For those of us who have marveled (and sometimes quivered) at the truly revolutionary power of the internet, the current Wikileaks furore is the point where all the hype and idealism hits the hard reality of global politics.
The stream of US diplomatic cables, managed into the public realm by respectable news organisations like The Guardian and The New York Times, has freaked the American establishment so much that they've shaken the network society like a rag-doll. They've not just brought digital brandnames like Amazon and Paypal to heel, but they've even put the squeeze on Visa and Mastercard, in their attempt to choke Assange's organizational windpipe.
Now the Wikileaks' founder is under arrest, we'll see whether the reach of American power extends even further into the extradition procedures of another sovereign state (um, I think we know the answer to that one). But as the circus proceeds, and the adversaries line up on either side -- defenders of diplomatic statecraft on one hand, anarchistic unravellers of state power on another -- perhaps we can look at all this from another angle.
It's not just national governments who've had to respond to the Net's x-rays of transparency. Since the heydays of Naomi Klein's No Logo in 1999, brand-led corporate capitalism has been grappling with motivated activists who want to rub countervailing facts in the face of glowing public rhetoric.
And a decade later, it's clearly had an effect. Recent consumer surveys have found that only 9 percent of people trusted companies to act in their best interests (60 percent said "sometimes," and 31 percent said "never"). In the current context, three reasons are often cited. First, the financial crisis was the final act that confirmed consumer cynicism about the worth of corporate governance and the business sector in general.
Secondly, our mobile media allows us to filter our own information, untouched by the gatekeepers of traditional media. And lastly, the social web allows us to prioritise the opinions of our friends, family and peers over the thudding messages of top-down branding.
In this environment, where information about the sharp-dealing or shady practices of a company are easily and speedily circulated, a new philosophy of marketing is emerging. Instead of pushing people into a preferred way of engaging with a product, companies are now beginning to share their problems (and solutions) with consumers.
Instead of promoting a product's worth, they try to propagate it, encouraging creative use (and even mis-use) of an "adaptive" brand. Instead of business being all about getting straight to the purchase, it should be about participation. In the words of the UK marketing company New Tradition, you "cement a connection with the consumer" through an open platform (like Facebook) "who may or may not purchase a product at a later date."
Thirdly, branding shouldn't be about generating loyalty, but about associating your product with like-minded people, or intrinsically interesting ideas, that already have an existing and vibrant following.
It's easy to get a sense of the old days of business by watching any episode of Mad Men. Here you have a patriarchy of secretive, arrogant image-builders, casually cynical about how they manage the gap between the aspirational images of advertising they pump out, and the sordid reality of poor products and corrupt business practice.
Now, what does that sound like? And how does that map over to our current clash between the world of nation-state diplomacy and statecraft, and the anarchistic information-idealism of Wikileaks and their allies? Pretty well, in many ways. The political classes of the developed West have been largely mistrusted for at least a decade now. The UK had their own recent data-driven crisis, when the Telegraph newspaper sustained a drip-feed of embarassing private information about MP's excessive expenses.
But as marketer Ian Thomas says, Wikileaks really raises the game here - expanding the ambition of this informational scrutiny from a national to a global level of governance, appropriate to where the real power of decision operates.
Yet what does this scrutiny reveal? There's been a real blizzard of interpretation of what impact the cables so far released will have. Writers like John Naughton, Glenn Greenwald and Assange himself claim that out of the blizzard of material, we can now see that our leaders have always known that Afghanistan is a hopeless, corrupt, Vietnam-like quagmire -- but that they cannot fully face their tax-paying, soldier-expending electorates with that fact.
Added to the Iraq disclosures of a few months ago, this is Wikileaks attempting to lay bare the infernal mechanisms of the "War on Terror." They regard themselves as a "fifth estate," practicing what Assange calls "scientific journalism" -- a data dump so comprehensive that it will spur the fourth estate to rise out of its investigative torpor and establishment collusion.
But beyond the bloodthirsty ravings of some members of the American establishment, there is another consistent take on Cablegate -- which is that they show an American diplomatic service trying to do their best, as their post-Cold-War empire slowly declines. For them, as UK writer Neal Ascherson puts it, "preventing [nuclear] apocalypse has become more important than striving for world leadership... this is a diplomacy clearer about what it doesn't want than what it does".
In the aftermath of all this, let's return to our brand discussion. If we think of Western statecraft and diplomacy as a brand now damaged and tarnished by the demystifications of info-activism -- as the Nikes, Gaps and Shell Oils had been in the past -- how should they respond?
For one thing, that intriguing netherworld -- where politicians and diplomats conduct polite double-bluffs between the members of unaccountable power elites -- will now never be the same. And if they think that any amount of new regulation, individual imprisonment, or coercion of networks will return them to the status quo ante, they are deluded.
So perhaps they should listen to these clever brand marketers. Instead of pushing hard for their right to conduct international double-speak in order to promote the nation's interests, maybe the diplomatic class should share out those same global problems with all those citizens who may want a voice in the process.
What's the geopolitical equivalent of the vibrant users' online forum, where all can go to explore, inquire and test out solutions? How can statecraft tap into the kinds of participative enthusiasm for peace-making, community-building and conflict-resolving that so many netizens already display? The UK's ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown's new website lauds the activist network Avaaz as exactly this kind of endeavour.
And as large brands now look towards associating the values of their product or service with authentic movements and social groups, perhaps there is a future concordat to be struck between Wikileaks-style organisations and their currently enraged American pursuers?
As Evgeny Morozov wrote in the Financial Times earlier this week, Assange's movement could become "either a new Red Brigades, or a new Transparency International... But handled correctly, the state that will benefit most from a nerdy network of 21st-century Che Guevaras, is America itself".
At the very least, there is an obvious contradiction in the US position (and thus, something of a branding problem). Hilary Clinton was making speeches about the power of free information to create healthy societies only a few months ago, but is now squeezing the fibre-optics of the internet like the most enthusiastic Chinese firewall manager.
Yet as Morozov says, it would be smarter to harness the power of these hackers "as useful allies of the West as it seeks to husband democracy and support human rights" - that is, to make them a complement of Western soft power or public diplomacy - than to martyr their main representative and thus radicalise his followers. (The hacker attack on the Mastercard website is an early example of where the latter tactic may lead).
The leaked US embassy cables themselves hardly show a steely American empire bent on world domination - more a faltering hegemon, resigned to world mitigation. A pertinent YouTube clip of a John F. Kennedy speech has been flying around the debates on Wikileaks. In it, JFK reminds his fellow citizens that the very First Amendment the Founders struck was to guarantee a free press, empowered to investigate and criticise the state. So surely there's some grounds for mutual understanding between hackers and diplomats.
When the current idiocies die down, perhaps the cerebral Obama can channel his great Democratic forbear, and think his way through to a better accommodation with the Wikileakers -- whose aim, as Assange has often said, is to make themselves unnecessary. Barack was, after all, Brand No. 1 for a while.