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<nettime> Umberto Eco: Not such wicked leaks

Not such wicked leaks
02 December 2010 LibÃration Paris

For the celebrated novelist and intellectual Umberto Eco, the Wikileaks 
affair or "Cablegate" not only shows up the hypocrisy that governs 
relations between states, citizens and the press, but also presages a 
return to more archaic forms of communication.
Umberto Eco

The WikiLeaks affair has twofold value. On the one hand, it turns out to be 
a bogus scandal, a scandal that only appears to be a scandal against the 
backdrop of the hypocrisy governing relations between the state, the 
citizenry and the press. On the other hand, it heralds a sea change in 
international communication â and prefigures a regressive future of 
âcrabwiseâ progress.

But letâs take it one step at a time. First off, the WikiLeaks confirm the 
fact that every file put together by a secret service (of any nation you 
like) is exclusively made up of press clippings. The âextraordinaryâ 
American revelations about Berlusconiâs sex habits merely relay what could 
already be read for months in any newspaper (except those owned by 
Berlusconi himself, needless to say), and the sinister caricature of 
Gaddafi has long been the stuff of cabaret farce.
Embassies have morphed into espionage centres

The rule that says secret files must only contain news that is already 
common knowledge is essential to the dynamic of secret services, and not 
only in the present century. Go to an esoteric book shop and youâll find 
that every book on the shelf (on the Holy Grail, the âmysteryâ of Rennes-
le-ChÃteau [a hoax theory concocted to draw tourists to a French town], on 
the Templars or the Rosicrucians) is a point-by-point rehash of what is 
already written in older books. And itâs not just because occult authors 
are averse to doing original research (or donât know where to look for news 
about the non-existent), but because those given to the occult only believe 
what they already know and what corroborates what theyâve already heard. 
That happens to be Dan Brownâs success formula.

The same goes for secret files. The informant is lazy. So is the head of 
the secret service (or at least heâs limited â otherwise he could be, what 
do I know, an editor at LibÃration): he only regards as true what he 
recognises. The top-secret dope on Berlusconi that the US embassy in Rome 
beamed to the Department of State was the same story that had come out in 
Newsweek the week before.

So why so much ado about these leaks? For one thing, they say what any 
savvy observer already knows: that the embassies, at least since the end of 
World War II, and since heads of state can call each other up or fly over 
to meet for dinner, have lost their diplomatic function and, but for the 
occasional ceremonial function, have morphed into espionage centres. Anyone 
who watches investigative documentaries knows that full well, and it is 
only out of hypocrisy that we feign ignorance. Still, repeating that in 
public constitutes a breach of the duty of hypocrisy, and puts American 
diplomacy in a lousy light.
A real secret is an empty secret

Secondly, the very notion that any old hacker can delve into the most 
secret secrets of the most powerful country in the world has dealt a hefty 
blow to the State Departmentâs prestige. So the scandal actually hurts the 
âperpetratorsâ more than the âvictimsâ.

But letâs turn to the more profound significance of what has occurred. 
Formerly, back in the days of Orwell, every power could be conceived of as 
a Big Brother watching over its subjectsâ every move. The Orwellian 
prophecy came completely true once the powers that be could monitor every 
phone call made by the citizen, every hotel he stayed in, every toll road 
he took and so on and so forth. The citizen became the total victim of the 
watchful eye of the state. But when it transpires, as it has now, that even 
the crypts of state secrets are not beyond the hackerâs grasp, the 
surveillance ceases to work only one-way and becomes circular. The state 
has its eye on every citizen, but every citizen, or at least every hacker â 
the citizensâ self-appointed avenger â can pry into the stateâs every 

How can a power hold up if it canât even keep its own secrets anymore? It 
is true, as Georg Simmel once remarked, that a real secret is an empty 
secret (which can never be unearthed); it is also true that anything known 
about Berlusconi or Merkelâs character is essentially an empty secret, a 
secret without a secret, because itâs public domain. But to actually 
reveal, as WikiLeaks has done, that Hillary Clintonâs secrets were empty 
secrets amounts to taking away all her power. WikiLeaks didnât do any harm 
to Sarkozy or Merkel, but did irreparable damage to Clinton and Obama.
Technology now advances crabwise

What will be the consequences of this wound inflicted on a very mighty 
power? Itâs obvious that in future, states wonât be able to put any 
restricted information on line anymore: that would be tantamount to posting 
it on a street corner. But it is equally clear that, given todayâs 
technologies, it is pointless to hope to have confidential dealings over 
the phone. Nothing is easier than finding out whether a head of state flew 
in or out or contacted one of his counterparts. So how can privy matters be 
conducted in future? Now I know that for the time being, my forecast is 
still science fiction and therefore fantastic, but I canât help imagining 
state agents riding discreetly in stagecoaches along untrackable routes, 
bearing only memorised messages or, at most, the occasional document 
concealed in the heel of a shoe. Only a single copy thereof will be kept â 
in locked drawers. Ultimately, the attempted Watergate break-in was less 
successful than WikiLeaks.

I once had occasion to observe that technology now advances crabwise, i.e. 
backwards. A century after the wireless telegraph revolutionised 
communications, the Internet has re-established a telegraph that runs on 
(telephone) wires. (Analog) video cassettes enabled film buffs to peruse a 
movie frame by frame, by fast-forwarding and rewinding to lay bare all the 
secrets of the editing process, but (digital) CDs now only allow us quantum 
leaps from one chapter to another. High-speed trains take us from Rome to 
Milan in three hours, but flying there, if you include transfers to and 
from the airports, takes three and a half hours. So it wouldnât be 
extraordinary if politics and communications technologies were to revert to 
the horse-drawn carriage.

One last observation: In days of yore, the press would try to figure out 
what was hatching sub rosa inside the embassies. Nowadays, itâs the 
embassies that are asking the press for the inside story.

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