Current Affairs

The cables, the leaks, and Assange

For some time now, it has been all but impossible to pick up a newspaper, or open any sort of news site without seeing the words “Wikileaks” or “Assange”; neither the site, nor its public face in the form of Julian Assange, need any introduction. Apparently inextricably embroiled with the existence of, and recent information releases by, the Wikileaks website, are the charges being laid against Julian Assange, and the conduct of the countries, governments, and law forces involved. The information varies wildly with each news report, and it seems that nothing is presented without bias – painting Assange either as a saviour, or as a demented rapist; the Wikileaks site, then, is his stone tablet, or his deadly weapon.

The problem, as far as I can see it, is that there are really two separate issues here (the legality/morality of the Wikileaks site, and the alleged crimes committed by Assange), and the two are now so linked in the media, and in the minds of the public, that I believe it will be very difficult to ensure that Assange is given fair treatment, and a fair trial (which he, like any other person, is entitled to). While various governments, right-wing pundits, and politicians may be queuing up to demonise Assange, the simple fact of the matter is that he has not been charged with anything to do with the Wikileaks site. Unfortunately, the name Julian Assange is now so entangled with the word Wikileaks that every mention of one inevitably brings with it information about the other.

Supporters of Assange have opined that the charges have only been brought as part of a character assassination attempt, and that they are untrue. Well, I have no more information than the rest of the public on those charges, and with arrest warrants and court documents yet to appear on the now infamous site itself, I can only go on what has been reported. While I would question the timing of the charges as a little suspicious or coincidental, the one thing of which I am certain is that Assange has the right to be treated as innocent until he is proven guilty, regardless of what websites he may own. Whether the charges have arisen now by design, or simply by (in)convenient timing, Assange’s detractors have leaped upon the charges with a fervour that can only be described as malicious. Assange has been labelled a sex criminal, and this has been used to draw both him, and the Wikileaks site into disrepute.

The fact of the matter is that any charges laid against him should be treated as distinct and separate from any personal feelings that potential jurors may have about the legal, moral, and other issues raised by the existence of the Wikileaks site. In my opinion, current media coverage of both issues has made this an impossibility. Although it is not right, Assange will not be tried only on the merits of the case against him, but also on whether people truly agree with the actions of the Wikileaks team.

So, what of infamous Wikileaks site? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure that I believe it to be worth the fuss. I’ve been aware of its existence for some time, and have often popped on to see if there are any interesting documents on it, but I believe that this current batch of leaked documents would not be so prominent in the media, and the minds of the public, if the respective governments had simply allowed it to pass, rather than getting all hot and bothered, and reacting in a completely overblown fashion. I understand that some documents are considered classified for good reason – to protect lives, to prevent damage, etc., but I also believe that greater transparency in the running of the various countries and governments is both important and necessary, because that confidential privilege has been terribly misused, and has allowed corrupt, amoral people to hide behind red tape and secrecy. While I recognise that it may be technically illegal, I believe that, to a certain extent, the governments, companies, and officials in question have brought it upon themselves by abusing their position, misusing secrecy laws, and recklessly flouting regulations that they had no right to ignore. As for their handling of the situation, it bespeaks a very poor level of understanding of the way information changes hands these days, and the motivations of those who pass that information. If they had wanted to keep secrets hidden, rather than making a fuss about the site, they should simply have released more communications – garbage ones. Bury the team in years of cables about what you would like for dinner, and dry-cleaning instructions, and it’s likely that few will persevere long enough to discover the corrupt dealings you ill-advisedly took part in.

Of course, it’s not the information theft that they find truly bothersome. Rather, it is the prospect of suddenly being held accountable in a new, and very public forum. For a long time, the line between private and public information has been blurred, and often to the detriment of the general public. Crimes have been hidden, indiscretions papered over, and money disappeared, all in the name of state secrecy. It is my belief that many of those in power have become complacent, lazy even, and consider some of these transgressions so routine that they do not even matter, but the fact is that, regardless of your position, you should not be above the law. If a private citizen steals money, they are caught, trialled, and punished. It is only recently that we have seen the same happen to government officials in the UK, who fiddled expense claims and cheated taxpayers to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Anyone else guilty of the same must be feeling more than a little apprehensive at the moment, but this is what comes with adulthood – being responsible for, and accountable for, your own actions.

It seems to me that there is a real disconnect between generations. Those in power, many of whom are slightly older, are handling the situation extremely inexpertly, and that is largely down to a very poor understanding of those who would create a site like Wikileaks, those who would visit it, and those who will offer to host it as other providers pull the plug. Information is, and always has been, power. Those who have the information have a great resource that can be used to aid, or bludgeon, as they choose. In the past, it was easier to keep information hidden. Documents could only be accessed in hard copy, and it was simple to keep the public away from the filing cabinets that contained “need to know” information. This time is long gone, however, and the longer the politicians, officials, and companies take to acknowledge this, the more likely it is that they will never catch up.

I have grown up in an era where information is a very real commodity. Within my lifetime, archives have been digitised, mobile phones have become commonplace, and computers have become simple to use, and affordable to almost everyone – it is an age of ubiquitous computing. Like many, then, I am used to being able to get the information that I want quickly, easily, and most often, freely. And, also like many, I have become adept at finding the information that I want, even if it is not easy to do so. To me, the notion of extreme secrecy in the age of the internet seems absolutely laughable; for better or for worse, the internet is here to stay, and one thing holds true for almost all information that passes through its channels – once it’s online, it’s there forever.

It might be comforting for people to think that, if they were to revert to more traditional forms of communication, they would be in less danger of having their secrets spilled. It’s easy to forget, though, that before Wikileaks, before leaked PDF documents, hacked computers, and stolen email conversations, there were leaked photocopies, stolen faxes, bugged phones, and intercepted letters. Over time, the desire for transparency, for information availability, has grown. It has forced the passing of legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act. It has created nations of people who are familiar with the terms “Privacy Policy”. And, perhaps most importantly at this moment, it all started long before Julian Assange burst onto our screens.

Do I think Wikileaks will change the world? Maybe, but probably not. In time, this current scandal will die down, and the site will probably fade. I do, however, think that it’s an important step along the way – just like those who fought to pass legislation allowing people to access information being held about them, Assange and his site will chip away a little more at the information barriers. It will open the door for a new generation of information brokers, and make it a little easier for them to exist. Finally, it serves to reaffirm the notion that information is power, and to emphasise that that information is no longer in the laps of the gods, but the hands of the people.

Current Affairs Science

Susan Greenfield: I h8 u

My love-affair with the Baroness Greenfield started and ended when a colleague, on hearing about some of my interests (in this case, neuroscience, and science fiction), presented me with a copy of Tomorrow’s People: How 21st Century Technology is Changing the Way We Think and Feel, assuring me that it was fantastic, and that I would absolutely love it. The blurb certainly made it sound exciting – a critical look at how existing technology and future technology may shape the way we think sounded pretty interesting, and like something I would enjoy reading. Sadly, any sense of enjoyment that I felt had largely seeped out of me by the time I reached the end of the first chapter. I slogged on through the book, determined to finish (and to see if it improved), but barely struggled to the end. The book itself is not one that I can recommend. Far from being the eye-opening, explosive treatment that the cover promised, I found it to be a sub-par, overly-general, ham-fisted description that barely nicked the surface of future technology, that seemed hesitant to actually discuss effects on the brain, and that seemed more like a school report written by a teenager who had just read their first sci-fi book, and was completely new to many of the concepts. In short, it was patronising, uninformed, and rather dull.

Well, writing a bad book isn’t a crime – there are plenty of stinkers out there – and nor is it reason enough to hate someone. What makes me bristle whenever I hear the name Greenfield in a news report or an article is the unsupported, scare-tactic declarations that will inevitably follow, all stated by someone who is a qualified scientist and who, at least allegedly, wishes to promote science to the world. At first, I put it down to a strong difference of opinion. As a child/young adult of the 21st century, I have wholeheartedly embraced technology, and all that it can do for me, whereas Greenfield appears to be somewhat neophobic, or at the very least, technophobic. Now, though, I’ve come to realise that it’s more than just that.

What really bugs me is that, in so many ways, she’s similar to the kind of quacks I often blog about – she claims that modern technology is ruining the brains of our children (won’t someone please think of the children), and yet endorses and sells a “brain-training” computer game, despite mounting evidence that these games have no demonstrable effect on brain “age”, memory, or “fitness”; she makes sweeping claims about the effects of social networks, without evidence to back up what she’s saying; despite being asked repeatedly, she has yet to formalise any of her assertions in a paper (which could be examined, peer-reviewed, etc.); she claims to promote science, yet mostly seems to use her publicity to promote herself, and her unproven, unsubstantiated theories about modern tech and social networking – but unlike most of the quacks, she’s actually a scientist!

It seems that not a week goes by without an article or news report telling us how social networking sites are ruining our lives, melting our brains, or stripping us of our social skills. Whenever this comes up, we usually here about the same few cases repeatedly (the online bullying suicides, the facebook divorces, the twitterati spats), and are then told that if we continue to use these sites, we will become mindless drones, unable to pay attention to anything, unable to communicate in real life, and incapable of having friendships that exist outside of Facebook. All of these assertions have two things in common; there is absolutely no evidence to support them, and Greenfield insists on repeating them at every given opportunity. Unlike most of the “social media experts” or quacks who may prattle on about magical HIV curing boxes, or soundwave mp3s that cure cancer, Greenfield is someone who should know better. She is someone who certainly has the resources and the pull to conduct a proper study to establish the truth about brain change due to social networking, but for some strange reason, she refuses to do so.

I don’t personally believe that the advent of social networking will lead to the decline of humanity. I think that that is an attitude held mostly by those with an incomplete understanding of the technology in question, and how people really use it. In every scenario, with every new “big thing”, there will be some who misuse it (by abusing it, using it to hurt others, or simply damaging themselves through overuse), but generally, these people are the outliers, the exception, rather than the rule. For each messy “Facebook divorce”, it’s easy to find literally thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people who use the site as intended – sharing photos, reconnecting with old school friends, and organising events, to name just a few functions. However, I’m a reasonable person and, above all, a scientist myself. If someone presents me with the studies, and they show that there really has been a change, for the worse, in our brains, then I will happily eat my words, and laud Greenfield as a visionary. However, in order for that to happen, she’d have to behave like a scientist (rather than a sensationalist) and actually do the research. As a scientist, she should be responsible enough to ensure that when she says that computers are damaging children’s brains or causing obesity, she possesses evidence to back it up. As a particularly PR-savvy scientist, she should be well aware of the fact that her name carries significant weight, meaning that people will believe what she says more readily. And finally, as a scientist, it’s her duty to back up her claims; to do the research, submit the paper, and allow it to be reviewed by her peers. Until then, it’s just empty words.

As a woman, a scientist, and someone working in an industry that is typically dominated by men (I.T.), I have a much more personal quibble with Greenfield. Recently, she was sacked from the Royal Institute. Although the exact reason is unclear, there has been much speculation about the reasons for her being sacked; among them, the massive debt in which the R.I. finds itself after a renovation spearheaded by Greenfield (although, in her defence, the trustees did also agree to go ahead with it). There are also rumours that the sacking may have been much more personal, and that there was a personality clash between Greenfield and other members at the R.I. The one thing that is certain, however, is that Greenfield is preparing to take the R.I. to an employment tribunal to allege, among other things, that sexual discrimination played a part in her sacking.

While it may be true that seeing a woman like Greenfield in a prominent position somewhere as respected as the R.I. may well have encouraged and inspired other young girls to pursue science, I believe it is also true that her tribunal will quash any such inspiration more effectively than any public sacking could have done. If there was an issue with her sacking, as there may well have been, then she has every right to take them to a tribunal, but why, oh why, must she play the gender discrimination card? Doing so sends so many messages, and they’re all bad. It tells people that, when firing a woman, you always risk a frivolous lawsuit. It reinforces the stereotypical notions that women are a bad hire because they will cause problems. And it helps to maintain the corrosive attitude that exists almost everywhere today – that women need special treatment to get along in the workplace. If there was a gender issue, then of course, she should address it, but I don’t believe that to be the case. Instead, I believe that she has seized upon the fact that it is a predominantly male workplace to class her sacking as a gender issue, and avoid the real problems. Frankly, I think it’s beneath her.

Baroness Greenfield, I (along with many others, I’m sure) invite you to write up your research into social networking, and present it to the scientific community at large, so that we may review it, and possibly benefit from the knowledge held within. And on a purely personal note, with regard to your recent termination, I recommend that you “take it like a man”.