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Jaron Lanier on WikiLeaks: Information Doesn't Always Want to Be Free

jaron lanier"Would a world without secrets be fairer, or more compassionate? More efficient? Does it matter if some secrets are revealed before others?" Cyberpunk pundit, digital culture cognoscente and frequently professional contrarian Jaron Lanier wonders aloud about the value of WikiLeaks over at The Atlantic. Better and more authoritative analyses of the impact made by the leaked cables have been published elsewhere, and the blogs are on fire with "Julian Assange is a creep and/or hero" posts. But Lanier examines the culture and the ideology that gave birth to WikiLeaks, Assange and Anonymous -- what he calls "nerd supremacy."

"The hacker as glamorous revolutionary was a guiding image as the Internet was first coming together and being polished for widespread use a couple of decades ago," writes Lanier, "and we are paying now for our silly romanticism back then." It is this trope, he says, that helped to shape Assange and groups like Anonymous, who may see no reason that information should ever be kept secret. (Assange himself has said that he enjoys "crushing bastards" who have somehow slighted him and his politics, and that he views the possibility of people being killed as the result of his leaks to be an acceptable risk.) Lanier counters the "information wants to be free" rhetoric with two examples: the names of abortion doctors and illegal immigrants being published online.

WikiLeaks supporters may accuse him of being a good German. ("There are," he says, "some tremendously attractive things about the rule of law.") But Lanier positions himself as a philosopher of temperance. He provides little maxims like: "random leaking is no substitute for focused digging," and "civil disobedience is a spiritual discipline as much as anything else." Overall, Lanier aligns the fervor of WikiLeaks supporters with the superficial worldview of reactionary extremists on all sides of the political spectrum.

The problem, says Lanier, is that many of us have viewed WikiLeaks and its output abstractly. But what good does unfettered access to information necessarily do? "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," he writes. "[But] a contextualized flow of data that answers a question you know how to ask can be invaluable."

Read the full essay here.

Tags: anonymous, censorship, commentary, freedomofspeech, JaronLanier, JulianAssange, law, privacy, top, web, wikileaks