The Wikileads debate: Jaron Lanier's TheAtlantic piece (and some responses)
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about what my position on Wikileaks i.e. Cablegate should be. Some of the best - and also most thought-provoking - insights have come from a recent, hotly contested piece on TheAtlantic.com, written by computer scientist, virtual reality pioneer and musician Jaron Lanier (who I have met once or twice in the past).
I am not sure I agree with everything that Jaron says (in fact, I don't - I hope to publish my own take on these issues soon) but he makes some very valid points about openness and the future of the Internet that I think really merit our consideration and made me think, so I figured I should share them with you (all snippets are quotes from his piece, highlights are mine):
- "The Internet can and must be redesigned to reflect a more moderate and realistically human-centered philosophy...openness in itself, as the prime driver of events, doesn't lead to achievement or creativity.
- A sufficiently copious flood of data creates an illusion of omniscience, and that illusion can make you stupid. Another way to put this is that a lot of information made available over the internet encourages players to think as if they had a God's eye view, looking down on the whole system.
- To me, both right wing extremist leaks and Wikileaks are for the most part resurrections of old-fashioned vigilantism...vigilantism has always eroded trust and civility, but what's new online is the sterile imprimatur of a digital ideology that claims to offer automatic betterment. But if there's one lesson of history, it is that seeking power doesn't change the world. You need to change yourself along with the world. Civil disobedience is a spiritual discipline as much as anything else.
- You need to have a private sphere to be a person, or for that matter for anything creative to happen in any domain. This is the principle I described as "encapsulation" in You Are Not a Gadget.
- Imagine openness extrapolated to an extreme. What if we come to be able to read each other's thoughts? Then there would be no thoughts. Your head has to be different from mine if you are to be a person with something to say to me.
- I used to think that an open world would favor the honest and the true, and disfavor the schemers and the scammers. In moderation this idea has some value, but if privacy were to be vanquished, people would initially become dull, then incompetent, and then cease to exist. Hidden in the idea of radical openness is an allegiance to machines instead of people.
- I bring this up to say that asking whether secrets in the abstract are good or bad is ridiculous. A huge flow of data that one doesn't know how to interpret in context is either useless or worse than useless, if you let it impress you too much. A contextualized flow of data that answers a question you know how to ask can be invaluable. If we want to understand all the sides of an argument, we have to do more than copy files.
- Random leaking is no substitute for focused digging. The "everything must be free and open" ideal has nearly bankrupted the overseas news bureaus.
- 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. The flip side of responsibly held secrets, however, is trust.
- A perfectly open world, without secrets, would be a world without the need for trust, and therefore a world without trust. What a sad sterile place that would be: A perfect world for machines"
- "Lanier thus conflates the right to privacy of persons with the privilege of non-disclosure that states may sometimes exercise. Raising personhood in this context is irrelevant and dangerous.
- "I give you private information about corporations for free," SNL's Assange quipped, "And I'm a villain. Mark Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he's the Man of the Year."
- In my talk about Wikileaks at the Personal Democracy Forum recently, I emphasized that we should not see information by itself as a change agent and that a glut of information, especially without context and political leverage, may not result in meaningful change. That, however, is not an argument for less information.
- During these past weeks, rather than a nerd takeover, I saw the crumbling of the facade of a flat, equal, open Internet and the revelation of an Internet which has corporate power occupying its key crossroads, ever-so-sensitive to any whiff of displeasure by the state. I saw an Internet in danger of becoming merely an interactive version of the television in terms of effective freedom of speech. Remember, the Internet did not create freedom of speech; in theory, we always had freedom of speech--it's just that it often went along with the freedom to be ignored. People had no access to the infrastructure to be heard. Until the Internet, the right to be heard was in most cases reserved to the governments, deep pockets, and corporate media. Before the Internet, trees fell in lonely forests.
- The real cause for concern is the emergence of an Internet in which arbitrary Terms-of-Service can be selectively employed by large corporations to boot content they dislike. What is worrisome is an Internet in which it is very easy to marginalize and choke information.
- What the Wikileaks furor shows us is that a dissent tax is emerging on the Internet.
- We don't have sufficiently-developed laws protecting us as our commons have moved to privately-owned spaces on the Internet. Lanier misses the fact that this is an issue of design, motive and choice.
- I reiterate that one does not need to be a fan of Wikileaks to reject the notion that rather than demand increased transparency and disclosure from institutions with power, we should trust them because trust is a human value. Going back to my starting point, it appears that Lanier is once again conflating human-to-human relations and human-institution relations and suggesting that the same principles should apply to them. A world in which humans don't trust each other is indeed cold and inhumane. A world in which we trust powerful institutions merely on principle is one where we abdicate our responsibilities as citizens and human beings..."
So what do you think? Please comment below.
Update: check out this video: journalist John Pilger in conversation with Julian Assange