“Life Is Great in the Age of No Secrets”
WIRED, June 12, 2022
By Paul Ford
“It was fun looking at the world as a huge conspiracy theory, but then I realized: There’s no such thing as hidden knowledge.”
it used to be that if you were a technophile you were also very possibly, to some degree, a conspiracist. The two were adjacent; some of the foundational texts of nerddom are basically conspiracies repackaged as fiction or parody—The Illuminatus! Trilogy, The Book of the SubGenius. When the internet showed up, it became the place to go for the good stuff. It could teach you about the cabals that run the world, or about how ghosts are just time travelers. I took to it like a duck to tainted water, armed with the names of FTP sites written in a notebook. It was just the stuff for a powerless adolescent looking for order. The alternative—that I was a normal person instead of a suppressed genius—was unthinkable.
As the internet grew, becoming less about conspiracy and oddity and more about commerce, I did too. I put childish things away, began to take a daily paper (well, homepage), and in general came to believe that the world was run not by forces intent on evil chaos but instead by a network of goofballs acting out of a variety of motives, mostly greed. Malevolent? Sometimes a little. Satanic? Nah.
Still, a drop of conspiracist ink tinted my perception. I assumed that the people who ran the world—Bill Gates, say, or Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk—just had more knowledge of its secrets. They have access to more information, I’d think. They know what the companies they run and invest in are working on, they can see reports, they can buy raw data and hire teams of consultants to synthesize it into recommendations. But it turns out that the books they read tend to be the same books everyone else reads. And their hobbies are normal rich-people hobbies. In the launch video for Windows 95, Jay Leno drives a car that looks like a computer mouse. Powerful people have a lot of data, but it is hard to guess what hidden knowledge they might possess.
In fact, it feels to me as if a large portion of humanity has entered the age of no secrets. Regular people do “open source intelligence,” trawling YouTube footage of war zones, triangulating with Google Maps, comparing notes on Reddit to define exactly what happened. If you’re meeting someone for coffee and you search for their name, you’ll slip right into their LinkedIn or their property records, and you’ll have to remember not to bring up the price of their house when you sit down. I used to download big Freedom of Information Act PDFs and poke around inside leaked databases, but who can keep up with the pace of releases now? Whole hard drives’ worth of data, so much data that we brand it: the Paradise Papers (1.4 terabytes), the Panama Papers (2.6 TB), the Pandora Papers (2.9 TB). And recently—did anyone notice aside from Wikipedia?—Suisse Secrets (affecting tens of thousands of banking clients). When the US government disclosed information about UFO sightings on military radar, people tweeted a little and moved on.
About the Author:
Paul Ford is a writer, programmer, and software entrepreneur. He lives in Brooklyn.
Note: “It’s getting easier and easier to put data out there, to help people better understand the world. And that gives me hope for the future. ” is in the print version of this article in the July/Aug, 2022 issue of Wired.