WikiLeaks and the End of the Establishment

This time around, it’s serious. The recent publication of the massive Kabul war diary by WikiLeaks signals the end of business as usual for the establishment. This publication happens to target the military establishment, but its reverberations will be felt in all parts of society, and eventually, in all countries and regions.

Back in the sixties, all the singing and dancing and growing of long hair didn’t really impact the establishment very much. In the big picture, not much has happened since.

The released Afghan war diary database contains a description of essentially every single event that happened in Afghanistan for some years. The good, the bad and the ugly. But more importantly, it’s the raw data, and it’s all of it. Anybody motivated can sift through it and understand any aspect of what happened in more detail than all the top-generals combined. (Who, not surprisingly, don’t have the time to sift through the details.) Which means that all answers that the top brass can possibly give about what happened are necessarily worse than the answers we, individuals, can assemble ourselves.

Wikipedia defines “establishment” as follows:

The Establishment is a term used to refer to the dominant group or elite holding the effective power or authority in an organization, society, or field of endeavour, in particular when viewed as being opposed to change. In particular, it can refer to the traditional ruling class or power elite and the structures of society that they control.

You can’t have “effective power or authority” without some form of information superiority, at least in that you know some facts that the challengers have no way of knowing. That information superiority has just gone away for the military, and listening to their reaction, they feel like fish out of water.

Regardless what you think about whether WikiLeaks is the greatest or the worst idea ever, it’s clear that as the internet and mobile devices continue to proliferate, more and more of these data dumps are going to occur in many segments of society, WikiLeaks or not. Every single time, information superiority will have been taken away from some establishment, and people outside of the establishment will have many questions (first) that the establishment can’t dodge any more.

The genie is out of the bottle. The only thing the establishment can do is to start to self-police. Can you imagine that after this leak, commanders in Afghanistan are going to issue the exact same orders as before? (I can’t.) Can you imagine that next time there’s a country to occupy (regardless how noble the cause), the public discussion sounds in any way similar? (I can’t.) And all of a sudden, the establishment will start behaving very unlike the establishment, because effective checks and balances suddenly exist: exposure will be more likely than not, and nobody wants any dirty stuff be found. So let’s not do any dirty stuff any more.

And even where there is no leak, by 2020 the combination of billions of cell phone pictures and movies, GPS information, and massive data processing infrastructure a la Hadoop, will let lots of people derive much of the same information from publicly available sources. No more information superiority, no more establishment power.

Like much else I cover on this blog, I’m not sure whether on balance, I think this is a good or bad thing. Not that it matters; it will happen whether I like it or not. ;-)

Can you imagine a world without an establishment? Not sure I can …