“The worst enemy/biggest rascal in the whole damn country is and remains: a snitch.” Handy mnemonic reminding Germans not to squeal on their neighbors, even when the stress of dense living conditions can get overwhelming. Left-leaning German students will repeat this to you as a meme joke that’s crept firmly into their consciousness, while they diligently study education, journalism or history, enjoy detective shows on television and meet up in meatspace for ferocious protracted information-sharing discussions in the interest of bettering democracy. Perhaps it’s now understood that snitching on your fellow citizens will murder Anne Frank but finding out what governments and other large actors are up to and talking about it might save lives.
Bruce Sterling: “What’s a historian but a fancy kind of snitch?” is a deeply unsettling offhand remark.
Australian radio’s charming Phillip Adams asked a Mossad expert a chiming question in a recent discussion of the information asymmetry enabled by drones and other surveillance: “Are you allowed to spill all the beans?” Mr. Adams was bean facetious.
Now that I’m olderly, I can think of more specific examples of situations in which professional information-sharers might *not* share the relevant useful context they know:
Schoolteachers: the topic of censorship in schools is ancient, but people will still surprise you. My grandfather used to show kids how to carefully mix up explosives within the safety rules of his high school chemistry class because he knew a certain book was available in the local library.
Historians: the majority would probably object strongly to showing people who make fake reference books how to make more convincing fake reference books. Though there could be tempting exceptions. Pacifist historians for example might not mind hearing that widely available gunsmithing research had been used to glut an overfunded, underinformed collectors’ market fetishizing blunderbusses like baseball cards (but pacifist historians would care very much if they heard the shoddy cast iron was shattering and injuring people). Historians are disturbed by the introduction of fake evidence, a crime against future generations that might someday be correctable, and absolutely infuriated by destruction of genuine evidence, a crime against future generations that can never be made right. It is so easy to accidentally destroy genuine evidence; it is casually shown over and over in archeology adventure films.
Introducing something that is beautiful, but not real, but not falsely presented as something other than it is (or encouraging destruction of genuine evidence!) almost seems okay. A gorgeous art book that riffs on designs and pictures from old reference books without being disguised as one could be a beautiful gift to the world. With proper source citation.
Journalists: probably must deal with the problem of when to withhold information most often, being confronted by these dilemmas accidentally because it goes with the job and on purpose, by interested parties familiar with the job. Journalism’s evolving ethics, rules and procedures are thus very valuable and interesting.
Priests: have the chance to learn a lot about contexts and reasons in local communities but might be highly susceptible to targeted “for the better good” arguments not to supply the most honest why’s and how’s, especially when the unusual levers within their particular religion are applied.
Scientists: probably have the clearest rules about information sharing, while handling some of the most useful information. Publish everything that seems reliably true according to defined test methods, unless the government swoops in. Archive non-seized published information and its underlying data so they can be found again, forever.
Librarians: seem to stand back and let people discover their own answers, though some jewels of librarianship can and will provide wonderful succinct context when asked. That can go the other way too—there were stories about history students in Germany returning to hometown libraries and discovering systematic long-term local obfuscation of local people’s colorful Nazi pasts. As the decades passed, the cover-ups necessarily got more and more complicated, the information in the town got more out of synch with the information widely known outside the town, and the aging perpetrators in the institutions were more likely to err and get caught.
Universities: one of the most fun and possibly most expensive hobbies you can pursue in the U.S.A. (A more expensive hobby might be something else + a university education, such as raising a child.) Professors and, these days, untenured adjunct instructors give highly efficient shortcut answers that tesseract you to the most useful synopses, unless they’re lying. Figure out how to study more than the inadequate standard four years and you might get an education. Figure out how to return to college from time to time and you might keep it.
After I studied history in a country that wasn’t either Cold War superpower, it seemed to me that one of many things the U.S.A. had in common with the Soviet Union but not with other countries was that the U.S. allowed propagandistic tendencies in important national history professors. This only became apparent after exposure to its absence. Once “allowed” it seems hard to eradicate—I noticed the U.S. tendency in the late 1990’s and it’s still going on in 2013. Presumably, sponsors’ and university administrators’ ethical barriers to installing such “chairs” must be deliberately reconstructed and haven’t been; also it’s hard to muster the data and arguments to effectively criticize a history professor. The latter was true of nearly all professors in Germany, professional experts who enjoyed a certain god-like status that was susceptible to abuse, but might especially pertain to history professors in the U.S.A.
Novelists: Fiction writers lie, wrote Margaret Atwood, and they use lying as a devious form of truth-telling. Along those lines, Terry Pratchett’s Y.A. books’ relatively direct overgeneralizations about people and institutions seem to have stood the test of time well, providing some rare explanations twenty years ago that appear not inaccurate today, two decades and half a world away.
Older relatives, like me now: will explain a lot, especially via wandering anecdotes, like this blog post; but they won’t tell you why and how if the reason is that someone in your family screwed up. When they’re feeling bad because they think they screwed up themselves, they often won’t talk about that either.
Government watchdogs, auditors, rapporteurs, monitors, inspectors general; departmental offices of internal affairs, ethics, professional responsibility: in addition to systemic inbuilt ways these inspectors may accidentally or deliberately fail to find and report, or be prevented by inspectees from finding and reporting, important cases of waste, fraud & abuse, how their reports are packaged for the press can also hide their key discoveries. The surrounding context we would like to know more about is so difficult to communicate that perhaps it’s no wonder we would like to know more about it. During the Reagan administration, it made little economic sense that the president’s stories about a “welfare queen”—which turned out to be a fairy tale—found more resonance than the real e.g. $500 hammers, nuts and toilet seats the Pentagon was caught buying at the same time. Which was the bigger economic threat? Yet one fairy tale was easier to remember than two overpriced hardware items.
Bureaucracies that don’t include functioning, safe systems for reporting and fixing in-house errors are what create a WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks and other disseminators and investigators of huge data troves: are flummoxed by too much data, where vast volumes can hide relevant answers, especially after misinformation was introduced. But software has now been developed and distributed that helps map these infinitely complex connections. Insignificance and the ephemeral nature of human memory will no longer shield nonhackers.
(Dare SHLIMM sta FIE nd im GONTS en LOND, doss ISST oont BLY bt dare den OONTS ee aunt.)