It’s admirable that the Scottish Review has resisted the temptation to have a comments section at the bottom of each article. Readers react, but those reactions are curated via The Cafe to ensure some distance and coherence in the exchange of views. This somewhat old fashioned approach spares SR readers the bilious and often barely intelligible drivel that now trails in the wake of even serious online journalism.
Part of the problem with comment page histrionics is that they are a free good (noun not adjective), whereas for most of history written communication had both cost and consequences. It used to take time and effort to capture thoughts, and the aphorism attributed to both Shaw and Twain that 'if I had had more time I would have written a shorter letter', speaks to a reverence for clear communication that has not translated well to the 140 characters of Twitter. Whether for private or public consumption, writing used to be a craft that involved the paring of language, the iterative clarification of meaning, and often an aspiration to imbue plain prose with some level of poetry.
Those thoughts that did get captured for posterity then had to survive both a physical and cultural Darwinism that winnowed them down to a fraction of the original content. Medieval monks in scriptoriums were a scarce resource, so decisions had to be made about what was worth copying, and the knowledge that did propagate was often filtered again by religious or cultural censorship. Finally, the fragility of the medium didn’t help. If only there had been some fire marshals in the library at Alexandria, the National Theatre would have had a lot more Greek tragedies to reinterpret.
In contrast, we now live in an era of communication excess and information abundance, where almost everything we type and share is captured for posterity on a web server somewhere. Twain’s short but high quality letter has lost its place in society and, while many of us have photos by the thousands on our computer, few of them are framed and treasured. The simultaneous permanence and lack of thought that characterises modern written communication is one of the primary reasons why the US presidential race remains competitive.
From her email server scandal to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee to the 'pay to play’ noise around the Clinton Foundation, Hillary’s Clinton’s campaign has been plagued by scandals in which the assumed to be private has become the embarrassingly public. As election day approaches, this extended electronic proctology examination is likely to continue, as there is every indication that the WikiLeaks well on Clinton is nowhere close to running dry. Even for non-politicians, trial by twitter has now become something to be feared. An off-colour joke that might raise an eyebrow in the pub after a few drinks now has the viral potential to become a life-ruining global cause celebre if captured electronically.
In the past, my reflexive reaction has been to applaud increased transparency in politics, but now I’m not so sure. A few months ago I found myself being deposed as a prosecution witness in a civil law suit. I imagined a brief interview would suffice, but instead I endured nearly eight hours under oath being grilled by a high-paid lawyer whose sole objective was to find holes in my story.
Sitting in a windowless conference room in Manhattan, I was dragged back into an old paper trail of emails and documents that I had only a vague recollection of. Some were clearly of scriptorium quality, with well thought out arguments and an intellectual coherence and completeness that had stood the test of time. These documents deserved the title of 'electronic mail’ as they resembled a well-written memo that wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1950s. But as the day progressed I was also presented with screeds of emails and instant messaging threads that were a typically loose conversational tennis match that had been captured for posterity. In these documents multiple argument threads were intertwined, ambiguities weren’t clarified, many loose ends were left hanging, and the occasional emoji was used. In this group chat-like stream of consciousness there were no pretensions to being definitive about anything, yet this work in progress was laid out across the conference room table being parsed for every hidden meaning that might be valuable to the defence.
Unfortunately in US politics one unintended consequence of all this transparency may be perpetual gridlock and grandstanding. Smoke-filled rooms and backroom deals are usually a pejorative. They reek of special interests and stitch ups, but the upside of working away from the harsh light of information transparency is that compromises can be reached that actually get things done. There was no live tweeting from Harold Wilson’s ‘beer and sandwiches’ sessions with the TUC in Downing Street in the 1970s, and when the Good Friday agreement was being negotiated in Northern Ireland the 'sitting down with terrorists’ approach would never have survived an email leak.
Reaching back 250 years the founding fathers who drafted the US constitution were sworn to secrecy in the sure and certain knowledge that the compromises required to midwife that document would never have survived real-time scrutiny from their constituents. In the words of President James Madison: 'no constitution would ever have been adopted by the convention if the debates had been public'. The reality of public life is that not every conversation that is secret involves the unsanctioned bombing of Cambodia or the extrajudicial assassination of foreign leaders. Some secret conversations can lead to noble and worthwhile outcomes.
The need to have the public policy sausage-making happen off screen is why both the US and the UK have had a 30 year privacy rule for public records (which is in the process of being reduced to 20 in the UK). This presumption of privacy creates a safe space for public officials to make decisions and express potentially controversial ideas without fear of public judgement. When these documentary treasure troves are opened, the principal actors are typically long gone from the public stage and we discover how things actually happened and why. Historians can then assess the quality of the decision-making involved with the benefit of hindsight rather than in the heat of a crisis.
Not all secrets are nefarious and that is why the intentional release by the FBI of Clinton’s emails, the less intentional Russia/WikiLeaks revelations, and the whole arc of the Edward Snowden story are potentially dangerous for effective government. True, Clinton brought many of these problems on herself by using a private email server, but I worry that in an age of assumed transparency political compromise will become impossible.
During the height of McCarthy’s 'reds under the bed’ frenzy in the 1950s, Eisenhower made the point that 'it is essential to efficient and effective administration that employees of the executive branch be in a position to be completely candid in advising each other'. In contrast, if you’re now working in either business or politics in the 21st century you probably should work under the assumption that there is no privacy and that every time you start typing on a keyboard your musings might end up in a defence lawyer’s brief or on an electronic billboard in Times Square.
The technology genie that enables these behavioural x-rays isn’t going back in the bottle, so the question is how we should adapt to this era of information abundance in which transparency is a double-edged sword that both polices inappropriate behaviour while also restricting frank and honest debate. There is still something inherently attractive about the idea that as citizens of a democracy we should be able to observe the conduct of public servants and that any process that is secret or hidden has the potential to be abused. But just as a comments section of a news website attracts ill-considered vitriol, fully transparent government will attract instant judgement without context or consideration of the broader issues.
Recent Congressional gridlock in the US is driven in part by the belief that what you say before a mic on the steps of the Capital or on your twitter feed also needs to be what you say behind closed doors, as any discrepancy between the two will be exposed and exploited. So the default position has become ideological grandstanding even within the smoke-filled rooms.
Two things could happen in response to the evaporation of privacy. The first is that compromise goes offline and that the art of conversation is revived. In this scenario the default communication mechanism in both business and politics reverts to either in-person conversations or calls via the burner mobile phones beloved of drug dealers. Both the good and the bad become equally untraceable, but the presumption of privacy is restored for both.
During the last few years many US journalists have complained that government officials won’t answer even the simplest of requests via email for fear that over time even the most banal response might have a scandal spun around it. Projecting forward, one of the more intriguing technological predictions of the recent reboot of the sci-fi show 'Battlestar Galatica' was that even in space, communication will be on devices that look like my mum’s old bakelite rotary phone, simply because they can’t be hacked.
The other somewhat glass-half-full scenario is that the disinfectant of sunlight actually changes behaviour for the better. On Wall Street most trading floors now ban cell phones, and all phone calls and written messages are recorded in the belief that the fear of being caught will moderate the excesses of rampant capitalism. I haven’t seen the stats, but my guess is that last year’s hack of the Ashley Madison affair-arranging website has lowered the instance of marital infidelity in the US. If we assume that everything we do is being watched, recorded, and ultimately judged, maybe it becomes a self-regulating mechanism where we are forced to put our better selves on show and over time that changes the thought as well as the action.
Whichever path society takes, we still need to find a way to reconcile a desire for transparency with the potentially conflicting desire for effective government. The latter requires that we have the patience to judge the outcome rather than the process, and we need to avoid the chilling effect that makes politicians less likely to speak candidly in private, grow even more bellicose in public, and pursue new and potentially dangerous avenues of secrecy that move us further away from an appropriate privacy balance. Despite our reflexive desire to respond, we also need to find a way to remove the comments section from public life and go back to a world where the editor decides which letters to publish and which to put in the drawer. It means putting a lot of trust in the editor, but ultimately isn’t that the faith we should have in our democratically-elected representatives?