Super-Empowered Individual

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Felix Stalder:

"There is a vast amount of infrastructure - transportation, communication, financing, production - openly available that, until recently, was only accessible to very large organisations. It now takes relatively little - a few dedicated, knowledgeable people - to connect these pieces into a powerful platform from which to act. Military strategists have been talking about 'super-empowered individuals' by which they mean someone who

- is autonomously capable of creating a cascading event, [...] a 'system perturbation'; a disruption of system function and invalidation of existing rule sets to at least the national but more likely the global scale. The key requirements to become 'superempowered' are comprehension of a complex system's connectivty and operation; access to critical network hubs; possession of a force that can be leveraged against the structure of the system and a willingness to use it.

There are a number real weaknesses to this concept, not least that it has thus far been exclusively applied to terrorism and that it reduces structural dynamics to individual actions. Nevertheless, it can be useful insofar as it highlights how complex, networked systems which might be generally relatively stable, posses critical nodes ('systempunkt' in the strange parlance of military strategists) which in case of failure that can cause cascading effects through the entire systems.2 It also highlights how individuals, or more likely, small groups, can affect these systems disproportionately if they manage to interfere with these critical nodes. Thus, individuals, supported by small, networked organisations, can now intervene in social dynamics at a systemic level, for the better or worse.

This picture fits WikiLeaks, organised around one charismatic individual, very well. It is both its strength and its weakness. Its strength because it has been able to trigger large-scale events quickly and cheaply. If WikiLeaks had required multi-million dollar investment upfront, it would not have been able to get off the ground. Yet, it is also its key weakness, since it remains so strongly centred around a single person. Many of the issues that are typical of small groups organised by a charismatic leader seem to affect WikiLeaks as well, such as authoritarianism, lack of internal procedure, dangers of burnout and internal and external attacks on the credibility of that single person (if not worse). Such charismatic leadership is often unstable and one must suspect that all of the issues - positive because of the super-empowerment, as well as negative because of the pressures baring down on it - are multiplied to an unprecedented scale in the case of WikiLeaks and its leader, Julian Assange. It's hard to imagine how this can be sustainable." (