Entry from December 21, 2010

Writing in New York magazine, John Heilemann notices a number of striking parallels between Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, and Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame. But

even more than their founders, the organizations are alike in important ways: Both are platforms on which great masses of previously private data are made public; they are archetypal institutions of, and catalysts behind, the age of oversharing. As such, Facebook, WikiLeaks, and the guys who fomented them have provoked deeply polarized and at times hysterical reactions. . . These reactions are understandable and, in some cases, warranted. But they are largely beside the point. In a digitized and networked world, Zuckerberg, Assange, and their outfits are merely avatars of the inexorable march toward a radically greater degree of transparency in our personal, cultural, and political spheres. The question about the new transparency isn’t how to thwart it — because we can’t. The question is how we live with it.

I think this just a tad overstated, but whether it is or not, let’s just back up for a minute and look at that word “transparency” — the thing that supposedly can’t be thwarted and must be lived with. That may well be the view of Messrs. Zuckerberg and Assange, but are they right? Is transparency even possible? In the profile of Mark Zuckerberg by Jose [sic] Antonio Vargas in The New Yorker last September, the author quoted him as saying: “I’m trying to make the world a more open place.” He also quotes Danah Boyd, said to be “a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research New England,” as saying, “this is a philosophical battle. Zuckerberg thinks the world would be a better place — and more honest, you’ll hear that word over and over again — if people were more open and transparent.”

But if it is a philosophical battle, it fails to take account of one of philosophy’s first principles: namely, that we can never know what true transparency would look like because we don’t know how far what we observe is affected by our observation of it. In the case of the Wikileaks, we can have a pretty good idea, however. For henceforth, what diplomats say to each other is bound to be affected by the knowledge that it may come to public view. Any further “transparency” into the workings of our diplomacy will be distorted accordingly. As with the phenomenon of public crying which I wrote of in yesterday’s post, the media have a vested interest in pretending that, because their official stock in trade is the revelation of hidden truths, everything that’s hidden and then revealed is the truth.

Yet hidden things are no more likely to be true than unhidden things and, I would argue, are actually less likely to be so. This is because the presumption of truth in hidden things revealed, so vital to the business models both of the media and of Mr Assange, acts as a magnet for liars looking for an easy way to validate their untruths. Ambassador Joe Wilson exploited precisely this weakness of the sensation-seeking media in order to make himself and his wife into celebrities of the left, now the subject of an equally mendacious movie, with their misrepresentations of a complete non-story as a supposely hidden truth. There will be many more like him in the Brave New World ahead if it is anything like that predicted by Mr Heilemann of New York magazine, but the media will be in no position to notice the fact.

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