requiem for certainty

Our New Age of Information Transparency: The WikiLeaks Cables

with 18 comments

So here we are: CableGate, WikiLeaks, etc., and whatever else it will come to be called.  I propose that we hyperbolically refer to all this as the First Major Event in the New Epoch of Information Transparency.  The story over at the Times offers pretty good reporting (says this amateur reader): http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/29/world/29cables.html?hp.

But there are (at least) two stories here.  There is the ‘regular’ story about diplomacy, espionage, and political intrigue.  Exciting!  But there is another story, one composed of more humble and quotidian details, which is much harder to tell, but which in this instance is painfully bright for all to see.  This is a story about information transparency, and how the internet is, once again, changing everything.

There will be plenty of attention in the coming days to the diplomacy strategies and tactics that are now unraveling across the world, as a day of millions of governmental phone calls gives way to a long night of millions of more such calls: diplomats explaining themselves, new promises being made with nothing but an earnest voice to back them up, old friends swearing about (and at) new enemies.

Midst that, there is a whole other story to be told here.  It is a story about what happens to a world where one of the basic (but not the only) commodity of information is rapidly transformed before our eyes.  What happens when the digital fact, one of our basic units of knowledge (but again not our only unit of knowledge), is opened up to the bright light of sunshine, and shows that it can no longer cloak itself in secrecy.  It is obvious that much of diplomacy practice has depended upon mendacity, and despite being obvious there is much to say about this, indeed very much (see Martin Jay’s book on this).  When transparency reigns, all of that practice, all of that diplomacy and politics, must change.

But it is not only politics that has depended upon lying and mendacity.  As a culture we prize truthfulness (see Bernard Williams’s book on this).  But we have also lost a sense of truthfulness.  This is because, in many arenas of life, we have learned how to get by without it.  Perhaps all that is over.  Perhaps all that is coming to an end.  Your wife or your husband, right now, has far more access to your email, your facebook messages, and your text messages than you would like to admit–so best to be good to her, or him, or at least to admit that you’ve been deceiving.  Romance, diplomacy, corporate behavior, even the speculative world of the gambler, have all for some time depended in essential ways on deception.  But perhaps all that is over.

Whether or not it is a good thing that transparency is appearing to trump secrecy is not really worth asking.  Shifts this momentous do not admit of evaluation.  Rather than groan in protest or cheer in celebration, it is best to just admit that we are now approaching a series of moments where the opportunities (for both gain and loss) will be, well, momentous.  The WikiLeaks CableGate is just the first (and indeed not really that) of many.  Rather than protest or celebrate, it is best for us now to begin the long labor of figuring out just how we can adjust to the new units of information we are surrounding ourselves with.  The question of whether or not they are good is as beside the point as it was for empiricists at the dawn of the new science to ask whether or not there should be such things as facts (see Mary Poovey’s book on this, provocatively titled A History of the Modern Fact).

It took us a long long time to adjust to the unit of information we so unthinkingly refer to today as the fact.  How long will it take us to adjust to that bold new unit of information that we might call the digital fact, and the requirement of transparency that thereby seems built-in?

As a final note, if you don’t believe that information transparency is, in fact, here to stay, then you might want to read Peter Ludlow’s excellent piece in a recent issue of The Nation, titled “WikiLeaks and Hacktivist Culture“.

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Written by Colin Koopman

November 29, 2010 at 4:39 am

18 Responses

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  1. A good example of somebody who just doesn’t get it (i.e., ‘how to look painfully stupid in today’s world’): “Bottom line: It is now much more difficult for a determined actor to get access to and move information outside of authorized channels,” [a Pentagon spokesperson, whose name doesn’t matter] wrote in an e-mail to reporters Sunday.” The contents of the leaked cables, for instance the cable revealing that the Chinese Government ably broke into Google computers, reveal that this sort of attitude is just now thoroughly outdated. Day by day, it will become easier and easier to access such information.

    Colin Koopman

    November 29, 2010 at 5:10 am

  2. Nice post Colin. “When transparency reigns, all of that practice, all of that diplomacy and politics, must change.” Surely you are right about this, and it’s not only some shrouded staff room that has to open up, but *us* — as you alluded to.

    Teague Tubach

    November 29, 2010 at 5:21 am

  3. I’m not sure I get what makes what you’re calling a digital fact categorically different from non-digital facts.

    First, doesn’t Assange’s site perform the same role as an irresponsible newspaper? Has whistleblowing fundamentally changed?

    Second, I’m not sure the struggle between those who have something to hide and those interested in uncovering secrets has fundamentally changed in the digital age. Cryptography, for example, has been around for ages. There are always some who are more behind the curve than others.

    Apart from these empirical concerns, won’t digital facts be subject to interpretation, etc? They’re not totally transparent, right? Care to expound a bit?

    Zach VanderVeen

    November 29, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    • What’s irresponsible about truthfulness? If diplomacy depends on mendacity, then diplomats better damn well know that they live in a world in which secrecy is at a greater premium than ever. In yesteryear secrecy could be easily bought. It is now more expensive than ever.

      The question, for me, is not: ‘Is Assange guilty of leaking secrets?’ As Peter Ludlow points out in the piece cited above, this extends well beyond Assange. If he hadn’t done it, somebody else would have. Pvt. Manning (and others who have state’s secrets) could have easily published their documents to a number of servers worldwide (in fact they did) and just told people who are interested where to find them. Is Pvt. Manning guilty? Once again, it goes beyond that.

      If you write down a note, put it in an envelope, write ‘secret’ on the envelope, and then tell me that I am guilty of information trespass when I find the envelope on the sidewalk and share it with me friends. The form, the sociotechnical conditions of possibility, of secrecy and hence mendacity have changed.

      If state operatives store a bunch of information somewhere and label it ‘secret’ but are careless in storing it such that it’s relatively easy for somebody to come along and make copies of the information, who is at fault?

      The person who copied the information, because there is some inherent and inviolable moral right of secrecy that the state has? If you think so, then you need a damn strong theory to justify that moral right. If your justification is a real-politik justification, then you have also justified the other side thereby. If your justification is foundationalist (as I expect it would be for most people), then you need to be able to show that you have access to the correct moral foundation, but nobody in the history of modern moral thought has been able to show that they have this.

      Or is the state at fault for relying on forms of secrecy whose sociotechnical conditions of possibility have expired? I think the latter. But I agree the change is momentous. The question that concerns me is this: are we prepared to admit this? or are we going to continue to force new epistemological conditions into old epistemological molds?

      (Hope all is well with you, Zach! How’s life?)

      Colin Koopman

      November 30, 2010 at 3:10 am

  4. Does this really curb mendacity or merely shunt it to another arena? Zach asks what the difference is between a digital fact and any other; one difference is that the digital fact opened a new realm of private interaction – the words “new” and “interaction” being most key. What you wouldn’t dare express about your boss while in the office, you could exclaim on facebook with proud deprecation. What facebook users are beginning to learn about that forum, heads of state are now learning about their own digital means of communication: your boss is reading your posts.

    So Zach’s entirely right, the digital fact bears strong resemblance to older facts. The difference is that the digital fact is new. Like past methods of confidential communication, people had come to rely on password protection to provide them with the freedom to express the truth, albeit to a (formerly presumed) limited forum. Now they realize the fragility of that privacy, in a way that hearing countless individual recountings of identity theft just doesn’t capture.

    My question: what does this mean for mendacity? Let’s arguendo that people will take this seriously, that we’ll stop assuming that their privacy settings are more in order than poor innocent victim to my right that had his google buzz leaked to the world. Let’s say that we do stop relying on password protection to provide an inalienable arena of private interaction. Does that mean we’ll simply say what we mean? Politicians will start exhibiting truthfulness in their dealings with the world? Or have they lost what small forum for truthfulness they had and will soon retreat within themselves? Leaving nothing but the lies on the surface. At least before we had an arena for truthful interaction, although we were choosey about who we’d be truthful with. Where we will turn now?

    Final Question: Does Iris Young have the answers to all my questions in her decades old bid for a new concept of the private that’s comfortable in the public? Would that reduce mendacity or increase it? Did I just restate Zach’s point by looking twenty years ago for answers?

    Jesse Grove

    November 30, 2010 at 1:57 am

    • I think it will force people back into truthfulness. Or at least they will need to craft new creative forms of mendacity. They will probably do the latter. But they can’t tell lies on the basis of old technologies of lying. That’s my point.

      Just for fun, here is another harsh insult slung at somebody who has uttered something utterly ridiculous: “[Rep. Peter King, R- NY] also called on Clinton to declare Wikileaks a foreign terrorist organization.” When you start paying attention to politicians, it’s absolutely astounding just how plain stupid, in the technical sense of unreflective, they are. Is this man a stone? Does he think? Does he feel? Does he exhibit any more intelligence than just a dumb gob of mud? Since when, ever, is watchdog journalism equivalent to terrorism?

      (Hope you are well too! See you soon.)

      Colin Koopman

      November 30, 2010 at 3:15 am

  5. (Hey Colin, I just found this–great stuff!)

    I find Zach’s comments compelling because my interactions on facebook and whatnot do not lead me to believe that we are entering an era of truthfulness and leaving an era of mendacity. The issue is not whether one category will trump the other, but how these categories are mediated. The forms of access to truth (and lies, for that matter) have changed. Truth is now mediated differently.

    I think Colin does hit on something, though. With the new changes in media we can’t be sure who will have access to facts–old strategies of concealing facts are failing, new strategies have not yet been created. Time for another requiem for certainty, Who will stumble across the truth? This is less certain now than it was before. These rapidly changing avenues of mediation have us bewildered, so perhaps the safe choice is to err on the side of truth because we can’t really know to whom the facts may eventually be revealed. Digifacts–to use a Deleuzean term–are nomadic; they don’t stay put; they wander about, and they disclose themselves willy-nilly.

    In other words, and I think this is Colin’s point, the truth is more frightening because it is less certain. Used to be we knew how to control its effects, “But perhaps all that is over.”

    So maybe the consequence of the digifact is that truth becomes more less certain, something to fret over, something that could break out at any moment and shift our world in a variety of directions. If that’s the case, then the upshot seems to me not that we are entering an era of truthfulness, but that the power to control the truth, to sets its terms, to mediate it, is less controllable. Truth has become wilder, less predictable, nomadic. No longer able to control the effects of truth, truth makes us into nomads: those who will flourish will be those loose enough to ride its erratic effects.

    Jeff Edmonds

    November 30, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    • Nice. I like this. Can it be put in terms of new conditions for truth and truthfulness? It’s not so much that there will now be more truth, but rather that there will be more of a certain kind (modality) of truth.

      In the end it may be more useful to talk about it in rather different terms of disclosure, transparency, publicity, &c..

      Truth is such a famously slippery concept. I can hardly hold onto it any longer.

      (Sorry for delayed reply!)

      Colin Koopman

      December 7, 2010 at 4:48 pm

  6. There’s a lot of ideas going on here. I’m really not trying to blame anyone. I’m just trying to understand what conditions of possibility have changed and how they change what a fact is. Are you saying that the dissemination of information opens up data so that they can be more easily confirmed and disseminated? Is it a difference in degree that makes a difference in kind?

    I will say that, though I’m not so sure about these recent leaks, the previous leaks of Afghan informants were definitely irresponsible. I worry about valorizing truthfulness. It’s not an automatic good. Anyone who’s been in a serious relationship knows that truth does not trump all. I know very little about diplomacy, but I would expect the same.

    That’s why I’m interested in understanding what exactly is different here. It’s hard for me to see something new. We’re always hearing about how x is going to usher in a new era of y. It seems to me that it’s the little and pervasive changes (like email) that are the most revolutionary. I’m not sure the nature of verification or the many valences facts can have will be changing any time soon.

    Zach VanderVeen

    December 1, 2010 at 1:53 am

    • I don’t see an ontological/epochal difference at work in this case, seems to be more a matter of differing consequences, but I do see this as part of the emerging discussion/understanding of the new centrality of risk/uncertainty/security in our public dialogues.

      dmf

      December 1, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    • I agree that it’s the little changes that count. Most definitely so. The humble little email client is massive. But it is massive only as part of a broader apparatus or assemblage of related techniques. This is the difference between technique (little) and technology (bigger), or again between practices (little) and problematizations (massive).

      My view is that WikiLeaks itself is a humble little entity. It could perfectly well not exist. It’s just one more little thing. What it provides (for me) is a nice image that paradigmatically captures the newer, broader, problematization that is altering conditions of possibility for truthfulness (modalities of truth? digifact-hood? &c.?) now. One need only glimpse a little bit how excited (in all senses of that word!) everyone is about WikiLeaks and related things to see that this area is most definitely fraught and problematic. Energy is accumulating here.

      A post on Assange in a second.

      Colin Koopman

      December 7, 2010 at 4:55 pm

  7. Colin, are you taking up the Simon Critchley line of neo-anarchism here? http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/06/07/100607fa_fact_khatchadourian?currentPage=all

    dmf

    December 14, 2010 at 8:18 pm

  8. I’ve been away from the academy for over a year and a half now, so forgive me if my post lacks sufficient trendy jargon.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the issues of privacy and transparency, not simply as a result of the Wikileaks fiasco, but also because I stumbled upon something most intriguing: a transhumanist roleplaying game. What amazes me about this game, known as Eclipse Phase, is the way in which it takes an enormous number of disparate ideas from assorted futurists and cobbles together a living, breathing, evolving transhuman world.

    Of relevance here is how Eclipse Phase’s successor to the internet, known as the Mesh, comes to dominate social interaction. Privacy as we understand it, becomes a thing of the past. Surveillance becomes so cheap and easy that it becomes the default. Everywhere is monitored, but most of these cameras and sensor systems are publicly accessible. Facebook-like social networking systems keep track of people’s reputations in a way that literally forms an alternative economy in some habitats. A person can look at you walking down the street, and instantly bring up who you are, what you’ve been doing online, where you’ve been physically, who your friends and enemies are, etc., all appearing in an entoptic (“on the eye”) AR (“augmented reality”) display. What little privacy remains becomes extremely expensive.

    I think this is where we are headed. If we are to live in a surveillance society, let it also be a “sousveillance” society (this is a term I borrow from Eclipse Phase, though I’m not sure its original provenance, it means watching from the bottom up). If everyone can keep tabs on everyone else, then at least we’re on a more level playing field.

    Recall that early human hunter-gatherer societies had a similar dearth of privacy. In a village of 200, everyone literally knows everyone. Gossip means that anti-social behavior can be discouraged through ostracism and similar means. Only in mass societies was real privacy–and later, the more extreme version, anonymity–a possibility. It intrigues me that technology will more than return us to that state, and may even leave our very thoughts laid bare for others to read with the proper neuroscanning technology. (Imagine a TSA of the not-too-distant future, scanning people’s bodies for weapons, their minds for violent thoughts.)

    One advantage, at least, is that anti-social behavior may be easier to isolate and get a handle on. There’s so much rudeness on the internet today in large part because there is at least a semblance of anonymity. (Not that rudeness is such a terrible problem, all things considered.) With fewer places to hide, the feeling of always being watched (does that mean God and Santa Claus are no longer necessary?), people will tend to be on their best behavior.

    Dom

    December 16, 2010 at 6:52 am


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