This article originally appeared on the website of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) and is republished here with Dr. Bainbridge’s permission.
Amidst the raging chaos in modern advanced nations, aggravated or rendered more visible by emerging technologies, an occasional individual person stands out, now notably Reality Winner. Her Wikipedia page begins: “Reality Leigh Winner (born December 1991) is an American intelligence specialist employed by Pluribus International Corporation. Winner was arrested on June 3, 2017, on suspicion of leaking an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections to the news website The Intercept. The report suggested that Russian hackers attacked a U.S. voting software supplier.” Despite considerable journalistic attention, we cannot be sure we know exactly what Reality did, what its legal implications really are, and how her fate may be decided. Yet today is not too early to consider the possible meaning of her remarkable story.
As soon as I learned about her arrest, I explored her Facebook page, and saw much that resonated with the humanistic values of future-oriented scholars and techno-visionaries, but soon that page vanished from public view. Intense exploration of a host of online commentaries and information sources raised a profound general question illuminated by her specific case: Can futurists gently guide existing social institutions toward progress, within the context of conventional norms, or have we reached a grim point in history at which we must risk building a replacement for the civilization that is collapsing around us?
Reality Winner’s Facebook page was not awash in political radicalism, but presented a thoughtful person who was intensely dedicated to perfection of herself. The five public Facebook groups to which she belonged were all real-world organizations promoting personal improvement in physical fitness. CrossFitters of Augusta and CF 10-10 Members Group were local chapters of CrossFit, a network of organizations promoting a physical exercise philosophy advocating high-intensity training. Another group was more specialized, GB Handstand Challenge, in which GB stands for Gymnastic Bodies. The fourth of her public groups was vegetarian: Vegan Recipes for Everyone. During the brief time it was still visible, I checked Reality Winner’s Facebook page for “vegan” and saw that she used “#veganlifters” as a hashtag for an Instagram message she had posted at 6:10 AM on May 22, 2017: “Those days when you remind yourself the sacrifices you made to be here, now, every day.” It struck me that her values seemed very similar to those of Transhumanism, seeking to attain human perfection, but through investment of personal effort and commitment to achieving difficult goals, rather than passively adopting some new technology. Indeed, these four groups were technological, but advocating techniques that required well-disciplined human action, rather than taking some hypothetical nanotechnology vitamin pill.
The fifth group was a martial arts movement, Krav Maga Maryland, dedicated to “a military self-defense system developed for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Israeli security forces (Shin Bet and Mossad).” Wikipedia summarized the public information currently available about Reality Winner’s military career: “Winner served in the United States Air Force from 2010 to 2016, achieving the rank of senior airman with the 94th Intelligence Squadron. She worked as a cryptologic linguist, and is fluent in Farsi, Dari and Pashto. Winner was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal.” Farsi is the Persian language of Iran; Dari is a dialect of Farsi spoken in Afghanistan, and Pashto is the language of a major Afghan ethnicity. Of course, we are not able to administer college advanced placement tests to Reality Winner, given her current incarceration, but she seems to invest the same energy and dedication into intellectual development, with respect to other cultures, as she does in physical fitness.
What about her humanity? Many news websites copied the picture Reality Winner had posted on her Facebook on May 29, showing her overlooking Mayan ruins. The day before, she had sent via Instagram another picture from the same archaeological site, with this comment: “Carved head at Lamanai, Belize, 100bc. This has been such a spiritual journey for me.” We may all find spiritual significance in ancient ruins, but news reports mentioned that her father had died just a few months earlier, and she posted this touching paragraph on her Facebook page: “There is nothing that can fix the hole in my heart that you left behind. I still don’t know who I am without you here or how to keep moving forward without the one person who believed unconditionally in everything I want to do in life. Old habits die hard, I still find myself making time to call you in the evenings or jotting down notes or stories to tell you next time we speak. Somehow, though, I feel like you are a little closer, here, among the pyramids you used to endlessly tell us about, and always hoped to see. It’s like I have a little piece of you here with me. I miss you, Dad. You would have loved to be here, though I’m sure you would have been bitching about the hot weather every minute.”
There is ample room to debate what punishment, if any, Reality Winner deserves for releasing classified US government information. Many other people are currently leaking secret government information, and we may note that prominent people like former CIA director David Petraeus do not seem to suffer much when they commit similar acts. There is some concern that Reality Winner will be given a harsh prison sentence, not because she deserves it, but to deter others from releasing damaging information, and to express the anger of the US President. Her family seeks help in defending her through a Facebook group, named Friends of Reality Winner, and an online fundraiser at www.gofundme.com/2d9rnm64 that has not yet reached its modest goal to hire a good lawyer.
A number of political action groups briefly used her case in their campaign against the US President, and the document she made public is directly relevant to concerns about the election outcome. However, it may be a mistake to blame one gang of politicians for our problems, investing false hopes in a competing gang who are not any better but employ different rhetoric and tactics. Politicizing Reality Winner’s situation may only increase the harm she may suffer. Following her family’s request to send her good wishes and contribute to her defense would seem to be the most immediately beneficial course, yet not satisfying our long-term ethical obligation.
Can current laws be changed to provide better protection for “whistleblowers” and others who provide information to journalists, scientists, and the general public that is needed for careful decision making? Perhaps the secrecy laws should be changed so that they are strict only during the period of a formally declared war, which has not been the case for the US since 1945. Whether from incompetence or corruption, both major US political parties fed false information to the public in escalation of the Vietnam War and the Second Iraq War. It is hard to know the extent to which current public debates are poisoned by the desperation felt within the dying old-fashioned news media, as the information technology revolution erodes their influence and profits. Yet there seems good reason to believe that the general public really should not trust the government that currently holds Reality Winner captive. We are all journalists now, in the era of Facebook, Instagram, and the IEET website, so Freedom of the Press should be defined much more broadly, now that printing presses are obsolete.
This brings us to the most difficult pair of questions: How can we design a better civilization? How could we bring that dream to reality? Perhaps the answers cannot be based upon a hope that somehow progress in science and technology will automatically achieve such goals. We may need to work exceedingly hard, as Reality Winner did in her self-improvement campaigns, transcending our human limitations through directed personal effort as much as through collective technical innovation. We will need to reinvent modem culture, which requires honestly experimenting with many alternatives, not merely marching in lockstep to a single drummer.
Information technologies are having uncertain impacts on human societies, and the case of Reality Winner raises a host of related ethical issues, while calling into question our ability to extrapolate from the past, and asking for new policies. Oh, those are the four principal questions raised by IEET!
Yes, Reality Winner is One of Us.
William Sims Bainbridge, Ph.D. is an IEET Senior fellow, and a prolific and influential sociologist of religion, science and popular culture. Dr. Bainbridge serves as co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF.