The Seduction of the Secret

A smart observation from Spencer Ackerman:

It’s always fun to catch up with people about six months to a year after they go to work in the national-security apparatus. Some enter with visions of new worlds of secret information suddenly exposed to them, like the briefcase opening in Pulp Fiction. More often than not, it’s an endless stream of banality, reported in minute, picayune detail, telling you what you already knew from a halfway attentive scan of your RSS feed.

This is something I’ve talked about before, but in a world drowning with information it’s remarkably easy to get too caught up in the idea of finding out secrets. Just think of all the banal, publicly available factual information that’s relevant to foreign policy and that most of us can’t rattle off the top of our heads. What’s the age structure of the population of Egypt? Is the Christian population growing faster or slower than average? Because of differential birth rates or differential emigration rates? Does Okun’s law hold up there like in Canada, or has it broken down like in the United States? But if you tried to write an article about this in the popular press, nobody would care. A scoop about a “secret report” on Egypt would, by contrast, be a kind of news even if it didn’t amount to much more than embassy gossip or slightly informed speculation.