Now that Clay Shirkey has posted the following on Wikileaks, there’s very little left for me to say. Shirky expresses I hope the discomfort of many when they read of otherwise wise individuals embracing the idea of extralegal action against Wikileaks (including thinly veiled threats of violence.) Are people nuts?
So I’ll restrict my comments to some thoughts about how the Wikileaks/open internet controversy appears to me to be part of the next big battle in the millenia-long war over the proper relationship between government and society. When I was a kid in college, some 35 years ago, I came to hope that government is in essence a temporary construct, a necessary evil. Humans need to cooperate on a whole host of transactions to make living with each other more pleasant, particularly as we clumped into larger and larger groups, and for millenia we’ve decided to hand over day-to day responsibility for this management function to something we call government. Actually we didn’t quite always hand it over; in the beginning some people or institutions such as warriors, priests, or religions actually just kind of grabbed the power and the populations essentially acquiesced. But even before the ancient Greeks, some communities were trying to figure out ways to handle these transactions and resolve differences in ways that didn’t require the creation of a permanent governing class, which unfortunately throughout history has tended to acquire a PERSONALITY OF ITS OWN, and, darn it, not always a very pleasant one.
So for all my adult life, I’ve been kind of a practical libertarian in the sense I always thought government was a lamentable but unavoidable fact of the human condition. (Along with this conviction, is the related view that the worst characteristic of humans is the desire to control others–the conviction that “I know the best way forward and you’re going to follow me or else.” (I’m afraid, based on admittedly incomplete knowledge, that Julian Assange suffers this all-too-common affliction) That’s why I tweeted the other day that the people I most admire in history have been those with radical goals who adopted moderate tactics. It’s always seemed to me that your pursuit of change always has to leave open the possibility you might be wrong and/or that better ideas exist. Going a little bit more slowly than your ardent followers would want is one way of accommodating that possibility.)
But back to imagining a good world with minimal Government. In the last ten years or so, the internet revolution, the ability to link millions across the globe in essentially peaceful dialogue (Twitter) got me to hoping we might eventually think our way through to a self-organizing planet. Woohoo!! Now there are lots of problems, not the least of which is the “I’m right, you’re wrong”, the “I’m better, you’re not”, and the “We’re together, you’re the ‘other’” pathologies that plague the planet. I know, I know, but, gosh, a Puerto Rican can hope.
This revolution underway is not, of course, the first global revolution against previous concepts of government. The Age of Enlightenment marked by the American and French Revolutions, essentially discredited the “divine right of kings” concept of government. And the collapse of the remaining aristocracies at the beginning of the last century brought down the idea that only a particular, genetically-defined group of people could serve as the governing class. (I know this is a distorted thumbnail view of history, I’m leaving out all the really thrilling economic bits, for example, not to mention the cultural dimension, but I’m already at 580 words…)
And so the Wikileaks controversy is unfortunately part of the next battle in this effort to define the relationship between government and society. What’s at stake in this battle is the idea that governments require secrecy and control of information to protect its citizens and that there are a lot of things that citizens just don’t need to know. Many people are arguing against this concept, including many politicians who are winning elections based on the call for more open and transparent government. Many existing governments in power, in fact, are demanding that other governments be more open.
Now, unfortunately, I don’t think Wikileaks is a particularly good ally to have in this battle, because it is taking an absolutist position–nothing needs to be secret –and because it is increasingly clear it’s agenda is not really about open government and transparency. Before its most recent leaks, most advocates of open government probably viewed Wikileaks much in the same way Winston Churchill viewed Josef Stalin during World War II; now advocates of open government and transparency need to be clear as to whether they want Wikileaks to represent their goals and vision. I don’t.
But that doesn’t mean I completely support how governments are reacting. One of the lessons I’ve learned in life is that when something unfortunate happens, it is difficult to contain the damage; lots of other suboptimal consequences follow. Eventually we will navigate through this period and come to a better understanding and an agreement between government and the governed as to what is appropriate transparency. I suspect this transparency will be much greater than most members of the governing class can imagine today. And it will be a necessary precondition for much greater social self-organization and much smaller and less secret government.