Information Reformation: On Martin Luther and Julian Assange

I can’t wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out Julian Assange.” – Matthew Grunwald, Sr. National Correspondent for Time Magazine

In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg launching what is known now as the Protestant Reformation. The theses were written to challenge practices of the Catholic church that had essentially corrupted the practice of faith and restricted access to the scriptures by refusing to allow colloquial translations of the text into the local languages. Rather, access to the Bible was through the priestly class and interpreted by a select group who were “qualified” to do so. Why? The text of scripture was so important it was felt that only the specially trained could properly interpret and understand the text. To offer the Bible and all of its content to the masses without an intermediary would be chaos and result in a complete corruption of the word of God for they could not possibly understand it…or so it was thought.

It was in fact this restriction of access to the word by a select few that had led to the corrupt practice of indulgences (the sale of forgiveness) among many other corruptions that drove Luther to act the way he did leading Luther to eventually release the Bible to the public by translating it into German thus releasing the truth as he saw it to the masses. As a result of his actions he was excommunicated by the church in 1521 along with Luther being declared an outlaw whose arrest was required.

We want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic.” – The Diet of Worms, 1521.

To remain free Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle under the protection of Frederick the Wise.

It was the happy coincidence of the printing press being invented and becoming widespread  that contributed to the democratization of information and distribution Luther’s ideas that led to the launching of the Reformation and the resultant chaos and conflict that went with it.

In 2010 Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange began publishing a series of US military and diplomatic documents that were meant to be secret. Since this and many other leaks an arrest warrant was issued for Assange regarding allegations of a sexual assault in Sweden and he has remained in hiding inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, England where he continues to direct Wikileaks operations.

According to the WikiLeaks website, its goal is “to bring important news and information to the public… One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.”

In this instance it is the increasing maturity of internet technology that is acting for Assange like the printing press did for Luther, distributing information in a way that cannot be stopped by those who would like to see the flow halted.

Regardless of what your opinions are of either Luther or Assange the similarities between the two are undeniable despite the difference in their motives.

Assange and Wikileaks have redefined journalism and the distribution of information which has for a very long time remained the purview of the experts – those who could take raw data and translate it to something the simpler masses could consume without getting themselves or others hurt. Wikileaks has declared that information in all its forms (secret or otherwise) should be free, no matter the consequences.

One of the indirect consequences of Martin Luther’s actions was the German Peasant’s War of 1524-25. The aristocracy is thought to have been responsible for the slaughter of between 100,000-300,000 poorly armed farmers and peasants. I say indirectly because Luther attempted to take a middle position between the peasants and the aristocracy but many Protestant pastors supported and encouraged the revolt.

Essentially with Wikileaks, the social media explosion and subsequent organizations like Anonymous, LulzSec and others the cat is out of the bag and cannot be put back in. A new reformation is underway in which the distribution of information is being revolutionized and the power holders of old – journalists like Grunwald, their employers like Time and the information gatherers and keepers like the American NSA, etc. no longer control the interpretation and distribution of information.

Already there has been a great deal of chaos resulting from the rapidly changing information environment. The population of the world has taken notice and information gatekeepers are scrambling to re-assert control over data while at the same time labeling Assange and anyone like him heretics.

Even if Wikileaks ceases to exist this new reformation is too far progressed to be held back or destroyed now and like the Protestant Reformation of old the world will have to adapt to this new reality.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.