Writers and journalists love to develop (and throw) the ideational bomb – that is, an idea so incendiary and potent that people everywhere talk about it. The idea goes viral. Perhaps a few heads explode. It changes perceptions. It causes many arguments.
Of course, many of these bombs turn out to be duds. It’s not easy to come up with an idea that hasn’t already been spun. So let’s see what happens with this idea put forward by Naom Schneider in the New Republic [Game Changer, Why Wikileaks will be the death of big business and big government]. The story’s title pretty much lights up the bomb. Here’s the kicker in the second paragraph:
The Wikileaks revolution isn’t only about airing secrets and transacting information. It’s about dismantling large organizations—from corporations to government bureaucracies. It may well lead to their extinction.
In Schneider’s trope Wikileaks is another manifestation of how the Internet is changing the world.
The basic argument of the idea is fairly simple. Wikileaks represents the ability of the Internet to collect an almost unlimited amount of ‘secret’ material and expose it to the world. This puts a premium on keeping secrets secret. As Schneider puts it:
All of a sudden, the very same things that made it more efficient to work with your colleagues—the fact that everyone had a detailed understanding of the mission and methodology—become enormous liabilities. In a Wikileaks world, the greater the number of people who intimately understand your organization,* the more candidates there are for revealing that information to millions of voyeurs.
Wikileaks is, in effect, a huge tax on internal coordination. And, as any economist will tell you, the way to get less of something is to tax it. As a practical matter, that means the days of bureaucracies in the tens of thousands of employees are probably numbered. In a decade or two, we may not only see USAID spun off from the State Department. We may see dozens of mini-State Departments servicing separate regions of the world. Or hundreds of micro-State Departments—one for every country on the planet. Don’t like the stranglehold that a handful of megabanks have on the financial sector? Don’t worry! Twenty years from now there won’t be such a thing as megabanks, because the cost of employing 100,000 potential leakers will be prohibitive.
Of course, organizations will try to counteract the ability of employees (or others) to access secret information. Schneider thinks they have only two options: Tighten security or become smaller. The latter follows the failure of the former. As far as Schneider is concerned (and he has good company) it is impossible to stay ahead of the technology. Kill Wikileaks, and ten more will spring up. (They are anyway.) Clamp down on employees and they just become more disgruntled and ingenious about the leaks.
The only option Schneider sees is for organizations to become smaller, small enough that controlling leaks becomes practical through a combination of better employee morale, tighter technical security, and better coordination. Thus he predicts the demise of the giant bureaucracy.
My question is: How seriously do you take a two page article that predicts the extinction of the dominant social form of our age? Put another way; is the simple statement of a potentially powerful insight enough to make it credible? My guess is probably not.
Schneider notes in the article that Wikileaks and other similar organizations will attract an enormous amount of information. Not all of it will be secret. Not all of it will be true. Not all of it will be germane. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize an overwhelming deluge full of detritus rather than a potent release of important secrets. I’m not even including the deliberate disinformation campaigns that no doubt will attempt to exploit organizations like Wikileaks. In short, the impact of not being able to keep a secret is to devalue secrets to the point where they are impossible to evaluate.
There are without doubt many other objections to Schneider’s idea. Some of them will surface if the idea makes anybody nervous.
Read Schneider’s article, it’s fortunately not behind the TNR pay-wall, and see if it convinces.