Tom Kenis heeft een achtergrond in Islamstudies en Internationale Betrekkingen. Hij woonde en werkte vier jaar in het Midden-Oosten en in Berlijn.
More is more
Wikileaks, an online repository of classified documents leaked anonymously by whistleblowers, is drawing criticism after posting close to 400.000 classified documents detailing American military operations in Iraq, and gruesome details of detainee abuse by American-sponsored Iraqi security personnel. Beyond discomfort to the defense establishment, facilitating whistle-blowing has wider implications for media, democracy, and diplomacy.
Democratic government is a free marketplace of ideas. Government, arguably, is a basket of services you buy with taxes. Customers who are not happy with the service they are receiving will choose other providers, either through the ballot box, or if that option is not available, by moving to another country.
Economic theories model their predictions of bread-and-butter behavior on the basis of a range of simplifications. Human beings will always take rational decisions, to name an easily falsifiable one. The more transparent the marketplace, the better informed the shopper, in short: the more you get what you bargained for.
Of such fraught assumptions, transparency becomes particularly tricky when applied to the business of politics. Compared to, say, a hair dryer, a politician’s actual functioning is hard to predict from what’s advertized on the box. More often than not the shopper comes home with a toaster in stead. There is no money-back guarantee, only the option to try a different brand after 4 or 5 years. What if we were somehow able to hold our office-holders accountable to a higher degree than hitherto thought possible? What if you could go to bed at night in the comforting knowledge your government was doing exactly what it said it was doing both at home and abroad? Wikileaks aims to do just that.
The going assumption here is not that government is inherently bad, and should therefore be curtailed. The premise must be that governments are run by humans, and that humans are prone to human error. Knowing about these errors is a necessary first step in correcting them. To perform this function, classical democracies have provided checks and balances to institutions of power, mostly by other institutions of power. The system of bestowing or renewal of popular mandates every so many years however is running at or above capacity. Society evolves ever faster, produces ever more information, and ideas based on this information. In short, the product cycle of thought is shortening.
Direct democracy equals direct media
Since the invention of representative, indirect, democracy education levels have increased dramatically. To adapt to this new sociology it is desirable for citizens to know, at all times, everything their government does, at home or abroad. The media, often dubbed ‘the fourth branch of government’, has so far played this role admirably, but the sheer amount of information produced by individuals, corporations, and governments has put a strain on its adequate functioning. Experiments in direct democracy can only avoid the pitfalls of demagoguery, in other words the manipulated interpretation of facts, if the barriers between information in its integral, raw form and people are removed.
Aggregate brain power
Arguably, the answer lies in harnessing the scrutiny, and yes, analytical power of the many. Putting more information in the public domain for discussion does exactly that. With so-called ‘grid’ computer power, individuals allow a far-off laboratory to use their machine’s excess processor muscle to help in for instance cancer research. So too should the raw data of a government’s inner functioning and actions be made available to all. Too many exemptions exist in current laws like the American Freedom of information Act or other such legislation.
…to end all wars
Anything a government gets up to that’s deemed ‘too sensitive’ for the general public to know about, is probably worthy of public scrutiny. Opponents might claim that competition with non-free states require actions that are less-palatable to freedom-loving folk. For instance, to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons it is necessary for us not to let Iran know about everything we’re doing to achieve our noble goal. Wikileaks, in other words, will hurt the intelligence efforts. On the other hand, to restrict Wikileaks would deny Iranian dissidents, of which undoubtedly there are many, the opportunity to steal a march on their oppressors and publicize details of the country’s fissile dabbling. The most powerful weapon in advocating freedom, is to at least espouse the very idea fully and unambiguously.
The crux and implications of this freedom however are unmistakable. War as a foreign policy instrument will eventually become impractical, if not impossible. By their very nature, war efforts can only be sustained if the exorbitant financial and human cost can be withheld or filtered from the general consciousness. Wikileaks threatens to shatter the intermediary role of governments to both wage a war, and explain its proceedings to those paying for it. Free and easy access to all information by everyone is antithetical to the manipulation of facts necessary to justify wars of aggression. For lack of the latter, defensive wars are eventually set on the same path.
The Jack is out of the box
Among others, China has taken the lead in checking the free flow of information toward and between its citizens. Thailand too has blocked the Wikileaks website. German police have raided the house of Theodor Reppe, registrant of the German WikiLeaks domain name, wikileaks.de. In 2009, the Australian Communications and Media Authority added WikiLeaks to their proposed list of sites to be blocked for all Australians. Wikileaks members have complained of harassment, surveillance etc.. Its continued existence is all but certain. At the end of the day however, censorship technologies are easily overcome, witness the Iranian government’s failed attempts to keep its violent crackdown on regime opponents a secret, or the spam that finds its way into your inbox everyday regardless of any efforts to the contrary.
The future of information
In a way, information seems beholden to some sort of sociological equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics, i.e. an expression of the fact that over time, differences in temperature, pressure, and chemical potential tend to balance out.
A very free place, say Sweden, one of a few places where the Wikileaks website uses server space, will either continue to allow other states’ secrets to be revealed, and hence make other states more free, or cave in to outside pressure to curb the website’s actions, and become a less free state as a result. Regardless, balance is restored. Human nature provides cautious ground for optimism. People, by their very constitution, are communicators. History does not, in the end, favor barriers.
Whistle-blowing will not replace classical journalism. It will be complimentary to it. There will always be a need for interpretation, context, and analysis. The only thing that is bound to disappear is the journalist’s monopoly access to sources. More people will vet more information, underpinning better decision-making.
More is more, and a hair dryer is not a toaster.
Tom Kenis (33), graduated MA in Middle-East studies and International Relations, has studied Arabic in Cairo, and worked for three years in the occupied Palestinian territories. He currently works for Channel Research, a consultancy active in the field of peace-building, development impact assessment, and corporate governance. Kenis writes extensively on Middle East and international affairs, technology, and sustainable development on his blog: tomkenis.com.