Features & Columns
World Cyberwar And the Inevitability
of Radical Transparency
companies inadvertently nurtured transformation activists shaking up and
toppling governments around the world.
ARE WE heading into an era when light will shine upon everyone, even the mighty? Will the benefits of such an age outweigh the inevitable costs?
Recent events that powerfully illustrate these trade-offs range from the WikiLeaks Affair—publishing a quarter million documents purloined from the United States government—to the tech-empowered Arab Spring that followed to the battle being waged on our own streets between law enforcement agencies and citizens who record their activities.
Perhaps I come to this topic pre-jaded. In The Transparent Society (1997), I forecast that traditional notions of secrecy would crumble in the early 21st century. For many reasons—technical, social and political—"leaks" would grow into tsunamis that carve a radically different world. My 1989 novel Earth portrayed near-future events like massive dumps of military and diplomatic secrets that rattle governments powerless to keep up with amateur cunning and changing values.
Prescience aside, this sea change will drive outcomes far more complex than outdated nostrums of left or right. Multiple trends seem to pull in opposing directions. For example, ever since 9/11 and the Patriot Act, many Americans have perceived us entering a nearly Orwellian era, in which the state probes, pokes and scrutinizes us from every angle, and allows corporations—from banks to Google and Facebook—to do the same.
Dana Priest and William Arkin, in the Washington Post, fret that we've become a "monitored nation" and world.
"(T)he United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators. The system ... collects, stores and analyzes information about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing."
Is China the future? American companies like Cisco are right now bidding to take part in a project to span the city of Chongqing with 500,000 cameras in an integrated surveillance system. Find that both impressive and chilling? Well, democratic Britain has an even larger camera network. In the future, what separates free and unfree nations won't be the presence of surveillance, but whether citizens are fully empowered to look back.
Never before have so many people been empowered with practical tools of transparency. Beyond access to instantly searchable information from around the world, nearly all of us now carry in our pockets a device that can take still photographs and video, then transmit the images anywhere. Will the growing power of elites to peer down at us—surveillance—ultimately be trumped by a rapidly augmenting ability of citizens to look back at those in power—or "sousveillance"?
This issue is being wrangled right now, on our streets. Far more ominous than the WikiLeaks affair is a trend of police officers waging unofficial war against camera-toting citizens, arresting bystanders for digitally recording cops in action. Obsolete wire-tapping and privacy laws are contorted to justify seizure and destruction of recordings made even in public places.
We can sympathize with officers doing a harsh, underappreciated job, resenting the addition of one more source of stress—relentless scrutiny. I appreciate not only the skill and professionalism that helped reduce crime in the United States but also the daily fight for self-control that each officer must wage, under conditions that might send any of us into uncontrollable rage. We all carry hormonal and psychological baggage from the Stone Age ... and from 5,000 years of urban life, when the king's thugs never thought twice before pounding the heads of punks.
But times and rules change. We're more demanding now. In fact, most officers are adapting well to our new standards, clenching their teeth and calling "sir" even the most outrageously abusive drunks. I'm proud to know some of these folks and I grasp their worry that some street-corner putz might record a momentary, but career threatening lapse.
Yet, how can the assertion that cops deserve "privacy" stand up against our far greater need for accountability? Shall we surrender the only protection that citizens ever had against abusive power—the truth? We won't allow it. More to the point, technology won't allow it. For, like Moore's Law, the cameras get smaller, cheaper, more numerous and more mobile every year.
When all of this equilibrates, juries, review boards and citizens will make allowances for good people, caught making rare mistakes. We'll have to, if we want our cities patrolled. Ironically, that broad perspective will only evolve once we're convinced we really are seeing it all. That our enhanced vision protects us.
If the odds seem to favor citizen-power at street level, others want to apply principles of transparent accountability—or sousveillance—to higher echelons of power
Clearly a panoply of transparency activists out there, including the folks behind WikiLeaks, think it possible to restore balance in favor of people, by applying copious amounts of light.
And, just as clearly, those in high places wince at being scrutinized. (Human nature yet again.) For example, months ago, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a criminal probe of WikiLeaks. Did Julian Assange commit crimes by revealing those secret cables? Are the world's powers shaken to their core, withholding vengeance only because Assange holds "poison pill" revelations in reserve?
We've seen a maelstrom of indignant fury with all sides claiming the moral high ground. Banks and credit companies that reject doing business with WikiLeaks have been punished by leaderless networks of online activists—who are in turn attacked by "patriotic hackers."
Meanwhile, similar cycles of sabotage or theft, followed by retaliation, are seen when hackers from China or the former Soviet bloc invade Western computer systems, compromising either intellectual property or stores of personal identities, or destabilize systems like Facebook and Google that empower citizen movements in other countries. Accusations fly amid a growing cast of intermeshed characters.
Is this the full-tilt outbreak of cyber war, with nations and corporations waging battle through deniable proxies? (Frederik Pohl forecast such a dismal cycle in his prophetic novel The Cool War.) We may yet miss the old days, when uniformed soldiers were accountable to national flags.
Refocusing back on the WikiLeaks Affair, with every news organization re-publishing his info-spills, is Assange right to call himself a frontline journalist? Because someone else actually snooped the documents in question, and WikiLeaks merely passed them along, is Assange protected by Western constitutional traditions and free speech?
"Do not revile the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in your bedroom, because a bird in the sky may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say."—Ecclesiastes 10:20
An overall trend toward greater openness will be essential to our survival as individuals, nations, and even as a species.
We have bet our lives, and our children's, on the continued success of a civilization that provides our material needs better than any other. One that has inarguably fostered greater levels of lawful peace—both per capita and for billions worldwide—than any predecessor. It also engendered both social mobility and repudiation of prejudice to a degree that—if woefully unfinished—no prior society ever matched. Nor could any combination of others equal our rate of discovery and new learning.
Even the way we are self-critical and unsatisfied—angrily rejecting braggart paragraphs like the one above and focusing instead on further improvements—even that reflex is consistent with a civilization that has real potential. One that would have stunned our ancestors.
Underlying all of this is the positive-sum notion that a competitive society doesn't have to be strewn with ruined losers. In some kinds of games, one player might win more than others—e.g., getting rich—but the outcome leaves everybody way ahead, even the "defeated." That may sound absurdly sunny. Cheating abounds and capitalism always teeters toward the old pit of feudalism. Still, enlightenment civilization's major decision-making components— markets, democracy, science and justice—really have delivered positive-sum outcomes a lot of the time. We are living proof.
Here's the key point: All four of those human problem-solving arenas—markets, democracy, science and justice—flourish only in light, when all parties get to see. When darkness prevails, they wither and die.
Specifically: Open markets depend on maximizing the number of knowing buyers, sellers and competitors. (Adam Smith despised the secret conniving of oligarchs and blamed them—not socialists—for market failures.) Democracy only functions well when vigorously engaged in by knowing and curious citizens.
Our third and fourth pillars—science and justice—cannot function in darkness at all. These four backbone components count on the same, core innovation—reciprocal accountability—to foster creative competition and to check our natural human penchant for cheating.
If 4,000 years of history demonstrate one thing, it is that you will cheat, if there isn't plenty of light to stop you. Yes, I'm talking about you. And me. The obvious conclusion? Anyone who demands extended secrecy should face a burden of proof. (See Note 1 below)
Now, let's be clear. The Enlightenment is about pragmatism, and no purist dogma is ever 100 percent right, even transparency. For example, one topic calling for negotiated compromise is personal privacy. And few claim that a military can function entirely in the open. Not yet, at least. (See Note 2)
The WikiLeaks Case exposes several more areas where limits to transparency are open to intense debate.
So here's the question: To what extent do governments have a need or right to keep secrets from citizens? And who should decide when government leaders have crossed the line?
My answer is default openness, with a steadily rising burden of proof for institutional secrecy—a pragmatic but unswerving movement toward a world of accountability and light. Nevertheless, it is a burden of proof that can be met! Not all secrecy—even government secrecy—is automatically evil.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange prescribes a different answer: zero tolerance. Immediate and radical transparency. Moreover, the decision to reveal government secrets can be made ad hoc and peremptorily by an individual. One who never voted for or against—or paid taxes to—the government in question. (See Note 3)
The Trend Forward
Of course, our Enlightenment experiment is about much more than markets, science, democracy and justice. These institutions fail without spirited citizen involvement. Laws against racism would be futile without the inner changes of heart that millions have performed, in two short generations.
Deep underneath their bickering, republicans and democrats share a mental reflex—Suspicion of Authority (SOA)—that goes back generations, differing mostly over which elite they see looming as a potential Big Brother, even while making excuses for the elites they prefer. In a sense we all want more transparency and light ... to shine on groups that we dislike.
Do average citizens really matter? They may seem feeble compared to influential elites: power brokers of government, wealth, celebrity, criminality, corporations and academia. But this changes when individuals band together in new-style nongovernmental organizations on the front lines of the transparency fight.
Take Peter Gabriel's Project Witness. PW buys up last year's video equipment, in cheap lots, then hands crateloads of cameras to activists, in places where fighting for democracy can take prodigious courage, spreading accountability at the local level where it affects lives, a few hundred at a time. Drawing attention to ten thousand small struggles, they show how a little added light can save or empower the next Nelson Mandela. (See www.Witness.org for details.)
Some efforts that are rebelliously pro-freedom can't exactly be called "pro-transparency." A decade ago, the fad among hackers was encryption—promoting a quaint notion that the scales of justice can be balanced in all directions, if everyone were somehow kept blind to each others' identities.
Some Assange allies, like Jacob Appelbaum, distribute a system called Tor that empowers dissidents living in oppressive states to communicate with messages that are cleverly enciphered and rerouted. While the cypherpunks' dream of crypto-empowered world paradise is impractical on many levels, it has proved useful to whistle blowers.
What these and other endeavors share is a pragmatic approach to spreading liberty and accountability. If all the world's people become habitual defenders of freedom and accountability in the local realms that affect them most, where individual action can be effective, then, as Alexis de Toqueville showed two centuries ago, those habits will propel us along the spectrum of progress, whatever happens on the Olympian heights of pompous presidents and tycoons.
Indeed, steps toward new-era transparency are even taking place at the highest levels. The Obama administration claims to have cut away at the Everest-high pile of classified documents left by its predecessors and to have tightened rules for who can declare something secret, and when.
Meanwhile, even in Switzerland, Alpine haven for elite confidentiality, changes may be afoot. A Swiss-based banking consortium has proposed new codes under which financiers' compensation packages should be more transparent to investors. Are these steps toward transparency sincere? Will they be enough, when people in developing nations demand a return of lucre stolen by their ex-dictators?
Leak to History
We aren't the first generation in this struggle. Today's inventors of freedom-friendly tools—from anonymizers and re-routers that evade censorship to sniffer-correlators that help average folk peer past elite veils—seem blithely ignorant of just how old and difficult the problem has been.
These self-styled paladins of a new era should recall that our principal weapon in defending freedom and hope predates the Internet by more than 200 years. It has roots in 18th-century pamphleteers, in the constitutional deliberations of Philadelphia and (yes) even in the old-fashioned nations that still make up the foundation of our Enlightenment. A foundation that some of the folks at WikiLeaks—in their righteous self-congratulation—tend to ignore, even though they count on it for their very lives.
Indeed, what is the worldwide blog community, other than a vast expansion of the sensor web that we all had, in our tribes and villages of old, when gossip revealed even the peccadilloes of the chiefs? Notable among the tattles spilled by WikiLeaks were Sarah Palin's hacked email messages, a banned report on assassinations and torture enacted by Kenyan police, the confidential membership list of a British neo-fascist party and tens of thousands of classified documents related to the war in Afghanistan. A year ago, the website stirred up an international furor by publishing emails purportedly showing scientific collusion among global-warming experts.
An aside. Was the last revelation an attempt to "spread the love" and prove non-leftist evenhandedness? Or a manifestation of Assange's eagerness to spill whatever would get him headlines? We may never know. But carelessness in that case—failing to investigate his source or understand the context—put in question Assange's long-standing claim to be a "journalist." Indeed, one major drawback of splurge-type leak sites is their susceptibility to be used as unwitting proxies in battles among hidden giants.
WikiLeaks' first major media breakthrough came in April 2010. At a press conference in Washington, Assange unveiled a 2007 combat video from the view of an American Apache helicopter in Iraq, repeatedly opening fire on a group of people on the ground, including some in a van that approached and began helping the wounded. The soldiers' giggling, game-boy background commentary was deeply disturbing.
But the event that catapulted WikiLeaks into the forefront of international attention, making Assange a 2010 finalist for Time magazine's "Person of the Year," was the page-by-page release of more than 250,000 State Department "cables" and other documents, allegedly swiped by a U.S. Army private, giving the world an unprecedented view of the chatter and candid views of American diplomats.
When WikiLeaks tweeted that "The coming months will see a new world, where global history is redefined," we saw the extent of its preening confidence and pro-transparency ambition. Nor were U.S. government secrets to be anything more than an appetizer. Promised soon? Tens of thousands of documents from a major U.S. banking firm, then material from pharmaceutical corporations, finance and energy companies.
Again, the deep justification is undeniable. We'll soon face a rising flood of technological breakthroughs that could either benefit us all or else do jagged harm to humanity and the world. With hard decisions and tipping points coming ever-faster, we'll do better—and possibly even survive—if each crisis-choice is debated openly. (See Note 4)
Essential precursors for WikiLeaks go way back. But for legal guidance, most observers have been zeroing in on the Pentagon Papers affair, when Daniel Ellsberg released documents showing how the U.S. government lied or manipulated perceptions during the Vietnam War. Assange is relying on precedents from that era to stay free and in business.
Unlike Britain, whose Official Secrets Act gives the state power to pre-censor journalists or penalize them for publishing forbidden information, the United States Government (USG) has less legal standing to go after leakers. Even the 1917 Espionage Act, passed in a xenophobic rush during World War I, only decrees punishment for unauthorized possession of national defense information if it is thereupon given to "any person not entitled to receive it," and if the provider has reason to believe it "could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation."
As interpreted by courts during the Pentagon Papers era, this law leaves a pretty generous out for journalists who passively receive such secrets and then publish them. The government bears an appropriately steep burden of proof to show not only that there was substantial "injury" or foreign "advantage," but that the journalist also had strong reason to expect this.
Note that this is a separate matter from prosecuting the individual who gathered and leaked the information, in the first place. Any person who either invaded a USG database to access files or who violated a position of trust in order to remove them, has broken a number of other laws, for which penalties can be severe. In the current case, U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning awaits court martial for swiping the State Department and Pentagon files that made Assange an international figure. Although some—e.g., Berkeley city councilmembers—have called Manning a hero and a martyr, few expect Manning to evade punishment.
Assange is another matter. The gaps that currently make it hard to prosecute him include provisions under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that offer a safe harbor for online "middle parties," protecting them from liability for passing along most kinds of material they receive from an initial content provider.
In fact, current law cuts both ways. The same regulations also protect those companies who have acted to cut off, or hem-in, WikiLeaks. As Nancy Scola put it, on the Personal Democracy Forum:
"Section 230 is one of the fundamental reason why the United States is a friendlier nation to the Internet and to building Internet businesses than so many others are. But the flip side of 230 is that companies are also given protections for taking down from their services content that they find objectionable. And when it comes to Wikileaks, we're arguably seeing companies that have been given so much freedom by Section 230 running and hiding behind its protections when the heat is on."
Initially, the Pentagon acknowledged that no person or vital national interest appeared to have been harmed by WikiLeaks. This reassurance came into question in December with a W-leaked list of overseas sites potentially both vulnerable to terrorist attack and of critical importance to the United States. This seems to undermine any claim that the documents were vetted to reduce potential for harm.
Yet, this affair is rich in irony. For example, is it totally coincidence that the recent Arab Spring movement spread across North Africa and the Middle East just after WikiLeaks spilled all those State Department cables? Confidential memos that revealed how deeply our foreign service officers and diplomats despised the dictators they had to deal with? One net effect was to mute any anti-American theme among the young democracy activists. Geopolitically, this unintended result may outweigh all the harm that Assange thought he was doing to the U.S. government!
We need to remember the big picture: that if doses of transparency are sometimes discomfiting or inconvenient to the leaders and agencies of a clumsy-but-well-meaning democracy, those same doses are often downright lethal to our enemies—elites of criminality or fanaticism or obstinate despotism.
Ultimately, if we are led by smart people, they should see that the historical role of the United States—and its best interests—will be served by adapting quickly to a worldwide secular trend toward more light. In fact, abetting this trend should be a central strategic goal for America and its allies, since this trend leads to victory for our type of civilization.
Geeks Strike Back
What about all that talk of "cyber-war"? The cyber-activist community lined up en masse to defend Julian Assange. For example, Anonymous, a leaderless group of activist hackers, has avowed credit for denial of service attacks on Mastercard, in revenge for that company cutting off payment flows to WikiLeaks. Attacks have also targeted PayPal, Amazon, VISA and other companies. When Post-Finance, the Swiss national postal bank, froze Assange's account because he falsely claimed local residency on his deposit forms, this drew vigorous assaults by hacker activists, or hacktivists. (Hypocrisy alert: When has such a lapse ever before bothered Swiss bankers?)
"Corrutpt governments of the world," began a recent message on the Anonymous group's YouTube site. "To move to censor content on the Internet based on your own prejudice is, at best, laughably impossible, at worst, morally reprehensible."
In a few short weeks, simply by appealing for volunteers, the Anonymous group recruited more than 9,000 computer owners in the United States and 3,000 in Britain to download the software to incorporate their machines into the network that attacks WikiLeaks' enemies.
Via a supportive online "tweet," Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow told the Anonymous hackers, "The first serious info war is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops." See
Resistance Is Feudal
In The Transparent Society, I profiled members of this loose international community, whose mixture of brilliant skill, individualism and light-weight transcendentalism seems to hark back at least to the Freemasons, or perhaps the Jesuits, if there is any useful precedent at all.
Evidently, they are the purest products of a Western Enlightenment that they alternately revere and spurn with dripping contempt. A force to be collectively reckoned with, they also tend toward utter confidence in their superior spycraft, as well as blithe assurance that history is on their side.
However, there are drawbacks to the notion of cyberpunks as combatants. Their proposed "army" combines all the worst traits of a militant underground and a chaotic schoolyard. The Anonymous network, for example, operates as a collective in which control devolves to whichever members just happen to be signed in, at any particular moment.
At present, that model works, because the tasks are simple—to shuttle some encrypted files around, to share and coordinate some hack-attack programs among a few thousand volunteers ... or perhaps a few tens of thousands of bystanders who have inadvertently let themselves be hijacked in a botnet.
Fine, so far. But this model will break down when it is discovered that the National Security Agency—through several hundred feigned identities—can sign in and simply vote itself control, whenever it so chooses.
Or take the pathetic case of Bradley Manning, the bored, low-level nerd-in-uniform who let his daydreaming ennui get the best of him in dusty Iraq. When Manning impulsively decided to copy those documents off SIPRNet, he took all sorts of precautions to keep the theft from being noticed and to encrypt the documents' transmission to WikiLeaks. Then he bragged about it to a supposedly trustworthy hacker confidante, who promptly sold him out.
There is an endearing air of naivete in all the bellicose "war" talk, coming from hacker-nerds whose principal experience with combat is World of Warcraft. Few have studied the history of revolutionary movements and methods in detail, the ancient techniques used by rebels and secret police in deadly cat-and-mouse games stretching back from the KGB and Gestapo, through czarist Russia, Ching and Tang China, Babylon and across 4,000 years of recorded history. Like bribery, blackmail, co-opting, threats to loved-ones ... and quiet disappearance. Few of these age-old methods will be inconvenienced by geeky methods like cryptography.
If things truly were as dire as some hackers romantically claim, if our civilization is already like those other despotisms and if these would-be freedom fighters really are our last-best hope—then one can wish they would preen less and study-up history more. For all our sakes.
Ultimately though, even the WikiLeaks model is untenable. For all of the hacker chic, such quasi-institutions are lead by a few identifiable people. If the cyber-mythos is correct, it represents at-best an intermediate phase on our path to a universally empowered, all-knowing citizenry. A path better served by pragmatic, incrementalist reformers.
Take an endeavor loosely led by Peter Sunde, one of the founders of the anti-copyright Pirate Bay website. Techie activists hope to construct an alternative, decentralized, peer-to-peer (P2P) system that would continue to use today's Internet infrastructure but bypass the internet "phone book" maintained by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
As the only semblance of an Internet governing body, ICANN has one slim authority—over the 286 "dot" domains (.com, .net etc.), but even that narrow power offends the anti-authority spirit of young netizen anarchists like Sunde. (See Note 5)
If their plan works, according to Paul Marks of The New Scientist, "a sort of shadow Internet could form, one in which legal action against counterfeiters and copyright scofflaws would be nearly impossible."
Some other options are already simmering, and these seem even harder to prevent, at least in a minimally free society. For example, if the forces of net neutrality lose every coming regulatory and legislative fight, leaving both the old web and "Internet 2" firmly in the grasp of major corporate and state interests, this will only propel alternative, peer-to-peer systems to abandon standard pipes and fiber, taking flight to rooftop transceivers and nodes that are completely citizen-owned or which use cell phone networks. And if every advanced nation bans such P2P systems? Then they will flourish in the developing world, giving those rising countries a competitive advantage.
These are a few samples of the innovations that loom on the horizon. In them we see, distilled, a core difference between two kinds of transparency activists: pragmatic techno-incrementalists and the hacker-idealists.
One hacktivist told me: "Governments and corporatists can plug every hole, but new leaks will pop open. Information wants to be free, and nothing will avail the federal mastodons and company sloths, or prevent new hemorrhages till they bleed to death."
To net-mystics, that is more than just an assertion, to be tested by unfolding events, but a catechism of faith, like in old-timey religions, or the communist teleology that few of them have read.
We transparency pragmatists know better. History shows that light can fail. It has failed, far more often than not. Ask Pericles. Ask the Gracchi, the Florentines and the Weimar liberals. For light and openness to cleanse this civilization and make it succeed, we'll need practical innovations and negotiated compromises, sometimes taking one step sideways, or even backward, for every three steps forward. It may be polemically unsatisfying to purists, but the general, overall, forward trend is worth fighting for. Even compromising for.
How were racism and sexism reduced and driven largely into ill-repute, during our lifetimes? Partly through the self-reforming of millions of individual hearts ... but also through new laws, passed by growing citizen consensus, utilizing those enlightenment processes of science, justice and democratic government. And to whatever extent humanity is now finally heeding our duty as planetary managers, don't we owe a lot to government-funded research and wave after wave of environmental laws?
More practically speaking, what chance will Project Witness, or Transparency International, or citizen camera-wielders, or the Chinese local democracy activists have, if the general background tone of international morality and law ceases to be led by Western Enlightenment nations?
In part, the libretto sung by Assange and his supporters seems more libertarian than socialist ... or else perhaps its anti-government rhetoric harkens back to quaint traditions of anarcho-socialism. Either way, in their gleeful adoption of the wild and open Internet as a model for a low governance utopia, aren't they forgetting where the Internet came from? Or the full context of their struggle?
Consider: These fellows are heroes only if you assume that freedom for individuals, accountability for the mighty, fair competition, steady progress, social mobility, flattened power hierarchies and honest-open discourse are all ultimately desirable things. I happen to agree.
Only remember, these traits were never highly rated in most human societies, where obedience, ritual, type-purity and conformity were far more highly valued—and where "innovation" was often a dirty word. In other words, Assange, and the hacktivists and their supporters are only heroes under the light cast by a narrow, individualist culture that still has all the historical—even biological—odds stacked against it. Any other society would have, by now, simply taken their heads and been done with it.
Raised by that same culture, I want Assange and his supporters to keep their heads! I want WikiLeaks ...or something better...or many better things ...to stay in business. Because the over-reaction that some of the hacktivists seem bent on provoking will do no good for the overall cause.
The hope, expressed somewhat more aggressively by "Valkyrie Ice" in h+ Magazine, is that "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."
I hope the optimists prove right. Nevertheless, look around the world today. The Enlightenment is still hard beset by forces that would undermine or ruin it, either from the outside or within. Forces bent on restoring those older—and possibly more inherently human—ways of operating.
Need for Nations
Here is where we pragmatist pushers-of-transparency differ from the romantics. Across the last 300 years, flags and nations and governments mattered. They have been clumsy, blunt instruments, but the nations that lived—even crudely—by Enlightenment codes propelled a great experiment in human living that departed from the old ways. Furthermore, the nations that express general fealty to rights and accountability and justice and science are still "rebels" in a world where human nature keeps conspiring to drag us down again, into feudalism.
We have to watch these public organs carefully. Our hired watchdogs can all-too easily become wolves. If you tell me that you want to spread transparency and accountability throughout all Western governments, I am with you! You say you want to change the Constitution? Well, we'd all love to see your plan.
More generally, at this critical juncture in history, with existential threats looming on every horizon—along with a glimmering promise that we may instead become a wise and decent star-traveling species—the matter is more critical than ever. We cannot afford anymore the all-too-human tendency for leaders to decide our fate in secret. Not even "for our own good."
Reciprocal Accountability remains our only real hope. And to whatever extent that WikiLeaks has helped push health-inducing transparency forward, I am guardedly grateful. While I find the whole event over-rated and a bit yawn-worthy, more a stunt than a model for truly sustainable openness, the effects ought to be salutary.
But I have a larger goal that I hope you'll share: To achieve lasting victory for this new way of life. A way of life that may stymie, finally and forever, the old feudal temptations that have always erupted to quash freedom. A way of life that may take my sane, rich and happy grandchildren—and the sane/rich/happy grandchildren of today's poorest AIDS victim in Zimbabwe—to the stars.
Clearly, in order to get there, we will need a wide range of new tools—and some of the old ones, too. And that means Western governments will remain key instruments for quite some time. If watched, if fine-tuned and kept honest, they will continue to play a role as we cross the danger gap, ultimately reaching a place that is good and just and filled with light.
Portions of this article were excerpted from a book in-progress. David Brin's bestselling novels, such as Earth and Kiln People, have been translated into more than 20 languages. The Postman was loosely Kevin Costnerized in 1998. The Transparent Society won the nonfiction Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association. His next novel, Existence, portrays the minefield of dangers ahead, and our potential to survive.
#1 May I pause to lay down a couple of background fundamentals that should be obvious to anyone? Basics that ought to inform all of our arguments about transparency?
* The greatest human talent is self-delusion. (Often propped-up by another, our penchant for self-righteousness.) Across recorded history, delusional leaders were responsible for countless horrific errors of statecraft, though it was common folk who suffered. Yet, ruling castes always made it their top priority to limit criticism, the only thing that might have corrected their mistakes. This dire contradiction propelled much of the tragedy of the last 4,000 years. (http://www.davidbrin.com/addiction.htm)
* The one palliative that has ever been found to correct this human fault has been Reciprocal Accountability (RA). This entirely new invention of the Western Enlightenment is the key ingredient of Democracy, Markets, Science and egalitarian Justice. We may not, as individuals, be able to penetrate our own favorite delusions, but others will gladly point them out for us! And we happily return the favor, by pointing out our adversaries' mistakes. That is the simple basis of RA... and it can only happen in a general atmosphere of freedom. (See Note 4)
It can only happen where most of the people know most of what is going on, most of the time.
It's easy to see why Reciprocal Accountability took so long to emerge. (Though Pericles tried it, in Athens.) RA may help a society to thrive economically, to gain social mobility, liberty, fairness and the rapid advancement of knowledge. But it is also highly inconvenient to elites! In fact, it acts to separate the good of society from the good of the ruling caste. This will prove a critical distinction, as we dissect the WikiLeaks imbroglio.
Reciprocal Accountability is the pragmatic reason for the First Amendment, entirely independent of morality and sacred "rights." Another way to put this is with an aphorism and acronym CITOKATE:
Criticism Is the Only Known Antidote to Error.
#2 This matter takes up several chapters of The Transparent Society—and soon I'll comment on something closely related: the Great Big TSA Mess.
#3 This distinction is an important, if quirky one, in the light of basic justice—a topic about which Assange lectures us, incessantly. A democratically elected government can be viewed as the property of its voting, taxpaying citizens. It is the right and responsibility of those citizens to ensure that their government is suitably accountable and just. But, given that they own the government, what right does an outsider have to steal the property of that government and to diminish the government's value as a useful tool of that owner-citizenry?
I do not have a pat answer to this quandary. Indeed, since Daniel Ellsberg was a citizen-owner, having voted and paid taxes, was he inherently more vested and rightful in diminishing the government's current stature, in an investment in its future improvement? I point it out because it reduces the issue to one of tort/harm. Assange argues that the only "other" that he has harmed is the separate entity of the U.S. government.
But there is some level where the link between that institution and its owners cannot be ignored. It is relevant. In abstract, those United States citizens are the putative injured parties and Assange is answerable to them. He bears some burden of proving that he has not done them actionable harm.
#4 Indeed, perhaps unintentionally, the late author of thriller novels, Michael Crichton, implicitly supported the argument for general transparency in an ironic way. Examining all of his plots, one finds a single common element that underlay every disastrous misapplication of technology that he railed against. A prevailing fetish for secrecy that insulated his villains from inspection, criticism, accountability or reproach. The often ridiculous errors made by those villains would not and could not have happened, if general transparency and light had prevailed. An interesting illustration from the world of fiction.
#5 I wonder where Assange would stand, on this issue, if he had been born an aristocrat.