On Wikileaks

I’ve held off posting anything about Wikileaks, as the subject’s complexity is a little daunting.  I still don’t have any polished thoughts, but I’ll offer a few unpolished ones alongside some reading recommendations:

If you haven’t been following this story, check out The Beginner’s Guide to Wikileaks at The Atlantic.

One of the basic aspects of the story I was missing at first was the extent to which Wikileaks worked with media organizations and even governments to redact the documents and decide what to publish.  To learn more about that, read Glenn Greenwald here.

The one question that consistently hurt my ability to think clearly about this story was Is Wikileaks good or bad? or, put another way, Should these cables have been published? So my advice is to put that aside for now and focus on a few other interesting aspects of the story, like…

Is Wikileaks a new kind of media organization or a new kind of source? The New York Times treats it as “a source, not a partner”, according to NYT executive editor Bill Keller.  An excellent summary of his comments on Wikileaks is available at the Nieman Lab.  For a different perspective try Matthew Ingram of GigaOM arguing “Like It or Not, WikiLeaks is a Media Organization”. NYT’s David Carr has thoughts here.

Another interesting line of inquiry looks at how governments can exert indirect control over organizations like Wikileaks in cases where they lack the ability to exert direct control.  Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber has a good post on this topic.

Another thing I’ve been pondering is what predispositions predict one’s opinion of Wikileaks.  This post by Tom Slee, which I found via both Clay Shirky and Crooked Timber, puts it this way:

Your answer to “what data should the government make public?” depends not so much on what you think about data, but what you think about the government.

I think he’s only partly right.  What you think about government matters tremendously.  But I wouldn’t downplay data.  I’m finding, in reading and conversations, that what you think about it does also hinge on what you think about technology.  All else equal, if you’re bullish about technology’s prospects for improving the world, you’re more likely to approve of Wikileaks’ data dump.  Ditto if you’re already sympathetic to hacker culture.  Or if you generally view increased access to information as crucial to improving society.

Put these two items – thoughts on government and thoughts on technology – together and I think it explains much of the disconnect between the standard Washingtonian’s view of Wikileaks and the standard geek view.  The latter is dominated by a combination of liberals and libertarians, both of which are likely to harbor deep suspicions about the government’s handling of international affairs.  Add to that a predisposition towards technology – contrasted with a view where tech can cause as many problems as it solves – and a true disconnect is revealed.  For these two reasons, the geek world has a much stronger bias towards transparency than the beltway insider.

I don’t mean “bias” in a pejorative way, and certainly don’t mean to suggest that one or the other view is closer to being right.  My own sympathies in this case are all over the map.  But I’d love to test my theory.  How much power would questions about Iraq and waterboarding have in predicting sympathy to Wikileaks? I imagine quite a lot.  But what about one’s reaction to a statement like “information wants to be free”? I’d bet that has some predictive power as well.

In closing, in place of any master synthesis or confident opinion, I’ll simply link to Clay Shirky’s post on the topic, which I think lays out the issues nicely.

For more reading, The Atlantic has a terrific roundup of reactions here.  My Delicious links on Wikileaks are here.