This piece was published in The Big Issue in December 2010.
Not very many men change the world. Only a tiny number have been able to alter it without elected office or victory in battle. Yet this is the information age, a time when those willing to devote an ungodly amount of time to computer programming determine the rise and fall of nations.
Trying to work out whether Julian Assange is one of the era’s great heroes or villains is just one of the confusing problems presented by WikiLeaks’ startling success. Is he a new kind of investigative journalist? A champion of transparency? A self-publicist? An information anarchist?
The debate grew murkier still when Assange was arrested over alleged sexual assaults committed in Sweden. His defence team were quick to accuse shadowy forces of orchestrating the affair and the women of being “honeytraps”, but some found it hard to reconcile his reputation as a crusader for accountability with a figure who would so openly attack women pursuing rape allegations.
If the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs did not have quite the impact he may have hoped for, the deluge of juicy information gleaned from US diplomatic cables has proved overwhelming. It is doubtful any single publishing venture has ever pissed off so many powerful people at once. It may take years to comprehend most of the major consequences around the world.
Some examples from a US perspective: Time magazine reports three separate crisis teams of State and Defence Department analysts are working around the clock to deal with the potential impact of fresh disclosures. Vice President Joe Biden moans he cannot have staff in the room when meeting foreign leaders. The broadcasting of Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki’s fears about Iran will, according to a former US ambassador, ensure “Maliki will not want to talk quite as loquaciously to the next ambassador”.
A huge number of international power brokers are reeling. Take Thailand, for instance, where government officials were caught speculating whether the crown prince is fit to be king. Others in Bangkok wondered aloud if the queen encouraged a 2006 military coup, and American diplomats allege Russia bribed Thai witnesses to block the extradition of suspected international arms traffickers to the US.
Will Iran feel more or less secure about its nuclear enrichment programme upon learning the extent of enmity among Arab neighbours? Will the Saudis placate the Iranians? Will China double-down on queried support for North Korea? Are Russia and Italy likely to be more cautious on “sweetheart” energy deals?
Incredible that a series of dry, candid assessments could cause so much trouble. Entirely the point, WikiLeaks’ advocates claim. Truth is troublesome, and only by forcing hypocrisy into the open can we hope to end, in Assange’s words, “governance by conspiracy and fear”.
The Americans, if they can get over their present embarrassment, have less to fear from the challenge of open government than many others. The cables appear to show US foreign policy conducted broadly in line with public professions in Washington.
This presumes, however, that WikiLeaks can be harnessed as a responsible advocate for greater transparency and human rights. Thus far, the mysterious Mr Assange has shown little interest in promoting anything resembling western interests, making only disappointingly vague anti-American, anti-capitalist remarks.
He seems to have spawned a network of radical hackers willing to attack the security of states and private companies purely for the thrill of undermining “the system”.
It seems the genie is out of the bottle and backed up on remote servers around the world.
What might the impact be on us, the planet’s powerless, tech-bewildered citizens and subjects? Many have enjoyed pretending to be unsurprised at each fresh revelation, knowing all along, of course, that global affairs were utterly noxious.
Some of us don’t mind admitting the world, post-WikiLeaks, appears even more corrupt and confusing than we had imagined.
However exciting the WikiLeaks’ stories, the prospect of ongoing information chaos is surely frightening. We are moving toward a world in which privacy is simply not permitted – everything must be available for speculation and gossip.
How will society function when everything is on show? Might there really be such a thing as too much information? Assange’s radical experiments in disclosure might help us approach some answers. Or they might lead us further into the fog.