Wednesday, December 01, 2010

What Would Foucualt Say

For some, the latest Wikileaks release raises complicated issues about confidentiality, secrecy and diplomatic practice. The mainstream media, predictably, chooses to focus on the gossip and celebrity angle. The US State Department would just love to shut the whole thing down. I prefer to see it as something like karma, or some kind of ecological law of equilibrium.

Over the past couple of decades, digitised information has allowed the State and other corporate bureaucracies to capture, retain, share and use ever increasing amounts of personalised information . Smart cards, search records, cell phones, street cameras, and biometric passports are just some of the innovations that turn people's lives into readable data. Meanwhile, the latest security paranoia is a useful excuse to track, surveil and literally strip naked ordinary citizens who have the temerity to do things like travelling.

One way of responding to the latest Wikileaks is to see them as turning the whole process back on itself. The irony is that this time it's the bureaucratic machine itself (with the US diplomatic establishment as its proxy) that is exposed, its embarassing secrets eviscerated, its behaviour held up for scrutiny. We're so used to being the ones who worry about being caught out or having done something wrong, it's somehow shocking, yet liberating, to see the system itself caught with its figurative pants down.

If nothing else convinces you, what about the creepy revelation that diplomats were asked to get hold of personal details including credit card numbers and biometric data of foreign politicians and UN bureaucrats?

So, it's tempting to see some kind of symmetry in all this: maybe there is after all a limit to the power that can be wielded facelessly, before that power ends up being turned against its master.

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