Alright, I’m back from my self-imposed one month hiatus, ready to both inform you as well as entertain you! Woohoo! By no means is this post timely but I’ve wanted to write it for quite some time.
In December, Time magazine unveiled its 2010 Man-of-the-Year and gave the award to Facebook (co)founder Mark Zuckerberg. While some people thought it was a good choice, others berated Time’s decision to not give it to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange a massive outrage.
Indeed, Richi Jennings of Computerworld wrote the following:
And why Zuckerberg in 2010? It's hardly a move demonstrating insight or foresight. Last year, or 2008, perhaps. But really, was 2010 the year of Facebook? Of course not: it was just riding the inevitable momentum built up in earlier years.
TIME has clearly demonstrated that it has zero understanding of how social networks work.
TIME's Richard Stengel shows his blissful ignorance of this year's widespread criticism of Zuckerberg:
In a sense, Zuckerberg and Assange are two sides of the same coin. Both express a desire for openness and transparency. While Assange attacks big institutions and governments through involuntary transparency ... Zuckerberg enables individuals to voluntarily share information with the idea of empowering them.
Yeah, except this comparison completely ignores all the privacy panics that Facebook has received recently. Far from "enabling individuals to voluntarily share information," it seems that Facebook actively attempts to trick individuals into involuntarily sharing information.
The comments in response to Jennings’ article reflect similar views and go beyond Jennings’ point – that Zuckerberg shouldn’t have won and that Assange was denied his rightful title and that the decision to exclude him was primarily political. Jennings article is, of course, no lone wolf. Other writers have expressed similar comments in other articles that I have read. So who is right?
Those who take the view that Julian Assange should have won the award take the position that implications of Wikileaks will open up a whole new era of transparency in government. Indeed, Assange himself has stated that history will be divided into pre-Wikileaks and post-Wikileaks time frames. What Wikileaks is going to do is prevent governments from acting unethically. Because they know that anything that they say or do might end up being exposed later on, people will act in ethical manners or will not take risks. If they do act unethically, eventually it will catch up with them because the cables will be published. This will draw the spotlight to the acts of government officials and in western democracies where we can replace our governments, or prosecute in the event of corruption, and eventually over time we will get the government that we the people deserve. This is a very capitalistic mechanism of running government; whereas in capitalism it is the strong companies that survive, in a Wikileaks world only the politicians that do not do anything to invite scrutiny and investigation will see their careers last a long time. Thus, just as it is in corporations’ interests to server their customers’ interests, it will be in elected officials’ best interests to see the to the people’s interests.
Presumably, things like Wikileaks would prevent politically unpopular decisions from ever going forward. For example, many people in the United States are unhappy with the war in Iraq (and support for it has dropped over time). Various theories have been advanced that the administration did so under false pretenses and intentionally misled the public. Had Wikileaks been around at the time, diplomatic cables would have exposed the sinister motives of elected officials and the populations of the United States and the United Kingdom, among others, would have protested far more vigorously had they known the true motives.
I pick on the Iraq war but you could really pick any one of a number of issues. But the point is the same – with Wikileaks looking over their shoulders, politicians will not be able to act in a way that they couldn’t get away with because they will no longer be able to suppress information that would otherwise prevent them from passing controversial policies.
But on the flip side, is the expectation of Wikileaks a reality? Or more of an idealistic approach to what should happen but in reality will never get anywhere close to there? Will Wikileaks expose anything really big and prevent major policy initiatives?
Consider the Iraq war. People have been accusing the Bush administration of invading the country for a number of different motives. Many books have been written on both sides. Bob Woodward has written three books on the administration. George Bush himself wrote a book. George Friedman of Stratfor wrote a book. People who criticize the administration have their theories, people who were part of the administration present their motives. Whenever books like these are written, all they serve to do is reinforce the perceptions that people already had. If you were on one side, you tend to play up the part that you agree with and discount the opposing viewpoint. That is simply human nature. Thus, my point is this – how much new information that has not already been aired by dozens of authors can really be exposed with Wikileaks? In other words, a major policy initiative already has plenty of feedback and analysis and motives scrutinized of the various players. How much more is needed? Surely if there was a smoking gun it would have been found by now by someone. Wouldn’t it?
While Wikileaks may contain some new revelations about a major initiative, what about smaller ones? For example, some cables reveal acts of US troops in Iraq opening up gunfire against unarmed Iraqi citizens. Surely this is newsworthy. After all, without these cables these things would have gone unnoticed by the public and nobody would have to pay. So, there is at least some value in Wikileaks and some shifts in behavior when it comes time for accountability. But on the other hand, were these acts covered up? In times of war, certain things can happen and it is always incredibly unfortunate and should be dealt with accordingly. But in the reports, the insurgents did not go into combat wearing identifying markings which is one of the requirements of the Geneva conventions and this led to violence. However, the case cited by WikiLeaks with much fanfare did not clearly show criminal actions on the part of American troops as much as it did the consequences of the insurgents violating the Geneva Conventions.
Furthermore, the cables do not really reveal anything new with regards to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to anyone who was paying close attention. The Saudis were urging the Americans to do something about the Iranians, but this isn’t news to anyone who has kept up with the news reports. It is embarrassing that Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the Saudis were prepared to fight to the last American but it is what it is. It’s not a bad assessment. Anyone who pays attention knows that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi likes to party with young women. Referring to Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev as “Batman and Robin” is kind of embarrassing… but it’s the perception of western diplomats. The leaks might shorten a few careers because of careless comments, but they are not going to affect geopolitics. Countries act the way they do for various reasons but it is rarely fueled by personalities; it’s fueled by much deeper issues.
Imagine that everything you wrote and said in an attempt to figure out a problem was made public? Every dumb idea that you discarded would now be pinned on you. But more than that, when you argue that nations should engage in diplomacy rather than war, taking away privacy makes diplomacy impossible. If what you really think of the guy on the other side of the table is made public, how can diplomacy work?
This is the contradiction at the heart of the WikiLeaks project. My perception of Assange is that he seems to me to be an opponent of war and a supporter of peace. Yet what he did in leaking these documents, if the leaking did anything at all, is make diplomacy more difficult. It is not that it will lead to war by any means; it is simply that one cannot advocate negotiations and then demand that negotiators be denied confidentiality in which to conduct their negotiations. No business could do that, nor could any other institution. Thus, the big splash around how big an impact that Wikileaks could make is, in my view, made moot by the fact that what he claims to want to do is most likely going to enshroud even more secrecy and less openness. I may be misreading the situation, but that’s how I see it. Indeed, to quote a famous person I’d rather not identify with, sincere diplomacy is no more possible than dry water or wooden iron.
More on Zuckerberg in my next post.