Protest and Information: What we learned from Chelsea Manning

On October 1st, 2018, the ever-controversial public figure, activist, technologist and whistle-blower Chelsea Manning sat adjacent to artist and writer James Bridle at the Royal Institution in London to have an unmediated conversation. Organised by the Institute of Contemporary Arts London, this was the first public appearance for Manning in the UK since her 35 years sentence in prison (2013) and subsequent commute of sentence and release in 2017. The talk was varied, lightly touching on aspects of artificial intelligence, protest, and politics, but mostly only swirling along the surface of each topic. The talk was inevitably focused more on Manning and her life than it was on an objective overview of the pressing issues of our current political climate.

Of the multitude of topics covered, two things keep resurfacing in the talk’s aftermath. The first is Manning’s proclamation that the United States, from where she hails, is comparable to a prison, with surveillance, police presence, most recently a wall, and other power infrastructures at play. The second, though covered less by major news sources, was repeated by Manning on numerous occasions during the talk: that the issues we face today are not one of a lack of knowledge but rather a lack of action upon that knowledge. This article will endeavour to reflect and elaborate on both of these.

That the United States allegedly operates as a prison is in no way a controversial statement for anyone who has read a bit of Foucault in their formative years; in fact, the sentiment verges on edgy high schooler cliché. Foucault has on numerous occasions argued how systems in society, and especially in what he calls ‘heterotopias’ - places of otherness, deviating all other spaces such as prisons - influence all other space around it, creating a ripple effect that influences the entirety of society. By introducing the system of punishment called prison, the rest of those in society by negation are formed into the potential prisoners. Society itself becomes the prison; control is self-imposed; the system functions nearly autonomously. To add a footnote to that thought, Nietzsche argued that punishment was practiced before it had been awarded any sense of utility.

Regardless of how tired te observation of calling the US a prison is, a quick google search will yield no less than 5 different news outlets citing the same talk with the headline reflecting this exact revelation. “Chelsea Manning says life in the US is like being in prison”; “Chelsea Manning says life in the US is 'like being in prison' in first appearance in UK since release”; “Chelsea Manning, convicted leaker, compares living in US to prison”. Thanks, Guardian, Evening Standard, and Fox News. These particular news sources are among the many whose readership would find such headlines worth clicking, reaffirming such a statement as controversial for the masses, especially when posited by a figure so hotly debated as both hero and villain. The media presents society to be as free as the USA’s headline ‘land of the free’, by artificially - if we follow Manning’s argument - pushing its definition away from being prison-like. Manning could argue that the prison itself claims not to be a prison, but especially in that rhetoric act of absurdifying Mannings statements, it really starts functioning like a prison; not by applying real force, directing you where to click, but by defining the perspective you get on information.

This brings up a contradiction with her second notable statement: that the issue is not one of knowledge, because everyone already knows what is at issue. (Major breaks in governmental knowledge-security, and those spreading the pus that comes out, have more than once shown the shadow practices our governments perform.) This was said in context of our contemporary relation to information and technology, and of what the average denizen can do to affect change. The problem seems obvious: Manning assumes the position that knowledge is easily understood by most, while evidence shows that most (if we may believe the media) will find even mundane proclamations about systems of power to be controversial. In this instance, Manning spoke to a crowd of journalists, scholars, and generally a demographic who knows and admires her work (not to mention a demographic who has disposable income enough to afford a £20 ticket just to hear her talk), but the rest of the world may not be so privy to the knowledge she mentions. And that much is obvious with the headlines previously listed that highlight her comparison of the nation state with a prison system.

It is a knowledge issue

Chelsea Manning is a name synonymous with disruption, a component necessary to protest. Her military background found its way to leaking hundreds of thousands of documents to the website WikiLeaks, landing her in prison for espionage. Her form of protest was in itself a handing over of knowledge from the privileged to the masses. Her leaks included a video showing two US soldiers’ disreputable dialogue after having killed 12 people in Baghdad, and the destruction of evidence after the US army killed 10 Iraqi civilians, including an infant and a 70 years old woman. As Manning rightfully said, she saw something wrong during her time in the military and she had to do something about it. While her bravery in bringing these horrendous crimes to light are not to be questioned, the fact remains that she took action to disseminate knowledge. The primacy of access to and ownership of knowledge seems to be extrapolated over what that knowledge entails.

What’s more, she took action because she already knew what was wrong; she already had access to knowledge. But the systems of control that both Manning and Bridle spoke of (both during this conversation and in previous occasions) aren't so obviously visible. That this is in fact a knowledge problem can be registered threefold: firstly, not everyone knows that there is an issue. Secondly, those who know there is an issue do not always know what is at issue nor have the information to locate the issue, and thirdly, that not everyone knows what can be done to deal with that issue.

In the first instance, Bridle himself has written about the excessive amounts of information that we are continuously bombarded with. Even if a single truth is given to us, it is hidden under piles of information that may near impossible to read without the right code; that might be false; and may not be relevant at al. Regardless of accuracy of information, that information reverbs in how we a posteriori deal with real events. Whether the RGB spectrum of the digital camera covers all light to see does not reduce the impact corresponding policy has on our world. These systems are created as a veil over any possibility of change, and the majority of us don't know what is at stake and who is to blame, much less how to navigate the amount of misinformation that we're fed, to derive any semblance of cohesiveness from the fog. In his book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, Bridle argues that “...paranoia in an age of network excess produces a feedback loop: the failure to comprehend a complex world leads to the demand for more and more information, which only further clouds our understanding - revealing more and more complexity that must be accounted for by ever more byzantine theories of the world. More information produces not more clarity, but more confusion.” (pg. 210) Thus, while he didn’t respond to Manning’s proclamation about knowledge in due course, we can suggest that an appropriate rebuttal would be that the ability to sift knowledge from this information overload is not something that most will have access to. Both play with the question of quality in a discourse of quantity.

Information and protest

Often, protests fail to affect change because they are disrupting the wrong thing, or else protesters aren't entirely sure what is to be countered. In our world, the problems protested is often not singular, but expresses itself in singular symptoms. Protesting the whole system itself  may be regarded as polemic and inefficient. Manning speaks about a moment that she cited as one of the most inspiring things she’s ever witnessed, where a group of students, fed up by the lack of action from going through bureaucratic channels, pulled down a confederate statue at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. The call to action following this example is clear, but as in the second instance of not knowing what can be done, there isn’t always a clear symbolic gesture to carry out. And of course, symbolic gestures do not always have an actual impact. When the issue is not substantiated in a singular object, but is rather the result of a corrupt and often abstract system, a call to action may in itself be a form of protest without affecting change in the issue at hand.

Individuals may not have the luxury of time or privilege of access to information to be able to take action. (Think, for example, of the abundance of information available to academics, which is completely redacted when the academic graduates.) In the age of fake news, any truth may be disputed and real knowledge is shrouded in endless layers of refraction. A call to action is important, but in this sense, it may be putting the horse before the carriage, owning the software before the hardware is ever built. A famous example of the failure to incite change due to lack of knowledge is the Occupy movement, where general discontent and disparate streams of thought ultimately ended the protests without satisfaction. While it's been said that this is largely due to a lack of leadership in the movement, the fact that the populous did not know how to proceed most effectively, nor that they were able to agree unanimously on how to proceed, resulted in stagnation and defeat. You may know something, but protest and other grassroots forms of initiating change requires that an entire community also knows. To convince your neighbour that what you think is actually what you know is a difficult task at the best of times. Knowledge and rhetoric has rarely been so interchangeable as it is today. While the issue could be construed as epistemic, to properly know and to properly disseminate true knowledge in our increasingly networked society is a much larger issue than Manning’s quick dismissal would have it.

Despite the shortcomings of her position, her presence alone reminds us that knowledge is power, but to act on that knowledge is always the next step. Chelsea Manning represents a staggering blow to the systems of control that protest often fights against, an idea of how one can overcome. When asked how she'd respond to Trump’s recent statement that she shouldn't have been let out of prison, Manning gave a cool shrug and responded, to enthusiastic applause, “well, I'm here now.”

This article was written by Sandy Di Yu and published on 14-01-2019.