Wikileaks and the Good Society
December 8, 2010
I’m pretty agnostic about whether Julian Assange did commit an unspecified sexual offence against a couple of Swedish girls; all I can really say at this distance is that in interviews he comes across as something of a twat. This is all anyone not directly involved in the case can say at this point, but that hasn’t stopped reams of paper and years of coffee-break time being spent discussing it. As a consequence, it’s an uninteresting topic to blog on. What is interesting, however, is how the advent of Wikileaks – and, more broadly, the somewhat avaricious attitude towards information that a global information-sharing network has spawned – has reinforced the very clear strategic need for nations to advance towards a given vision of the Good Society.
I am here using ‘Good Society’ as shorthand for a society in which everyone taking part therein is aware of the benefit of doing so. Why is this important? What does social reform have to do with information-sharing? The answer is complex, but is partly to do with the most ironic blow for freedom ever struck, 9/11.
Let me explain. You give your consent to the society in which you inhabit by not rebelling against it. Your freedom to give or withhold that consent is partly determined by your capability of successfully rebelling against it. 9/11, in this sense, represented the enhancement of the power of the individual to rebel against society, by demonstrating the increased capability of the motivated individual to damage it as a consequence of modern technology.
In itself, 9/11 represented the inevitable defeat of the Islamist ideal of a global caliphate; such hegemonic power is impossible in the face of this new strength of the individual. Al Qaeda negated itself by its own actions, and demonstrated the ultimate failure of its aims.
Because the current Wikileaks fandango is the result of a single motivated Lady Gaga fan, it can be seen in the same light as 9/11. It has demonstrated the enhanced the power of the individual to damage the State. It is therefore absolutely right to call it a ‘diplomatic 9/11‘, although possibly not for the reasons that the phrase’s originator intended.
There is no reason to suggest that this fetish for information will not eventually lead to secret military plans being published online, allowing opposing forces to take advantage. Transparency is here to stay. I’d like to be slightly poncey and reference Sun Tzu:
‘Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.’
It’s pretty difficult to be mysterious when any pop fan can display all your secrets to the world, and it’s impossible to guard against such breaches entirely. What you can do is limit their scope, by working to ensure that it’s as unlikely as possible that any given individual would want to damage the society they inhabit.
Herein comes the reason why the structure of a society is becoming increasingly important to national security. The more beneficial for its members that a society is, the less likely it is that they’ll work to betray it – even in the cause of information freedom. The option to disseminate secrets will remain, but a sufficiently beneficial society will not be overtly damaged by the level of dissemination it will encounter.
This is why the appropriate response to Wikileaks is not to execute Assange, but to work to ensure that useful secrets are kept by people who are free to not do so. This means building a society that minimises disaffection and maximises the benefits of being part of it. Of course, there are multiple conceptions of such a Good Society, but it’s always important to be clear that its construction is strategically important, as well as all the other reasons why we may seek it.