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Wikileaks and The Age of Transparency

| November 29, 2010
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You may remember that in late 2000, while many of the world’s citizens were stockpiling batteries and bottled water in a hedge against the predicted electronic catastrophe of Y2K, a modern technological problem of another stripe reared its head. When a man working for a London bank sent to some buddies a bawdy email exchange he’d had with a female co-worker, he set in motion a seminal experiment in the exponential power of near-instant, inter-continental humiliation, not to mention cross-cultural voyeurism.

That email got forwarded on its titillatingly merry way to a million or more people around the planet, creating what may be the first case of worldwide tittering at a single instance of prosaic, non-celebrity sexual flirting (early-period Monica Lewinsky notwithstanding).

Now, forward yourself in time to the late 2000s. I have a friend who’s a San Francisco waiter and a great guy, though a bit boisterous if you’re trying to have a quiet conversation with a dinner companion or a private moment with your linguini. Go to Yelp and look up the restaurant he works at, and inevitably you’ll find dominating the message board back-and-forth a debate on my pal’s strengths and weaknesses as a paid server of food. Mind you, he’s a waiter, not an athlete, actor, or politician, professions entered into by those who seek the limelight. But there he is, on electronic display for all to see and comment on. Besides eliminating caffeine intake, though, what can he do? To avoid becoming a topic of online conversation, he’d have to fundamentally alter his behavior.

Which brings me to Wikileaks. The release of classified state department cables by that site has thrown the world of international diplomacy into havoc and sent U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton straight to a podium, where she declared the disclosure “not just an attack on United States foreign policy and interests, (but) an attack on the international community.” Besides revelations on nuclear proliferation, corruption in Afghanistan, and financing of terrorism by Saudi nationals, the cables also reveal a program directing U.S. diplomats to gather intelligence on their foreign counterparts. “This is what diplomats, from our country and other countries, have done for hundreds of years,” a State Department spokesman defensively opined.

Perhaps. People have been jotting down dirty notes to each other and gossiping about the perceived shortcomings of local merchants for hundreds of years too. My point being: the Wikileaks’ disclosures will no doubt make tangibly plain for an elite group of formulators and implementers of foreign policy what ordinary citizens have had to face for the last 10 years: that private life and private actions and private conversations, from the routine to the globe-rattling, can and will, in a matter of minutes, not only be made public, but be made public on a mass scale.

Personally, I have not yet fully come to grips with the reality of living in an environment where so much of our communication is up for review, critique, and censure; a time when every private citizen can benefit from a seasoned p.r. rep. The pitfalls are everywhere. Maybe my wife will reveal she’s divorcing me on Facebook; maybe something I posted on a personal in a moment of anger will be used to deny me employment; someone will post a video of me doing something dorky on YouTube, or maybe I will just make that most fundamentally rookie of all unforced Internet errors: hitting “reply all” instead of “reply.”

The fact is, the Age of Transparency is upon us with a vengeance. Like it or not, living your life, and your foreign policy, in public is the new norm.

It makes me wonder: Can we absorb this kind of cultural shift without some sort of fundamental dislocation? Sunlight, they say, is the best disinfectant, but what wattage can the current societal order, not to mention the human psyche, withstand? And what’s next?

These days, you have to be very careful about everything. So careful, that the only way to avoid opprobium for a conversation, an action, or a policy is to not have it, commit it, or enact it in the first place.

Is that a good thing or not? You tell me.

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