobs, Apple’s hyper-authoritarian former CEO and co-founder, would agree with it. An Egyptian Twitter user, Ramez Mohamed, on Jobs’s resignation from Apple in August 2011, wrote: “Dear 2011,...Steve was the good dictator. Thanks.” This tweet got right that not all authoritarianism is always bad. True, an organization that recognizes and honours all the concerns and opinions of its employees has greater internal accountability—and yet it seems unlikely that WikiLeaks will follow this path. Julian Assange, in that sense, is like a countercultural Steve Jobs. But he has also been compared to Tintin.

Jeff Khonsary: In her introduction of Assange for his conversation with Žižek at the Frontline Club this past July, Amy Goodman said that with the release of the US cables and the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs, Assange has “published perhaps more than anyone in the world.”13 And yet, as you describe, WikiLeaks operates very much unlike a traditional news media organization—even as they often try to position themselves as such, for example, through their partnerships within news outlets like the New York Times and Le Monde.

Metahaven: As said, WikiLeaks combines two hitherto separate qualities: that of a leaking conduit and that of a media amplifier. It operates similar to other media organizations in that freedom of the press, freedom of information, and source protection apply to it. Yet many people are deeply conflicted about WikiLeaks’ accountability. Firedoglake journalist, activist, and civil rights blogger Kevin Gosztola lays it out clearly in a blog post, referencing the author Micah Sifry—who wrote WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency (2011), and expressed strong criticism of WikiLeaks’ management. Gosztola cites, and then interprets, Sifry here: Who is making the editorial decisions and why should whistleblowers trust that their information will be used appropriately and fairly?’ He [Sifry] criticizes how WikiLeaks is prone to conflict with media partners. And, he casts doubt on Assange’s ultimate goals for the project.... He has been part of a group of people, who think WikiLeaks has a problem because they are not accountable to anyone and just do whatever they want with material in their possession. This is what a supporter of WikiLeaks...has concluded.... Supporters of the concept behind WikiLeaks have suggested the organization has run its course. They have turned to Daniel Domscheit-Berg believing his project could get right what WikiLeaks got wrong the first time. Unlike opponents of WikiLeaks...they genuinely believe in the cause of transparency and open government but appear to dislike the way that confronting governments and institutions seems to mar the efficiency of WikiLeaks’ operations.14

Sifry further withdrew his support after WikiLeaks released the complete trove of unredacted cables. Sifry: “People are human; to err is human. But refusing to admit error, that is hubris. Assange, like Icarus, thought he could fly to the sun.”15 Sifry’s friend Tom Watson more or less copied this blog post, concluding: “Indeed. This is the end of WikiLeaks. The story of Julian Assange and the downfall of his organization remains a fascinating one—but it is not a story of transparency, of openness, or of an informed and empowered society.”16
What Gosztola gets right in his analysis is the psychological trade-off that made supporters of “the idea of WikiLeaks” embrace Daniel Domscheit-Berg and OpenLeaks. It was a trade-off not just for democratic values but also for a hands-off, technocratic, “not in my backyard” approach. Domscheit-Berg’s book Inside WikiLeaks attests to his attitude as he painstakingly attempts to demonstrate, through pointless and awkward anecdotes, that he is just a regular guy who happens to like transparency.
WikiLeaks’ secure drop box system was disabled or removed by Domscheit-Berg and a colleague as they left the organization and founded OpenLeaks. The colleague’s name is unknown—in Domscheit-Berg’s book he goes under the nickname “the Architect.” Domscheit-Berg claims the Architect was WikiLeaks’ principal programmer and software engineer. In his book, Domscheit-Berg calls the WikiLeaks drop box the “intellectual property” of the Architect. We asked questions at the book launch in Amsterdam, and got vague answers about the Architect feeling “torn” at leaving his software in the hands of Assange. 
Domscheit-Berg claims that unlike the brazen Assange, he is a mere engineer, and that engineers, rather than political visionaries, should be welcomed as the real wizards of digital whistleblowing. In August 2011, Domscheit-Berg said “first there’s a visionary, and then come the engineers.... That’s what happening with us as well. Julian had the vision, paired with the spirit to kick this off. We are the engineers.”17 
While engineering constitutes an important component of the digital age in general, it is really political courage that is at the heart of the issue. Apart from that, running an operation needs to be pragmatically feasible. Domscheit-Berg’s arguments about engineering, which purport to consider the practical side, are far too ideologically charged for that; they sound more like a newspaper printer arguing that investigative journalism is foremost about the chemical components of ink. 

Jeff Khonsary: Can you talk more about this split between WikiLeaks/Assange and OpenLeaks/Domscheit-Berg and the very different ideology that each represents?

Metahaven: Looking at the situation almost a year after its trumpeted departure from WikiLeaks, OpenLeaks is, by its own standards, much less transparent than WikiLeaks. It has a phone line, sure—we haven’t dialled it—but the names of the people behind it are largely unknown. There is no advisory board (WikiLeaks used to have one but they no longer seem to now). There is no transparency with regard to OpenLeaks’ software and licenses. If this Architect had personally written software he considered his property, why would an organization like OpenLeaks not make a more formal arrangement with regard to its licensing? What if the Architect, tired of OpenLeaks, would decide to dismantle a drop box once more? Currently, the only known names to the operation are an Icelandic citizen, Herbert Snorrason, and Domscheit-Berg. In his book, Domscheit gives Snorrason no more credentials than that he is an “anarchist.” 

There is no such thing as “the age of transparency.” There are more leaks, institutions are suspect, and power unaccountable, but not everyone with Internet access and in possession of a secret document to leak becomes, by virtue of these factors, a whistleblower. WikiLeaks has discerned the potential whistleblower in the digital age of citizen journalism, but it also has considered the politics of leaking. To leak is an act in service of a higher purpose, even if it may now be technically as easy as posting a video on YouTube. Various factors may have contributed to leaking becoming more widespread—for example, dissatisfaction and anger over corrupted practices, the digitization of records kept of these practices, and the permeability of their digital walls. But as OpenLeaks’ founders split ways with WikiLeaks, they took an undisclosed number of as yet unpublished documents with them. The leak is, demonstrably, a commodity in relatively low supply, and of thus of high value. OpenLeaks itself advertised how rare this material really is by treating it as its start-up capital. The Guatemalan human rights lawyer Renata Avila has addressed the breach of trust that this act constituted. Avila was herself a WikiLeaks source in 2010, handing over some of the material that was later taken by Domscheit-Berg. In an open letter posted on her blog, she wrote in August 2011: The documents were only in hard copy. I entrusted those valuable documents—the only copy available—to WikiLeaks because of the expertise of the people running it, their procedures and the mechanisms they used to maximize impact when published. I did not intend to give such material to Mr. Domscheit-Berg personally, as was made clear to him by me at the time. My intention was to give it to the platform I trusted and contributed to; to WikiLeaks. The material has not been published and I am disturbed to read public statements by Mr. Domscheit-Berg in which he states that he has not returned such documents to WikiLeaks.18
WikiLeaks is more than an electronic drop box—somewhat ironically, at the moment, thanks to Domscheit-Berg, it is everything but an electronic drop box. WikiLeaks has attracted so much criticism precisely because it does much more than provide a simple service. 
Of course, the idea that a neutral platform would just be forwarding raw data to newspapers and cause massive change sounds too good to be true. But it doesn’t appear to be that simple in reality. 
Finally there’s the money. These are crowd-funded organizations. There is a limit to the total sum of donations any public can spend to keep leaking sites operational. There cannot be too many of these sites, without one adversely affecting the other’s budget. Our guess is there may never be more than two or three globally influential platforms of this type, well-known enough to attract substantial crowd-funding, at the same time stable enough not to fall apart, and most importantly, effectively releasing leaks. So far, there is just one.

Jeff Khonsary: For WikiLeaks, transparency seems not to be dependent on the absolute legibility and perceived credibility of information, but rather develops out around a certain ethical position vis-à-vis that information’s distribution and its eventual audiences. This is necessitated by what is perhaps the core contradiction of a project like WikiLeaks. Its activities are predicated on its own opacity: technology and protocols that ensure the absolute anonymity of its sources. This de facto anonymity precludes WikiLeaks from the moral or legal dilemma of having to “protect” its sources and abstracting the connection between the source of a leak, the content of that leak, and its potential audience. These are values formalized, for example, by the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), which passed as a parliamentary resolution in June of 2010.

Metahaven: Iceland has emerged as one of the most forward-heading European countries—maybe because they took their 2008 banking crisis far more seriously than any other state. It was thanks to WikiLeaks that the books of the Icelandic banks were published and everyone could see they had been fooled. IMMI has been partially thought up by WikiLeaks, which appeared on Icelandic television branding their idea of a “Switzerland of Bytes.” Iceland, then, is designing laws for it to become a transparency haven, where media and journalistic organizations are protected by a similar type of confidentiality that shields banks in Switzerland. Of course, there is far more to these Icelandic legal and social reforms than a tax haven model. Yochai Benkler, however, is concerned that governments and corporations may have ways to circumvent this legal-juridical model if they wish to try and silence such organizations. A financial blockade is one such method.

Jeff Khonsary: Given that your project began with—and continues to develop through—an interest in the design and branding of WikiLeaks (and pro-transparency actors more generally), can you talk a bit about the history and contemporary use of “transparency” within design?

Metahaven: This is one of the issues that interests us most. The word “transparent” first appears in the late Middle Ages. The figurative expression for “easily seen through”—as applied in the contemporary concept of “transparent government”—dates from the late sixteenth century.

This figurative usage applies, somewhat differently, to the German expression Seine Durchlaucht—“His Transparency,” or “His Serenity.” This expression emerged in 1375 and applied to the Prince-electors, or Kurfürsten, of the Holy Roman Empire. The Prince-electors were members of a privileged boardroom that elected the Holy Roman King, and later, the emperor. The monarch of the mini-state of Liechtenstein, a prominent tax haven, is, ironically, the last remaining Fürst to be addressed as Seine Durchlaucht. Transparency features frequently in modernist design and architecture. The writer Beatrice Warde in 1932 likened her ideal of the printed page to a “crystal goblet,” pertaining to a state of invisibility, where a carrier exists to fully reveal its contents—be it the written word, or wine.19 Transparency, thus, can also be read as absence or stealth. In a famous 1964 essay, architects Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky noted that transparency is “dignified with far from disagreeable moral overtones.” It was “the result of an intellectual imperative, of our inherent demand for that which should be easily detected, perfectly evident, and free of dissimulation.” Rather than just looking at its material properties, Rowe and Slutzky defined transparency as a “broader spatial order” pertaining to the “simultaneous perception of different spatial locations” and “an inherent quality of organization.”20 
Within the modernist paradigm of industrial design, “organization” becomes immediately transparent through the disappearance of ornament and the exposure of the mechanics of an object, thus highlighting its function over its symbolic role. Modern architecture tried to do the same for the city and the organization of civic life—Rowe and Slutzky’s example is Le Corbusier’s plan for the League of Nations in Geneva. Someone like Dieter Rams, who made most of the postwar industrial design for Braun household appliances, reduced form to its most basic elements. Ironically, the heir to Rams’s record players, radio sets, and calculators is the iPhone: a wonderfully beautiful and simple object depending entirely on opaque (“locked”) software, meant to perform beautifully, but not aspiring to be understood by the user—like the car that can no longer be repaired by a mechanic, but has to be reprogrammed by a software engineer. This almost invites citizens to become hackers, or at least, to write their own code (as Douglas Rushkoff argues for).
We can detect similar tendencies in the operational structures of government. As long as the outcome is deemed acceptable, there is legitimacy. To this end, not just the mechanics but also many outcomes of government are suppressed. Now, with WikiLeaks, some of these suppressed outcomes are being exposed. That is an embarrassment to the functioning of power and an important corrective to the way we tend to take it for granted. Furthermore, while the ideology and tools of transparency under modernism were used to design systems and objects from scratch, nowadays transparency means that already existing systems and objects are opened up—smashing windows with windows.

  1. Steve Ragan, “Data Intelligence Firms Proposed a Systematic Attack against WikiLeaks,” Tech Herald, published February 9, 2011, The complete report is hosted on WikiLeaks’ server at

  2. Glenn Greenwald, “The Lawless Wild West Attacks WikiLeaks,” Salon, published December 6, 2010,

  3. Collateral Murder is available in full at

  4. Yochai Benkler, A Free Irresponsible Press: WikiLeaks and the Battle over the Soul of the Networked Fourth Estate (working draft, February 2011, Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review), Benkler talks at length about the ongoing PayPal, VISA, MasterCard, and Bank of America financial blockade.

  5. Benkler, 69.

  6. Slavoj Žižek, “Good Manners in the Age of WikiLeaks,” London Review of Books, January 20, 2011,

  7. Ibid.

  8. Patrick Barkham, “Why Is Julian Assange Trademarking His Name?” Guardian, March 1, 2011,

  9. See The Bureau of Investigative Journalism: Iraq War Logs, 2011,

  10. mollysauter, “Wikileaks FAQ,” The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, published December 7, 2010,

  11. Bradley Klapper and Cassandra Vinograd, “AP Review Finds No Threatened WikiLeaks Sources,” Essential News from the Associated Press, published September 10, 2011,

  12. Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens, “Twelve Theses on WikiLeaks,” Eurozine, last modified December 7, 2010,

  13. “WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and Philosopher Slavoj Žižek with Amy Goodman,” Democracy Now! July 5, 2011, In response to Goodman’s comments, Assange responds: Well, Amy, I suspect, under that criteria, perhaps Rupert Murdoch is the most widely published person on earth. People say that Australia has given two people to the world, Rupert Murdoch and me, fairly big in publishing.
  14. Kevin Gosztola, “OpenLeaks Founder Destroys Cache of Unreleased WikiLeaks Documents,” Firedoglake: The Dissenter, published August 21, 2011,

  15. Micah L. Sifry, “The Fall of WikiLeaks: Cablegate2, Assange and Icarus,” Personal Democracy Forum: techPresident (blog), September 2, 2011,

  16. Tom Watson, “The End of WikiLeaks,” Tom Watson (blog), September 2, 2011,

  17. Andy Greenberg, “OpenLeaks Announces a Test Launch, Invites 3,000 Hackers to Attack It,” Yahoo! News, published August 10, 2011,

  18. Renata Avila, “Open Letter,” Nothing Is Permanent (blog), August 16, 2011, Author’s emphasis.

  19. You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. Beatrice Warde, “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible,” lecture to the British Typographers’ Guild, 1932.

  20. Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky, Transparency (Basel: Birkhaüser, 1997), 22–23.


About the Authors

Metahaven is a studio for design and research founded by Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden. Metahaven’s work—both commissioned and self-directed—reflects political and social issues in provocative graphic design objects. In 2010, Metahaven authored Uncorporate Identity, a book on politics and visual identity, published by Lars Müller. Solo exhibitions include Affiche Frontière, CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux (2008); and Stadtstaat, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart/Casco (2009). 
In 2011, Metahaven was selected by Rolling Stone Italia as one of the world’s 20 most promising design studios.

Daniel van der Velden is a Senior Critic at Yale University’s MFA program in graphic design. He is a tutor at the design department of the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam and has lectured at the University of Amsterdam School of Media Studies.

Vinca Kruk teaches Editorial Design 
at ArtEZ Academy of the Arts, Arnhem, and graphic design at Otis College of Arts and Design, Los Angeles.

Jeff Khonsary is Publisher of Fillip.

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