Jaron Lanier's Virtual Reality: Secrecy Is Good Because Secrecy Is Necessary

from the head-in-the-virtual-sand dept

There is now a well-established class of writers about the digital world, whom I fondly dub the Old Curmudgeons. Basically, they agree, things are getting worse all the time -- this modern online nonsense is bad for us and will give us all fallen arches or something. Leading exponents of this view include Nicholas Carr, Andrew Keen and Jaron Lanier.

I think Mr. Lanier is the most interesting of these, because he has a solid technical background and has been creative in the digital sphere for a long time. That makes his Savonarola-like denunciations of the same particularly striking.

Against that background, it was perhaps inevitable that he would weigh in on the Wikileaks business -- and equally inevitable what his line would be, as his title makes clear: "The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks".

If I had several hours to spare, I might try to go through it addressing his various arguments, from those which amount to unsubstantiated assertions about "the ideology that drives a lot of the online world," to ad-hominem sniping (for example, "we didn't necessarily get to know where Mr. Assange was at a given moment" -- maybe because he is doing things a lot of governments and organisations don't like and so discretion is the better part of valour), to outright misapprehension ("Wikileaks isn't really a "wiki," but it is designed to look and feel like the Wikipedia" -- er, well, no actually, it doesn't look like it in the slightest), and to various straw men: "What if we come to be able to read each other's thoughts? Then there would be no thoughts. Your head has to be different from mine if you are to be a person with something to say to me." As far as I am aware, nobody is calling for mandatory telepathy.

But I'd rather examine Lanier's peroration, because I think it exposes the fundamental flaw in his indubitably entertaining essay:
Anarchy and dictatorship are entwined in eternal resonance. One never exists for long without turning to the other, and then back again. The only way out is structure, also known as democracy.

We sanction secretive spheres in order to have our civilian sphere. We furthermore structure democracy so that the secretive spheres are contained and accountable to the civilian sphere, though that's not easy.

There is certainly an ever-present danger of betrayal. Too much power can accrue to those we have sanctioned to hold confidences, and thus we find that keeping a democracy alive is hard, imperfect, and infuriating work.

The flip side of responsibly held secrets, however, is trust. A perfectly open world, without secrets, would be a world without the need for trust, and therefore a world without trust. What a sad sterile place that would be: A perfect world for machines.
What the Wikileaks cables show is precisely that those sanctioned "secretive spheres" are not currently accountable to the civilian sphere. They show all of the shady deals made in backrooms, the outright lies told to the public to keep us quiet, and the connivance with big business to ensure that profit comes before ethics.

Lanier's logic seems to be that everything's fine and the revelations of Wikileaks will only mess things up. And until Wikileaks' revelations, people might have gone along with that analysis, since that was the story that governments were feeding us. But in the wake of Wikileaks, that is simply not a tenable position: as the words of diplomats delineate time and again, everything is not fine and the social pact of accepting those "secretive spheres" in return for a responsible use of the advantage they bring has been broken.

I would love it to be the case that Lanier's analysis were true and in some scaled-up, digitised version of Athenian democracy we could have a responsible wielding of state powers, with secrecy applied wisely and justly. But Wikileaks has confirmed what many have suspected, but have hitherto been unable to prove: that politicians use secrecy to hide their continual and continuing breaches of the trust we placed in them.

Until they change in the light of what Wikileaks is showing, we cannot trust them as we did before. And the more they -- and their defenders, however well intentioned -- deny the situation revealed by their own words through Wikileaks and try to stop us from seeing it, by hook or by crook, the longer that is likely to take and the messier it will be.

And given that proven record of abuse, when they do finally change we will need more transparency about what they are doing -- but not total transparency, which is neither feasible nor necessary -- to make sure that they are not falling back into their bad, old ways under the convenient, comforting cover of secrecy.

Cross posted from Open...


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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 23rd, 2010 @ 5:50pm

    Maybe the cable about how the Bush administration was thinking about punishing Europe for not having their GM crops.

    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/12/bush-admin-retaliation-europe-rejecting-gm-crops-w ikileaks.php

    That should be a secret right?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 23rd, 2010 @ 5:55pm

    Or maybe the cables about how ineffective the IPRED turned out to be.

    http://www.zeropaid.com/news/91689/wikileaks-sweden-anti-piracy-law-doing-little-to-fight-p2p /

    That surely should be secret right people?

    Right LoL

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 23rd, 2010 @ 6:31pm

    "A perfectly open world, without secrets, would be a world without the need for trust, and therefore a world without trust."

    Ok, I'm sorry, but he's just talking out his ass about something he knows nothing about. The only way for that "perfectly open world" to function would be if everyone trusted each other, take away the trust and there is no "open world" or "open" anything.

     

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    Darryl, Dec 23rd, 2010 @ 11:16pm

    Backup your claims Glynn, please...

    What the Wikileaks cables show is precisely that those sanctioned "secretive spheres" are not currently accountable to the civilian sphere. They show all of the shady deals made in backrooms, the outright lies told to the public to keep us quiet, and the connivance with big business to ensure that profit comes before ethics.

    Right, Glynn..

    Perhaps you might want to refer us to specific cables that support your 'claim', show us the outright lies told to the public to keep us quiet,

    And show us all the shady deals you refer too, like what.

    It's all to easy to just say thing Glynn, but sometimes it would be good to back them up with these things called..... FACTS..

    heard of them ?

    But of course, actually backing up your 'claims' would require you to work, and maybe even find out the facts.

    You make very serious claims, that you should have the balls to back that up with facts, that we can read and asses of you are talking bullshit or not.

    Iv'e been keeping up the the cable releases, and what their content is in relation too, and I have not seen much, if any, of what you claim to know about.

    It also is quite clear the general public at large does not care about what has been said by some diplomat, the politicians do not seem to worried about that.. They ARE worried that the military operational information that was released.

    That is clearly a criminal act, but the cables, are nothing... and if you think they are something, then by all means you will show us the money.. !!!!.

    The facts will do nicely.

     

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    Justin Olbrantz (Quantam) (profile), Dec 24th, 2010 @ 12:18am

    "The flip side of responsibly held secrets, however, is trust. A perfectly open world, without secrets, would be a world without the need for trust, and therefore a world without trust. What a sad sterile place that would be: A perfect world for machines."

    That is one of the most excessively (and irrationally) romantic things I've ever heard. Trust is a tool: something which exists only to serve a purpose. You trust because you need to, not because trusting is good in itself. If there is no need for it, trust, like any other tool that is no longer useful, will disappear. This is perfectly normal, and working exactly as intended.

    If I have the option of trusting that someone is my friend vs. knowing that they're my friend, I want the latter, 100.% (that period is not a typo) of the time. Between trusting that someone is acting the way they're supposed to and knowing, again I will choose the latter 100.% of the time. Between trusting that my government is acting in my best interest and knowing that it is, the very same. Are we noticing a pattern yet?

    Once again, trust is a tool, it is not a virtue. It is neither morally right nor wrong, it is merely useful or it is not. Only the truly hopeless romantic cries when a tool becomes obsolete.

    That said, the lack of secrets in no way implies the obsolescence of trust, so the argument is absurd to begin with. There are at least two uses for trust (the tool), and only one disappears with secrets.

     

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    jjman, Dec 24th, 2010 @ 2:53pm

    Trust the government?

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Dec 24th, 2010 @ 2:57pm

      Re: Trust the government?

      What I meant to say that the constitution is a document that is written with mistrust of the government in mind. Seperation of powers, innocent until proven guilty,these things are set up because the people setting up the government did not trust their own creation. So I can say that I trust the govenrment just as much after Wikileaks as I did before it. Not a bit.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 17th, 2011 @ 2:28pm

    It is ironic that conservatives, who claim to mistrust government the most, are also those who most loudly condemn Wikileaks for bringing the government's misdeeds to light.

     

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