The Revolution Will Be Digitised, Heather Brooke, Random House, September 2011
Whether they know it or not, Britons are hugely indebted to journalist and freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke, the woman who revealed the MPs expenses scandal and who has in many other ways sought to disinfect our decadent democracy with daylight.
Her latest book, The Revolution Will be Digitised, is really two for the price of one. The first is about WikiLeaks, her experience of meeting Julian Assange, and working with him and Guardian journalists to make a vast volume of previously secret information available to a worldwide readership. The other, linked but distinct, is about the consequences of digitisation. She explores the personal and political consequences of technological advances, which offer convenience and enhanced freedom to individuals, but also multiply the scope for surveillance and oppression.
Brooke grew up in the American tradition of journalism, breathing the Jeffersonian belief that “he who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine”. This doesn’t make her uncritical of the United States. But she embodies the best of that American spirit of enlightenment in practice, one that helped her chip away at the embedded culture of secrecy she found on moving to the UK.
Her WikiLeaks material offers insight into one aspect of digitisation: how government information can now be made accessible to those who pay for it in a way not previously known. She also offers insights into the character of Assange and the way she says he himself became something of a gatekeeper when his relationship soured with The Guardian and other newspaper publishers of the WikiLeaks material.
Brookes sets WikiLeaks in the broader context of a world in which hackers and others have seen the huge democratising possibilities digitised information offers.
So, for example, she takes us to Iceland, brought to bankruptcy by banking activities carried out by a clique of the powerful - and largely unreported. She says the anger this generated among Icelanders led to the growth there of a powerful new force for international communication openness, one that has made their country the place where secrecy is now “the ultimate sin. Transparency and public accountability became the new watchwords, and this is why Iceland was such fertile ground to plant the seeds of a radical transparency movement.”
She meets senior figures at Facebook and Google - Apple refused to meet her - and discovers that the openness both espouse are not reflected in their commercial practices: “while these companies are keen to harvest our information, they are less willing to provide their own. There is an entire industry that exists in relative obscurity trading in what is becoming a very lucrative commodity.”
Brooke is good in teasing out the delicate issues of privacy and openness, and approvingly quotes tech writer Danny O’Brien: “On the Net, you have public or you have secrets. The private intermediate sphere, with its careful buffering, is shattered. Emails are forwarded verbatim. IRC [chat] transcripts, with throwaway comments, are preserved forever. You talk to your friends online, you talk to the world.”
The dangers of surveillance and censorship are obvious. But, on the other hand, who could have predicted the consequences of someone with a mobile phone filming young Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazzi setting himself ablaze in protest at Tunisian state officials confiscating his fruit cart. That video went worldwide and the corrupt dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is history.
She argues that while states see the unregulated internet as a threat, invoking national security and protection of children as grounds for censorship and restriction, the more attractive democratic alternative is for a “rewiring” of politics to take advantage of the wider participation the digitised revolution now offers.
“We now have a technology that unites individuals in such a way that we can create the first global democracy,” she concludes. “Hundreds of millions of people are climbing out of poverty and the internet gives them access to the sort of information that was previously accessible only to elite scholars.
“They can join a worldwide conversation and come together in infinite permutations to check power where it concentrates. The greatest achievement isn’t in producing technology, but using it to redefine the boundaries of what is possible.”
Brookes has long demonstrated the practical utility of her idealism. The Revolution will be Digitised invites others to join her.