WikiLeaks and the problem of too much information

It doesn’t seem that long ago — around 2000, maybe? — that I first heard someone say “TMI” and had to ask what it meant. This morning, as news breaks that the anarchistic, world-wide non-organization of geeks known as Anonymous have launched DDoS attacks against the websites of MasterCard, Swedish prosecutors, and others they consider to be unfairly targeting WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, it occurs to me that the problem or scandal of “too much information” is very much at the heart of what’s shaping up to be the first global information war — call it WIW I, or perhaps WWWW I (World Wide Web War I).

What was it I’d said that prompted one of my New Jersey cousins to say, laughingly, “TMI, Dave!” that first time? Knowing me, probably a reference to gross bodily functions. It’s interesting how often our concerns for privacy and secrecy boil down to the desire for a figurative fig-leaf over our private parts. By a curious accident, the U.S. government’s furious reaction to the so-called Cablegate leaks immediately follows the furor in the press about the new “security” measures in American airports requiring all passengers to submit to complete physical transparency via scanner, or else endure invasive pat-downs many liken to sexual assault. Now it is Assange, the public face of the otherwise secretive Wikileaks organization, being accused of sexual assault, and once again, it is right-wing libertarians and left-wing anti-imperialists who are loudest in the defense of what we see as a civil rights or human rights issue. But while mainstream conservatives were happy to fan the flames of public discontent over Airport Gategate, on Cablegate they’ve joined with mainstream liberals in echoing or amplifying the government’s propaganda.

As regular Via Negativa readers know, I rarely post about political issues directly — this is only the 19th time I’ve assigned a post to the Rants category, as opposed to 187 posts with a more personal or elliptical approach to politics in the Personal/Political category. But as a web publisher, I do take the persecution of WikiLeaks personally, and as a U.S. citizen, I am embarrassed and appalled by the government’s hypocrisy in attempting exactly the sort of extra-judicial suppression of information-sharing that they have chastised other countries for. And as a writer, I’ve grown dependent on the Internet for information of all kinds — not only for blog posts like this, but even while writing poems. Threats to Internet freedom scare the hell out of me.

My horror at being on the wrong side of the public drumbeat against Wikileaks — a kind of isolation I haven’t felt since October 2001 and the lead-up to our bombing and invasion of Afghanistan — is combined with fascination at the manifold ways in which Cablegate illuminates the problem of TMI.

  1. The size of the leaked cache of diplomatic cables has become a sort of talisman for both sides in the emerging war. Like almost everyone, I rely on the cooperating journalists at The Guardian, The New York Times, and other cooperating newspapers to sort and analyze it, even though I realize that these filters are far from neutral. As the Wikileaks organization itself realizes, the size of an information cache presents both unique opportunities and unique challenges.
  2. The official propaganda line characterizes the information — both the few cables already released and those still pending — as too much in the specific sense that they serve a supposedly warped and dangerous vision of total transparency. This is genius because it suggests a covert connection with the immediately preceding crisis, Airport Gategate, turning the ever-potent paranoia of the more politically engaged segment of the American public, otherwise predisposed to distrust the government, against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange instead.
  3. Propaganda itself is perhaps the original TMI: blanketing the airwaves and newspapers with a few false charges (e.g. that Wikileaks did nothing to redact the names of persons who might be injured by the release, that it is a terrorist organization with blood on its hands, that Assange is a criminal mastermind and monster) can easily overwhelm and smother the truth. This is philosophically interesting because in this instance it’s actually too little that we have too much of. And information that may contain a grain of truth is exaggerated to support the propaganda, partaking in the too-muchness of hyperbole.
  4. Information differs from knowledge — a word I much prefer — in one important respect: false information is still information. The diplomatic cables at the center of the war are of course highly biased, and in many cases illuminate the extent to which high-level government employees believe their own propaganda. Volume is essential to organizational self-duplicity, as members actively work to convince each other of the lies they serve. I think something similar happens when new religions are born. The more patently absurd the “truth,” the more strident and verbose its adherents must become.
  5. According to the popular proverb, knowledge is power. A more accurate if less catchy saying might be that secrecy is a key to power. The selective withholding of information creates a privileged class of people, and more than anything, the State Department cable leaks show the extent to which this power is now routinely abused as the cognoscenti expand their ranks. This is a dilemma inherent to power itself: the more it is shared, the more it is dissipated. And eventually it is shared with someone who does not buy into the group-think: a whistleblower. Too much information was classified by too many people with too little justification.
  6. Data and information aren’t quite synonymous, but they’re pretty close. Isn’t a distributed denial-of-service attack itself a potent example of, or at least analogy for, the power of too much information flooding a given processing system in too short a time?

Update: John Miedema, whose past blogging on the subject of information overload informed my thinking here, has new post about this: World Information War I: It’s Not Being Fought on the Web.

14 Replies to “WikiLeaks and the problem of too much information”

  1. Pingback: World Information War I: It’s Not Being Fought on the Web | Open Reading
  2. WIWI, pronounced, no doubt, weewee. Oddly appropriate for a confrontation set off by the leak heard round the world.

  3. Dave, I’m glad you’ve mentioned this. I have been wondering what reports Americans were getting about the Wikileaks affair – or shall we call it WAFFAIR? Over here, it’s been a major news item for a while, as you know. I see it as the ultimate contemporary edge-of-seat thriller and can’t wait to see what happens next. Assange has almost gained mythical hero status, a kind of Robin Hood or Scarlet Pimpernel for cyber-times. Many people wouldn’t be surprised if the whole Swedish thing turns out to have been a set-up, orchestrated by…um..Dark Forces. But quite a lot of high-powered people have come out in support of him, offered to pay bail etc. Assange is probably no angel but whatever his faults, the creation of Wikileaks isn’t one of them.

    1. Natalie, see, if you were on Facebook, you’d know just how worked up I and some of my friends have been. And as you know, geeks of every nationality are up in arms.

      As I was just saying to a Facebook friend a few moments ago, Assange doesn’t deserve hero status — Pfc. Bradley Manning does. He will spend the best decades of his life in military prison for this, if he isn’t executed.

  4. Dave, I am on FBook, it’s just that I don’t check in there very often!
    I agree that Bradley Manning is a hero – there must be, and probably is – a campaign to free him. But Assange too, I think, deserves tremendous respect for WeeWeeleaks.
    Did you see the comments on the Guardian news site, where all these people wrote “I am Julian Assange” (imitating the Spartacus movie) when he was hiding in the UK? All offering to stand up for him.There’s a heartwarming feeling of fellowship, and not just among geeks, and not simply about J.A. personally but about the whole concept that ‘we the people’ are actually entitled to transparency from all the authorities, in all areas affecting the lives of everyone on this planet.

  5. Dave:
    You’re right on the money on this issue. On an unrelated topic: Tomorrow is the 180th Birthday of Emily Dickinson!
    Born: Dec. 10, 1830.
    Died: May 15, 1886.

    1. Thanks. Yes, it’s a well-argued post, and there’s a strong argument to be made against total transparency, but I’m not convinced that that’s really what’s at stake. I guess I need to read more of Wikileaks’s and Assange’s writings about that. In any case, if the risk of total transparency is that we no longer get to wage wars and try to run the world, I think I can live with that.

      OT: that’s the first time I’ve seen someone use asterisks for links. Strikes me as poor usability, both because you dont know where the link is going, and because the expected behavior is for asterisks to go to footnotes/position links, not external pages.

  6. On this edition of Fresh Air, NYTimes reporter David Sanger (I think I got that right) claims that people need to have this information filtered because Assange has a political agenda but the NYTimes does not.

    I found that statement somewhat amusing.

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