[This column appeared in the Vanuatu Daily Post.]
Say what you like about wikileaks and their recent dump of over 250,000 US diplomatic cables, but there is probably not a single researcher in International Relations, History or Political Science without a tingle in their pants today. Never in modern history has so much information been made available in such a readily accessible format. This is, for researchers, a gift that will keep on giving for decades to come.
The thing that impressed me most from my brief perusal of the 200-odd documents released on the first day was not so much the content as the quality of the analysis. The cables were well-written and obviously well-researched. I suspect that there’s more than one junior foreign officer out there with a quiet smile on their face today, because finally the world will see just how good they are.
Yes, I’m ignoring completely the ethics and morality of the situation. That horse is out of the barn, and incidentally, what a barn it is….
These cables will provide more insight and understanding into American diplomacy than anything else ever has. Just as access to hitherto proprietary source code sometimes unearths dirty secrets of which even its author is ashamed, there is likely to be a lot of unpleasantness to be found in the cables.
I think the longer term result, however, will be that much of what’s good about the US diplomatic corps (and there’s a lot of that) will assist countless others to improve their own work. In fact I think it’s likely there might be more than one diplomat that might actually be relieved to see the unspeakable spoken aloud. This torrent of data just might break more logjams than it creates.
The rise of the Free Software movement in the 1990s increased access to the source code that runs our computers and caused fundamental changes in software development. Their echoes are still quite strong today. Code that was once hidden behind thick corporate walls was now being handed about in a vast open source bazaar. This discomfited many vendors who were dismayed to discover that their crown jewels could become valueless overnight as software became commoditised.
A lot of dirty laundry got aired in the process. Bug-reports, software update schedules, coding practices all became subjects of open discussion and, yes, dispute. Tolerance for second-rate code dwindled significantly. Emphasis began to fall more and more on results. As one acerbic commenter wrote: “A single line of running code trumps a thousand lines of argument.”
Companies who attempted to retain their secretive ways were simply bypassed and their flaws exposed for all to see. Sound familiar?
In the late 1990s, Microsoft identified Linux specifically and Free Software generally as the greatest strategic threat to their organisation. They were right. Microsoft’s stagnation is partly attributable to the advantage that FOSS has given several of its competitors. IBM, Apple and Google have all leveraged open source software to jump-start various endeavours that compete directly with Microsoft. Likewise, Microsoft’s need to increase the pace of development resulted directly in their death-march to Windows Vista.
Just as Microsoft was able to drive Netscape Communications out of the market by commoditising the web browser, others are commoditising vast swathes of the computing industry by leveraging FOSS.
The commoditisation of information proceeds apace, and although the stakes are perceived to be higher in this case, the effects will probably be similar in nature. A fractious dialectic is already emerging between those who truly believe in the benefits of information resources like those circulated to millions of US military and government staffers on SIPRNET, and those who seek to leverage proprietary knowledge for their country’s -and sometimes their own- gain.
All secrets are like kindling. Used at the right time, gossip can provide warmth, build allegiance and influence. Used rashly, well… you know where this is heading. In that sense, wikileaks may seem like a 10 year old boy with a stolen box of matches. But applied judiciously and with a sober sense of timing, the same principles of openness as a default stance and and a predilection toward sharing that are at the heart of free software development (and the Internet itself) could usefully animate international diplomacy.
To be perfectly clear: I’m not suggesting that there is no need for secrecy whatsoever in diplomacy. I’m suggest that, as we’ve discovered with programming processes, secrecy might prove to be less necessary -and effective- to security than it appears to be.