Friday, January 07, 2011

I'm not particularly persuaded by Jaron Lanier or this article.

Nevertheless, there is something interesting in the debate he raises here :

The strategy of Wikileaks, as explained in an essay by Julian Assange, is to make the world transparent, so that closed organizations are disabled, and open ones aren't hurt. But he's wrong. Actually, a free flow of digital information enables two diametrically opposed patterns: low-commitment anarchy on the one hand and absolute secrecy married to total ambition on the other.

While many individuals in Wikileaks would probably protest that they don't personally advocate radical ideas about transparency for everybody but hackers, architecture can force all our hands. This is exactly what happens in current online culture. Either everything is utterly out in the open, like a music file copied a thousand times or a light weight hagiography on Facebook, or it is perfectly protected, like the commercially valuable dossiers on each of us held by Facebook or the files saved for blackmail by Wikileaks.

The Wikileaks method punishes a nation -- or any human undertaking -- that falls short of absolute, total transparency, which is all human undertakings, but perversely rewards an absolute lack of transparency. Thus an iron-shut government doesn't have leaks to the site, but a mostly-open government does.

If the political world becomes a mirror of the Internet as we know it today, then the world will be restructured around opaque, digitally delineated power centers surrounded by a sea of chaotic, underachieving openness. Wikileaks is one prototype of a digital power center, but others include hedge funds and social networking sites.

Personally, I don't think he's backed up the assumption that wikileaks's avowed objectives are unachievable or that we'll end up with silos of locked-down private data. After all, until recently, much of the US government's data might have been imagined to be more secure than it turned out. It's not yet clear that the US is punished for transparency whereas China is rewarded for opacity. China is one leak away from being seen as equally vulnerable.

Will that leak never come because of their better security measures? Because of their unwillingness to share data internally? Because of their less individualistic culture?

Or is it simply that it hasn't happened yet?

Even if China buys secrecy at the cost of major internal compartmentalisation, this could still be victory for Wikileaks, as Assange will have imposed his "secrecy tax" on it. Of course, China may be able to afford that tax. I suspect that in even the medium term it can't.

But most of the conspiracies that wikileaks is trying to tax / disrupt are between independent agents (eg. two governments, government and corporation, between separate senior managers). The fear of leaks then, is a fear of betrayal by your partner. The Chinese government may have its own employees locked down in fear. But it can't get into a conspiracy with Ukraine or Microsoft if it can't be sure of Ukraine's citizens or Microsoft's employees.

1 comment:

John Powers said...

I'm off point and I can't quite put my finger on why reading Lanier made me think of your "sarcasm doesn't scale." Today's news has Sarah Palin striking back against criticism of her incendiary rhetoric. She calls it "blood libel."

Another nebulous connection to your post: Palin's comment reminded me of a post you did about a bust of a online criminal enterprise where you applied netocratic theory of imploitation and its inherent limitations in keeping secrets.

Lanier is right to point out: "Openness in itself, as the prime driver of events, doesn't lead to achievement or creativity." But I do think that openness, not so much as a virtue but an inevitability, puts reason solidly on the table.