Fri, Dec 10, 2010 - Page 9 News List

WikiLeaks casts light on the perils of oversharing

The latest WikiLeaks release is reminiscent of high school, and begs the question: How many secrets do we really want to know?

By Noam Cohen  /  NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

The recent release of internal US State Department cables by WikiLeaks, assisted by a coalition of news outlets in the US and Europe, has been viewed as a matter of national security — have confidential sources been compromised? Could relations between the US and Russia (or Italy or France or Pakistan) be permanently damaged?

However, one can take an even longer view of the meaning of the WikiLeaks campaign: By exposing the candid workings of government, the project and its editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, have transformed the debate over Internet privacy from one about the individual to one about the government.

In the aftermath, many of the sharpest critics of WikiLeaks have belittled what has been learned, saying the material appears meant to humiliate the US with embarrassing assessments of world leaders rather than inform the public of gross misbehavior. The damage to the government instead relates to the loss of the confidentiality needed to conduct foreign affairs.

The conservative commentator Tunku Varadarajan, writing in the Daily Beast, was among the most direct in making the point: “Diplomacy, to work at all effectively, must draw a line between the ‘consultative process’ and the ‘work product.’ This is but part of the human condition: Human beings need to consult, speculate, brainstorm, argue with each other — yes, even to gossip and say dopey things — in order to find their way through the difficult task of coming to an official, or publicly stated position which would then be open [legitimately] to criticism.”

So, without a zone of privacy it becomes impossible for a government to sustain complicated, even contradictory, ideas about relationships and about the world — in other words, it becomes impossible to think. And, imagine that: Apparently governments need to think.

Were he not talking about geopolitics and accusing Assange of being a Marxist (skipping right past the socialist label), Varadarajan would sound a lot like the commentators who worry about the generation growing up engulfed by modern Internet technologies.

These young people, too, lack the ability to say and do dopey things without it seemingly haunting them forever. They may never have bought a book without being profiled. Or queried a search engine without being sized up for an advertisement. Or proffered, and maybe then withdrawn, friendship, without it being logged.

The author and critic Zadie Smith made these points in an essay titled “Generation Why?” in The New York Review of Books. It included a scathing assessment of what Facebook and other Web technologies have wrought among her college students. She fears by sharing so much — and having so much shared about themselves — these young people have lost any hope for an inner life.

Whether the formats or the people are to blame is almost beside the point.

“I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists,” she writes. “A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and — which is more important — to herself.”

In the essay’s climax, she describes teaching an experimental novel “about a man who decides to pass most of his time in his bathroom,” who lacks “interiority.”

“To my students this novel feels perfectly realistic; an accurate portrait of their own denuded selfhood, or, to put it neutrally, a close analogue of the undeniable boredom of urban twenty-first-century existence,” she wrote.

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