Monday, December 06, 2010

WikiLeaks and Open Government

I argue with my friend Amy Bruckman about the goodness of WikiLeaks on her blog. Basically she's taking the not unreasonable position that institutions need to be able to have a degree of privacy if they are to operate, and I'm saying, well, if your institution is up to no good, then it deserves to have its veil torn away. And the function of WikiLeaks, and the press more generally, is to provide that kind of a check to power.

I don't think there is an objective ethical solution to this (which she seems to be trying to provide). It's a battle of interests between the institutional insiders and outsiders.

On NPR I heard a guy from the Government Accountability Project criticize WikiLeaks for being irresponsible, and damaging their efforts to get better legal protections for responsible whistleblowers. That was a very good argument, I thought, although it still seems to highlight a division between "insiders" (in this case, lawyers who want to get good laws passed) and "outsiders" (the hacker/anarchist/whatevers of wikileaks). I am temperamentally sympathetic to outsiders, but I suppose more real change happens due to the boring activities of the more adult insiders.

Tom Slee is a guy who write critically of libertarianism and starry-eyed technology visionaries, and usually I agree with him, but I think his take on Open Government is overly negative. Here he's talking about the relationship between WikiLeaks and Open Gov, because apparently a lot of other people are, but this seems very confused. Open Gov is about making very ordinary government data and services public, like crime statistics or health code violations, with the idea that developers and others will create apps that help connect government to the citizenry in useful ways. I think this is a great idea, although with an associated hype bubble. But it's basically an apolitical idea, a technocratic vision that thinks the government should do basically what it does now, but more efficiently and with sexier interfaces than you typically associate with the DMV. Nobody in the Open Gov movement, as far as I know, expects the CIA or DoD to open up their operations to anybody with an iPhone. WikiLeaks is just operating at a very different level of government with very different issues, and I don't see the two as having a whole lot to do with each other.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the mention. Maybe I'm turning into a grumpy old man and I would hate that, so I'll go and think about what you say.

Anonymous said...

What is interesting about the latest Wikileaks documents is how flustered so many typically left-wing folk are about them. When it was just military information, that was "ho-hum, not much here to see." Now that it is State Department cables, we witness adverse commentary on NPR, and Dianne Feinstein foaming at the mouth in today's Wall Street Journal about how the Espionage Act of 1917 ought to be used to prosecute Julian Assange and others.

Naturally when people of such a deeply pink shade start making a fuss about something, I wonder if there might not be merit in it.

I think what we're observing here has to do with the content of these documents, as opposed to the previous military ones. The left has always regarded the U.S. armed forces with a mixture of suspicion, hatred, and contempt. They view it as a fount of reaction, its officer corps as characters out of "Dr. Strangelove," and its enlisted personnel as low-IQ rednecks who might as well be killed off to reduce the white Christian element in the American electorate, the more swiftly to replace them with third-world immigrants. Thus, revealing military information that might lead to losses or humiliation for the armed forces is not to be regretted, but applauded.

The State Department and diplomatic corps are quite another matter. Here it is useful to make reference to Moldbug's concept of "The Cathedral." The military are but its outer guardians, grudgingly accepted while despised and mistrusted. They never enter the hallowed space beyond its porch, or at most its antechambers; they are easily dispensable. The State Department, on the other hand, is the sanctum sanctorum, wherein only the high priesthood are permitted to enter. Their secrets must be defended at all costs; little does it matter that soldiers or sailors might die, but that a high-ranking official at State might be embarrassed - why, that's quite another matter!

The banality and obviousness of much of the gossip about foreign officials in these 'diplomatic' cables is remarkable. An eighteenth-century international intriguer like Casanova de Seingalt, the chevalier d'Eon, or the comte de St.-Germain, would have been ashamed to turn in such work product to his employer. It's on the order of "TMZ" or "People" magazine. This sort of thing requires an Ivy League education? We ought to be underwhelmed. No wonder people like Feinstein are upset.

It would be much more curious to know the secret thoughts of Sarkozy or Berlusconi about Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others of the American governing class. Now that would be worth reading!