Listening to a Government spokesman defend the digital crime mapping scheme on Radio 4 the other day, it struck me how much Julian Assange has to answer for. The fact that some of the data was inaccurate, the spokesman suggested, was no real biggie. What distinguished this government from its predecessors was its overarching concern for opening up data. Anyway, couldn't citizens come along and fix the information afterwards?
Liberating online data is now a competitive business. King of the information castle is Assange, the suave information anarchist whogave us WikiLeaks. Then there's the catty collection of hangers-on who spend much of their time flinging mud in his direction, the wonks who want to use online data to engage the public and the dull-witted internet gurus who'd just like to see everything online.
In the latest act in the story, Assange, following another tantrum, has just released his entire uncensored trove of US State Department cables.
Most of the criticism of Assange has centred on the ethics of freeing up data without regard for the safety of those named. Left uncontested is his more insidious ideology of "radical transparency", which tends to equate truth, liberty, democracy and the public sphere with the ready availability of information.
It's catching on. In Heather Brooke's new book The Revolution Will Be Digitised, for example, the doughty campaigner argues that freeing up online information tends to decentralise power and put it in the hands of ordinary citizens, the evidence for which we're already seeing in the Arab Spring. Neither has Assange been shy to take credit for the Arab uprisings, even though what the citizens of Tunisia, Egypt and Syria knew about their rulers far exceeded the tittle-tattle available on WikiLeaks.
What Julian Assange has taught us is that, when it's granulated into digital bits and left unsecured, information has a habit of leaking. The result makes fascinating reading, but that doesn't mean it's true or even very useful. Troves of electronic information make a fantastic resource, but only if you can make sense of them.
That's why the real work of investigative journalism is to polish up facts which are difficult to unearth, and to do so still requires expertise and access to resources. Rely on low-grade, undigested online data too heavily and you're in danger of missing the bigger picture. What we learn from those embassy cables, for example, is how the US State Department thinks about the rest of the world, not what's really going on. The State Department has now signed up to the doctrine of "internet freedom" as a means of topping authoritarian regimes. Under both Julian Assange and Hillary Clinton, the truth finds itself in a surreal double-bind.
Access to online information is not power. Power is power, and the obsessive Western focus on social media and online data is a symptom our inability to think politically. Exported to the Middle East this approach to understanding social change has blinded us to the real dynamics in those countries. And it has consequences, encouraging some activists in those countries to rely too much on the net, and distracting others from building broad-based, indigenous political movements in advance of upcoming elections.
In the 1940s the radical psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, driven mad by his experience of fascism, began to believe the solution to social problems lay in the self-regulating free flow of sexual energy, aided by a handy mechanical contraption called the orgone accumulator. In their insistence that the free flow of electronic information is enough to overturn regimes, resuscitate democracy and lay bare the truth, today's data evangelists are the worthy successors to Reich.
The only thing they're empowering is themselves.
James Harkin is author of Niche: Why the market no longer favours the mainstream (Little, Brown)Reuse content