I looked up the word "wiki" the other day. It turns out the term was coined way back in 1994 by a Web developer named Ward Cunningham. Instead of informing my social network of what I had eaten for dinner the night before, or how I really feel about garden gnomes, I decided I'd post this new nugget of information as my new Facebook status.
"Wiki" comes from a Hawaiian word meaning "quick." I learned this from Wikipedia of course. Five of my friends commented within 10 minutes. Two shared it on their Facebook walls. I then tweeted the information, and my 43 followers, most of them family members, instantly consumed this information.
But what if the person who wrote that Wikipedia entry was mistaken? Now my entire social network would be deceived. And since my social network is connected to thousands of people I don't know - it's possible that the entire world is reading about the roots of "wiki" and assuming it is fact.
The way media content moves around the world today reminds me of the title of the great Errol Morris documentary: "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control." We are now all potential writers, whistleblowers, editors, mudslingers and propagandists, with the tools to spew out bold truth, vicious lies and everything in between, from wherever we are to Waziristan, faster than you can say "wiki."
There is now a site called Wikituneup, where you can provide and/or receive tips on how to fix your car. There's also LyricWiki, where you can edit or add to the lyrics from your favorite album. There is even a satirical website called Dickipedia, where you can write about a person whom you feel deserves that epithet. And then, of course, there's WikiLeaks.
How I long for the days (about one-and-a-half years ago ) when spies transmitted top-secret information, when reporters discovered their own scoops, and media outlets actually printed original stories that ticked off governments. I can just imagine an unemployed secret agent and a disgruntled journalist scrolling through job listings on Craigslist, while sharing a whiskey in a bar.
Spy: So, did you hear that the U.S. is secretly attacking Al-Qaida in Yemen?
Journalist: Yeah, I did. Were you on a covert op there?
Spy: Nah, I read it on Wikileaks.
Journalist: Yeah, I figured (taking another gulp ).
And while WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been called everything from rapist to traitor to terrorist sympathizer to the James Bond of journalism to public enemy No. 1 (the only thing we know for sure is that he changes his hairstyle more often than David Beckham ) - the truth is that it is way too early to judge Assange and WikiLeaks.
To all his haters, I feel your pain.
He didn't have to identify the last few U.S. loyalists in Afghanistan, risking their lives. Or maybe you're opposed to his politics, which clearly pits him against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as an American citizen, I feel like Assange has armed me with lots of important information. For example, it's nice to know that my tax dollars are funding a secret war against Al-Qaida in Yemen. I'm also glad to know about the disparity between the government's public and private accounts about the war in Afghanistan - or should I say Pakistan? Oh, and what about that horrific clip showing U.S. soldiers shooting down innocent civilians from a chopper in Iraq as if it were a video game? Didn't I help pay for that helicopter?
As rap music taught me some years ago, "Don't hate the player, hate the game."
The game, of course, is information warfare. And in this age of information, all the rules have changed. Facebook, Twitter and WikiLeaks are more than simple Internet platforms: They are new media weapons fighting government censorship and abuse.
Based on our collective experience with the nation-state system in the last century, WikiLeaks should be embraced by all. We just witnessed the bloodiest century ever, where meticulously planned atrocities were committed by governments shrouded in secrecy. It was a century in which the technology for mass murder was invented and perfected, but in which the tools for mass distribution and consumption of information were still in their infancy.
Imagine if the plans of the Nazis could have been leaked to the entire world a few years before they went into effect. How long would the Cambodian genocide have lasted if live videos from the killing fields made their way out and were then tweeted across the globe?
With WikiLeaks we have another way to check and balance the enormous trust we place in government, and an extra row of teeth should they violate it.
It certainly does say a lot about our world when two new media techies were up for consideration for Time Person of the Year. But here's why I think Julian Assange deserved it over Mark Zuckerberg: While Zuckerberg has connected 500 million people and changed the way we socialize, what he's mostly done is help us transform our human interactions from real to virtual. One day, however, we will see WikiLeaks and its many clones as necessary evils as important as defense attorneys in the justice system.
Yes, sometimes defense attorneys help a guilty man will go free. Yes, WikiLeaks may one day release deleterious information. But the alternative is far, far scarier.
WikiLeaks does not mean the end of secrecy, it just means that secrecy got a little more difficult. Nor does it mean total transparency, for the best-kept secrets - and hopefully those unfit for public consumption - will endure because of the competence of those entrusted to preserve them.
As a citizen of the world, I personally will sleep better at night knowing there exists a platform that gives ordinary people the ability to release information that could help save other ordinary people from government- or corporate-induced calamities.
Jaron Gilinsky is a journalist, filmmaker and new media entrepreneur. He blogs at www.jaronreport.com.
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