Does anybody remember the “White Bikes”?

Those were the rebuilt used bikes put around Portland by well-meaning but naive activists for members of the community to use.

The idea was that anyone who wanted to could take a ride, and leave the bike for someone else to use.

I love bikes, but I had my doubts when I first heard about the idea, and my skepticism turned out to be well-deserved when all the White Bikes disappeared within a few months.

This is an idea that hasn’t worked anywhere, even places that you would think would put a higher value on shared resources than we do in our ownership society.

There is something about an unlocked bike that doesn’t really belong to anyone that makes even a socialistic European want to throw it off a bridge.

There’s something about the WikiLeaks controversy that reminds me of the White Bikes.

Technology has the ability to change the way we live. We can communicate in ways that we never dreamed of before. Teams can work on a project together without ever stepping in the same time zone.

Every beach bag or airline carry-on can hold a handheld device loaded with what would have been enough to fill a decent-sized community library just a couple of years ago.

But some things don’t change.

We know from the world of online dating that most people, if given the opportunity, will lie about their weight.

We know from social media that teenagers will find ways to be mean to each other.

And we know that in an era where our appetite for information is inexhaustible, someone will find a way to give us more than we want.

The logical extension of the notion that anyone can know anything is that everyone should know everything, which is what turned the open-source reference site Wikipedia into the inspiration for the massive secret document dump by WikiLeaks.

I don’t pretend to have read the 250,000 leaked documents that show how U.S. foreign policy operates in the information age, but I have read a fair number of newspaper stories that use them as sources and found them strangely old-fashioned.

These communications are still called “cables” — a reminder that they are the kind of thing that used to be tapped out in Morse code. And they are summaries of face-to-face conversations between foreign service officers and information sources around the world, the kind of thing you might read about in a history book.

But everyone in a history book is either dead or safely retired, and hashing over their diplomatic cables is not only instructive but also harmless.

Probably not so with the WikiLeaks. It won’t help the president of Yemen for his people to find out that he gave America permission to attack suspected terror cells (made up of Yemeni civilians) as long as everyone said it was Yemen’s army that conducted the mission.

And it will make things awkward for Roman Catholic bishops around the globe to read that their private conversations with local political leaders are reported to the Vatican and passed on to the United States.

There has been a lot of anguish about these disclosures and the notion that the U.S. government cannot seem to keep a secret. Members of Congress (who apparently don’t have enough to do) are demanding hearings to see if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the news organizations that published this information should be investigated for violating the Espionage Act. There was even a call by Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, to broaden the act if it’s found that Assange and The New York Times didn’t violate it.

Someone may have done something illegal, but it’s not the publishers, based on what we know now.

Reporters who mined stories from information available to anyone with a computer were just doing their jobs, and America’s diplomats will still be able to do theirs.

The publications that got first crack at the information took due care to make sure they were not putting the lives of intelligence agents or assets at risk.

Assange’s use of technology makes what he has done look like something new. But when you take the technological veneer away, how different is what he’s doing from what the Founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment? In a country where the people are in charge, there are times when they need to know the whole truth, and as irritating as Assange is, it would be dangerous to change our laws just to stop him.

Some people will want to spoil a secret the same way they want to throw a community bicycle into the river. It’s a temptation that is directly linked to the opportunity.

But even in an information age, there are good reasons that not every conversation should be aired. You don’t have to change the laws to prevent it, any more than you have to specifically outlaw vandalizing community bikes.

As long as bikes have owners and owners buy locks, theft will go down.

Even in this age of open information, it’s up to the people with the secrets to do a better job of keeping them.

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at:

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