Aaron Bady won the internet last week with his explication of a pair of essays Julian Assange wrote in 2006. Paddling against a vomit-tide of epithets and empty speculations that threatened to bury Assange under a flood of banalities, Bady proposed and executed a fairly shocking procedure: he sat down and read ten pages of what Assange had actually written about the motivations and strategy behind Wikileaks.
The central insight of Bady’s analysis was the recognition that Assange’s strategy stands at significant remove from a philosophy it might easily be confused for: the blend of technological triumphalism and anarcho-libertarian utopianism that takes “information wants to be free” as its gospel and Silicon Valley as its spiritual homeland. Noting the “certain vicious amorality about the Mark Zuckerberg-ian philosophy that all transparency is always and everywhere a good thing,” Bady argued that Assange's philosophy is crucially different:
The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets.
As Assange told Time: “It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it's our goal to achieve a more just society.”
In his essays Assange makes no bones about wanting to “radically shift regime behavior,” and this claim to radicalism marks one difference between Wikileaks and, say, the New York Times. As Bady notes, however, by far the more important distinction lies in the way Assange wants to use transparency to cause change. The traditional argument for transparency is that more information will allow a populace to better influence its government. In this scheme, freedom of the press, sunshine laws, and journalistic competition are all useful for prizing loose information that government actors don’t want us to see, but none of them are ends in themselves. The information they reveal is ever only propaedeutic: it needs advocacy, elections, armed uprisings, or some other activity to make real political change.