Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Facebook & Wikileaks to merge in new deal

OK, No, not really. But you gotta admit there's a certain symmetry.

As I read the back-&-forth on Wikileaks, there are two things that stand out. One is the utter inevitability of the whole stupid issue. Can anyone not have seen this coming, like, years ago? As Julian Assange said: the real scandal here is how it took so long. "How is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined?," Assange said toThe Sydney Morning Herald. This is certainly an indictment of investigative journalism, but the possibility that the leaks are serving some darker purpose in the halls of government is not really reassuring. Either way, things look bad. If our governments are really as nonplussed as they are trying to seem, we are in serious trouble. Contrariwise, if they are putting this much energy into merely looking nonplussed, we are also in serious trouble. Ergo...

The other thing that strikes me is the weird ressentiment that informs so many free-speech defenders of Julian Assange. I count myself among these, but I do not relate to the indignant finally-a-dose-of-their-own-medicine tone I read in so many comment threads. "They know all of our secrets, now we know theirs," is the lowest-common-denominator version of this. Yes, there is some championing of the principle of open information. But beneath this is an almost palpable seething, the rage of the alienated. It's a bewildered fury that's just become self-aware, that hardly knew it existed a few days ago--the dawning realization that They knew all about us, and we knew almost nothing.

This reminds one of nothing so much as the protest, now died down but never satisfactorily answered, over Facebook's privacy policies, such as they are. Assange's weird twin is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, as described by David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect. Zuckerberg
sees the world as moving very rapidly toward transparency and very rapid sharing of data between individuals in all sorts of ways, on and off Facebook,
Kirkpatrick remarked to N.P.R. last June.
And from the day he first created his system, he had this ethos of sharing that he strongly believed in.
This ethos leaves little room for showing different faces to different circles. As Kirkpatrick reads him, Zuckerberg disagrees strongly with the notion that people might have one identity at work and one at home, one personality when with old friends and one online interacting with God-knows-who. Such presentation or self-editing is not, for Zuckerberg, flexibility or prudence; it's merely dissimulation; and the belief that one is someone different in different circumstances is just wrong. Says Kirkpatrick,
He [Zuckerberg] believes that he will live a better life personally, and all of us will be more honest, and ultimately it will be better for the world if we dispense with that belief.
Of course, Zuckerberg has plenty of things he wants to keep to himself or he'd have a live web-cam following him around all the time. This does not keep Facebook from shamelessly going after anything it can glean about you, whether you put it on Facebook or not. In the words of their own policy:
We may use information about you that we collect from other sources, including but not limited to newspapers and Internet sources such as blogs, instant messaging services and other users of Facebook, to supplement your profile.
(The most recent version of the policy amends this to drop the reference to "other sources...", and if this makes you feel better, I envy you.)

To listen to Zuckerberg, it's really all about "openness:" "For me and my colleagues," he explained when asked why he'd turned down offers to sell the company,
the most important thing is that we create an open information flow for people. Having media corporations owned by conglomerates is just not an attractive idea to me.
There is something manifest-destinyish about this for Zuckerman: "The thing I really care about is the mission, making the world open," he says.

Just how this mission jibes with the libertarian vision of Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal whose investment catapulted Facebook into its current ascendancy and who sits on its board of directors, is a little unclear; but it seems a safe bet that the philosophy of openness and transparency take a back seat to considerations of the bottom line. Despite some people tracing Thiel's weird hyper-libertarianism to René Girard's account of mimetic desire (Thiel did study under Girard at Stanford), Thiel is far more a right-wing Straussian than a Girardian, and far more one of Nietzsche's "exceptions" than a philosopher. Girard, whose anthropological account of the origins of violence argues that human desire is imitative, so that once something is desired, more and more people naturally and inevitably come to desire it, until violence breaks out, does describe the stock market as the "quintessential mimetic phenomenon," but this hardly seems sufficient to establish a close isomorphism between Thiel's hedge-fund and derivatives trading and Girard's readings of Dostoevsky, Stendahl, and Freud, or his account of the Christian gospel as the undoing of the violent logic of the sacred.

(Incidentally, Girard's way of distinguishing between Christianity and any number of other accounts of dying-&-rising gods, his critique of the comparative mythology reduction of the Gospel, is also behind a great deal of Žižek's reading of Christianity. To explore this would take us too far afield ["too late," I hear you muttering], but it's worth noting how Girard can inspire such right- and left-wing interpretations as Thiel's and Žižek's.)

Now lest the point be lost, I started this out as a rumination on Julian Assange and Wikileaks, and I am going to try to bring the comparison/contrast into focus.

Shortly before turning himself in to Scotland Yard to face possible extradition to Sweden (to face charges that almost certainly amount to less than meet the eye), Assange gave a Q-&-A session for The Guardian. A single question stood out, for Assange's apparent refusal to give a straightforward answer. It came (ostensibly) from a former diplomat who had
helped to coordinate multilateral action against a brutal regime in the Balkans, impose sanctions on a renegade state threatening ethnic cleansing, and negotiate a debt relief programme for an impoverished nation.
All of this would have been impossible, the questioner claimed, had it not been for
the security and secrecy of diplomatic correspondence, and the protection of that correspondence from publication under the laws of the UK and many other liberal and democratic states.
And so to the accusation:
Diplomacy cannot operate without discretion and the protection of sources....In publishing this massive volume of correspondence, Wikileaks is not highlighting specific cases of wrongdoing but undermining the entire process of diplomacy.(My emphasis.)
Alas, when the actual question finally got asked, it was no longer about diplomacy; it has turned personal: Why, the diplomat wanted to know, shouldn't Assange be held personally responsible next time a crisis arises and can't be solved through ordinary diplomatic means, now that Wikileaks has pulled the rug out from under it all? I understand (I think) why Assange declined to answer this, but I would have liked to hear his thoughts on the broader theoretical (or as Assange called it, "editorial") context of the question.

I am not concerned with whether the pubic has a "right" to know how some undersecretary sneered about a banana republic finance minister's table manners. I don't want to scoff at the seriousness of the impact Wikileaks could have on such endeavors as trying to avert humanitarian disasters. I take it for granted that this does change how diplomacy will be conducted, but I reject the notion that it makes it impossible. For the record, I believe Wikileaks is (if it's not some state department's front) a great moment in the history of openness of information, and one that was in any event bound to happen; if diplomats like the questioner are caught unawares by this eventuality, it speaks badly for diplomats. This does not excuse mere mischief-making, but this is not Assange's game. He may, just possibly, be a narcissist or a sex offender, but that would not change my attitude towards Wikileaks per se; so, after all, are any number of politicians.

I don't know what Mark Zuckerberg believes about human identity, but implicit in the denial that there is any appropriateness to being one person at work and one at home is the notion that presentation (1) is everything, and therefore (2) ought to be univocal. The vision of Facebook is: what if everyone knew everything about each other?

The vision of Wikileaks is: what if States could no longer lie to each other?
Would they then still need to lie to their citizens?

These questions are about incommensurable realities. This is because persons are not univocal entities, whereas the State is. We are in a bizarre nightmare world if states can lay claim to the need for dissimulation (or, let us put it charitably, equivocation or selective presentation), whereas human beings are compelled to offer up their last quirk and foible as fodder for advertisers.

But this points out that it is not even state considerations anymore that drives the storing-up of such caches of information; it is the market. It could be worthwhile for the state to have such a cache, for the eventuality that any given person becomes "a problem;" but the market has a voracious interest in each person, "problem" or no, not of course qua person, but qua consumer. Strictly speaking, the state could leave the person alone; but the market cannot. Every shred of "personal identity" will be turned into fodder to grow the long tail. And come to think of it, this foregrounds the obvious interest an Über-capitalist like Thiel would have in such a mine of information. And perhaps why Facebook gets so angry when you try to opt out.

What this highlights is simply the decisive difference between the state and the person. A "right to privacy" is a value not because there are certain nonnegotiable, essential facts about us that must remain under lock and key but because logistical circumstances currently entail that certain (more or less arbitrary) facts about us are used to essentialize us. That is, the more we allow ourselves to be construed as consumers, the more we are reduced to lists of appetites, habits, opinions, complex cocktails of loyalties and likelihoods, all of which can be used to predict--and engineer--our responses. A right to privacy should protect us from such reduction. A state has no such rights. Nor has a corporation. (Legally, of course, both can be defined as having them; that is a different matter). The debate about the propriety of Wikileaks' revelations all reduce to considerations about their impact upon persons.

Put otherwise: the state is a mimetic entity, exactly in Girard's sense. It is mimesis itself, one could say. But persons, despite their being prone to mimesis (after all, the state is a function of persons and not vice-versa), can exceed their mimetic proclivities.

Wikileaks is interesting precisely to the degree that it impacts the possibility of "diplomacy" (read: politics in general) as a whole. Failing that, it is merely another variation in current events, another distraction, another trend to follow (imitating "what everyone else is doing"); another click for Facebook to track with its cookies.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing that. Now how can I monetize it? It's a mad world my masters where the emotionally incontinent are leaking in their breeks and every idiot apparatchik can have 2.5 mins. of fame as a deplorable tattle tail. But we discovered what we already suspected, that war is xbox by another means. We don't have to wait 30 years to know that some Tonkin incident was first plotted on the back of a paper napkin in Washington. After 9/11 you felt like running to the hills because no one thought to report that 'I don't want to learn to take off, I don't want to learn to land, I just want to learn to fly'. Give that man a certificate of completion now.