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"I always come back to Edge. In the world of Anglo-Saxon ideas (that still prevail throughout the whole world, or among the elite of the world), there is no smarter guide." O Globo (Brazil)

Edge 336 — December 21, 2010
(11,500 words)


Hillis's Question
An Edge Special Event!

Andrian Kreye, Marc Rotenberg, James O'Donnell, Lee Smolin, Ross Anderson, Jennifer Jacquet, Donald Hoffman

Danny Hillis responds to George Church, Lee Smolin, Clay Shirky, Marc Rotenberg, James O'Donnell, Jennider Jacquet, Noga Arikha, Andrian Kreye


O Globo, CNET, The Telegraph


10 de dezembro de 2010

"I always come back to Edge. In the world of Anglo-Saxon ideas (that still prevail throughout the whole world, or among the elite of the world), there is no smarter guide."

By Hermano Vianna

When I received the invitation to write here, there was the question of whether the new columns would have names different than those of their authors. I was thinking about some possibilities. The first idea was to be a "name dropper," the English term for those in the habit of naming names of important people to impress listeners. I even thought about beginning all the texts with some name and gradually forming an idiosyncratic biographical catalogue, which could be useful for adventurous spirits.

The fact that I have not found a good ironic translation for such an expression in English, made me give up the gam in the end. So thought about the title "Frontier". In the background, still thinking in English: I movied towards "the border" in the direction of "edge". The columns would deal with only the cultural production that crossed limits established for the common place, transforming the world or inventing new ways to think about life.  My inspiration came from a number of different things such as "Close to the Edge" or Brian Eno's Edge feature "A Big Theory Of Culture". But mostly, I wanted to emulate, in absurdly individual and uselessly pretentious way, the site http://www.edge.org/.

I tracked the trajectory of John Brockman, the man who founded Edge before the Web existed. I bought the first book in his series "The Reality Club" at the time of its launch in 1990. I was impressed with such an interesting gathering of thinkers, coming from different areas such as the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the biologist Lynn Margulis, or psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I learned that what was published there was only a sample of much greater diversity. The Reality Club’s monthly "invitation only" meetings in New York — which began in 1981 — is a fascinating group that includes the physicist Freeman Dyson to theater director Richard Foreman, almost all of my idols. The motto of the club was ambitious: "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves."

Today, the meeting room has become the website Edge. The transformation has not exactly been democratizing. The club remains as elitist (not a criticism, an observation) as before, maybe even more, since its members have become celebrities (sign of the times: today scientists can be more pop than Mick Jagger) and many of them are incredibly rich. It is not an open site where anyone can contribute, but remains invitation-only, editorially driven. The difference: the general reader can now monitor the selected conversation almost in real time, after a light filter. Brockman still decides who may speak at the forum. Currently he is one of the more powerful literary agents in the world (specialized mainly in science books), managing to convince the major publishing houses to pay millions in advances to his clients. (One of the legends that revolve around his working method is that if a book begins to earn royalties, he says that he's failed — because he didn't get a large enough advance from the publisher). Brockman is the agent of Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Martin Rees and others of the same caliber.


"An invitation to the 2010 dinner was not easy to come by as the figures who were present were the owners of Google, Twitter, Huffington Post, Bill Gates, Benoit Mandelbrot (fractals), Craig Venter (Human Genome Project). Do I need to drop more names?

A bomb at dinner and we would lose much of a certain creative intelligence that drives our world and our future, or the future that these people have created for all of us. The nerd on the edge has now became the center of power."


The site has several sections. In one of them, a sort of "lifestyles of the rich and famous" — of the people Edge considers the most interesting and intelligent in the world — is an album of photos of an annual event hosted by Brockman, originally named "The Millionaires' Dinner" which was later upgraded to "The Billionaires' Dinner." An invitation to the 2010 dinner was not easy to come by as the figures who were present were the owners of Google, Twitter, Huffington Post, Bill Gates, Benoit Mandelbrot (fractals), Craig Venter (Human Genome Project). Do I need to drop more names? A bomb at dinner and we would lose much of a certain creative intelligence that drives our world and our future, or the future that these people have created for all of us. The nerd on the edge has now become the center of power.

Another very popular section is the Edge Annual Question. Every year a new question is asked. In November, Richard H. Thaler, the father of "behavioral economics" (the hottest area in economic studies), asked the following question: "Can you name your favorite examples of wrong scientific belief that were held for long periods of time". So far 65 responses have been received, authored by, among others, the physicist Lee Smolin and artist Matthew Ritchie. This week a special question was published. The inquisitor is Danny Hillis, pioneer in super computing, who — under the impact of Wiki-Leaks — wants to know if we can or if we must keep secrets in the age of information.

But this is the festive aspect of the Edge. What makes my neurons burn are the regular features, which are frequently brilliant texts, such as the most recent: "Metaphors, Models and Theories", by Emanuel Derman, one of those physicists in the past decades who has left the university to attempt to discover the laws of financial markets. (I will go deeper into this subject in a future column.) And this is why I always come back to Edge. In the world of Anglo-Saxon ideas (that still prevail throughout the whole world, or among the elite of the world), there is no smarter guide.


Hermano Vianna is a Brazilian anthropologist and writer who currently works in television. The original Portugese-language column, published behind O Globo's subscription pay-wall, is available, with an introduction, on Hermano Vianna's blog.


December 9, 2010


Edited by Declan McCullagh

Edge.org has a solid collection of essays addressing these questions: "When does my right to privacy trump your need for security? Should a democratic government be allowed to practice secret diplomacy? Would we rather live in a world with guaranteed privacy or a world in which there are no secrets? If the answer is somewhere in between, how do we draw the line?"

Saturday 18 December 2010

Future of science


Some of the world’s greatest thinkers came together recently to answer the really big question - what will change the world? Roger Highfield, editor of New Scientist, reveals their predictions, from crowd-sourced charity to space colonisation and built-in telepathy.

It is not hard to think of examples of wide-eyed predictions that have proved somewhat wide of the mark. Personal jetpacks, holidays on the moon, the paperless office and the age of leisure all underline how futurologists are doomed to fail.

Any predictions should thus be taken with a heap of salt, but that does not mean crystal ball-gazing is worthless: on the contrary, even if it turns out to be bunk, it gives you an intriguing glimpse of current fads and fascinations.

A few weeks ago, a science festival in Genoa, Italy, gathered together some leading lights to discuss the one aspect of futurology that excites us all: cosa farà cambiare tutto — this will change everything.

The event was organised by John Brockman, a master convener, both online and in real life, and founder of the Edge Foundation, a kind of crucible for big new ideas.

With him were two leading lights of contemporary thought: Stewart Brand, the father of the Whole Earth Catalog, co-founder of a pioneering online community called The Well and of the Global Business Network; and Clay Shirky, web guru and author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. ...


An Edge Special Event!

The question of secrecy in the information age is clearly a deep social (and mathematical) problem, and well worth paying attention to.

When does my right to privacy trump your need for security? Should a democratic government be allowed to practice secret diplomacy? Would we rather live in a world with guaranteed privacy or a world in which there are no secrets? If the answer is somewhere in between, how do we draw the line?

I am interested in hearing what the Edge community has to say in this regard that's new and original, and goes beyond the political. Here's my question:


Hillis's Question
An Edge Special Event

I hope to hear from you.

— Danny Hillis

W. DANIEL (Danny) HILLIS is an inventor, scientist, engineer, author, and visionary. Hillis pioneered the concept of parallel computers that is now the basis for most supercomputers, as well as the RAID disk array technology used to store large databases. He holds over 150 U.S. patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices. He is also the designer of a 10,000-year mechanical clock.

Presently, he is Chairman and Chief Technology Officer of Applied Minds, Inc., a research and development company in Los Angeles, creating a range of new products and services in software, entertainment, electronics, biotechnology security, and mechanical design. The company also provides advanced technology, creative design, and security and cryptography consulting services to a variety of clients.

W. Daniel Hillis's Edge Bio Page


Hillis on Edge — Further Reading:

• "Proteomics" The Edge Master Class 2010
• "The Hillis Knowledge Web: An Idea Whose Time Has Come"
Part V: "Something Beyond Ourselves" in The Third Culture: Beyond The Cybernetic Revolution
"The Genius" in Digerati: Encounters With The Cyber Elite




Aalam Wassef, Clay Shirky , Gloria Origgi, George Church, Noga Arikha, Douglas Rushkoff , George Dyson, Simona Morini, Andrian Kreye, Marc Rotenberg, James O'Donnell, Lee Smolin, Ross Anderson, Jennifer Jacquet, Donald Hoffman

CORRESPONDENCE: Danny Hillis responds to George Church, Lee Smolin, Clay Shirky, Marc Rotenberg, James O'Donnell, Jennider Jacquet, Noga Arikha, Andrian Kreye

IN THE NEWS: O Globo, CNet

CORRESPONDENCE: Danny Hillis responds to George Church, Lee Smolin, Clay Shirky, Marc Rotenberg, James O'Donnell, Jennider Jacquet, Noga Arikha, Andrian Kreye



I agree with you that the world improves when we can remove the need for secrecy, but in saying that you tacitly admit that there is sometimes a need for it in our not-yet-perfect world. I especially like your notion that secrets are symptoms of something that needs improving. I think this applies to both public and private secrets. Is this a rule or just a heuristic? Are some truths better left obscured? For example, is it hard to imagine the effect on human relationships if a mindreader were invented that allowed others to know our private thoughts and feeling. Evolution has evolved deception because it serves a purpose. Cannot that purpose sometimes serve the common good?

— Danny




Yes "Evolution has evolved deception" - as well as flu, HIV, tb, etc. Could
those "sometime serve the common good"? Maybe — but this seems like a very
weak argument. Perhaps better would be that we might need separation of
ideas/memes/cultures long enough to test them — and then recombine the
parts we like best. But separation could be done without deception.

Furthermore, let's say that we had strong AI. Would we prefer to be able to
read the computers' minds or teach them how to lie to us and each other?
Would we like them to explain and justify their decisions or just strut off
with the taunt "It's for me to know and you to find out!"?

— George



Your AI example is a great thought experiment, but there is a big difference between lies and secrets. If we were designing Azimov's laws of robotics, would we add "Never hide information" to the list? We certainly do not program our current computers that way. I would not want a robot to reveal information that would put me immediate physical harm. Nor would I want it to reveal information that I told it not reveal. For example, if I told it not reveal useless information that would hurt someone else's feelings, is that a symptom of something that is wrong?



My lab programs a variety of computers, robots, and nanobots, with a variety of safety features — but we are not heavily influenced by Asimov's laws. We do generally use the rule "Never hide information from the programmers". The ability to check the robot logic when a bug is found is quite valuable.

Yes; "there is a big difference between lies and secrets", but I was addressing your seemingly favorable use of the word "deception". Yes I can imagine scenarios where a person might not want to know something — but that should be their choice — not the choice of some paternalistic data hoarding computer. Software should help people decide if information is truly useless, harmful, or helpful for them (before they see the details).. Deception and secrecy (as typically implemented) do not have such choices as top priorities.



Since we agree that an individual might legitimately want to choose not to know something, shouldn't a society of people be able to make an similar choice? In other words, shouldn't a group be allowed to reach a consensus that they would be better off if some information was not known the group as a whole. We choose to do this for example,when we play card games. We also choose not to publicly reveal information that would hurt people feelings for no purpose. Are secrets always a symptoms of something that needs to be fixed, or are they just an good warning sign?



I'm glad that you chose the word "consensus" rather than "majority rule". But that means that the secrecy-adverse minority has a strong role. Card games seem like a fairly specialized case, possibly popular to hone our skills of deception and secrecy — something that might be an amusing cultural vestige well into the future.

Are secrets always symptoms? I'm not keen on the word "always", but perhaps we could benefit from specific examples of "information that would hurt people feelings for no purpose."

1) If you tell me that I'm ugly, why should that hurt my feelings? Is that symptomatic of society favoring handsome people? If I need a shave, then what hurts me more — hearing about it now or a decade from now after I'm been passed over in the marketplace of life? Or does this just save you from (awkwardly) helping me?

2,3,4,5) Or could you hurt me by telling me that I've invested stupidly, or had cancer, or was conceived out of wedlock, or someone was insulted by my narcolepsy — all true — Or could you hurt me via false rumors (but giving me a better chance of nipping them in the bud)?

Should we keep the our current vast and destructive mechanisms for secret keeping (and deception) just for those rare cases where we can achieve consensus as a group to not let individuals decide if they want to hear a specific class of secret? Perhaps you have more compelling examples than mine above.



I like the explicitness of the rules that you offer, but I don't think they cover all the important cases. For example, you say:

2) As a private individual, I cannot have access to information about other private individuals, without their explicit permission.

Currently, I do have some access to information about other individuals without explicit permission. Records of public transactions, such as birth and marriage are an example. I also have (today) the right to some information that they would presumably not want me to know, like whether they have been convicted of a felony. I might also want to live in a society that allowed me access information about them as a statistic, detached from their name, such as whether they had side effects to a certain drug. This type of information revelation without permission could help society without harming the individual.

— Danny



Dear Danny,

Thanks for writing back, I am for sure aware that what I wrote just touched the surface of a major area of law in transition. Let me see if I can improve on these.

Meanwhile, just to attempt to reply: marriage is a public act so it is one in which one voluntarily cedes certain privacy rights. As for birth and death-there is probably not a right to exist without it being known to the community. Privacy is only one of the rights you loose when you are convicted of a crime.

Getting statistical information from medical records is just one area where there is an issue of safeguarding privacy while getting useful information out of records. The telecom companies have troves of data, some of which would be very useful, if it could be separated out without violating the privacy of individuals, such as real time maps of traffic flows. Our PI building, like many workplaces, knows who is in the building and where, as statistical information this could be used to save a lot of energy, but why not go further and post real time information about where we are on an intranet page so we can always find each other easily? Do I have a right to privacy while at work? Even if not, is it wise for everyone to be able to reach each other quickly in a scientific institute? I suspect none of this is new to you.

— Lee


Clay, you say: The only thing that could go really, terribly wrong right now would be short-circuiting that process." Do you see Wikileaks as an example of short-circuting that process?

— Danny



No, I see attempts to silence Wikileaks without due process as the short-circuit.

Wikileaks is just the kind of thing that happens from time to time (for which read: once every 500 years or so, as with the Dutch printers). What's at stake is whether democratic or extra-democratic processes become the way the world's democracies adjust.

— Clay



I understand your point about attempts to silence Wikileaks, but I am not sure I understand what your position is on WIkileaks itself. Should a democratic society be able to empower its diplomats to conduct confidential discussions? If so, and if those diplomats do the job they were asked to do, would you consider breaking the confidentiality of those discussions a short-circuit of the process?

— Danny



I wish you would say more about this. When the governments withholds information about individuals is that an issue of privacy or secrecy? Do individuals have a fundamental right to withhold any information or can society demand transparency from them in certain circumstances? For instance, should courts be stripped of their current powers to force individuals to reveal information?




Interesting questions. Here are a few more thoughts.

Niether privacy nor secrecy is absolute. But in democratic societies, the default settings are toward privacy for the individual and transparency for government. In authoritarian societies -- and in prisons -- it is transparency for the individual and secrecy for the government. Privacy is also highly dynamic. A person's ability to move between a private sphere and public sphere is a measure of political freedom.

When the interests in personal privacy and government transparency come into conflict, there are often non-zero sum solutions. So for example, it is reasonable to expect that governments should make available records to the public while redacting the names of individuals. At times, of course, we need to understand the activities of individuals when they are acting in an official capacity.



Your operational answer to the question of who gets to keep secrets, "Whoever can get away with it", is hard to argue with, but it does not get at why I was asking the question. What I really meant was "Who should get to keep secrets." As a technologist and as a citizen, I imagine that I have at least a small ability influence who can get away with it. Who should I help or oppose?

— Danny



For that we need the old Roman's line, 'who will guard the guardians?' All our methods of controlling the controllers have depended ultimately on trusting the elected representatives, but that has all gotten frayed and unpersuasive. Right now, the government of the US knows a lot more about terrrorist threats than I do —but I don't know how to trust them. Are their public measures overreactions, underreactions, or incredibly astute? I have absolutely no way of knowing. Is there a Team B, a UN, a Club of Rome we could trust to be the check and balance? I don't think so. I think we're just in a tough Machiavellian world with very few tools other than insurgency (to put the fear into powerful abusers, but also to make them react viperously) on our side.

Thanks for writing,



I love your notion that secrecy is a cost of imagination. It brings to mind the fig leaves in the story of of Adam and Eve: When their "eyes were opened" by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, they felt the need for the first time to hide their shame.

— Danny


I think is interesting that you take such a balanced view of the virtue of opposing tendencies, kept in balance. Your description of the system of the four humours "in Passions and Tempers" has help me appreciate this merits of this perspective.

— Danny


Your observation that many German's are upset by Google Street view adds another dimension to the question of secrecy. The view of one's house from the street is surely not a secret, yet somehow, gathering these views into a database has aroused memories of authoritarian dictatorships. One of the few revelations that seems to have invoked European indignation in the recent diplomatic leaks is that non-hidden information was being collected on the leadership of the United Nations. Do you think Europeans make more of a distinction than Americans between collected and uncollected non-secrets? Is the concentration of information necessarily linked to the concentration of power

— Danny

RESPONSES: Aalam Wassef, Clay Shirky , Gloria Origgi, George Church, Noga Arikha, Douglas Rushkoff , George Dyson, Simona Morini, Andrian Kreye, Marc Rotenberg, James O'Donnell, Lee Smolin, Ross Anderson, Jennifer Jacquet, Donald Hoffman

Cognitive Scientist, UC, Irvine; Author, Visual Intelligence

Secrets shape our bodies and brains. The need to keep a secret, and to break that secret, powers a creative cycle through natural selection, leading to better encrypting bodies and better decrypting perceptual systems.

The Australian bird dropping spider, Celaenia excavata, has a secret to keep: I am food. The need to keep this secret has, through natural selection, creatively shaped its entire body to resemble a bird dropping. This secret has thus been encrypted to hide the secret from a specific audience that wants the information, viz., predatory birds. The method of encryption strikes us as clever, even humorous. The engine behind this cleverness was the need to keep a secret. The need was pressing. Those less adept at keeping the secret are more likely to die prematurely. Only those who can keep the secret long enough can pass on their encryption method to a new generation.

The creative process of encryption probably took time. A sequence of mutations was probably required, a sequence that led to greater and greater mimicry of bird dung. The secret gradually became more secure.

The secret was a creative force not just for the body of the spider encrypting it, but also for the perceptual systems of the predators. Each time the encryption became more secure, some predators were fooled. Their perceptual systems failed to decrypt the secret. But others were not fooled, others with perceptual systems better-adapted for the decryption. They reaped a better chance to pass on their decryption technology to a new generation. Secrets are a creative force of perceptual evolution.

Who gets to keep secrets? Those who survive. As long as the spider gets to keep its secret, it avoids predation.

Who does not get to keep secrets? Those who are about to be eaten. Once a predator has decrypted the spider's secret, chances are that the spider will soon perish along with its secret.

The metaphor of encryption does not capture the full extent of the spider's deceit. The spider actually disseminates false information. The truth is: I am food. The information disseminated is: I am inedible dung. Disinformation is key to survival of the secret and the spider. Predators must see through the dung to find the spider.

Secrets also shape our governments. When governments in the information age keep secrets, employ encryption and disseminate false information they are following a pattern ubiquitous in nature for millions of years. This is, of course, no blanket endorsement of these governmental activities, any more than tracing the biological roots of cancer is an endorsement of cancer.

One reason to understand government secrets within a biological context is to remove the element of shock and surprise. Why waste time being shocked and surprised at revelations of governmental abuse of secrets? Instead such abuses should be expected. Those government officials and clerks who perpetrate them are, like the rest of us, the offspring of those who more successfully kept their secrets.

A second reason to understand government secrets in a biological context is to provide a reservoir of methods for understanding and countering abuses. What innovative methods do biological systems use to hide secrets and disseminate false information? What innovative methods do they use to break the secrets and see through the falsehoods?

Understanding government secrets in this way can provide more effective tools for citizens to counter abuses. It can also provide the government more effective ways to perpetrate abuse.

Post-doctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia

I believe (but cannot prove) that we will always live in a world with secrets. It seems no sooner is there a tool for truth, it is equally possible to use it to deceive. After language evolved, in part to keep track of one another, humans harnessed its combinatorial possibilities to lie. The same is true for writing and now digital tools, such as photography, video, and the blogosphere.

The philosophical discussions around secrecy are likely similar to those around my current research interest: shame (secrets exposed could lead to shame). I believe shame can be more effective and more democratic if it is leveraged against institutions, rather than individuals. The same is likely true for efforts to expose secrets. However, if what an individual is doing relates to the public good, then even an individual's secrets should not be safe.

Another individual's right to privacy trumps my need for security if what that person is doing does not directly affect me or the public. But this principle is often at odds with commerce, since revealing good secrets means good money.

If there is a line for secrecy, it will be drawn between those who benefit from it and those who suffer on its account. Bankers should not be allowed to keep secrets.

I believe we will always live in a world with secrets. I would not want it any other way. Secrecy is one cost of imagination.

FRS; Professor, Security Engineering, Cambridge Computer Laboratory; Researcher in Security Psychology

The economics of security and privacy have been hot research topics recently. I will use one fact from security economics, and another from security engineering, to answer Danny's question; I'll then ask another one.

One puzzle in security economics was how the world manages to function despite our reliance on computers and their terrible vulnerability. We are starting to realise that computer crime has split into quite separate mass markets and elite markets. In the first, PCs are compromised by automated attacks, such as malware loaded by porn sites, and sold for a few tens of cents each to spammers. In the second, smart attackers study a high-value target — a company CFO, or a diplomat — and send carefully-crafted emails that trick him into installing snooping software on his PC. These attacks don't cost tens of cents per machine, but thousands of dollars. The reason the world still works is that most of us are not worth the effort of a targeted attack.

On the engineering side, the critical fact is that security (and privacy) don't scale. A secret diplomatic telegram known to a million US government employees just isn't secret any more. And a national medical record system is no different. One was built in Scotland, making five million residents' records available to tens of thousands of doctors and nurses; in short order, the records of politicians, footballers and other celebrities were compromised. And a privacy-conscious celeb would not keep her money in a big money-center bank that lets 200,000 staff at 2,000 branches look up any customer's statement; a small private bank in Geneva is a much better bet. But that will never work for the masses; the average schoolteacher or bus driver is never going to pay $300 a month in account maintenance charges.

So this leads me to a prediction about privacy economics. At equilibrium the elite will use private banks, exclusive clinics and so on, while the mass will have no privacy — as Scott McNealy famously remarked. Most people won't care, as no-one is particularly interested in them. In fact if you're poor it can be an advantage to have no privacy; if a shop knows you're poor it'll offer you discounts it won't offer to the rich. It's the rich who have an incentive to be inconspicuous, so they don't get charged extra. So my answer to "When does my right to privacy trump your need for security?" is "When I am prepared to pay for it."

Is this all fine then? Not entirely. Let me give an example: a woman being assisted by an NGO I advise was tracked down by her ex-husband and seriously assaulted, after he found her new address from an aunt of his who worked at a hospital. The victim is now suing the hospital, and I hope she will eventually get justice. Where the poor do need privacy, it will have to come from laws rather than markets, and as we see a small number of people suffering serious harm, rather than many people being just annoyed, privacy law may be made by judges rather than legislators. The European Court of Human Rights found in I v Finland (2008) that Europeans have a right to restrict their medical records to the clinicians treating them.

So here is my own question. I wonder if a case like this one might persuade the US Supreme Court to draw a similar conclusion? Surely a woman's right to privacy over her own body includes the right not to be put in fear and peril of her life by the negligence of her doctor's computer supplier. A decision along these lines could annoy the computer industry just as much as Roe v Wade annoyed religious people, but it may just be the way forward.


Secrecy may sound like a bad thing, but let us not forget that the right to privacy is a necessary component of civil society. There are lots of things I don't want to know about my neighbors and colleagues, or have them know about me. A related issue is the vast amount of information that institutions such as our own workplaces keep about ourselves, that we are not allowed to see. I want to suggest three principles to address Danny's question of where we draw the line on information about individuals.

1) As a private individual I have a right to see all information about me that may be gathered by businesses, institutions and governments. These include medical records, work evaluations, letters of recommendation, records of my communications and travel, credit histories, financial information etc.

2) As a private individual, I cannot have access to information about other private individuals, without their explicit permission.

3) In some cases we may be asked to cede these rights in exchange for explicit privileges. In exchange for a license to practice medicine or engineering, or fly an airplane, I can wave my right to see confidential assessments of my work. In exchange for the privilege of traveling by airplane I can be asked to cede my right to see information governments and the airline may keep about my travel history. When one applies for employment or entrance into university one may be asked to cede one's right to read confidential evaluations about oneself.

Given this framework there remain issues about what is wise policy. Like many academics, I spend a lot of time writing and reading confidential letters of recommendation; such secret information is the core of our system of hiring and promotions. Is this really the wisest way to inform our bets on who is going to do important science? The claim is that the advice you get is more honest than it would be in a system of open assessments, but is this really the case? The information one wants is often in the confidential letters, but so is a lot of exaggeration, bias and sloppiness, that would not survive some transparency. There is also the slowdown in the rate of progress due to the power differential which arises when older academics are confidentially evaluating the work of people significantly younger.

A system of open evaluations, in which candidates are allowed to see what is written about them, would take some getting used to, but it might lead to wiser decisions at less of a cost of time. I would also guess that a system of open evaluations would be weighed more favorably towards independent thinkers who do high risk/high payoff science than the present system, which, by its emphasis on confidential evaluations by senior scientists, is weighed towards scientists who follow well established research programs.

So my answer to Danny is: err on the side of allowing people to see information stored about them, while keeping the right for individuals to keep secrets from each other.

Classicist; Provost, Georgetown University; Author, The Ruin of the Roman Empire

Secrecy is ignorance made useful, ignorance turned to advantage. The secret is something that one person or two persons or (one count) the 854,000 people with top secret clearances in the U.S. Government can know and that is worth keeping somebody else in the dark about. It's only a secret when there's advantage to the ignorance. I know what I had for lunch today and you don't: it's not a secret. I know what I'm getting my dearly beloved for Christmas, she doesn't: that's a secret. That one's a benign secret and will bring us both pleasure. Not all secrets are benign.

So who gets to keep secrets? Whoever can get away with it and wants the advantage badly enough to exploit the ignorance of others. If in an information age, it gets harder to keep people in ignorance, then lots of secrets will get harder to keep. There will be fights over these things and a new normal will be achieved.

Secrets are ignorance crafted by artifice. They represent knowledge made into a tool for advantage. When one breaks (that is, when somebody learns the secret who isn't supposed to), power and advantage can shift suddenly and disproportionately. We relish the moments of secret-breaking because we like the spectacle of sudden reversal — like an intercepted pass in football.

The most interesting thing about secrets is the high moral dudgeon that attaches to keeping and leaking them. Edge readers should be looking at Jonathan Haidt and Simone Schnall on these pages to be reminded that morality isn't what we've always thought it was. Schnall would surmise that if you say to someone, "You're looking very professional and impressive today: can you keep a secret?", the secret will likelier get kept than if you say, "Dressed in the dark this morning and forgot to take your shower, eh? can you keep a secret?" The trouble with secret-keeping is really that we don't yet understand that side of ourselves very well, and so we are surprised and betrayed all the time.

President and Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) , Washington, DC; Co-author, Information Privacy Law

It is important to distinguish between personal privacy and government secrecy.
In the first instance, we are considering a fundamental human right, in the second
an instrumental technique that extends the power of the state.

Editor, the Feuilleton (Arts & Essays) Section, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich/Germany

The European, especially the German suspicion of new media and the new forms of transparency they bring or demand are definitely rooted in the dictatorships of the 20th century. It's only 21 years ago that the one-party state of the GDR collapsed and with it a secret police and a network of informants that permeated not only every corner of society, but even circles of friends and families. All over Europe scandals and heartbreaks are still discovered in the files of those dictatorships. Right now for example there's a fervent debate right now amongst the intellectuals of Romania that spills over to Germany, where many Romanians of German descent had settled during the reign of Ceau?escu.

A lot what was collected by these secret services was banal and mundane, details of everyday life that was used to create profiles of the observed. That is why Europeans tend to react strongly to the collection of banal and mundane data by Google Streetview or Facebook, even if you wouldn't classify them as secrets. Thus te amount of information kept by any state is definitely seen as a sign for the concentration of power.

In Germany the fear of new media goes even deeper. It goes hand in hand with the deep suspicion of science and pop culture. The rise of the Nazis and their genocidal ideology in German society was facilitated by the extensive use and abuse of new media, science and pop culture. After World War 2 this resulted in a deep almost dogmatic passion for highbrow culture in the German middle class. Which also resulted in a complete lack of middlebrow culture. The younger generation now imports middlebrow culture mostly from the US, be it intelligent pop music as the one heard on American college radio, DVDs of TV series like "Mad Men" or "The Wire", literature by writers like Jonathan Franzen or Bret Easton Ellis. This resulted in a culturally divided culture class system with a trashy pop market for the uneducated masses and an overly highbrow culture for the bourgeoisie and the elites.

In most countries the internet and all it's cultural phenomena fall mostly into a middlebrow segment of culture. That adds to the aversion of digital culture. Since that middlebrow non-existent, the tendency by the establishment is to see it as a purveyor of lowbrow trash undermining the core values of culture.


Philosopher; Dipartimento delle Arti e del Disegno Industriale, IUAV University Venice

Game theory and international relations have influenced each other almost since the publication in 1944 of Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour by von Neuman and Morgenstern. Now since the first applications during the Cold War, both the international situation and game theory has significantly evolved. For example equilibrium points, that is "solutions" where each party has no interest in modifying its strategies, can be defined either by restrictions on the individuals or parties behaviour or as restrictions on the environment in which they interact. Also, information plays a crucial role in defining the end result of a game (intended as an interaction among individuals).

Now from the agent's point of view full transparency can be detrimental to the end result of the game or completely alter its nature (as if we were playing poker showing to the other players our cards). But in the case of "games" played by the representatives of democratic states or institutions (i.e played with the citizen's money and in behalf of their safety or interests), it is clear that there can be no secrecy about the kind of game that is being played, the end of the game and its rules. Julian Assange has been very clear in stating that secrecy is necessary to diplomacy and that he is just fighting against secrecy used to cover abuses, corruption, private interests or human rights violations.

A decision making process that doesn't offer justification for its choices, that infringes the norms that it publicly defends, that benefits groups interest instead of the interests of the community, or tell lies about facts or its aims (for example limiting freedom well beyond what is needed to assure security) is bound to raise questions about its legitimacy.

In such situations civil and political obedience (as defended by Julian Assange and, before him, by Daniel Ellsberg who claimed to have obeyed to the Constitution in delivering the Pentagon Papers), becomes "revolutionary" and can be labeled by some as "terrorism".

This perverse effect is not related to the content of the "leaks" or to their possible influence on the parties behaviour (the accusation of endangering people), but to the fact that it questions the rules of the game, changing radically the environment in which decision making takes place, thus possibly eliminating the possibility of reaching safely those "equilibrium points" that violate the transparency required by democratic institutions. i.e it weakens one of the main preconditions of (non democratic) power.

Science Historian; Author, Darwin Among the Machines

It is important to make a distinction between classification and secrecy. Thanks to digital encryption, it is easier than ever to keep information genuinely secret — between those who hold the keys. Designating something as classified information, however, does not keep it secret; on the contrary, it specifies a class of people with whom it can be shared.

The problem is that as more and more information has been classified, those classes have become very, very large. Apparently (although the amount of classified information is classified information) the United States Government now produces more classified information than unclassified information. Since no information can be useful unless it is shared, we have developed a vast and unwieldy apparatus for sharing classified information.

Any such system is bound to leak. There are many possible motivations for such leaks: money, national interest, commercial advantage, etc., and in most cases it is advantageous to those with access to a compromised system not to disclose this.

If, however, the motivation is to publicize the information, rather than take advantage of it, then it will become widely evident that there has been a leak. As any survey of the rich history of cryptography and cryptanalysis will show, the real damages are usually less the result of the system leaking secrets and more the result of believing (or hoping) that it won't.

Media analyst; Documentary filmmaker; Author, Program or Be Programmed

There's no such thing as a secret. There's just denial — agreement to pretend we don't know.

I concluded this after watching a performer a couple of years ago, a fellow who could tell when people were lying and when they were telling the truth. He did it like a parlor trick on stage, but his services have been used by governments, police, jury selectors, and so on. And pretty much every technique he was using to discern the truth was based on one cue or the other that the liar was giving. What poker players call a "tell." And these "tells" are part of overall communications matrix. They are part of the 93% of human communication that takes place non-verbally.

See, on some level, we are all telling the truth no matter what. Our husbands and wives know when we are lying to them, even if they haven't allowed what they know to be true to fully enter consciousness. Our lying is ultimately useless, except insofar as it serves as "manners." We pretend we don't know.

The net, by enabling faceless communication, has made it a bit easier to delay the process through which the truth inevitably rises to the surface. We think of it as an affront to our privacy and secrecy, but it has actually promoted it. The only difference now is that this privacy is itself apparent. And its violation is just as visible.

I used to say that the net was preparing us for a future when we are all connected, anyway. That we will eventually become a biologically networked organism, where we will all know each other's thoughts. That the net was a dry run, a practice session for this eventuality. Now, however, I think that's the way we have always been. The privacy we have experienced in our lives and world has been like those Japanese paper walls. We hear everything going on behind them — we simply act like we don't, and sometimes we believe it ourselves.

Historian of ideas; Author, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours

A world in which there are no secrets would be scary, because the line between secrecy and privacy is hard to draw. Such a world might resemble a Big Brother house. But it is unlikely ever to exist. For a start, complete transparency does not exist within an individual life, let alone in between groups or nations. Institutions have secret rules even when their explicit laws are declared and obeyed, and it is considered a crime, indeed a theft, to get hold of a company's trade secrets without authorization. Creators do not usually divulge the secrets of their trade – how a chef makes a special dish, how a sculptor uses a resin, how a filmmaker uses a lens. Families have secrets that it would be abhorrent to display to others; friendships and romances are filled with treasured secrets that it would be unseemly to reveal out of place. In such cases secrets are kept for the purpose of preserving an entity's identity, history and coherence, just as, in Freudian terms, we keep secrets from ourselves in order to safeguard our psychic economy.

And so it is not necessarily a bad thing to keep a secret. One entrusts someone with a secret – and the ability to keep a secret is a mark of trustworthiness. Military, political, indeed diplomatic missions function on the basis of secrecy, where secrecy entails exclusive participation: if everyone knew all the communications that led to a decision, or the strategy that underlay political or military decisions, then there would no more use of such missions, which function on the basis of exclusion. In fact very little can get done, or, arguably, communicated at all, without some sort of withholding of information from one set of people. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with respecting secrets; not to do so would allow one also not to respect privacy.

But one must determine who keeps what secrets in the name of what. Secrets become a problem when they (rather than the revelations they prevent) are out of place and harmful, means to a desctructive end, or when the right to secrecy is abused in such a way as to allow for lying, manipulation, distortion of reported data, and so on.

Democracies are full of secrets. One difference between democracies and dictatorships is the kind and amount of divulgation that is allowed. We do not want crimes to be concealed, or bad faith to be hidden away. We do not want hypocrisy. We want to expose bad deeds. But to say, along with the Wikileaks founder, that we should live in a fully transparent world is to condone the pervasive use of closed circuit cameras and praise the day when they will be placed in the toilets of the world's parliaments. A world where everyone knows everything would be chaotic, and knowledge itself would cease to be communicable. The founder of Wikileaks, who is himself living in hiding — alone with the secrets of his motivations — has assumed that a world without secrets was both desirable and, thanks to his efforts, possible. He seems to believe that the alternative to the traditional secrecy of diplomacy is a world without secrets at all, single-handedly deciding that all diplomatic secrets and deeds should be made public — forgetting that diplomacy functions on the basis of secrets. Without the information both exposed and concealed by these secrets, however, one is not in the position to know what secret is worth revealing. It takes expertise to decide what needs to be kept secret, for the sake of security, for instance. The Wikileaks cables put together the opinions of individual diplomats with various state secrets, without any mission other than to unveil all, for the idealistic sake of unveiling all that pertains to America's foreign missions. It is fine to want to know what is going on behind political scenes, but there are more legitimate ways of finding out than by such secret, and in the end clumsy stealth.

So how do we draw the line between secrecy and transparency? By realizing that this line is not a matter of principle, but can only be drawn ad hoc, since secrecy and transparency are equally necessary.

Professor, Harvard University, Director, Personal Genome Project


Privacy is a relatively new social phenomenon. When our ancestors died in the tiny village of their birth, lacking walls, and surrounded by relatives, there were no secrets.

Privacy vs security is a false dichotomy and the answer may not fall between those poles.

A third option is lowering the need for secrets. This wave seems to be growing in momentum. Over the past decades the number of people hiding their psychiatric status, sexual orientation, STDs, cancer, and salary has shrunk for a variety of reasons. Some of these topics seem much less more prone to extortion or scandal than in the past.

People now share more now because new technologies make data more accessible (2010 Google vs 1950 private eye) or make sharing more attractive (Facebook).

Technologies also make sharing more important, for example, discussing which new drugs to take for cancer, AIDS, or depression. In PatientsLikeMe and PersonalGenomes.org individuals share all of this and more to benefit people globally.

Secrecy is false security. The memory hole of Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four", a purposefully disingenuous illusion of information security, is not so fictional (e.g. old personal web searches revived in crime investigations). Add to that mathematical tricks, human error and willful individuals and teams, and we see strong arguments against dark secrets with nowhere to hide.

Secrets are symptoms — not demanding a better bandage, but a treatment for the underlying disease causes. AIDS created an activism that lead to open discussion and to less stigma associated with sexual preference. Even the apparent "essentiality" of secrets for police and war-fighters is symptomatic of a failure of diplomacy and a failure of technology policy to provide a decent life for all.

There may be a trend toward less violence with global increases in the standard of living or education — and as we learn more about the underlying biology of violence. What will we see as anachronistic as we look back from a few decades hence? Will it be the wimpiness of our security or the prevalence of our secrets?

Philosopher, Institut Nicod, CNRS, Paris; www.interdisciplines.org

Secrecy is the forbidden fruit: you want to know more even at the risk of loosing the heavenly security of the Garden of Eden. Speech is power: some information is so potent that it could be dangerous. God created the universe with speech and he put the forbidden tree to remind to his creatures that they could not get the overall picture, that some files remained classified.

In classical mythology, those who steal secrets from God are damned heroes, like Prometheus, who stole the secret of fire from Zeus. Being human is a damned heroic destiny: we are scavengers, scraping off layers of lies and prohibitions to reach bitter truths.

Truth is not just an epistemic commodity: it is a human value. It mixes the needs of sincerity, accuracy and honesty that are essential to trust each other, to feel that we belong to the same species, that we are playing the same game.

But secrecy is not a sacred value: it is perceived as an abuse of power. It may have rational motivations, it may be indispensable in order to keep order and peace, but the secret-keeper never has the part of the hero, apart from extreme cases when lying is a way of saving people against an oppressive power that wants to brutally extort information to act in an evil way.

State secrecy is not a clear principle: no constitutions in the Western world endorse State secrecy as a legal or moral principle. It is an old privilege of sovereigns that has taken different shapes in the political history. It goes from the British Majesties' privilege of the Habeas Corpus, which overrules local authorities, to the Macchiavellian precepts to the Prince, who must classify some information in order to succeed in governing the people. What is called Raison d'Etat, is the privilege of the sovereign to act "out of law" for the State's interests. That is why it is so difficult these days to see State secrecy as legitimate, and to see those who violate it as traitors.

In our times, the first time United States advocated exclusion of evidence in a trial based only on affidavit was in 1953, in the United States vs. Reynolds case which involved the crash of a military plane whose mission had to be kept secret.

That is to say: it is difficult to have a spontaneous sympathy for the secrets' holders, and the damned heroes à la Julian Assange have all their chance to gain popular consensus.

Also, we come out from a decade in which truth-wars have been at the centre of the most difficult political choices, such as the Iraq invasion. For those who have studied the whole story, the balance between secrecy and security was really odd: the report from the British Intelligence on which Colin Powell based his speech at the UN, contained a major plagiarism from the journal Middle Eastern Studies. The following British report had been "sexed up" in order to affirm that an Iraq nuclear attack was possible in 45 minutes.

But what are the truths we value in the information society? Now that the Information Age is leaving its place to the Reputation Age, we want certified truths, attested by authoritative sources: we want the seal of quality that warrants us on where the truth come from, who is the authority endorsing it. Plain, factive truths, like plain facts, don't exist anymore: we trust a chain of production of truths, with its labels and legitimacies. The naked "truth" that leaks from unknown sources is unreadable, it is a noisy voice that we do not know what to do with. Yet, the Wikileaks scandal comes from the fact that many newspapers have given credit to the source, thus showing that they endorse this chain of production. They have provided the reputation these naked truths needed.

We have to understand better how these chains of reputation of information are constructed and endorsed. We have to take the epistemic responsibility of asking ourselves why we trust news or an information provider. And perhaps, with the power of collaborative work on the Web, we can contribute in giving the appropriate labels to the information we are able to control, thus contributing to the damned human enterprise of unveiling the forbidden truths.

Social & Technology Network Topology Researcher; Adjunct Professor, NYU Graduate School of Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP); Author, Here Comes Everybody

"When does my right to privacy trump your need for security?" seems analogous to the question "What is fair use?", to which the answer is "Whatever activities don't get people convicted for violating fair use." Put another way, fair use is a legal defense rather than a recipe.

Like fair use, the tension between a right to privacy and a right to know isn't one-dimensional — there are many independent variables involved. For instance, does the matter at hand involve elected or appointed officials? Working in the public name? The presumption should run to public review.

Does it involve private citizens? Would its release subject someone to harassment or other forms of attack? The presumption should run to privacy. And so on.

There are a set of clear cases. Congress should debate matters openly. The President should have a private channel with which to communicate with other world leaders. Restaurants must publish the results of their latest health inspection. You shouldn't have your lifetime browsing history published by Google. These are not complicated cases.

The complicated cases are where our deeply held beliefs clash. Should all diplomats have the right to all communications being classified as secret? Should all private individuals be asked, one at a time, how they feel about having their house photographed by Google?

I do not know the answer to this class of questions. You do not know the answer to this class of questions. This is not because you or I don't have strong opinions about them; it is because our opinions differ significantly from the opinions of our fellow citizens, and putting just one of us in charge would be bad for democracy.

So my answer to "When does my right to privacy trump your need for security?" is whenever various democratic processes say it does. If I publish something you wanted private and you can't successfully sue me, I was in the right, and when not, then not.

The faith here has to be in a heuristic, not an algorithm, because the values that come into conflict, and the depth of our intuitions about those values, prevent there being any simple answer. The hardest questions in mediating our lives together have to be adjudicated using lawmakers and the courts and executive choice about what to enforce and how.

The only thing that could go really, terribly wrong right now would be short-circuiting that process.

Visual artist based in Cairo and Paris; Founder, PeerEvaluation.org

Cablegate Is No Watergate

Washington, 1972. Two inquisitive journalists, an informant, tens of supporting sources, hundreds of physical documents and an editorial board waking up to the word cor-ro-bo-ra-te! That was the Watergate.

Fast forward to the Cablegate, the Web, November 2010 and be warned that any ressemblance to journalism, as you knew it, is purely coincidental.

In an interview to the Belfast Telegraph, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks's founder, explains: "We don't verify our sources, we verify the documents. As long as they are bona fide it doesn't matter where they come from." And he concludes: "We would rather not know."

The WikiLeaks Cablegate trove, as it is referred to in the press, seems to have disintegrated journalistic common practice and routines. Verifying your sources then protecting their identity has shifted to not knowing your sources and digitally encrypting their identities.

Julian Assange seems to believe that truth and good faith are to be found within the documents: "As long as they [the documents] are bona fide it doesn't matter where they come from". Challenging thought, considering that forging digital text is easier than forging your own mother's signature.

Responding to concerned New York Times readers, Bill Keller, executive editor, explains: "[…] the format is familiar from embassy cables we have seen from other sources." He adds : "No official has questioned the genuineness of the material, or suggested that they have been manipulated in any way."

According to Keller, graphic design on one hand, and silence on the other, prove the authenticity of information.

The Times's safeguards seem too weak compared to the many risks potentially involved but yet, and for a reason we wish to understand, five world famous newspapers have endorsed this material, namely the New York Times, The Guardian, El País, Der Spiegel and Le Monde. Why ? On what grounds ? The previous grounds — source verification, corroboration, material proof — seem to be definitely out of fashion.

When so much opacity, encryption and silence are involved, how exactly does WikiLeaks gain a newspaper's trust and, consequently, how does a newspaper gain its readers' trust. Answering the second question is an easy call : we trust the Times, period.

As for the first question, someone should step forward and provide us with a proper explanation.

While claiming that violating secrets in the name of greater transparency is goodand informative, one should be reminded that those secrets are in the very hands of men and women, institutions and administrations that have been entrusted and elected by the people.

In that respect, Wikileaks's opacities can in no way be compared to US diplomatic secrecy. WikiLeaks is unlected, unmonitored and unregulated by the people or any of its representatives.

The Cablegate raises, again, two issues that challenge the "Wiki" world and the Web in general: Internet popularity versus authority, and Internet popularity versus quality.

Wikipedia is impressive and popular, but can we trust it? Is it an authoritative source on the information it provides? WikiLeaks is powerful and is potentially an amazing "contre pouvoir", but have they been granted the authority — by any international organization — to handle material that involves the public good on a global scale? 

Popularity of online content grants it high rankings in search engines such as Google. The first results are not necessarily the best or the most accurate, they are the ones getting the highest number of hits.

On its Twitter page, WikiLeaks boasted on December 4th 2010 that, according to Google, it was twice as known as Wikipedia.

This quantitative metric alone might well explain the global media's interest for WikiLeaks considering it — just as search engines would do — worthy of attention and authoritative by popularity.

Everything would then fall into place. Wikileaks is popular, meaning it is authoritative. According to the same logic, one should consider WikiLeaks as an acclaimed and legitimate representative of those who searched it, clicked it and made it more famous than Wikipedia.

"One click, one vote" says Google, making its ranking algorithm sound like the very essence of democracy.

The prospect of knowledge and information becoming authoritative by popularity is a rather disturbing one. If the production processes of one and the other started mimicking "bottom-up" marketing strategies, wouldn't the end product merely reflect the crowd's "likes" and expectations, regardless of facts, regardless of what is right and regardless of the truth ?


Edited by John Brockman

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