The war between secrecy and transparency has been going on for decades, but it recently erupted into a massively public stage with the current war between multiple world governments and Wikileaks.
Whether you think Wikileaks is good or bad is up to you, but it is really besides the point, as is whether the Governments succeed in suppressing the information (which seems unlikely given the entire point to the internet is to ensure function even under massive damage, and suppression attempts previously have basically been treated as damage and simply routed around) because this is simply a highly visible battle in an eternal war between accountability and avoidance of it.
Secrecy has been the norm for much of the human race’s history. It’s the primary tool that we developed to avoid accountability. Way back when we were living in tribes, accountability was the norm, because in a tribe, with limited members, everyone knew everyone else, and everyone knew everything about everyone else. There were very very few secrets, and those secrets were generally minor, a child might hide the fact that he was the one who broke a spear that his father favored, or a couple might hide their relationship for a time. Such personal secrets mattered little to the safety of the tribe, and were thus ignored.
But other kinds of secrets could not be long concealed. If a tribe member stole from other tribemates, such a secret would soon be discovered, and the thief held accountable. A hunter who regularly refused to share his kill would be refused a share when others killed. The tribe understood that they had shared responsibilities as part of the tribe, and that those responsibilities led to rewards as part of the tribe. Deny the responsibilities, you were denied the rewards.
That’s what made cooperation worthwhile. A hunter who shared his kill would still be fed when he didn’t make a kill that day. A gatherer who collected berries would still eat if they were too sick to go pick that day. But someone who refused to assist the tribe would not long be allowed to remain in the tribe, and would thus lose the benefits of being part of the tribe.
But that changed when we began agriculture, because we began forming larger communities, and we began to have societies in which it was impossible to know everyone, or to know about everyone. Thieves could go for years without being caught, and accountability became impossible to maintain beyond a limited group of peers. Hammurabi’s laws were one of our first recorded attempts to reintroduce accountability to the larger collective, as all laws since have attempted to do.
But those laws can only be applied to those who are caught and forced to be accountable, and thus secrecy became the primary tool of avoiding accountability. A person could amass vast wealth by avoiding accountability, and derive enormous benefits from the collective society without having to ever contribute to it.
And so it has been throughout the ages, a constant struggle between attempts to enforce accountability, and attempts to avoid it at all costs. Depending on your ideological beliefs, you may not agree with me on which side is which in this current war on Wikileaks, but it illustrates a trend I have been observing for years that makes me believe that the future is going to go to transparency, and a return to a society in which accountability is restored.
We are already seeing a start towards this with the vast archives of news footage that are available to the media, which covers decades of historical data, but which goes largely unused by the majority of current media news people. There are exceptions though, such as The Daily Show, which makes a point of hunting down previous media appearances by political figures, and contrasting their current statements against the positions they have held in the past, usually pointing out rampant hypocrisy. While this has so far had little effect on the political landscape, it does show that we are increasingly able to review the “record” and could, if voters actually cared about such things, have been able to hold those politicians accountable for the swinging door of their political stances.
However the real importance of that example is to illustrate how it is possible to create records which cannot be disputed. Those videos Stewart shows reveal what was actually said and done in the past, not what someone claims that they said or did, or what their faulty memory recalls them saying or doing. It’s a cold hard factual record of reality.
The same goes for all the cables and other documents that Wikileaks has, or plans to release. Like those video tapes, they are cold hard facts that might prove impossible to hem and haw about, regardless of whether they are really harmful or not. They are truth, unvarnished by opinion, personal viewpoint, or faulty memory.
This is what makes such records so valuable, and why there are so many efforts ongoing to prevent them from becoming available to the public. They may contain absolutely nothing that might convict anyone of a crime, they might contain evidence so damaging it could collapse governments, but because there is such an effort to prevent their release, it is proving something I have been saying for years. Suppression DOES NOT WORK. It might delay the inevitable, but it will not prevent it forever.
Take for example this little tidbit. Yes, we have conclusive evidence that Bell Labs knew about magnetic recording for 60 years, and suppressed it. Think about that. Think about what might have happened in WW II if computers had been able to use magnetic storage media, about how much different the Space race might have been with 20 years of magnetic media computer development. And yet, in the end, despite this suppression, magnetic media did come about, and changed the world. We can only speculate about what might have been, but despite that sixty years of suppression, inevitably, the technology still made it out of the shadows and into widespread use.
Now, let’s contrast that with what is happening over Wikileaks, and what do we see? For one thing, we’ve seen that a lot of promises about neutrality have been empty air. Amazon caved to pressure and evicted Wikileaks, So did EveryDNS. Even the Swiss, famed for their “Neutrality”, has shut down Wikileaks bank account. And what has been the practical result? When I last checked, Wikileaks is still functioning, and checking the news about it lead me to this interesting story about how numerous peer to peer networkers are working to create a “shadow net” mirror of the ICANN registry scattered across hundreds of servers worldwide, basically bypassing the centralized control of DNS names by any official governmental agency.
And this illustrates a VAST difference between the world of 60 years ago, when Bell labs could successfully sit on a technology and delay it, and the world of today in which the entire world is connected via millions of computers and billions of communication lines. Bell Labs could control information because there were extremely few channels by which that information could leave their control. It’s more or less ceased to matter whether the information Wikileaks is planning to release ever is or not, the attempts to prevent their release has ALREADY started the creation of solutions that will ensure that the current efforts to suppress will not be able to succeed in the future.
But there is more evidence in my belief that transparency and accountability is the inevitable end result of this war between secrecy and openness, despite the seemingly endless pockets of various industries trying to ensure that nothing will ever threaten their profits. Take the ongoing war over net neutrality, in which the telecoms are desperately trying to make sure the rules get rewritten in favor of their pocketbooks. It’s understandable that they recognize that the future of networking devices is most likely going to be wireless, and that they are trying to carve out empires for themselves in which they can wring every penny of profit out of their customers while preventing those customers from having other options, but that will merely provide even more incentive for such technologies as Roofnet, a wireless connection architecture in which wireless devices ignore centralized broadcast structures (which telecoms depend on) to communicate directly with each other, creating daisy chains from device to device until they connect to the larger internet. Given that such a network is far cheaper to establish than the older, traditional network of broadcast towers, and that with the new wireless technologies which can broadcast over miles and other advances in the sensitivity of antennas, and that these new technologies also offer a massive boost in speed over existing wireless networks, which do you think is going to have a larger market penetration in developing areas? The massively expensive, centralized cell services of the telecoms, or a much cheaper, massively decentralized network that grows as fast as you turn on individual networked devices? A move to tiered services and massive fees for the telecoms now is little more than a death warrant in the near future as it locks them into a technological path that appears to be at the end of its life expectancy.
And such a decentralized network is going to be impossible to control, making it even less likely that information leaks like Wikileaks will be able to be prevented.
A third factor is the utter failure of the recording and movie industries to prevent file sharing. Despite many new measures, billions in prosecution efforts, and a very limited number of “major successes” like the case against The Pirate Bay, it should be pretty obvious that on the whole, anti-piracy measures have been a complete, and utter failure. I was working for SONY when the multi-billion dollar CD/DVD anti copying scheme that they had spent years working on proved vulnerable to a $1 Sharpie pen. Since then, I’ve seen no real evidence than any new DRM or Intellectual property protection schemes have been any more successful, but a lot of hype about the damage being done to the profit margins of companies that base their business models on being gatekeepers between an artist and their audience.
I could also go into the proliferation of cameras, and their effects, but David Brin did a wonderful job doing that already in The Transparent Society, so let me simply sum it up with this. We’re rapidly putting cameras into every corner of our world, and those cameras are already making massive numbers of records, which are in turn creating a proliferation of “real life” shows like America’s Dumbest or It Only Hurts When I Laugh. Add in the massive sales of the Kinect, and the inevitable rise of VR, and I’m sure you can see that our entire world is soon going to be as subject to the same kind of “playback” that Jon Stewart does regularly to politicians. Add in the possible use of Quadcopters as Remote Telepresence and the likelihood of your not being on camera pretty much full time, and by your own choice, is going to be pretty slim. You are going to want your life on camera, because it will be your primary defense against being on everyone else’s cameras, as well as your passport to the many wonders of VR/AR.
And the end result of all that loss of secrecy? As I stated above, a return to that early tribal ability to ensure accountability. When everything is recorded, when your every action can be proven, your every word verifiable, you will basically have exactly what James L. Halperin writes about in The Truth Machine, a way to ensure that everyone you meet is telling the truth, a way to ensure that anyone who sexually harasses you is caught, that every crime is solved, and every contract honored. It will redefine the world that we have known, and eradicate the ability of a select few to escape accountability.
But for now? It really doesn’t matter whether Wikileaks is stopped or not. It’s just the opening salvo in the final war between unaccountable elitism, and accountable equality, and there is only one real possible outcome, though there may be many partial victories for those who seek to remain unaccountable. It may take decades, but the future will belong to Transparency.