Wikileaks Geeks Shriek After Document Peek

Given the Internet’s decentralized structure, it is virtually impossible to shut down this outlaw conduit and its public releases of secret government and corporate information.

 

The only sure way to stop Wikileaks is to close down the entire World Wide Web. Which means, as a practical matter, given the nature of the internet’s decentralized structure, that it is virtually impossible to shut down this outlaw conduit and its public internet releases of secret government and corporate information.


The truth will always make people very nervous when their power and their fortunes depend on deceit, duplicity, secrecy, and profiting by doing great harm to others.

Anonymous blogger

A woman at the breakfast spot I frequent was standing near the counter yesterday while I was eating a bacon biscuit, listening to the news commentator on the TV in front of me as he described some of the diplomatic communications from the Wikileaks latest information dump.

She rolled her eyes. “My nineteen year old son is obsessed with this thing. It’s all he talks about. He’s even got me reading stuff on the internet about it. He watches True TV and hates the government. I think all this stuff has got him screwed up. I just don’t get into all that stuff.”

I put my biscuit down, and tried to explain why this was such a big deal, but she kept staring at me. So I took a different tack. “Imagine if someone taped your personal telephone conversations for the last five years, and then put the tapes on the internet.”

Her eyes widened.

“You probably couldn’t work here anymore if that happened.”

She slowly swiveled her head from side to side, her eyes still wide.

 We have been standing around for decades, worried to death about nuclear annihilation, while a shadowy, retro evil dictator archetype from the Cold war era has stepped out of a James Bond movie to hold the world hostage with servers full of secret government and corporate data. Even more amazing than that is the Web 2.0 way he has acquired it all.

Strangers on the internet have given it all to him for free.  

My initial reaction to the latest Wikileaks saga could be characterized by the phrase “the truth shall set you free”, followed by the ubiquitous “information wants to be free”…

…except this particular Wikileaks information dump is the kind of thing that can tie a person in philosophical knots for days. There is a certain delicious satisfaction you get as an ordinary citizen from seeing the high and mighty being hoisted on the petards of their own words. But that feeling is tempered by the seeming lack of purpose behind this release of several hundred thousand secret U.S. government documents, especially when the effectiveness of the last information dump by Wikileaks in changing in our government’s stance towards Afghanistan is considered.   

In a lot of ways, Mr. Assage is playing the role many j-school graduates dreamed about back when they used to read about Woodward and Bernstein’s exploits, or the Pentagon Papers. But those dreams are still just dreams, because modern journalism is invested heavily in promoting and maintaining the status quo. This is where I get twisted up in knots again, knowing full well that today’s status quo serves the interests of too few at the expense of too many. Too much inside baseball has reduced American citizens to the equivalent of human widgets, nothing more than fodder for half assed political policies and incessant corporate downsizing efforts.   

The most disappointing thing about the Wikileaks information dumps of U.S. government secrets is the lack of a definitive storyline for such a voluminous number of documents, as if the act alone of liberating a large amount of heretofore undisclosed information was supposed to magically endow the masses with the kind of moral suasion that allowed the civil rights movement to effect systemic change. But the civil rights movement didn’t circumvent the law, because its participants were not flitting about the globe between interviews like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – its spokesmen had to abide by the existing laws of the land while they protested inequality. It’s while turning this comparison over in my mind that Mr. Assange’s outlaw persona loses a little bit more of its appeal to me for a minute.

In case a lot of folks don’t remember, the Afghanistan documents Wikileaks disclosed earlier this summer – you know, the ones you’ve already forgotten about - were a huge deal too when they hit the web. But most of the secrets that release revealed were mundane, and the secrets that mattered, while embarrassing, did not create their own narrative. They did not tell a story compelling enough to light a fire under public opinion the way the Pentagon Papers did during the Vietnam war. In the end, the few truly important secrets Wikileaks released about Afghanistan have been mostly ignored by the public and endured by the government, while the U.S. continues to send thousands of troops and billions of dollars to Afghanistan. 

That our government’s party line has no relationship to the absolute truth is no surprise to most people. As much as we say we’d like our politicians to act like Boy Scouts, I am convinced that we are much more interested in them getting things accomplished. There is something that every sales manager I’ve ever had has said. “Do what you have to do” is a phrase that perfectly encapsulates the mindset of every industrialized culture around the globe. Frankly, most of us are probably relieved that our diplomats are not Boy Scouts, and are willing to “do what they have to do” to get the job done.

I think the deeper issue that comes out of an episode like this, the one that touches too close to home for many of us, is the way this story brings us all face to face with the double, triple, and even quadruple lives that we all have to lead in order to maintain a civilized global society. We hate the way it makes us come face to face with a fact we all deal with everyday - that the artful lie is a much more useful tool than the flat out truth.

Why isn’t any of this going to be a big deal in the end? Because it never is. Because political journalists are the laziest scribes of the whole news reporter tribe. And because I can safely guarantee you most of the commentary will center around twenty or thirty tidbits of information that will be rehashed, regurgitated, and recycled for the next three weeks between various hard news articles and op-ed columns.

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Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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