Mike the Mad Biologist

“Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, ‘intellectual property’, the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.”

-Stewart Brand

Many pundits have been discussing what Wikileaks means for either governments or corporations, which, in some cases, has led to some sycophancy and elitism*. The underlying issue with Wikileaks that I haven’t really seen discussed is that besides the concealing party (e.g., the government) and the obscured party (e.g., the public) there is usually a ‘disappeared’ third party–the subject of the concealment.

And the subject’s interest has been left completely out of the discussion. In some cases, hiding information is good thing: we all have personal failling we would like to keep hidden, and, in many cases, exposing those failing does little good for anyone else. But secrecy enables two things:

1) Conspiracies. I don’t mean this in a X-Files sense, but only in that the parties with access to the information don’t want others to know this information. Personal privacy is well-served by this, but democratic government is not.

2) Continued victimization. Here, the restriction of information directly harms the obscured party (I’ll discuss this more when I talk about corporate data).

Let’s consider conspiracies first. Take for instance the revelation that Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s brother is a drug-dealing piece of shit.

Karzai knows his brother is a drug-dealing piece of shit, Karzai’s brother knows he is a drug-dealing piece of shit, and the U.S. government knows he is a drug-dealing piece of shit. The only ones who don’t know Karzai’s brother is a drug-dealing piece of shit are the American people, who, by the way, paid for this information and might start to wonder just how much freedom is actually on the march.

Here, worries about how ‘hard’ diplomacy will become are misplaced. When your diplomatic strategy involves negotiating with drug-dealing pieces of shit, it’s time to take a step back, and ask a more basic question: why are we entreating with drug-dealing pieces of shit in the first place? I would argue that this particular style of ‘diplomacy’–which most Americans, whether they are of the ‘bomb them back to the Stone Age’ school or the ‘get out now’ school, find repellent and unnecessary (because either getting out or blowing them up is what should be done)–should be difficult, if not impossible. (Where are the Tea Buggerers screaming about elitism when we really need them?)

Then there’s the soon-to-be-released corporate information from a major bank. While the castratos of the Mandarin class sing about what this might mean for business (Intelligent Designer forbid they might actually have to act transparently and obey the law), this revelation could help those who have been victimized by the Too Big to Fail banks–at some level, that includes most of us. It will probably be more informative than either most financial churnalism journalism or Congressional hearings, which is a statement about the failings of our institutions of government and governance:

If you are a person who believes our current system is working well and that the mandarins, technocrats and their wealthy benefactors are competent and righteous and that we can safely leave our futures in their hands, then you will not like what Assange is up to. If, on the other hand, you are a teensy bit concerned that these elites might not know what they are doing (or even worse, might know very well what they are doing and it’s clearly not in your best interest) then you may find it useful to look at the way the world is organized with a fresh set of data.

If you believe in free markets, surely those getting jobbed should have access that information.

No one can dump this much data without there being significant consequences, but it seems that there has been far less direct discussion about who gains and who loses. On the whole, it seems that most of us will gain, even if those gains happen messily (democracy, and all that).

Which is, of course, why our betters are freaking out about this.

*Elitism is the correct pejorative here. It’s one thing not to meddle excessively, but when information that bears directly on the ability to assess the success of a strategy is concealed for our ‘benefit’, as I noted regarding Afghanistan, this implies that the rest of us should not be commenting on policy and leave it to our betters. Problem is, our betters are pretty fucking stupid.

Comments

  1. #1 megan
    December 3, 2010

    My favorite Tweet about this that I emailed to friends

    “WikiLeaks is what happens when the entire US government is forced to go through a full-body scanner.”
    Posted by Bungalow Bill(twitter)

    I think it’ll be great because for the more fairly truthful type personalities and countries, they won’t have to be so duplicitous and instead allow published and private be the near same when negotiating in plain face and talk.