Wikileaks: Welcome to the Brave New World – of 1984

Like most geekly liberals, I've been broadly in favour of wikileaks since I first heard of it. Whistleblowing seems like a good idea; corruption damages the common good; as long as everything is well documented and not forgeries, what could go wrong?

But now we've seen what can go wrong, or at least, we've been vaguely exposed to it. Most of my friends seem to still think wikileaks is great, and the people who aren't so sure are mostly talking about compromised information sources who could be killed, or the interests of one country over another. Those are serious problems, but not the one that's bothering me.

What's bothering me is that this is an enormous blow towards completely ending privacy. I am bothered by the idea that every thing I say must be made available to every person on the planet who can be bothered to do a Google search. Worse, I know enough about AI to know that they won't even have to do a google search themselves -- in a few years no doubt people will be able to buy or program web crawlers to find out everything ever said or written about themselves, or to construct complete personality profiles of any person they happen to get interested in.

The things in the cablegate wikileaks – at least, the things making the news – are the honest opinions of smart people doing their jobs trying to solve problems. I don't know about you, but my job (like theirs) quite often has to do with people. Right now a great deal of my time is being spent dealing with two person issues. One of the problems initially seemed to be red tape, and it's taken a large number of people some months to decide it is really a person issue. Another problem is clearly a person issue. For both of these, the best thing that could happen for the productivity of me and the people that work under me is that we can eventually pretend there had never been a problem, perhaps just a misunderstanding. But right now, the path to that solution is not clear, and it is requiring honest discussions and appraisals with a variety of informed sources to try to find ways forward.

The public face of the US State Department has been saying that countries will continue dealing with America because they need too, even if they no longer trust or like the people they talk to. But I know that while some of the people they have insulted already knew those were the things said about them, and maybe a few others will take advantage of new insight into their life & their place on the planet to become better people, a bunch of them are going to be angry forever and never coöperate again. Some problems may be unresolved for decades because of this – problems that will impede trade, development and reduce the quality of life, most likely in countries that are already small, poor and corrupt.

Unless, of course, all such people – all grudge-holders and bullies – will now be eliminated from governments. What if the power structures of the world were composed entirely of people chosen in advance to be collaborative by nature? I have no idea – maybe that would be awesome, but maybe the whole system would become enormous and ungovernable.

But what I worry about more (and I think it is more likely) is that the entire world will become like 1984, like Soviet Russia or East Germany. Where no one speaks their mind anymore to anyone, and a lot less innovation happens, and a lot less things get done, and there's a lot less intimacy in everyday life.


Joanna said…
Mark Ellison has made a related posting that took the analogy I tried to use to explain the point as the main argument. It isn't. The main argument is that wikileaks is a symptom of a larger erosion of privacy, and that this will fundamentally change human society. Mark disagrees essentially because he thinks that the US state deapartment is an exceptional organ that is not like the rest of us. You can see my reply to this in the comments on his blog.
Joanna said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joanna said…
Someone else said something similar better (forgot to link the link first time I tried this.)
Joanna said…
Bad for diplomacy and international cooperation: More than ever, most of the world's problems demand cooperative responses. And until human nature changes or nations wither, this will need a combination of private frankness and public tact between governments. Sometimes secrecy is a condition for trust and honesty, not its enemy.