Wikileaks and the rise of the bland

A short piece first published on the Prospect blog, looking at the link between Wikileaks and the world’s rising tide of banality.

Press deadline is upon us in the Prospect office, meaning I’ve been awash in news, emails, press releases and items that may or may not make it into the next issue. The news has been overwhelmingly, fascinatingly full of the twin WikiLeaks and Assange sagas; the rest trivial by comparison; and yet I’ve been sensing an odd connection between the great political debate of the moment and my own daily wade through digital puff.

While bloggers and writers revel in the unprecedented freedoms of expression the web allows, for almost anybody working for any kind of institution, a crushing constriction applies. Anything that they mail, write, or say in front of witnesses might just end up echoing around the world—to be interrogated, or quoted out of context, or mocked, or praised, or misunderstood, or quite possibly all of these. This is one of the glories of our age. Yet it also creates a powerful pressure towards a particular form of dishonesty: blandishment.

It’s an older phenomenon than the media itself, of course. But the pressure towards cliché (and worse) has never been as intense or ubiquitous as it is today. Publicists wouldn’t be doing their jobs if any unvarnished honesty crept through the scripts. MPs find themselves roasted over slow fires for letting their guard down even in supposedly off-the-record briefings. Both public and private institutions have not a word to say to the world that hasn’t passed first through the mills of communications expertise. The media has—kind of—an interest in truth; but you can’t quote what has never been said or written. You have to play the game if you want people to talk to you. And the exponential weight of evasive, self-serving verbiage that threatens to overwhelm almost every inbox and browsing experience has its own dampening effect.

In fact, for those seeking power, or profit, or just profile, it’s only what you don’t say that will never be able to hurt you. Among other things, the WikiLeaks revelations suggest that an awful lot is going to go unsaid and unwritten in an increasingly information-savvy future. And the connection between what doesn’t get said and what doesn’t get thought about is a concern with a rich political history.