Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sapere aude vs. TMI: How Much Should We Dare to Know?

Sapere aude! What Kant proposed as the motto of the Enlgihtenment--"Dare to know!"--takes on a somewhat ironic meaning in the age of the Internet. Against Sapere aude! we now have what some consider TMI, "too much information," to borrow the ubiquitous acronym. Roman Pigenel argues in a thoughtrful post that there should be a via media between two extremes. Technological change, he argues, has lowered the barrier on publication to such a degree that we must now worry whether what can be known should be known.

The question is a good one, but we are likely to end in a hopeless muddle if we try to reason, as Roman does--understandably, since this is what bloggers are in a sense obliged to do--in terms of the flow of recent events, from Wikileaks to the contours of Cong. Weiner's crotch. I don't have a ready answer to the important question that Roman raises, but I don't think that "regulation" offers much hope, precisely because the technological changes that he cites make it so easy to circumvent any imaginable regulation. That said, the heart of the issue seems to me a problem of mores rather than technology.

What is at stake can be exemplfied, perhaps, by a comparison of Daniel Ellsberg and Julian Assange. The former, having worked within the world of government secrecy, had to wrestle with his conscience about the potential consequences of violating its norms. He was also intimately familiar with the content of the information he leaked. Whereas Assange, with his inflated sense of righteousness, seems to have been convinced that he could do no wrong. Ellsberg could rise to level of tragic hero--a man of honor who felt compelled to violate an oath of secrecy--because he lived in a world in which the concept of patriotic duty still had meaning. Assange wants to move us toward a world in which the only value is "transparency." But a transparent world is one in which the very concept of "knowledge" is debased. Knowledge in such a world is reduced to immediacy of perception; there is no room for reflection or judgment. To be "known" is simply to be perceived, and to be perceived is simply to be "tweeted," to join the endless flow of tattle, rumor, and innuendo. It's a depressing prospect, in which Enlightenment is reduced to the shining of klieg lights into the most secret recesses of existence.

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