The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks


Improving access to information can be a very good thing in the right circumstances. For instance, another huge factor in making code better (in addition to structure) was a flow of information feedback from the real world.

Coding used to be based on hope. You'd code something and someone else would experience whether it crashed or not, and while they would let you know, it was hard to learn much from their tales of woe. With the arrival of the Internet, crash logs could be reported back to the programmers automatically, so software engineering became a closed loop feedback system. I well remember Steven Sinofsky showing me the early results of this flow of data about crashes in the early Windows operating system. It was as if a new sense organ had suddenly sprouted on one's face.

I bring this up to say that asking whether secrets in the abstract are good or bad is ridiculous. A huge flow of data that one doesn't know how to interpret in context is either useless or worse than useless, if you let it impress you too much. A contextualized flow of data that answers a question you know how to ask can be invaluable.

As has been frequently observed, the Cablegate episode hasn't revealed military or "top" secrets; at least as I write this. Furthermore, while some Wikileaks supporters see the documents as a portrait of an evil USA, actually the USA comes off pretty well in them.

In fact, most of the figures who have been embarrassed by the leaked cables seem to not have been America's closest friends. Instead, a typical hot leak dishes dirt about someone who was disturbing to American diplomats.

This is to be expected, since the Cablegate leak was of American documents, expressing American perceptions. So Wikileaks ended up accentuating the American point of view, which was already easy to know, instead of bringing new perspectives to the world!

If your primary motivation for supporting Wikileaks is that you think the USA is the problem, and must be opposed, then please meditate on this. (I happen to think the USA is going through a troubling period in some ways, but is overall an essential positive force in the world. But what I think about that isn't what's at issue here.)

If we want to understand all the sides of an argument, we have to do more than copy files. It's not as though we are supporting reporters out there on the ground to do independent investigative journalism. Random leaking is no substitute for focused digging. The "everything must be free and open" ideal has nearly bankrupted the overseas news bureaus.

The point of Cablegate is to make it hard for diplomats to function. We know this is the point, since Julian Assange has described the strategy in his writing. He hopes to screw up the USA, which he considers a conspiracy of bastards, by screwing up the trust which glues the USA together. When you reveal what one person said in confidence to another, you screw up their relationships with other people. That's what Wikileaks has come to be about with the Cablegate episode, not the revelation of deeply scandalous secrets.

Yet the controversies around radical openness are usually framed around questioning the legitimacy of keeping regulated institutional secrets. Military, commercial, and diplomatic spheres sanction more secret keeping than we are used to in civilian life.

If the distinctions between these spheres fail, then what we will lose is civilian life, since the others are ultimately indispensible. Then we'd turn into a closed society. In closed societies, like North Korea, everyday life is militarized.

You might not agree that this is what would happen, because it might seem as though fewer secrets ought to always, always mean a more open society. If you think that, you are making the same mistake those programmers who resisted structure made long ago.

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.

the information machine.jpg

Still drawn from The Ray and Charles Eames film, The Information Machine, held in the Prelinger Library and hosted at


1. The hacker community sometimes has a way of talking the talk about its own empowerment, but pretending it isn't walking the walk when it actually is, in order to enjoy the blessed cover and forgiveness granted to the oppressed.

This observation immediately brings up another difficulty in perception. I just made up a construction: "The hacker community." What the hell is that? Since important actors in the present dramas are anonymous, including many Wikileaks activists, it can be hard to pin ideas or actions on specific people. Does that mean we can't talk about what anyone thinks or does? We have to do our best to perceive actors in order to perceive and assess ideas and actions.

A range of ideas and strategies are in play. There are people from the Wikileaks community who became uncomfortable with Julian Assange, and are attempting to rev up alternative leak sites. Some of these experiments might turn out well, and I might become an enthusiast for them.

While acknowledging this diversity, it is also important to address certain mistaken core ideas underlying much of the world of cyber-activism.

2. Yet another essay that is critical of techie culture! Am I giving comfort to enemies of friends by challenging friends? Maybe a little, but I think my friends can take it and we get better and stronger from these conversations.

I'll declare here that I happen to share some of the concerns of many of the supporters of Wikileaks and related efforts. To be specific, am worried that the American government seems to be better able to lie to itself by keeping secrets digitally. The same can be said about the Chinese government, and many others. Digital information systems can help you lie to yourself better because dubious information can seem so much more credible and substantial when you've digitized it, and there can be so much of it.

But we can't descend into a primal sorting of who is friend and who is enemy.

Presented by

A computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author, Jaron Lanier maintains interests in biomimetic information architectures, user interfaces, and computational approaches to the fundamentals of physics.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Technology

Just In