Friday, December 24, 2010

Is Bruce Sterling Future-Shocked? Or: Michael Moore 1 -- Bruce Sterling 0

Sometimes the mighty do fall. And as they fall, they cause others to fall in their wake. Even people that used to be some of their main critics. For those, it's a fall from grace, even if it's a fall in style: shrouded in pithy observations, perpetrated with sharp similes and suffused with the air and eloquence of a grandmaster. Beautiful to watch, but still a gracious fall from grace.

I'm talking about "The Blast Shack": Bruce Sterling's recent piece about Wikileaks. I've read through it several times, and can't escape the following two conclusions:

1): Bruce Sterling is effectively arguing against more transparency.

Price quote:
For diplomats, a massive computer leak is not the kind of sunlight that chases away corrupt misbehavior; it’s more like some dreadful shift in the planetary atmosphere that causes ultraviolet light to peel their skin away. They’re not gonna die from being sunburned in public without their pants on; Bill Clinton survived that ordeal, Silvio Berlusconi just survived it (again). No scandal lasts forever; people do get bored. Generally, you can just brazen it out and wait for the public to find a fresher outrage. Except.

It’s the damage to the institutions that is spooky and disheartening; after the Lewinsky eruption, every American politician lives in permanent terror of a sex-outing. That’s “transparency,” too; it’s the kind of ghastly sex-transparency that Julian himself is stuck crotch-deep in. The politics of personal destruction hasn’t made the Americans into a frank and erotically cheerful people. On the contrary, the US today is like some creepy house of incest divided against itself in a civil cold war. “Transparency” can have nasty aspects; obvious, yet denied; spoken, but spoken in whispers. Very Edgar Allen Poe.

All right, so protecting politicians from possible scandals is more important than the information that the Wikileaks cables have provided (so far)? Even worse -- see the next price quote:
And I don’t much like that situation. It doesn’t make me feel better. I feel sorry for them and what it does to their values, to their self-esteem. If there’s one single watchword, one central virtue, of the diplomatic life, it’s “discretion.” Not “transparency.” Diplomatic discretion. Discretion is why diplomats do not say transparent things to foreigners. When diplomats tell foreigners what they really think, war results.

Diplomats are people who speak from nation to nation. They personify nations, and nations are brutal, savage, feral entities. Diplomats used to have something in the way of an international community, until the Americans decided to unilaterally abandon that in pursuit of Bradley Manning’s oil war. Now nations are so badly off that they can’t even get it together to coherently tackle heroin, hydrogen bombs, global warming and financial collapse. Not to mention the Internet.

The world has lousy diplomacy now. It’s dysfunctional. The world corps diplomatique are weak, really weak, and the US diplomatic corps, which used to be the senior and best-engineered outfit there, is rattling around bottled-up in blast-proofed bunkers. It’s scary how weak and useless they are.
Do I read that right? Global warming and financial collapse happened as the nation couldn't tackle it because there was too much transparency? Global warming and the next financial bubble can be stopped by more “discretion” (read secrecy)? Talk about having it backwards.

This appalls me. And thankfully not just me: cue, for example, to Mark at comment #61:
  • Saudi Arabia put pressure on the US to attack Iran. Other Arab allies also secretly agitated for military action against Tehran.

  • Washington is running a secret intelligence campaign targeted at the leadership of the United Nations, including the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and the permanent security council representatives from China, Russia, France and the UK.

  • Small teams of US special forces have been operating secretly inside Pakistan’s tribal areas, with Pakistani government approval. And the US concluded that Pakistani troops were responsible for a spate of extra-judicial killings in the Swat Valley and tribal belt, but decided not to comment publicly.

  • The US ambassador to Pakistan said the Pakistani army is covertly sponsoring four major militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban and the Mumbai attackers, Laskar-e-Taiba (LeT), and “no amount of money” will change the policy. Also, US diplomats discovered hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Pakistan earmarked for fighting Islamist militants was not used for that purpose.

  • The British government promised to protect US interests during the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war.

  • Russia is a “virtual mafia state” with rampant corruption and scant separation between the activities of the government and organised crime. Vladimir Putin is accused of amassing “illicit proceeds” from his time in office, which various sources allege are hidden overseas. And he was likely to have known about the operation in London to murder the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, Washington’s top diplomat in Europe alleged.

  • British and US officials colluded to manoeuvre around a proposed ban on cluster bombs, allowing the US to keep the munitions on British territory, regardless of whether a treaty forbidding their use was implemented. Parliament was kept in the dark about the secret agreement, approved by then-foreign secretary David Miliband.

  • One of the biggest objectives at the US embassy in Madrid over the past seven years has been trying to get the criminal case dropped against three US soldiers accused of the killing of a Spanish television cameraman in Baghdad.

  • The British military was criticised for failing to establish security in Sangin by the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and the US commander of Nato troops, according to diplomatic cables.

  • Rampant government corruption in Afghanistan is revealed by the cables, including an incident last year when the then vice-president, Ahmad Zia Massoud, was stopped and questioned in Dubai when he flew into the emirate with $52m in cash.

  • The British Foreign Office misled parliament over the plight of thousands of islanders who were expelled from their Indian Ocean homeland – the British colony of Diego Garcia – to make way for a large US military base.

  • The US military has been charging its allies a 15% handling fee on hundreds of millions of dollars being raised internationally to build up the Afghan army.

  • Conservative party politicians promised before the election that they would run a “pro-American regime” and buy more arms from the US if they came to power.

  • The president of Yemen secretly offered US forces unrestricted access to his territory to conduct unilateral strikes against al-Qaida terrorist targets.
  • A potential “environmental disaster” was kept secret by the US last year when a large consignment of highly enriched uranium in Libya came close to cracking open and leaking radioactive material into the atmosphere.

  • Libya threatened UK with “dire reprisals” if the convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, died in a Scottish prison.

  • Ann Pickard, Shell’s VP for sub-Saharan Africa, claimed in Oct 2009 that the oil giant had infiltrated all the main ministries of the Nigerian government.

  • Two British civil servants, Dr Richard Freer and Judith Gough, contradicted Gordon Brown’s statement on reduction of the Trident fleet in conversations with US embassy officials in London.

  • The US ambassador in Kampala sought assurances from the Ugandan government in December 2010 that it would consult the US before using American intelligence to commit war crimes in the conflict against the LRA.

  • The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer paid investigators to unearth corruption links to Nigeria’s attorney general in an attempt to persuade him to stop his legal action against a controversial drug trial involving children with meningitis.

  • The pope intervened personally to ensure the Vatican’s increased hostility towards Turkey joining the EU.

  • The Vatican refused to allow its officials to testify at Irish inquiry into clerical child abuse and was angered when they were summoned from Rome.

  • BP suffered a giant gas leak in Azerbaijan 18 months before the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

  • Azerbaijan accused BP of stealing $10bn of oil and using “mild blackmail” to secure rights to develop gas reserves in the Caspian Sea.

  • US energy company Chevron negotiated with Tehran about developing an oilfield despite tight US sanctions.

  • Speculation that Omar al-Bashir siphoned $9bn in oil money and deposited it in foreign accounts could fuel calls for his arrest

    Do you honestly think that US taxpayers should not know this information?
(Emphasis of last sentence mine.)

Indeed, as a concerned, tax-paying citizen (in my case of The Netherlands)(and I'm certainly no 'naturally sociopathic hacker' ) I also want to know if, for example:
  • our goverment let themselves be coerced into the war with Iraq;

  • our goverment let themselves be coerced into the war with Afghanistan: our previous coalition fell over the question of withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan;

  • Trafigura did indeed play some very dirty games in getting rid of chemical waste in Ivory Coast;

  • Shell does indeed play dirty games in Nigeria;

  • And more things I'm probably not aware of;

If that kind of transparency gives headaches to diplomats and politicians alike: then so be it. They should learn to deal with it, and--especially the politicians, but also big corporations--it should help prevent more outright lies, deceptions and skullduggery.

If Bruce Sterling is against that kind of transparency, then I greatly prefer documentary maker Michael Moore, who campaigns to free Bradly Manning:

"To suggest that lives were put in danger by the release of the WikiLeaks documents is the most cynical of statements," Moore said.

"Lives were put in danger the night we invaded the sovereign nation of Iraq, an act that had nothing to do with what the Bradley Mannings of this country signed up for: to defend our people from attack. It was a war based on a complete lie and lives were not only put in danger, hundreds of thousands of them were exterminated.

"For those who organised this massacre to point a finger at Bradley Manning is the ultimate example of Orwellian hypocrisy."

Amen to that. Or, in other words: Michael Moore 1 -- Bruce Sterling 0.

2): Bruce Sterling is failing as a futurist.

A large part of Bruce Sterling (professor of internet studies and science fiction)'s reputation hinges on his ability to explore the near-future: this is what Beyond the Beyond is majorly about. In that light, I find it quite disappointing that he does pinpoint the 'real issue':

That’s the real issue, that’s the big modern problem; national governments and global computer networks don’t mix any more.

But then, while he admitted he didn't quite see it (Wikileaks) coming:

But who cared about that wild notion? Why would that amateurish effort ever matter to real-life people? It’s like comparing a mighty IBM mainframe to some cranky Apple computer made inside a California garage. Yes, it’s almost that hard to imagine.

So Wikileaks is a manifestation of something that has been growing all around us, for decades, with volcanic inexorability. The NSA is the world’s most public unknown secret agency. And for four years now, its twisted sister Wikileaks has been the world’s most blatant, most publicly praised, encrypted underground site.

He doesn't see any solution to this problem, or fails to see the positive sides and effects of it:

The data held by states is gonna get easier to steal, not harder to steal; the Chinese are all over Indian computers, the Indians are all over Pakistani computers, and the Russian cybermafia is brazenly hosting because that’s where the underground goes to the mattresses. It is a godawful mess. This is gonna get worse before it gets better, and it’s gonna get worse for a long time. Like leaks in a house where the pipes froze.

This is (intentionally?) missing the point: Wikileaks is, as Sterling mentions at length in his piece, *not* a sovereign state spying on another state: Wikileaks are showing the hidden data to the public at large.

So spying becomes easier for nations: well, they've been spying on each other since time immemorial. This is just business as usual. What has changed is that it is much more difficult for nations (and corporations) to hide their schemes from the public at large. And thus they try, desperately, to put the ghost back in the bottle. I hope they fail. I hope that nations--*any* nation--will be less able to wage wars based on disinformation, lies and deceit.

More openness, more abilities for concerned citizens to make informed choices. It seems that Bruce Sterling sees this as a bad thing, but he can't put the cat back into the bag, either.

What's the matter, Bruce? Future-Shocked?

UPDATE: Gabrielle Coleman on The Atlantic more or less makes the same point:

There is no denying that there is tremendous support for WikiLeaks among geeks -- although much of it came after the backlash against WikiLeaks; there is no denying that hackers will attempt to impact politics through technological means; there is no denying that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange deserve some critical scrutiny, which is what Sterling dished out. But I am less sold on the idea that the form of exposure so powerfully provided by WikiLeaks does not have some merit.

Personally I find myself sympathetic toward the purported mission behind OpenLeaks. They are seeking to do something similar to WikiLeaks but transforming it by injecting a dose of much needed transparency and accountability. And yet, due to the obsessive media spotlight on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks (including Sterling's piece) the public may be led to believe that there is only one way to spread leaks, when in fact WikiLeaks helped to usher a paradigm that can be tweaked and hacked to better serve democratic goals.

Excellent: like the age-old question -- "Who's watching the watchers?" -- Coleman points to OpenLeaks as the next step in transparency: keep the organisation that strives for more transparency transparent itself. Practice what you preach, and by doing so better serve democratic goals.

Now you can shoot me, but the 'old' Bruce Sterling -- say, the writer of Islands in the Net, Holy Fire and Distraction -- used to come up with such forward-looking visions himself.

The king is dead: long live the king!