Monthly Archives: December 2010

Thoughts for the New Year

Does my right to privacy extend to the right to be invisible?

Are humans basically good or bad?

Why do we try to control others?

Why do we tolerate such a sub-optimum nation-state system?

Is the material world the only reality?

Something big is going on right now in how we humans organize our societies and our lives. Most people don’t deny that now even though I still encounter folks who ask me whether all this social media is just a fad. I’m full of optimism about how humans will continue to learn and thus improve our lot. These steps forward are not for anyone to prescribe; they will emerge from our interactions and our improving ability to record and share our experiences.

Still there are some habits of thought, propositions that are too often accepted as true in public discourse, that stand in the way of that forward momentum. In my view, they’re increasingly not true but I must admit also tremendously stubborn in their influence. These 5 mental frameworks, most of which have been with us for a very long time, for the most part create friction and inefficiencies in human society. I’m betting that in the years to come they will all be recalibrated as we work to achieve a fuller human potential.

Does my right to privacy extend to invisibility? OK, I admit this is a relatively new difficult question. It’s been with us for most of the post WWII period but sharpened acutely in the last five years. But here is the distinction I want to make. Much of what we think of as privacy issues in this social media/Facebook/Twitter/Google Latitude/pervasive video cameras-engineered world aren’t really privacy issues at all. They are visibility issues. When I go to the store to buy milk, I’m not trying to keep that transaction “private.” It of course would be impossible to do so. What’s really different is that by checking in on Four Square or using my loyalty card or simply carrying my smart phone (really consumers lost this battle a long time ago!!) I am making the transaction more visible (and more important recordable and thus analyzable). There are legitimate privacy concerns out there: I don’t want everyone to know my bank balance or my SSN but it’s important to distinguish that much of what we are fretting about is a new kind of visibility, not an invasion of privacy. If something bad happened on the way to the grocery store–if I backed into a car leaving the parking lot and fled the scene–the police would immediately look for people who “saw what happened.” I would not be able to claim a right to privacy because none exists. Why is any of this relevant? A society that understands more of what is happening will be a smarter society and should make better decisions. I would be smarter about myself if I understood the patterns of my own life better. And a society with improved understanding should be able to self-organize more effectively. Again, it’s not my intent to argue for the right trade-off between visibility and invisibility. We will work this out over time with the usual fits and starts. I just believe we’re confusing two important terms–privacy and visibility.

Are humans basically good or bad? I’m in the basically good camp, always have been, although I would phrase it a little differently. I think humans are usually well-intentioned but feckless. I think bad behavior follows bad decisions and bad outcomes, not the other way around. Most people don’t set out to do the “wrong” thing; they think they are choosing the best option, although admittedly there is plenty of delusional thinking out there, and frankly absence of thinking, not to mention hyperactive lizard brain. (Absence of knowledge and lack of understanding of other perspectives also contribute to the bad decisions that lead to bad behavior.) But when the decision begins to go bad and they are scrambling to recover, that’s when I think humans most often fall into the bad behavior trap. They run with their survival instincts, which evolution tells us are largely selfish. So to return to the visibility issue, if you think humans are basically bad then no wonder you worry about what people will do with all that information about you. My friends who ask me if social media are a fad also like to ask me if I’m not worried about all the information that is out there about me. Well as an optimist about human nature I’m not worried. And even if I were to worry, I trust that the general lack of feck will waylay most plans to do bad by me.

My first point here is that I really hope we humans can get beyond this debate about our basic natures sometime soon. I am biased here as to what I think the right answer is. The belief that humans are basically bad, in my view, is the driver behind many institutions/processes that over-control and micromanage. But I also recognize that we will only bury the humans-are-basically-bad meme through a long record of actions, fueled by truly millions of personal conversion experiences. My second point: if you are an advocate of self-organizing communities, you are essentially assuming people are basically well-intentioned and that more, shared information will allow them to make better decisions. So it’s best not to mock people who don’t get it; I know I’m guilty of that myself sometimes.

Why do we try to control others? The belief that you know the right way and your job is to force others to accept that truth is the single most destructive quality in humans, in my view. It must also have some significant evolutionary benefit for it to persist. If you’re asking: well, isn’t your writing of this blog an indication you too want a slice of that control, then I have to admit you have a point. I think enough of my views to try to express them carefully, although luckily I can’t force anyone to read my blog. Indeed, this is why this particular drive is so seductive and so strong in so many individuals, even those that start off with the best–that word again–intentions. I believe our human potential will be best expressed when we minimize our control instinct, but I’m not sanguine this will happen quickly. But it will happen. Governments and organizations built on the desire and need to control others will eventually contract as individuals learn–and have the capabilities–to manage most of the transactions themselves.

Why do we tolerate such a sub-optimum nation-state system? Why indeed? You know, I worked for 32 years in one of the great creations of the modern nation-state, the Intelligence Agency, so you would think I’d know better than to ask such a question. After all, I must be a realist, right? But nevertheless I’m puzzled more people don’t question why we tolerate such a nutty arrangement. The nation-state system, and here I’m speaking specifically about how countries relate to each other, runs on a set of rules–spoken and unspoken–that have been largely discredited in and abandoned by other systems. The nation-state system still assumes the inevitability of conflict, the need to expect the worst from others, the need to hide things from and trick others, the wisdom of short-term, grab-it-while-you-can thinking, etc. etc.  (There was recently a good article in Financial Times by Parag Khanna describing how the world system might evolve differently.)

The reason I phrased the question the way I did is because I think the answer is in the question. The nation-state system exists as is because we tolerate it. In fact, we more than tolerate, we accept it and some–neocons and marxists, for example?–revel in it. We are complicit. What will be interesting to see is the reaction of nation-states as individuals and communities begin to distance themselves from their status quo. You see the beginnings of this today as individuals, many of them completely delinked from their nation-state identities, interact with each other seamlessly across Twitter and other social media. If you dismiss such thinking as utopian or pollyanish, fact is humans have already broken at least twice in our history with very powerful governing systems–Royalty and Churches. But both aristocracy and the church heirarchy went down swinging and I’m betting the governing class will find it hard to accept its displacement. Stay tuned, more coming.

Is the material world the only reality? Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. If you don’t already think I’m nutty, this will convince you. But as I read about theoretical physicists struggling to understand the universe or universes, I can only surmise that our own existences are more complex than just the physical entities we know. Understanding what that exactly means is a purpose for human existence. We exist in large part to understand. And we understand better together.


What To Say about Wikileaks

Now that Clay Shirkey has posted the following on Wikileaks, there’s very little left for me to say. Shirky expresses I hope the discomfort of many when they read of otherwise wise individuals embracing the idea of extralegal action against Wikileaks (including thinly veiled threats of violence.) Are people nuts?

So I’ll restrict my comments to some thoughts about how the Wikileaks/open internet controversy appears to me to be part of the next big battle in the millenia-long war over the proper relationship between government and society.  When I was a kid in college, some 35 years ago, I came to hope that government is in essence a temporary construct, a necessary evil. Humans need to cooperate on a whole host of transactions to make living with each other more pleasant, particularly as we clumped into larger and larger groups, and for millenia we’ve decided to hand over day-to day responsibility for this management function to something we call government. Actually we didn’t quite always hand it over; in the beginning some people or institutions such as warriors, priests, or religions actually just kind of grabbed the power and the populations essentially acquiesced. But even before the ancient Greeks, some communities were trying to figure out ways to handle these transactions and resolve differences in ways that didn’t require the creation of a permanent governing class, which unfortunately throughout history has tended to acquire a PERSONALITY OF ITS OWN, and, darn it, not always a very pleasant one.

So for all my adult life, I’ve been kind of a practical libertarian in the sense I always thought government was a lamentable but unavoidable fact of the human condition. (Along with this conviction, is the related view that the worst characteristic of humans is the desire to control others–the conviction that “I know the best way forward and you’re going to follow me or else.” (I’m afraid, based on admittedly incomplete knowledge, that Julian Assange suffers this all-too-common affliction) That’s why I tweeted the other day that the people I most admire in history have been those with radical goals who adopted moderate tactics. It’s always seemed to me that your pursuit of change always has to leave open the possibility you might be wrong and/or that better ideas exist. Going a little bit more slowly than your ardent followers would want is one way of accommodating that possibility.)

But back to imagining a good world with minimal Government. In the last ten years or so,  the internet revolution, the ability to link millions across the globe in essentially peaceful dialogue (Twitter) got me to hoping  we might eventually think our way through to a self-organizing planet. Woohoo!! Now there are lots of problems, not the least of which is the “I’m right, you’re wrong”, the “I’m better, you’re not”, and the “We’re together, you’re the ‘other'” pathologies that plague the planet. I know, I know, but, gosh, a Puerto Rican can hope.

This revolution underway is not, of course, the first global revolution against previous concepts of government. The Age of Enlightenment marked by the American and French Revolutions, essentially discredited the “divine right of kings” concept of government.  And the collapse of the remaining aristocracies at the beginning of the last century brought down the idea that only a particular, genetically-defined group of people could serve as the governing class. (I know this is a distorted thumbnail view of history, I’m leaving out all the really thrilling economic bits, for example, not to mention the cultural dimension, but I’m already at 580 words…)

And so the Wikileaks controversy is unfortunately part of the next battle in this effort to define the relationship between government and society. What’s at stake in this battle is the idea that governments require secrecy and control of information to protect its citizens and that there are a lot of things that citizens just don’t need to know. Many people are arguing against this concept, including many politicians who are winning elections based on the call for more open and transparent government. Many existing governments  in power, in fact, are demanding that other governments be more open.

Now, unfortunately, I don’t think Wikileaks is a particularly good ally to have in this battle, because it is taking an absolutist position–nothing needs to be secret –and because it is increasingly clear it’s agenda is not really about open government and transparency. Before its most recent leaks, most advocates of open government probably viewed Wikileaks much in the same way Winston Churchill viewed Josef Stalin during World War II; now advocates of open government and transparency need to be clear as to whether they want Wikileaks to represent their goals and vision. I don’t.

But that doesn’t mean I completely support how governments are reacting. One of the lessons I’ve learned in life is that when something unfortunate happens, it is difficult to contain the damage; lots of other suboptimal consequences follow. Eventually we will navigate  through this period and come to a better understanding and an agreement between government and the governed as to what is appropriate transparency. I suspect this transparency will be much greater than most members of the governing class can imagine today. And it will be a necessary precondition for much greater social self-organization and much smaller and less secret government.