Courtesy of Mitch Joel comes a link to a fabulous article by Jaron Lanier at the Atlantic: The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks.
In the article Jaron, former hacker himself and someone who did jail time for peaceful political protest, argues that Wikileaks and Anonymous are potentially doing more harm to the notion of democracy than their supporters realise. In addition, the Cablegate saga seems to be showing the USA off in a relatively positive light, he argues.
Reflecting on his experience as a coder, he notes:
There was a time when computer code was messier, in that any piece of code could read or write to any other part. That didn’t work out well. Programs were too tangled and impossible to maintain.
So a movement to add structure to programming took root. For instance, the idea of "object oriented" code breaks a program up into encapsulated modules centered on chunks of data and code related specifically to that data. If you program in an object oriented way, you are not allowed to make the code in one object directly manipulate the interior of another. Instead, everything has to go through the proper channels.
A great many programmers hated the object oriented idea in the early days. It seemed like nothing but prissy restrictions. To others, it was simply incomprehensible how restrictions would do you any good. Wasn’t the point to be able to program anything? How could a negative be a positive? How could restrictions improve results?
And yet, ideas like object oriented programming were essential to making big programs reliable. The world we know today couldn’t exist if code had stayed as messy as it used to be. Structure is what makes information usable. Making everything totally connected and open to everything destroys structure.
The point being that ‘structure’ is required if the massive amount of data currently floating around in the world is not to be so overwhelming as to be incomprehensible and useless.
Jaron also looks at the motives on the Wikileaks team and, after pointing out some notorious cases where names and details of abortion doctors and illegal immigrants were posted, leading to at least one death, he goes on to consider what happens when the hunted becomes the hunter.
It is often pointed out that Wikileaks didn’t leak all the diplomatic cables it had, but only a small percentage that was filtered through traditional news organizations, as if this were a sign of deliberation and moderation.
But it did use all of the cables for blackmail. Encrypted copies were sent around the world, creating what is known as a "dead man switch." It was claimed that the encrypted cables contained genuinely dangerous information. Under certain circumstances the key would be released. Is this not similar to the case of the abortion doctors? "Either do what I want or I will expertly use my Internet skills to enable creepy third parties I don’t even know to harm you."
It seems that our perceptions of the two cases are strongly colored by how we feel about the targets and where we find the underdog. At the very least, the comparison demonstrates that there is no such thing as a neutral Internet leak organization. Anyone who plays the game brings biases into the work.
The same critique can and should be applied to militaries and other traditional players who have become cyber-fascinated. It is true that the U.S. military faces a moral hazard in the use of drones. An anonymous operator a world away can direct an attack, and there is an inevitable danger of forgetting the seriousness of the decision. But consider: Anonymous Wikileakers attacked anonymous drone operators, sniping from snug perches in front of computer screens. Wikileaks published the names of Afghans who were put at risk, potentially becoming collateral damage.
Isn’t it clear that we tend to become like what we mock and fear?
The point of Cablegate is to make it hard for diplomats to function. We know this is the point, since Julian Assange has described the strategy in his writing. He hopes to screw up the USA, which he considers a conspiracy of bastards, by screwing up the trust which glues the USA together. When you reveal what one person said in confidence to another, you screw up their relationships with other people. That’s what Wikileaks has come to be about with the Cablegate episode, not the revelation of deeply scandalous secrets.
Yet the controversies around radical openness are usually framed around questioning the legitimacy of keeping regulated institutional secrets. Military, commercial, and diplomatic spheres sanction more secret keeping than we are used to in civilian life.
If the distinctions between these spheres fail, then what we will lose is civilian life, since the others are ultimately indispensible. Then we’d turn into a closed society. In closed societies, like North Korea, everyday life is militarized.
You might not agree that this is what would happen, because it might seem as though fewer secrets ought to always, always mean a more open society. If you think that, you are making the same mistake those programmers who resisted structure made long ago.
Anarchy and dictatorship are entwined in eternal resonance. One never exists for long without turning to the other, and then back again. The only way out is structure, also known as democracy.
We sanction secretive spheres in order to have our civilian sphere. We furthermore structure democracy so that the secretive spheres are contained and accountable to the civilian sphere, though that’s not easy.
There is certainly an ever-present danger of betrayal. Too much power can accrue to those we have sanctioned to hold confidences, and thus we find that keeping a democracy alive is hard, imperfect, and infuriating work.
Jaron’s essay is a long and intriguing read and I strongly urge you to take the six or so minutes to read it, whether you ‘side’ with Assange et al or not.
But I have a strong fear that the rabid supporters of Assange (and there is at least one in Adelaide who annoyed quite of a few of my colleagues through their vociferous and belligerent approach to us, telling myself and others what we should be saying and doing in regard to #wikileaks) will not take the time to read the article and consider their own internal biases. Which makes sensible conversation that much harder to have and increases the likelihood that conversations will cease to take place, because as we all know it’s just not worth bothering to attempt to converse with fanatics.