WikiLeak the Night Away
The real significance of WikiLeaks?
These days I can’t go anywhere without hearing or seeing chatter them. And most of the chatter, to me, has either an old-fashioned, power-to-the-people 60’s ring to it, or a familiar hysterical, Bush–era, terrorists-are-winning frame around it.
And to me, both responses miss the point. I see the WikiLeaks event as an eerie glimpse of the post-Google world into which we are mindlessly plowing, a world in which no one is in control except the overwhelmingly powerful info-entity itself.
What struck me first about the WikiLeaks revelations was the fact that this guy Assange was going to release some 50,000 diplomatic “cables” into the E-sphere. That’s what the early reports said. I mean, fifty-thousand! Or was it 300,000? Whatever it was, to me, already, this didn’t sound like the Pentagon Papers. This didn’t seem to be about exposing some particular nefarious activity in which the government was secretly involved. This didn’t reflect a judgment about “the people’s right to know” some piece of information.
This sounded more like finding a black box with a lock on it, contents unknown, and saying, “Let’s break this thing open, spill it into the street, and see what happens.”
The revelations themselves—the ones I’ve seen, anyway—seem not so much about secrecy as about privacy. We learn, for example, that amongst themselves, U.S. diplomats were calling Karzai a mentally deranged liar and thief. Oh, like we didn’t know this opinion was circulating among U.S. diplomats? But it’s different to see the actual cable. It’s different because the comments are framed as the sort of thing people say in public.
I can’t help but speculate that if Karzai’s private conversations were leaked, we’d find that he was calling U.S. diplomats arrogant power-hungry criminals whose mothers were involved in the world’s oldest profession. Because people say all kinds of things in private.
I have a feeling that if all the private cables and conversations of diplomats from all the countries on Earth were leaked, they would seem like one endless parade of rude, foul-mouthed, mean-spirited brutes, the lot of them.
In fact, I’ll go one step further. I’ll wager that if all the private conversations of all the people on Earth were suddenly made public, the human species would seem (perhaps not inaccurately) to be an animal peculiarly given to mean-spirited slander.
You might say that, well, no one should say anything in private that they wouldn’t say in public. But if you do, you and I part company. That, to me, is not a principle honored more in the breach than the observance; it is, to me, a principle not worth honoring. The public and private spheres are different, I say: both should exist, and the integrity of both should be defended.
Lately, those who disapprove of the WikiLeaks revelations are claiming that they have the potential to endanger someone. Specifically, WikiLeaks has released a list of targets that U.S. intelligence agencies think terrorists might want to attack. The thesis is, terrorists would not have known what to attack but now they do. I have no idea if making that list public really does endanger me, or my friends, or U.S. covert agents abroad, or our troops in Afghanistan, or people in foreign countries who are cooperating with the U.S., or whatever.
But if they do—let me be clear about where I stand on this—it’s an indictment of WikiLeaks. I’m ag’in it. What particularly bothers me about these potential consequences is their unpredictable, uncontrolled nature. If “leaks” like that end up killing someone, who will the someone be? No one can predict, including Mr. Assange. Setting a chain of events in motion that could end up killing people you don’t know for reasons you can’t fathom seems immorally reckless to me.
It’s like a situation dramatized in a recent movie, the name of which I’ve forgotten: There is a button. You could push it. If you do someone unknown to you will die, and you will receive a million dollars. In the WikiLeaks case, the benefits are ambiguous, so the sentence would have to be amended from “will receive a million dollars” to “may or may not reap some unknown benefits.”
Should you push the button?
An enthusiastic supporter of WikiLeaks debunked this argument by proving to me that revealing the CIA’s list of potential terrorist targets couldn’t possibly harm anyone.
I don’t know if the proof was dead-bang, but if it was, if the information is sure to be inconsequential, what are we left with, beyond a bunch of diplomats talking trash in private? Either the leaks could have some serious consequences in which case we have some issues to talk about, or they couldn’t, in which case we have some issues to talk about.
It isn’t the leaks themselves that strike me.
It’s the fact that such a process exists. Ten years ago, I wrote an email about the events of 9/11 and sent it to twenty or thirty friends. It went viral, and soon tens of millions knew what I thought about those events.
I did not intend for this to happen. I wasn’t talking to the world, just to my twenty friends. But the moment the responses began pouring in from Argentina and South Africa, I knew that what I intended didn’t matter. Clicking SEND was an irrevocable act. That email would go where it was going, and cause whatever it would cause. I couldn’t stop, shape, change, or even know the consequences. No one could.
The autonomy of the Internet is eerie to me. It is simply there, evolving on its own, becoming whatever it will become. It shapes events in the universe and no one can predict, or shape, or change what those events will be. Engineers by the countless thousands keep inventing new apps and features and engines to attach to this immense info-organism, but none of them know what the consequences of their inventions will be. The Internet absorbs what they offer it, burps, grows two more limbs, and goes on.
WikiLeaks is just another symptom of this process. All talk of whether Assange should or should not have released the cables is irrelevant. If he hadn’t done it, someone would. Why? Because it can be done. And cannot be undone.
And anyone who discusses WikiLeaks in terms of the people’s right to know what their government is up to is missing the point. Now that the process exists, it will evolve, mutate, and metastasize. What’s finally at issue is not the privacy of diplomatic exchanges among government officials. It’s privacy itself. If WikiLeaks can make their private moments public, someone can do the same to you. And someone will.