Friday, December 3, 2010

What's Behind WikiLeaks? Too Much Writing

The latest WikiLeaks dump has reinvigorated all the arguments about how the digital age has made the dissemination of oodles of pages of information easier than it has ever been. Less noticed is that it has made the creation of those pages easier, too. Plain fact is, there's more to leak than there used to be. Why? Because officials now write too much. Why? Because they can.
It wasn't always like that. Long ago - well, actually, not that long ago, in the early 1980s - I was a government official in a policy analysis unit in the British Cabinet Office. My job involved writing draft minutes, memos, reports, all of which would be reworked numerous times before they left the building to go to other government offices. (I mean, left on paper, you understand; in envelopes, if you can remember what they looked like.) And when I say my job involved "writing" I mean just that; writing, in long-hand, on government-issue pads of paper. (See "WikiLeaks' Russian Cables: Bad for the Reset, Good for Putin?")
Sadly, my handwriting, then as now, was execrable (even worse then, for some reason, than it is today) which meant that my wonderful secretary couldn't understand a word of it. So I decided that to make her life easier, I would revert to the practice I had followed as an academic: to type, very roughly, what I wanted to say, fill up the page with scribbled corrections, and then hand it to her for a fair copy - or, if it was really long, send it to the "typing pool," wherever that was, from where it would return in a couple of days. Then my draft would be sent, again, on paper, up the editing chain.
But this wheeze, of course, meant that I needed a typewriter. Nobody in my unit had a typewriter. Nobody, so far as I could make out, had ever asked for one. (To be fair, and to let you know that we were bang up to date, some colleagues did use dictation machines. I could never get the hang of them: "Dear Jennings, comma, new sentence, capital letter, I have yours of the 15th.... Oh s--t, double space before the new sentence, sorry....") So I had to petition the administration department for permission to have a typing machine.
A stern-looking lady came up from the bowels of the Office to my top-floor garret, overlooking London's St. James' Park. Why, exactly, did I need a typewriter? I explained the problem. She looked very dubious, but in the end relented. And a few days later, an old-fashioned, upright, manual typewriter - not one of those fancy IBM Selectrics that were all the rage at the time - was delivered, and I could hunt and peck to my heart's content.
But of course, even that technological breakthrough was pretty modest. Anything I wrote of any substance would be edited ("redrafted") by my superiors, who would subject my prose to the most thorough copy-editing it has ever had - getting to the point, cutting out the Latinate, shortening the sentences, making sure the proposed "handling" of an issue was clear. Writing something down, in other words, was not a matter to be taken lightly; it was not the start of a process, it was, rather, the end of one - something that came after a series of conversations, debates and on occasion furious arguments, all conducted in person, sometimes in formal meetings, sometimes when two or three of us were gathered together over tea. (Get the latest tech news at
The sheer difficulty of committing something to paper, I like to think, meant that the arguments we made were more thought-through than those that are now dashed off electronically and whizzed around the world. To be clear, the system our office used was not leak-proof; nothing is. The Pentagon Papers were produced in the old style, and that didn't stop them leaving the Department of Defense. But the traditional methods must have meant that there was a limit to the amount of stuff available to be leaked. There was, if you like, a quantity theory of government secrecy at work.
We knew that things would change. Right at the end of my time in the Cabinet Office, there was a buzz of excitement among the secretaries. A "Word Processor" - just one of them - arrived. It was about the size of a bus, and it made such a shuddering racket that the whole thing had to be sheathed in a perspex hood. The secretaries gazed at it rapturously. It was all downhill from there.

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