Anarchy in the UI
By Jonathan Salem Baskin
Is It Possible To Discover Truth Without Trust?
- WikiLeaks shakes the security assumptions of the US government by releasing classified documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- An operation called Project Vigilant hacks WikiLeaks and reveals its source.
- CNET runs an expose on Project Vigilant, questioning how its nearly-homeless principal could contemplate filing expensive technology patents.
- Expect the leak on CNET's story to come next, followed by a leak on the leak.
It's culturally incorrect to even suggest that the open and incessant sharing of information isn't a wonderful thing. We know more the more we know, or so the conventional wisdom goes, and not only should anything be everyone's business, but it should be provided without charge. History is a dialectic about information struggling to be free. Freedom of information evangelists call this "radical transparency" and label it an absolute good.
Others might call it chaos. I worry that most of us live in the gap between this theory and reality its pursuit invents. Here are a few uncomfortable questions that nobody seems willing to ask, let alone answer:
- Is everyone equally able to distill information? We know this isn't true in the narrow realm of our personal experience, as some friends are obviously better at comprehending things than others. We're OK with these specifics, but then we tend to deny them generally, which has been a godsend to entities that want to manipulate the weak-minded with half-truths, innuendo, or outright lies. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity," wrote William Blake of a society he saw slouching toward the Apocalypse.
- Should everyone have a say on everything? Most people think the answer is an unmitigated yes, and it drives a lot of political posturing and corporate social campaigns. "Tell us what to do" is the cry, whether honest (like "choose our new soda pop flavors") or symbolic (as in "the American people want…"). Internet search means that patients presume better prognoses than their doctors. Voters just know the innermost, secret motivations of candidates. Today's life UI is akin to ordering a grossly overcomplicated but individually affirming drink concoction at Starbucks.
- Can The Crowd consistently discern truth from fiction? Or does it simply eat itself, rendering the WikiLeaks story above less a story about the freedom of information and more a cautionary tale of how revolutions without legitimate institutions tend destroy themselves? There's nothing inherently unbiased or true about conclusions made by The Crowd; they're just so awash with biases and untruth that the hope is that all the noise will cancel itself out and facts will emerge. Emerge, that is, until the next set of facts leak out and negate them. Then it happens again. And again.
The old days of distributing information were imperfect. Facts were purposefully suppressed and lies propagated for nefarious purposes. If anything, the old days revealed that truth wasn't an abstract ideal for which we could strive to never reach, but rather a choice that we made in our lives, individually and collectively, for a variety of reasons. Convenience. Need. Expectation. Requirements.
Institutions of authority -- governments, businesses, newspaper editors -- haven't become less trustworthy over time. We've chosen to distrust them, and embrace instead a different idea about what truth is, and from where it originates.
It's really interesting that the biggest byproduct of this choice is that we generally don't seem to be able to settle on any truths at all.
Have we traded certainty for anarchy? Wait for the leak on my conclusion before you read the leak on the leak.
Added: 19th August 2010