Thursday, December 16, 2010

Umberto Eco on Wikileaks - Real Secrets are Empty Secrets and Technology Moves Crabwise

Here is Novelist Umberto Eco's somewhat philosophical take on Wikileaks (originally published in the magazine Liberation), with my comments in bold blue:

Not Such Wicked Leaks

02 December 2010 Libération Paris
The WikiLeaks affair has twofold value. On the one hand, it turns out to be a bogus scandal, a scandal that only appears to be a scandal against the backdrop of the hypocrisy governing relations between the state, the citizenry and the press. On the other hand, it heralds a sea change in international communication – and prefigures a regressive future of “crabwise” progress.

But let’s take it one step at a time. First off, the WikiLeaks confirm the fact that every file put together by a secret service (of any nation you like) is exclusively made up of press clippings.

Strange, but true; most Blogistani analysis is based on being well informed news consumers - but as our country's reporters have said, it`s nice to see confirmation. Original spying involves going out, making contacts, specifically with those who don`t generally speak to the press, and getting information that it might be illegal, or too dangerous for news reporters to pick up.

The “extraordinary” American revelations about Berlusconi’s sex habits merely relay what could already be read for months in any newspaper (except those owned by Berlusconi himself, needless to say), and the sinister caricature of Gaddafi has long been the stuff of cabaret farce.

Embassies have morphed into espionage centres

The rule that says secret files must only contain news that is already common knowledge is essential to the dynamic of secret services (O RLY? I thought that would be grounds for redundancy; an excuse to fire lazy spies and analysts), and not only in the present century. Go to an esoteric book shop and you’ll find that every book on the shelf (on the Holy Grail, the “mystery” of Rennes-le-Château [a hoax theory concocted to draw tourists to a French town], on the Templars or the Rosicrucians) is a point-by-point rehash of what is already written in older books. And it’s not just because occult authors are averse to doing original research (or don’t know where to look for news about the non-existent), but because those given to the occult only believe what they already know and what corroborates what they’ve already heard (Intellectual Apathy FTW). That happens to be Dan Brown’s success formula.

The same goes for secret files. The informant is lazy. So is the head of the secret service (or at least he’s limited – otherwise he could be, what do I know, an editor at Libération): he only regards as true what he recognises. The top-secret dope on Berlusconi that the US embassy in Rome beamed to the Department of State was the same story that had come out in Newsweek the week before.

So why so much ado about these leaks? For one thing, they say what any savvy observer already knows: that the embassies, at least since the end of World War II, and since heads of state can call each other up or fly over to meet for dinner, have lost their diplomatic function and, but for the occasional ceremonial function (and visa applications for those outside the EU), have morphed into espionage centres. Anyone who watches investigative documentaries knows that full well, and it is only out of hypocrisy that we feign ignorance. Still, repeating that in public constitutes a breach of the duty of hypocrisy (that's a phrase that should be publicised, "breach of the duty of hypocrisy"), and puts American diplomacy in a lousy light.

A real secret is an empty secret

Secondly, the very notion that any old hacker (It wasn't a hacker, it was a whistleblower/leaker who passed the files from inside the State Department to the public site Wikileaks) can delve into the most secret secrets of the most powerful country in the world has dealt a hefty blow to the State Department’s prestige. So the scandal actually hurts the “perpetrators” more than the “victims”.

But let’s turn to the more profound significance of what has occurred. Formerly, back in the days of Orwell, every power could be conceived of as a Big Brother watching over its subjects’ every move. The Orwellian prophecy came completely true once the powers that be could monitor every phone call made by the citizen, every hotel he stayed in, every toll road he took and so on and so forth. The citizen became the total victim of the watchful eye of the state. But when it transpires, as it has now, that even the crypts of state secrets are not beyond the hacker’s (whistleblower dammit) grasp, the surveillance ceases to work only one-way and becomes circular. The state has its eye on every citizen, but every citizen, or at least every hacker – the citizens’ self-appointed avenger – can pry into the state’s every secret.

Not really, the capacity for surveillance has gone up manifold, with cryptography preventing any casual breaking into the government's system even by a moderately skilled script kiddy. However the reason the state doesn't spy more, is that it may drown in data it's living analysts may be unable to humanly analyse. Of course this is where advances in artificial intelligence, botnets and faster, more powerful processing speeds can come into play.

How can a power hold up if it can’t even keep its own secrets anymore? It is true, as Georg Simmel once remarked, that a real secret is an empty secret (which can never be unearthed) (i.e, Only one or two people know it); it is also true that anything known about Berlusconi or Merkel’s character is essentially an empty secret, a secret without a secret, because it’s public domain. But to actually reveal, as WikiLeaks has done, that Hillary Clinton’s secrets were empty secrets amounts to taking away all her power. WikiLeaks didn’t do any harm to Sarkozy or Merkel, but did irreparable damage to Clinton and Obama.

Technology now advances crabwise

What will be the consequences of this wound inflicted on a very mighty power? It’s obvious that in future, states won’t be able to put any restricted information on line anymore (I'm not too sure about that): that would be tantamount to posting it on a street corner (Not necessarily). But it is equally clear that, given today’s technologies, it is pointless to hope to have confidential dealings over the phone. Nothing is easier than finding out whether a head of state flew in or out or contacted one of his counterparts. So how can privy matters be conducted in future? Now I know that for the time being, my forecast is still science fiction and therefore fantastic, but I can’t help imagining state agents riding discreetly in stagecoaches along untrackable routes, bearing only memorised messages (Haha, maybe) or, at most, the occasional document concealed in the heel of a shoe. Only a single copy thereof will be kept – in locked drawers. Ultimately, the attempted Watergate break-in was less successful than WikiLeaks.

I once had occasion to observe that technology now advances crabwise, i.e. backwards (shouldn't crabwise mean sideways?). A century after the wireless telegraph revolutionised communications, the Internet has re-established a telegraph that runs on (telephone) wires. (Analog) video cassettes enabled film buffs to peruse a movie frame by frame, by fast-forwarding and rewinding to lay bare all the secrets of the editing process, but (digital) CDs now only allow us quantum leaps from one chapter to another (Mr Eco, you're a great writer, but not too accomplished with technology. You can use your DVD remote now to slow a movie down to 1/32 of a second. And if you want to slow down frames in a film on your computer, you can install VLC player). High-speed trains take us from Rome to Milan in three hours, but flying there, if you include transfers to and from the airports, takes three and a half hours. So it wouldn’t be extraordinary if politics and communications technologies were to revert to the horse-drawn carriage.

Why not? A regressive technological approach would seem appropriate for regressive political thought. One should admit though, technologies come with their own pre-packaged ideologies. Books and press had their own ideology, television had its own, and the internet, its own new ideology. Wikileaks is a manifestation of the internet’s underlying ideology. The “apprehension”, or subservience to power as others might call it, of television journalists, is a manifestation of their subservience to televisions underlying ideology.

One last observation: In days of yore, the press would try to figure out what was hatching sub rosa inside the embassies. Nowadays, it’s the embassies that are asking the press for the inside story.

If the press had done its job, there would have been no need for Wikileaks.

1 comment:

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