December 8, 2010

NYRB blog: WikiLeaks in the Moral Void

Christian Caryl has an insightful post on the NYRB blog, “WikiLeaks in the Moral Void.” As he astutely says about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks,

In practical terms it seems to boil down to a policy of disclosure for disclosure’s sake. This is what the technology allows, and Assange has merely followed its lead. I don’t see coherently articulated morality, or even immorality, at work here at all; what I see is an amoral, technocratic void.

There have been so many times, historically, that good ends have been served by bringing information to light the government or other organizations wanted to conceal that it can be difficult to see the radical effect that the internet is having on the implications of transparency as a value. Sunshine laws have always built in limitations on disclosure for good reasons, but in popular thinking these limitations haven’t changed the way many people think about transparency as a value per se. Now, in the case of WikiLeaks, it seems that technical tools are realizing that value to an absolute degree. I think librarians who admire Julian Assange as a matter of reflex should stop to consider how our basic framework of values is affected by technology in this area. To think that the world would be a better place if there were total transparency, no distinction between public and private, inside and outside, would, I think, amount to a failure to think things through. Instead of making a hero out of Julian Assange, I think we should study WikiLeaks as an example of the social effects of technology. What does it tell us about how the internet amplifies certain human tendencies as opposed to others? About the effect of the internet on international relations and people’s relationship to the state? Do we know why we react to something like WikiLeaks the way we do, prior to thinking about it?

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6 Comments »

  1. What galls me is the way the press vilifies Assange for basically doing what they ostensibly *ought* to be doing as a free and independent press, with aggressive investigative journalism, etc.

    I don’t care what Mr. Assange’s motives are or his personal morality or lack thereof. I do care about holding ostensibly democratic government(s) more accountable to their citizens, and Wikileaks has been helping to do this, so good on them for that.

    Instead of tut-tutting the conscientious librarians for offering “knee-jerk support” for Mr. Assange et. al. at Wikileaks, why not some genuine criticism for the knee-jerk condemnation of Mr. Assange by the establishment press and the millions of Americans who swallow their vilification of the man uncritically and view him as an “enemy combatant” and probably “Al Qaida sympathizer” for good measure…

    Comment by JJR — December 10, 2010 @ 3:30 am

  2. JJR… What are your thoughts on Caryl’s piece?

    Comment by Rory Litwin — December 10, 2010 @ 7:10 am

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with JJR. Based on interviews, Assange’s goal seems to be to force governments to have more difficulty in being secretive, which in turn forces them to be more honest about what they’re doing in our names. While the leaks so far have been characterized as inconsequential, “nothing everybody didn’t already know,” etc., there is also some damning stuff in there–military contractors hiring child prostitutes and Nigeria as a puppet state for Shell. It’s almost laughable that the outrage is directed at Assange and his organization rather than the wrongdoing our government has perpetrated (or at the very least been complicit in) for years.

    Comment by DB — December 11, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  4. DB – What are your thoughts on Caryl’s piece?

    Comment by Rory Litwin — December 11, 2010 @ 10:39 am

  5. To return to the point of your post–apologies–I don’t believe that Assange is motivated purely by what technology allows him to do. I don’t think he’s doing it just because he can, and I agree with you that we should not praise him for doing it simply because it’s possible. Rather, it is a tool to achieve a goal (specifically, to reveal systemic corruption and exploitation). Furthermore, it is not necessarily true that his ultimate goal is 100% governmental transparency with no secrets; I think claiming so is a straw-man argument.

    As to Carryl’s piece:
    1. Carryl complains that WL released the documents to the internet at large rather than to journalists solely. He has missed the point here in that Assange and WL consider the media part of the problem, and I would agree. (I don’t know anything about the author, but the publication he is writing for suggests that he might be employed by a news corporation, which we ought to keep in mind.)

    2. WL actually HAS been working with newspapers such as the Guardian to vet the releases and redact some information. What differentiates this process from the traditional expose, then, is that WL is ALSO posting the original documents themselves (after vetting) online for everyone to see. This means that journalists play a part in conveying the information, but their corporate and governmental institutions do not ultimately control it.

    3. Regarding Carryl’s rhetoric: he accuses WL of revealing everything just because they can, but then he goes back and criticizes (if sarcastically?) their redactions: “If their goal is indeed ‘to open up the inner workings of a closed and complex system,’ then shouldn’t they be publishing everything?” In other words, he contradicts himself. Much as he characterizes WL as doing with their goals.

    4. Carryl writes that he does not know Assange’s motivations, characterizing them as morally void, and only bothering to quote the WL website. (By the way, Assange and WL are not synonymous, even though he is the organization’s spokesperson.) Yet some really good interviews have been conducted recently with Assange, in which he explains his views. I’m not sure whether Carryl is being intellectually lazy here or deliberately ignoring his subject’s side of the story.

    5. He again misses the point in bemoaning the irrelevance of some of the published files. The releases are as much (if not more) about the a) existence of such volumes of data and b) the capability of leakers to make the data known as they are about the specific information we’ve seen so far. Sorry, that’s poorly worded–I guess a better way of saying it is, we can judge the efficacy of the releases by the government’s reaction, which is a panicked one. The US government (and others) are less concerned by the specific facts that have been revealed than by the possibility that such releases have happened and could happen again. In that way, I think it is important that WL both made it known that they had such a large volume of documents, and released those documents, however irrelevant (lest they be accused of holding important information back). In short: the medium is the message.

    To get back to libraries and the original point of your own post, I agree with not jumping at technology’s possibilities for their own sake. But in this case, I believe that what WL is (overall, at least) a good thing, and therefore I support their application of technology in this situation. Apologies for the long-winded post.

    Comment by DB — December 11, 2010 @ 11:16 am

  6. Also, one last point: personally–I cannot speak for WL or Assange or all of their supporters–I am not arguing for a government that can keep no secrets, ever. I am not arguing for 100% free information for everyone over the internet with zero privacy. I am advocating for a government that is less secretive and that does not commit immoral acts in my name. I do recognize the need for some secrecy on the government’s part (and for privacy on the part of its citizens). However, we ought to consider who it is that is embarrassing the government: Wikileaks with its releases (as the media has portrayed it), or the government itself with its own actions?

    Comment by DB — December 11, 2010 @ 11:24 am

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