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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The WikiLeaks Mythology #2: Will radical transparency liberate us?

In something of an irony, I am unable to personally upload this post today. I am in the far north of China for another week, visiting family, and there are many restrictions on the internet here. BlogSpot will not open here (only government approved blog services work). So I am forwarding this onto my friend Dr. Alick Lau in Hong Kong, who is kindly putting it up for me. I can still read all comments because they are forwarded to my yahoo email account. However I cannot respond to them on the blog till I get back to Hong Kong in the new year.

Happy new year!



Radical transparency is the information revolution that will change the world, according to Julian Assange. The concept appears to be that as much of the information hidden by governments will be released to the public as possible. While WikiLeaks has removed some key names and details from documents to protect people who might become targets for governments or terrorists, it appears as close to a free for all as we are ever going to get. This year alone the organisation has spilled about half a million documents, and will probably eventually leak about 250 000 diplomatic cables. So far, most of the documents have not been of highly secretive classification, but the principle is clear. Get as much out there as possible, to make governments accountable. It is power to the people.

Yet just how transformative would the world be if we had radical transparency? Let’s begin with a fairly mainstream media analysis. But I am not going to end there, as you shall see. The way to appreciate the extent of radical transparency, and its limitations, is by understanding the limits of the rational mind.

A recent online article entitled “The Geek Who Shook the World”, by WikiLeaks dissident Julian Assange’s former colleague Suelette Dreyfus, reveals much about the way that Assange has gone about putting together the WikiLeaks project and building his career as a “dissident”. Dreyfus worked in Australia with Assange for about three years to produce Underground (1997; e-book 2001). The book details the story of hackers in Australia and around the world.

I pointed out in a previous post that the WikiLeaks founder’s has a certain propensity towards grandiosity. The positive side of this is Assange’s desire for reform on a grand scale, as well as to instill that same passion in others. One of his favourite quotes is from the author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the seas."

Clearly there is a strong idealism in Assange, directed at making positive change in the world.

Dreyfus also suggests that Assange’s motivation for all this is to help the “most oppressed people in the world”. He does this not through economic means, but by using “information which can be replicated endlessly – and cheaply – to promote change for the better.” She writes:

But it must be good information, not trashy information or PR spin. It must be the kind of information that plucks at those little threads of curiosity we all have in one measure or another. It must be the kind of information news media organisations would publish for their readers.

Yet there are limitations to the power of information in itself. Certainly, information can be powerful. Discrete pieces of data put Al Capone behind bars, helped solved the Poincare Conjecture, and provided evidence for the African origins of the human species no less. Yet unmediated information tends to be dry, and it is only via the correct application of information that systems are changed for the better, that human beings’ lives are transformed. That is when wisdom comes into play, and wisdom does not emerge from information alone. Nor, it must be admitted, can wisdom be entirely repressed through the exclusion of information. 

Julian Assange look ahead. But what are the limits of his vision?

Information is most powerful when the individual has reached a high level of spiritual maturity, accompanied by a capacity to access spiritual information (I call the latter Integrated Intelligence. Note that these two mediating factors are not under the direct control of any government or business group, and while governments can implement education systems and macro-policies which effectively take people’s focus away from spiritually transformational processes, once they are acquired no government or organisation has the power to take them away.

My intuitive sense is that Julian Assange has not developed a high proficiency in either domain.

Although it should not be thought that Assange is defined by the act of reading, according to Suelette Dreyfus, he has always been an avid reader of books. Reading is essentially a verbal/linguistic process, yet like many cognitive experiences, it can incorporate a variety of different ways of knowing. Just think of the mystical awakening of mystic Richard Maurice Bucke, which occurred one evening as a result of his reading the mystical poetry of Wordsworth, Byron and Shelly. (scroll down to about half way through the page). Nonetheless, non-fiction reading is predominantly “left-brained”, as is the often dry information that hackers extract from computers.

Therefore Assange’s preferred ways of knowing are clearly ‘rational’. Dreyfus notes that he contributed exceptional “technical skills and analysis” to the writing of the Underground book project. Both these are domains of the intellect.

The key verb for the hacker is, by definition, “to hack”. Hacking as a way of “working” with the world, and of knowing the world creates a mentality of control and power. I note that a Time magazine stated that, according to (ironically) leaked WikiLeaks emails, a deliberate objective of WikiLeaks was “the total annihilation of the US regime.” This is no Gandhian peaceful resistance campaign.

As I have argued elsewhere, the development of Integrated Intelligence requires a letting go; what I call “receptivity”. Receptivity is precisely the opposite attitude to one of seeking control and power for its own sake. In theory one can be a hacker and a mystic at the same time, but the former tends to occur in a culture of delusional power and control.

In her article Suelette Dreyfus touches on a related point when she writes that what matters most is that WikiLeaks is:

…changing the balance of power between average citizens and their governments like nothing else has this century. For the past decade the pendulum has swung towards government. WikiLeaks is pulling the pendulum back towards the citizens.

Dreyfus may well be right in this. WikiLeaks might liberate us from at least some of the meddling of governments and giant corporations. Who knows what information lies “out there”, waiting to be uncovered?

My concern with all this, though, is to question the myth that more information is in itself transformational. Is the computer hacker really at the edge of a leap in human consciousness? Dreyfus seems to think so.

Average people may think they are happy in their ordinary lives: they don't want change. Yet imagine if there was a secret world these average people did not know about. What could be in that world? It could be a world of classified logs from the front line of a war. It could also be a world of secret diplomatic cables that tell the truth about what really happens behind the mahogany doors of power. The average people might actually want that information – if someone revealed it to them.

WikiLeaks has taught people to "long for the endless immensity of the seas". Who wants to go back to their cramped dog-box apartment now that they have tasted the salty air and seen the ocean's infinite horizon?

I have my doubts. One thing that I have come to believe strongly, having spent years developing both the intellect and the intuitive/spiritual mind, is that there are limits to both. Any long-term meditator or mystic knows that you are not going to solve the Poincare Conjecture through mystical insight alone. The right way of knowing must be employed to discern the answers from specific realms of knowledge. Likewise, the intellect and computer rationality are not going to answer our deepest questions about life, meaning and the cosmos. They do not have the power to shift our current level of consciousness in themselves (although they can assist us to find the processes).

For most people in today’s ego-based world, the intellect works primarily through that same human ego, within finite, linear space and time. And despite those, like physicist Michio Kaku, who see the internet as the Magic Mirror which will connect us with boundless knowledge, the web too operates within the bounds of intellection. The Internet, as most commonly used today, does not shift consciousness from the rational to transrational realms, nor is it likely to shift ego-states (in reality it often reinforces them), and this is no different when your average hackers and geeks use it. The “infinite horizon” (at least as I’m defining it here) which Suelette Dreyfus writes about can only be intuited, via the connection with Integrated Intelligence. And to do that we have to unplug from our gadgets and move attention inward.

Yet because intellectualism and rationality (as narrowly self-defined) dominate much of modernity, the limits of reason remain largely invisible in mainstream education and society. Suelette Dreyfus (a self-described “technology” journalist) and, I suspect, Julian Assange himself, do not understand this. They are searching the high seas for knowledge that is found only within; or at least via developing a deeper relationship between the soul and the world.

The WikiLeaks mythology is the mistaken assumption that more information will liberate us from the metaphorical and literal prisons we have made in this world. The WikiLeaks mythology attempts to turn “rational” human beings into all-powerful Gods. That attempt will fail.

Despite a certain commitment to a noble ideal, the actions, and the story of Suelette Dreyfus and Julian Assange emerge from a delusion. This is not to suggest that such actions have no power in the world of governments, societies and their people. They certainly do (and I am not going to delve into that here). It is just that any resulting shift in power will likely be predominantly expressed via the limitations of the “rational” mind and its self-limited understanding of the world. Put another way, the human ego will still be running the show. Radical transparency as envisaged by Assange will inevitably and ironically involve a lack of “transparency” in terms of what individuals will be able to see and acknowledge within themselves. There will be no complete transparency till both inner and outer information systems are allowed full expression of information.

Finally, it has to be acknowledged that the world is not ready for radical transparency. Not yet. It is ready, perhaps, for a step in that direction, and this may be the greatest “gift” that the WikiLeaks saga offers us. But full openness of information would create chaos, because human beings do not, as yet, express high enough levels of personal responsibility. But that will be the subject of a post to follow soon.


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