Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sterling on Assange

I've been mostly baffled by the WikiLeaks saga; I didn't know what it meant, and I've been waiting for someone capable of doing a "deep reading", as they say in literature classes.

Today, along comes the world's best writer on technology and culture, Bruce Sterling, and his essay on Julian Assange and the Cablegate scandal is the best work I've yet seen to explain and interpret what's occurring:

That’s the real issue, that’s the big modern problem; national governments and global computer networks don’t mix any more. It’s like trying to eat a very private birthday cake while also distributing it. That scheme is just not working. And that failure has a face now, and that’s Julian Assange.

Sterling has both the experience and the brilliance to interpret these events in the light of all of modern culture, tying together banking scandals, MP3 file sharing, the Iraq war, the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, the Velvet Revolution, and more, taking you back to 1947, and on to tomorrow. Sterling's essay does more than just take you through what's happened, and why it matters: it peers into the future, as the best writers can do, and opens your eyes to what may lie ahead:

For diplomats, a massive computer leak is not the kind of sunlight that chases away corrupt misbehavior; it’s more like some dreadful shift in the planetary atmosphere that causes ultraviolet light to peel their skin away. They’re not gonna die from being sunburned in public without their pants on; Bill Clinton survived that ordeal, Silvio Berlusconi just survived it (again). No scandal lasts forever; people do get bored. Generally, you can just brazen it out and wait for public to find a fresher outrage. Except.

It’s the damage to the institutions that is spooky and disheartening; after the Lewinsky eruption, every American politician lives in permanent terror of a sex-outing. That’s “transparency,” too; it’s the kind of ghastly sex-transparency that Julian himself is stuck crotch-deep in. The politics of personal destruction hasn’t made the Americans into a frank and erotically cheerful people. On the contrary, the US today is like some creepy house of incest divided against itself in a civil cold war. “Transparency” can have nasty aspects; obvious, yet denied; spoken, but spoken in whispers. Very Edgar Allen Poe.

It's a brilliant essay, every word of which is worth reading. If you've got the time, you won't regret spending it reading The Blast Shack.

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