By Ethan Wilkes
We are Generation Wiki. We are interconnected collaborative creatures, and we like to share. We link and like, comment, post and poke. We Yelp when we’re hungry, Skype when we’re lonely and Gchat throughout the day. Our cell phone bills are light on minutes and long on data almost every month.
We are the first of our kind. A computer has sat comfortably in some nook of our home for as long as we can remember. We grew up trying to find Carmen Sandiego, and came of age to the beeps and cackles of a 14k modem connecting to America Online. Before we had our own car, before we had our own cash and before we had a fake ID, we had chat rooms, instant messages and inboxes. We had an entire world wide web of possibilities with which to explore beyond the confines of our bedroom walls. Our rebellion was data-driven, a battle cry of zeros and ones where power grew out of the results of a search engine.
We are broadcasters, mini-content creation machines and this is how we communicate. But while we may share more publicly, we are hardly the open books some claim us to be. Our online profiles reveal little more about our character, competence and intellect than our choice of clothing does because we know our boundaries, however unspoken. In fact, we are remarkably self-regulating and adept at maintaining privacy in a very public manner. What we share tends to be topical, trivial and rapidly replaced. The way we share it is marked by a unique etiquette.
We don’t SMS the way we e-mail, we won’t send a message for what we can comment on and a chat window is not the same as a phone call. We don’t type the way we speak and we all understand that. Sometimes we chastise our parents for not getting it. “No Mom, text messages are not for conversations!” They are for clarification of questions, confirmation of meetings and the occasional witty witticisms between the sexes. “Don’t photo comment on Facebook asking if I ate dinner!” It’s simply not the place.
We are aware of these ambiguities of the digital age, and we are comfortable with them. They are the products of a networked world where information is in abundance and easily diffused; it is the only world that we have known. So imagine how confounding we find the reactions to this Wikileaks debacle, many of which are so oddly out of date and knee-jerk.
The e-mail sent by our Office of Career Services that made international headlines and the mailing lists of other policy schools, along with similar messages sent to the student bodies of Boston University School of Law and Michigan State University James Madison College, is evidence of this reality. To be sure, no, no one muzzled our right to free speech, and contrary to the Village Voice description Columbia is not “fascist.” But the simple truth that someone, somewhere thought we would do best to keep a lid on it—to say nothing of the statements emanating from Congress and the State Department—shows how remarkably misguided the thinking is on this issue.
What seems to be missing is an understanding of what Generation Wiki has known all along about information gone viral: we consume, comment and move on; the story dies when we are done with it. Trying to put the genie back in the bottle is no way to deal with an exposé once it has gone online.
Furthermore, Wikileaks will not be a one-off. Whatever comes of the website, Julian Assange or Bradley Manning does not negate the fact that in the absence of a far more heavily restricted internet we live in a Wikileakable world. No matter how secure our servers, how rigorous our clearance processes or how thorough our legislation, we will never eradicate the human element from security or the technological platforms on which treasure troves of classified documents, corporate secrets or other private data can be obtained and blasted across the public domain.
The million-dollar question that nobody seems to be asking is: where do we go from here? The current strategy of trying to close the barn door after the horse has bolted does not seem terribly effective for the digital age. As students of policy—as Generation Wiki—we’d do well to think of an answer, because those managing the current crisis do not appear to have a good one.