Leaking Irony

While I work on more extended analysis of the WikiLeaks situation (among other things the obvious connection to my work on how geometries of information sharing are co-constitutive of social relationships and statuses), a small irony must be noted.

Apparently, several news organizations have had the material recently made public since August.  Editors and reporters have been meeting in secret to develop protocols about what would be reported, when, and how.  Fortunately for their work, it appears that these journalists managed to do all of this while maintaining the kind of secrecy necessary for them to be able to process the information and to consider its meaning and its implications out of public view.  The public, media, and official reaction of the last few days make clear why this secrecy was necessary.

One thing that would be interesting to hear a story on would be what measures were taken to ensure the security of the process.  What sorts of technological tools were employed?  What sorts of social tools?  Did participants have to sign confidentiality agreements?   What prevented a rogue reporter from reporting on the reporters reporting?

Those damn unconnected dots again (rough draft)

An article in the Times, under the headline “Obama Says Plot Could Have Been Disrupted,” reprises the metaphor of “connecting the dots” to describe different pieces of information having been in different heads, but never getting put together in one head that could make sense of them.

It is reassuring that Obama’s speaking bluntly about organizational performance rather than riding roughshod over the constitution, but, as argued in an earlier piece (“Mind the Gap“), the idea that it’s a simple problem of dot connecting is a basic misconception.

How do you hear “connect the dots”?  One version is reminiscent of a detective show or Agatha Christie novel; the challenge is to assemble hints — pieces of information that, alone, are not conclusive proof of anything — in such a way that the “answer” emerges as a sort of logical necessity.  The “logic” is in the mind of the beholder, but that’s all.

A different version is reminiscent of the we draw lines between stars and come up with “constellations.”  Two things are important.  One, the stars are not really next to one another — the viewer is the one who sees them as points on a plane and interpolates and extrapolates the other vertices of the figure.  Two, there’s no there there — the crab in cancer or the warrior in Orion has to be brought to the observation by us.

The first requires us to have all the pieces on the table and be open to what they “tell us” when seen together.  The challenge for intelligence agencies is to put the information from various sources onto the same table.

The second requires us to decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore (left), how to connect and not connect (middle), and what to add that’s not there (right).

If we increase the degree of information sharing we fill up our field of view with more and more points and the dots get harder and harder to connect.

On the other hand, if we ask the different agencies to filter the information then we are back in hot water because none of them know what they are looking for.

The president was furious about the failure of the system to see “the red flags” and intelligence agencies are reported to have said that the information they had was “vague but available.”  The problem is that flags are not, in general, a priori red.  Presumably, some smart people are thinking about how systems see and things like that; hopefully, they don’t just think of it as “connect the dots.”

We observe with some irony that the actual policy response to the problem — at least the response that’s been announced — is in fact to gather more information via increased screening.

Oh, and if we look up “connect the dots” in Wikipedia you get a short article about a children’s game. It bears a Wiki-warning: “This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards.”