All of sudden, the world has a new Public Enemy Number One: Julian Assange, the spokesperson and defacto head of WikiLeaks. But in the tug of war between anarchistic sensationalists and reactionary Neanderthals, are we really appreciating this story for what it is? I think not.
I’ve been following this story with an almost compulsive fascination. It reminds me of all those soothsayers of the early 1990s talking about the Aquarian era of liberation and deconstruction that this new medium, formerly known as the Information Super Highway, heralded. Somewhere, in a box on my back porch, I’ve got an old issue of Mondo 2000 full of interviews with dreadlocked cyber-shamans from Silicon Valley predicting the imminent end of the Establishment because of the hyper-democratizing empowerment of hyperlinks.
In retrospect, it seems to me that, on balance, if the Internet has actually been fantastically good at anything, it’s been pretty good at spreading disinformation rather than enlightenment. Or, at best, it’s been a toss-up. It’s like one of those low-com-dom souvenir T-shirts that says something like: My grandparents went on the Internet and all I got was a Tea Party uprising.
Similarly, you also get lots of loose cannons with the means to shake things up. So far, this has been fairly minor. A worm crashing systems…an overpaid record company losing album revenue…a starlet’s sex life aired for all to see. But suddenly, technology has actually begun to live up to the expectations of the cyberpunks of the 1990s.
Using an online public wiki platform, Assange’s posse has managed to become the 20-teens first global villain because he spilled the beans…not on a movie star, but on diplomats. And, in so doing, he himself is now elevated to celebrity-bad-guy status. You can already hear the producers in Hollywood whispering screenplay concepts into the ears of film investors. So famously bad, is Assange, in fact, that he now merits a response reserved for the likes of that other global villain…you know, the one with the beard that lives in a cave…a response like assassination!
Personally, I have mixed feelings about what our newest cult of personality has leaked…or reported, if you want. As a science news junky, I’m grateful that we got to learn that the Chinese are researching fusion reactors and teleportation. But as an American, I wish that we could have kept the diplomatic gossip and embarrassing nicknames out of the public eye. I mean, it just embarrasses everyone. And I certainly don’t want anybody to get killed. Not a Russian turncoat, a loose-lipped Iraqi or the messenger forwarding all this to the world.
But more than all that, I don’t want us to miss the point here. This isn’t really about all those people, their governments or the man who has been associated with all this. It’s about the technology! Technology, by the way, that isn’t going away.
You can cancel Assange’s credit card account. You can boot him off his server. You can even kill him. But hypertext is not going away. And it’s never going to be pretty. Just like those Tea Party rallies blathering on about all kinds of sinister-sounding, mumbo jumbo they sourced from the Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: READ THIS!!! AOL echo chamber.
Better to start coming up with a new paradigm on secrecy that matches the reality of our post-post modern age. Meaning: everyone will someday be tagged on Facebook in a compromising photo, but everyone will still have a Facebook account and, unless it involves puppies being tossed in a river (whoever you are I can’t forgive you!), you’ll still be considered for that job in 2030 because who hasn’t done something foolish on the Internet when they were a teenager?
Anyway, this was meant to be a short blog, but you know, I get excited when culture and technology clash! But throw in a global political earthquake! Wow.
So, in closing, let me just leave you with one related story from Pakistan, where pop stars recently took on the issue of the robots in the sky that were killing Pakistanis. No, this wasn’t Terminator with Pashtun subtitles. It was a covert program using drone aircraft to kill terrorists along the Pakistani-Afghan border…along with some civilians. The US denied such a program for a time. Meanwhile, the You Tube videos and music downloads went viral. Guess which story stuck?
Good or bad, the world’s just a much leakier place.