The Hidden: Cultural and Political Implications of Secrecy

Secrecy ... is one of the greatest accomplishments of humanity
Georg Simmel 1906

We have no clear ethical codes for secret-keeping. Why is discretion a virtue but taciturnity a flaw? Where are the boundaries between chatter and communication, between harmless gossip and disloyalty – or between treachery and whistleblowing? What is the difference between the historian rummaging in the archive, the investigative journalist tapping her sources, and the security service informer spying on his fellow citizens? Worse still: in an age where information itself is the competitive advantage, whether as commodity or as weapon, do the rules of engagement governing intelligence and secrecy change? Have they begun to converge across commercial, political, and military realms?

Blessed were the days when Samuel Johnson felt confident in proposing his three rules on secrecy:

 

Never to solicit the knowledge of a secret.

Not willingly, nor without many limitations to accept such confidence when it is offered.

When a secret is once admitted, to consider the trust as of a very high nature, important as society, and sacred as truth.

Samuel Johnson 1750

 

Such innocence may seem charming today, given the ways in which The Hidden is part of our lives. We fear that covert activities, unrestricted surveillance, and official secrecy spell the end of our democratic polity, though espionage thril-

lers and “Who-done-it?”s remain the most successful genres in literature and film. In private, we cherish the game of gossip in our own social contexts, though we try to raise our children not to be tattle-tales.

 

The very word 'secrecy' is repugnant in a free and open society

John F. Kennedy 1962

 

We dread invasions of privacy, but are happy to leave a giant digital footprint in return for targeted Amazon recommendations and a free gift on our next stop at the gas station. We mistrust our secretive bearded neighbor while smiling condescendingly at those who reveal themselves on Web 2.0. The Hidden is thus an ambivalent phenomenon - with concealment, revelation, and probing each posing a dilemma of its own. Are there secrets that are better left undisturbed? To whose need does the "need-to-know basis" refer? How are needs and rights to know related? And if there are secrets that are better kept from us, what could guarantee the benevolence of the secret-keepers?

 

The political and cultural importance of The Hidden can only be understood from several angles. One focus must be on the political uses and abuses of the arcane, with particular emphasis on government secrecy, the balance between security and freedom, as well as the right to privacy. Yet we also must consider the developmental psychology behind secret-keeping, social roles of secrets in group formation, and their appeal in popular culture. In short, the aim is to explore the secret both as a highly complex moral issue in private life and politics, and - to quote Georg Simmel - as a "general sociological form which remains neutral above the value functions of its contents".

 

The international conference The Hidden will open with a screening of Secrecy, a documentary film by Peter Galison and Robb Moss, which explores the fundamental threat to democracy posed by the exponential growth of systems of classified information.