You can’t handle the truth…
Tony Benn, the left wing Labour MP, wrote a book recently called Letters to my Grandchildren: Thoughts on the Future. In one of the letters he writes: “When your parents were your age, and the United States and Soviet Union were racing to land on the moon, the Russians put down a little robotic machine onto the lunar surface. One of my constituents in Bristol, where I was then the MP, wrote to me:
I see the Russians have put a space vehicle on the moon. Is there any chance of a better bus service in Bristol?”
Progress, it seems, has never served everyone equally.
This week’s Wikileaks saga involving the release by this controversial website of over 90,000 classified documents similarly serves different agendas in unequal ways. Liberals will applaud this idea of progress – the Information Age is working – while criticism will come from those who believe secrecy fosters national security.
Throughout history control of communication and information has been crucial to political control. The Catholic church in it’s early days maintained power because it was run by clerks who were literate – the Heresy Act of 1401 made it a criminal offence for a lay person to read the Bible. If anybody had an opportunity to study it, they could and probably would have challenged the authority of the Pope, rightly or wrongly.
The power of the priesthood eventually came up against the secular power of the king, for fairly base reasons, and so Henry VIII nationalised the Church; the Anglican Church then exercised its new power by telling the faithful that God wanted the king to be king. At the time church attendance was compulsory, so with few alternative information channels available, it acted as a powerful instrument of control.
The Royal Mail was established in 1660 by Charles II motivated in part, it is believed, by his desire to open his subjects’ letters to find out if they were doing anything that might threaten his authority. The ability of the CIA or MI5 to open our emails is undoubted, but certainly more of a time consuming activity given that an estimated 247 billion emails are sent every day around the world.
Luke Hansard, who gave his name to the reporting of parliament, was initially imprisoned for publishing its proceedings. Some courageous advocates for civil liberties and the freedom of the press have campaigned against restrictions – such as the Official Secrets Act – which prevent the public from knowing what governments are doing, while governments want to know what everyone else is doing.
With the growth of radio, and then TV, the Conservative British government of the day made broadcasting a public industry for the same reason that Henry VIII had taken over the Church. The BBC was, and to some extent still is, a public service for the passage of the right information into the heads of the British public.
The United States recognised the potential and importance of controlling information globally. When Bill Clinton was in the White House, the Pentagon issued a document called “Full Spectrum Dominance”, which stated that the US intended to establish control in space, land, sea, air and information, of which information was the most important.
The latest Wikileaks download alters any notion of the US government maintaining so-called full spectrum dominance. Many will cheer at this notion. Exposing facts must surely be in the interest of all, yet on the flip-side, for all of human history controlling information has been a central tenet of governance – sometimes for devious means, and sometimes in my view, for sound reasons. If the Official Secrets Act had not existed I’m sure that the D-Day landings may have transpired very differently.
In a recent TED talk, Julian Assange – the Wikileaks founder – openly talks about how a document his website released exposing the corruption of Kenya’s last leader, Daniel Arup Moi, materially affected the outcome of the most recent elections. He celebrates this – as do many of his advocates around the world. In principal so do I.
What concerns me, however, is that his approach to forcing change is like shoving a screwdriver into the spokes of a moving bicycle. It might be the right thing to do (exposing the information, not sticking the screwdriver into the wheel), but handling the short-term consequences isn’t straight-forward, and may be even more destructive for many than the status quo. There were 90,000 classified documents exposed on Wikileaks last week, adding to a total of over 1 million documents posted. As individuals we cannot possibly engage with all or even any of this ‘original’ material.
We will rely on soundbites from media commentators to help form our view of this information. Those soundbites will understandably focus on the shocking and not the mundane. More information is not universally helpful – it is good when we are capable of processing the key points – yet the scale of information that the Information Age is throwing at us in such an exponential fashion is too much for the lay person to digest and process in a complete way.
“A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 1709