WikiLeaks and the Innovator’s Dilemma

Very thoughtful essay by David Rieff in The New Republic. He sees WikiLeaks as a disruptive innovation in the sense that Clayton Christensen used it to describe “business innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, usually either by lowering the price or redesigning for a different market or a different set of consumers”. At first glance, Rieff writes,

Wikileaks would seem to be far from this world of business innovation. And yet it isn’t. To the contrary, what Wikileaks does is exactly what a disruptive product does: As with nanotechnology, it supersedes the way information is made available to the general public; and, as with open source software, it challenges the idea of what the public can know and how it can know it.

In the former case, Wikileaks breaks the established transmission network of office holders and diplomats leaking some information to trusted journalists and pundits, who then transmit it to the public. And, in the latter, it insists that there is simply no such thing as proprietary information, which in the context of diplomacy means it does not acknowledge the state’s right to keep secrets. Here, the state is like Microsoft, with its closed-source technology, while Wikileaks is the open-source alternative.

And, again as with open-source software, there is no going back. Julian Assange may go to prison in Sweden, or even be extradited to the United States, and, though it is far less likely, Wikileaks itself may be shut down. But, for better or worse, the Wikileaks model is here to stay. For, as it turns out, the web is not just a place for shopping, or searching for pornographic images, or finding virtual communities of like-minded people, it is the new bloody crossroads of our politics.

This is another example of the thoughtful writing that has emerged as the implications of Cablegate begin to sink in. We really have passed an inflection point. When the history of this period comes to be written, my guess is that the last few weeks will be seen as the point where the established order finally wike up to the fact that it has a serious challenge on its hands.