Category Archives: Democracy

Revisiting Lessons from a CIA Heretic

Events in Middle East have led me to reflect on the talk I gave in September of last year at the Business Innovation Factory. (You can read the prepared text here or see the video of my speech here)  I was noting how the world is changing and how that in turn requires a different sensemaking method. The key paragraphs:

If you think that the world is driven mostly by the secret deals and aspirations of powerful people—the Hitlers, the Communist Party of the Soviet Unon, Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, I’m desperately trying to think of a likely woman here—then you will conclude that you need some kind of capability to figure out what these people are doing, to ferret out their secrets. To protect our nation from some very nasty ideas these individuals cook up. And you may also want an organization that can impede their plans, cross your fingers.

But if you think that most of the forces the US will need to navigate are not specifically man-made, or at least not specifically made by one man or a small group of them–then you need a different kind of organization. If what matters is that the US understand the trends in the world, like globalization or the emergence of new economies such as India and China and Brazil (which clearly no one is like trying to keep a big secret) than spending a lot of time digging out secrets seems not as important, and what you really want is to have your hand on the pulse of the world, to be out there sensing and in many ways just being part of the whole big ride.

(A little later in the talk.)  

Making sense of the world is so hard and so important that it demands collaboration with as broad a network as possible. It was around this time that this thought entered my mind: The CIA will end up being the last secret organization in the world. And being the last of anything is never a good thing.

And so back to the question. I actually think the answer to it is very complicated. But I do believe that more of what will be important to US prosperity in the future will lie in the second dynamic and our success will depend on how well we understand these large shift changes underway and are able to engage them. Here’s where the imbalance of the Intelligence Community really can hurt us. To deal with the first circumstance it’s important to be a closed network. But to understand and prosper in the second dynamic it’s best to be an open network.  What we have here is a real innovator’s dilemma.

That’s why one of my passions now that I’ve retired from the Agency is to do what little I can to help Americans think about connecting, about working in open networks, about transparency. I believe as a successful multicultural society the US is poised to be innovative in this new world, and this time perhaps all out of proportion to our size. I love all social networks and in particular Twitter because of its power to spread ideas faster than the speed of light. Just think of it. One thought can reach a thousand people much faster than a single beam of light could physically touch those same individuals.

A Political Statement, of Sorts

This morning I wrote back to a friend who had asked me what I was up to these days. This particular friend, whom I haven’t seen in 20 years probably, is very interested in politics of the conservative spectrum and so I wrote a rather long paragraph that connected my interest in social media to my political views, such as they are. After rereading, I’m resposting here. Parentheticals represent text I added here but were not part of my original email response.

“…I have over the years developed a very small brand as a senior government executive who really believes in social media and the need to reconceptualize the concept of work. And let me tell you…I really believe in the transformative power of what these technologies achieve, which is effective connectivity between people, effective enough to let people self-organize to do important things together without the need for government or some other artificial authority. When I was in college 35 years ago it struck me that government was essentially “middleware” in human society–that conviction has never left me–so in that sense I am definitely not a liberal (at least not as it is understood today.) (The idea that government is something humans created to deal with transactions they could not otherwise handle themselves did actually invade my head at some point during my undergraduate years at Catholic University, where I majored in Comparative Government. I couldn’t at all imagine how humans could or what would allow us to thrive without government, but I developed the conviction that we would in fact evolve to this point. In the work context, managers fill that government role, and I similarly think social work, social business, networked work–pick the term you think least inadequate, will change the role of managers. Instead of controlling the work of individuals, they will transition to monitoring the health of the business network.)

(Although this view would seem to place me at the conservative end of the political spectrum), I am extremely turned off by the ethnoracist/xenophobic beliefs of some “conservatives”–not all. Some of the anti-intellectual bent is also a turn-off; I don’t care what they say, Ayn Rand was not the acme of intellectual achievement in the 20th century. I think perhaps I might vote for Carl Reiner, P.G. Wodehouse, or Preston Sturges! I am almost equally turned off by the elitist views of many liberals–not all. So I find myself not really represented by any political party, which would bother me more if it weren’t for the case that I think there are much more important things to spend energy on than partisan politics. My essential political/philosophical conviction is belief/faith/trust that human society still has a lot of upside potential–so in that respect I call myself progressive. I tire very quickly of individuals who have a kneejerk reaction against any new idea. My bias definitely is to be much more tolerant of individuals who are enthusiastic about the new.”

We the People

Four tweets I posted this morning in search of a blog:

“About 500 years after government as social institution achieved full operational mode, the socials themselves are having buyers regret.” It’s not easy to assign a date for when modern government began, but the 17th century, with its scientific revolution, the long reign of Louis XIV, and Europe’s expansion in earnest into the Western Hemisphere seems as likely a spot as any. During that century, you still had strong allegiance to the theological justification for government, divine right of kings and all that rot, but philsophers in the 18th century began to react by asserting some essential human rights.

“Governments, i.e. Functionaries, think themselves separate from and above people and groups. Au contraire Govt is below both, their creation.” It’s hard to resist thinking, if you’re a senior Government official, that you have somehow attained a higher level that the average Jane. (I know. I was one of dem for almost ten years!) And without you even realizing really, you begin to treat laws and regulations as if they are the primary source. WHICH IS LIKE REALLY WRONG!! Laws and regulations are secondary and tertiary sources: the primary source in democratic societies is the will of the people. My time in government taught me there really is no such thing as bureaucracy. Instead, what really happens is that we all become Bureaucrats. Bureaucrats worship false Gods.

Even in dictatorshps, government survives in large part on the consent of the governed. The people find it difficult to generate enough willpower and fortitude to overthrow it. (What we saw in Egypt was an inspiring example of what happens when the people do in fact get their Motivation going.) I don’t mean in any way to criticise individuals or blame the victims. I doubt I could be so courageous. But I’m simply repeating what my priest-professor once said in a Catholic University philosophy class: The only way you can be compelled to do anything is if someone physically picks you up and makes you do it. Otherwise everything is coercion, and the success of coercion always correlates to the strength of the will.

“Social networks, computing power allow individuals, groups 2 redress balance of power btw them & institutions of Govt. Trend will continue.” For much of human history, government, once established–even democratically, began to accrete to itself more and more power, in many cases, particularly with 20th-century authoritarian regimes, creating effective monopolies of power. Today, the balance of power is sliding rather
inelegantly but joyfully away from government and toward the Socials, the people and the groups they form. We are only seeing the start of a dynamic that will affect all institutions, even democratic ones and private businesses, that have allowed their actions to wander away from their popular mandates or customers.

“In a sense Govt laws and regulations are like the terms and agreements u receive when u install new software..cept u really can NOT ACCEPT.” As I wrote these tweets I was reminded of the Terms and Agreements you never can read–I mean really who would have the time and power of concentration?–but nevertheless must default accept to install new software. When we join a group we accept similar terms and agreements, except the ones written down are supplemented by unwritten ones you figure out yourself through trial and error, like playing a giant game of Myst. Demonstrations and popular uprisings are not unlike mass selections of the “I do not accept” and “I do not agree” options. To function better as societies, we need to make the “I do not accept”option much less traumatic–by the way, software developers need to do the same for this step to become meaningful again in software deployment. Government and business engagement in social activities and networks and their willingness to adjust in real time and meaningful ways to feedback are the only ways to ease the trauma of rejection.

You Feel the Earth Move Under Your Feet

You feel the sky come tumbling down.

EGYPT

Egypt is about much more than a popular uprising against a ruler who has stayed in power through what can only be described, charitably, as a corruption of the democratic process. Egypt is the most compelling example to date of how the physics of human society are being rewritten. In much the same way that Quantum Physics turned Classical Physics on its head, the twin revolutions of information and connectivity are turning society upside down or perhaps better put, every which way and loose. 

The fact that Egypt, the society political scientists always marveled at for its stability even in the face of daily, accumulating disasters, is the country that’s exploded has concussed even the most loyal adherents of the Status Quo. When the Tunisian regime fell you could discount it as the kind of thing that happens to small countries, even the Colored Revolutions of the former Soviet Union didn’t really capture the elite’s attention, because in these revolutions you often were replacing one elite-based power construct with another. (And this might still happen to Egypt, by the way.)

But Egypt seems different right now.

And everyone should be paying attention. Not just the political scientists, the national security experts in their dark suits reciting by rote the laws of classical society, the intelligence agencies. Everyone should be paying attention, particularly anyone supposedly in charge of an organization of any kind. Steve Denning today writes a blistering post on what the dynamics behind Egypt mean for American business leaders. There’s very little I can add but these two points:

  • The history of the world has been dominated by the machinations of men, and they’ve usually been men, making secret deals in backrooms. Transparency and Collaboration are destroying the backrooms of all institutions. Open, dynamic forces that carry with them their own advantages and disadvantages will take their place. Start adjusting now.
  • All institutions of any age are disconnected from this powerful dynamic. Their survival depends entirely on how quickly they adjust to it. Time grows short.

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.

Do We Have to Choose between Transparency and Real Authority?

A friend sent me this email in response to my last blog post. He has agreed to let me post his thoughtful reply on my blog:

I enjoyed your recent blog post “Five Scary Thoughts for Halloween“.

I wanted to push back on your first scary idea (actually listed as number five) about making your ideas public.   The story you used involved a man who doesn’t even own a computer and his inability to comprehend why someone would want to share their ideas.

My question to you is who is more out of touch?  Him or you? How powerful was this man?  How much authority does he wield?  If refusing to share broadly is such a disability in today’s networked world, why do so few people who have power and authority actively engage in the conversation?  Could it be because they have real power and authority?

I may be reading more into your scary idea than you intended as you only speak about the complexities of the challenges we face.  However, your statement exudes the air of someone who feels all but certain their view is right when all of the evidence around us suggests that traditional power comes through quiet networking amongst a select group of individuals of roughly equal stature.   Even powerhouses who participate broadly in today’s global conversation make their deals in private meetings, not in public.   The real decision over who will partner with whom to accomplish something remains opaque until well after the deal is sealed.

I do believe we are on the fault line of two tectonic plates colliding (opacity and transparency) and that, at least at the moment, transparency is putting up a good fight.   If history is any guide, the opacity plate has tremendous resistance to movement and often lurches back in earthquake-like convulsions.   I think the lack of trust of large organizations today is interlinked with this idea.  Large organizations are always complex jumbles of partially formed deals, challenges, and new ideas.  Organizations have to lie to anyone outside their walls to protect those ideas (intellectual property, legal issues, pre-decisional material, etc) as well as their very existence and thus there is real schizophrenia in their actions.  When confronted with one of these falsehoods they rationalize their actions by saying “we weren’t at liberty to divulge that information at the time” or “that was proprietary information” or “it would be improper to talk about the deal before it is finalized” or “it was classified”.  To those outside though each episode is another withdrawal from the trust bank account.   Yet, the folks in charge of these organizations wield tremendous power and can, for the most part, weather these storms because the entire apparatus around them is designed to protect them and keep itself going.   They have tremendous capital.  They have tremendous legal authority.  They have tremendous ability to legislate, investigate, shape, pressure, buyout, and influence.

In your recent speech you described two possible models for the “motor” that runs the world and then proceeded to categorize people by which motor they believe is the true driver of world events.  This duality, IMHO, misses nuance and complexity.  For instance, a third model, can be some weird hybrid in which the benefits of large high-mass organizations as described above sustain opacity and give those who run them very real advantages even if they aren’t consciously and intentionally undertaking “secret agreements and machinations” but rather just trying to advance and protect their organization. That same size and complexity creates vulnerabilities and blind spots to the organic and unpredictable nature of the world in which they reside.  Historically, the benefits of the large organization have outweighed the disadvantages.  The question in my mind is whether that equation is changing.

As a complex planet with complex problems will we always need these large complex organizations from Exxon to the USG to Salvation Army to manage the globe’s complexity?   If the answer is yes, then I believe it is likely the primary centers of power will almost certainly continue to reside with folks who do not broadly share their views and ideas  in a global conversation because the organizations around them will demand they remain silent for a whole host of reasons and because to succeed in those organizations requires cunning and bureaucratic savvy that is the antitheses of a dynamic dialog.   When transparency gets too close to unraveling these centers of power, they use their heft to put things back in the bottle.  As one example, a researcher used publicly available information to show all of the infrastructure that was below Manhattan only to have the “system” react by classifying the report and having it removed from the web. When RIM provides security that is too good, India demands a back door, as does the US, as does Saudi Arabia, and countless others.   Products quietly are discontinued.  Tools quietly disappear.  Information quietly disappears from Google.  Capabilities are hobbled.   The examples are too numerous to count.

If the answer is no, large organizations are not required (maybe not even healthy) for the planet to effectively deal with the complexity of the challenges we face as a global community and a global society, what does that transition look like?

Five Scary Thoughts for Halloween

Waiting for my first trick or treater gets me to thinking about some of the ideas floating around our society that I think are really, really scary. Here are my Top Five:

5. Why do you want to make your ideas public? Said just last night by a kind man who admitted he never had visited a blog (which is pretty easy for him to not do as he does not own a computer.) Now this individual is also quite educated and reasonable, but I could tell as I described blogging and tweeting to him that he could not comprehend why people would see any benefit in sharing ideas as broadly and as often as possible. Given the difficulty and complexity of the problems facing our species right now, I see no alternative but to be part of the Great Insight Stream, from each according to his abilities, to each according to her needs. (said tongue in cheek.)

4. A great leader makes decisions quickly and never compromises. Oy!! Who came up with such a ridiculous notion? Maybe somewhere there is still an organization that can afford leadership by gut instinct and ideology (more on that later), but I’m not hearing too many success stories these days along those lines. Even an NFL quarterback needs to read the defense, work through his progressions, and make the right decision, which is often a compromise from his first choice.

3. I have the right to be invisible . OK, I admit you probably haven’t heard anyone say this directly, but if you listen carefully this is exactly the argument some people are making when they claim the right to privacy. If you think about it, most if not all of our actions have always been visible, but only to that limited number of people who could “see” what we were doing at any given time or place. If any of us did something criminal, the authorities would then go look for those witnesses who could testify to what they had seen. For the most part, today’s technologies don’t make activities more visible but they do reliably make a record of ALL visible activities; the digital record acts as the new witness. I myself am not sure where to draw the line here; some type of consensus will emerge. But I think we need to be clear that the right to privacy does not mean the right to be invisible.

2. If you’re a progressive, you believe in big government. Aaargh!! I consider myself a progressive because I believe humans have a lot of upside potential and as we collaborate and share more knowledge we will find better ways of doing just about everything. This does not mean, however, that I believe government has to do most of the heavy lifting. In fact, I fully expect Government to be one of the things we will find a better way of doing.

1. The US will become stronger if it returns to the past. It pains me that this even needs to be argued, but there you have it. Its funny how organizations in trouble and societies that become less confident revert to the same argument: we need to return to the principles of our glory days and just execute them better. Please, someone, show me one example where this strategy has actually worked. Deterioration in our competitive postures doesn’t occur because we’ve abandoned our principles; it happens mostly because the environment around us is changing. Ideologically-based attachment to old ideas is the greatest sin of politics.

What the Tea Party and Evolutionary Theory have in Common

The other day I read two interesting articles in the 14 October NY Review of Books. One was a review by H. Allen Orr of The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness; the other was a review of Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice by Samuel Freeman. (Unfortunately both pieces are behind the pay wall but the links get you  to the first few paragraphs of each.) The Price of Altruism explores the fascinating but tragic life of George Price who at one point set out to explain how creatures could exhibit altruism even when such behavior defied that predicted by the theory of evolution, specifically natural selection. As the reviewer notes, Darwin himself understood that altruistic behavior was not well-explained by the dynamic of natural selection. “How could natural selection promote or even allow behavior that is costly to the individual that performs it but that benefits someone else?”  George Price developed mathematical equations in the last century that essentially could be said to prove that natural selection WITHIN a group favors selfishness but that natural selection AMONG groups would favor altruistic behavior. “Groups including many cooperative individuals will do better, as a group, than those including many uncooperative individuals.”

So, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with the Tea Party. For that we have to turn to the book The Idea of Justice. (unlike the first book, I’ve actually been reading The Idea of Justice and am about halfway through.) In the book Amartya Sen explains how a just society and a fair society are not really the same thing. As he uses the word, a just society would be one that maximizes the overall potential of the people in that society, even though this maximization might result in certain individuals not being able to make the best use of their personal capabilities. (Think here of governments that impose progressive tax policies.) A society that was fair to individuals, i.e. allowed each individual unfettered ability to reap the gains of his or her capabilities, would, on the other hand, almost certainly not be just. (I’m paraphrasing Sen’s much more complicated argument.) It is also interesting to contemplate which of the two societies would be optimal based on some impartial standard, if such existed. Would the fair or just society come closer to approaching the ideal?

So this got me to thinking about the Tea Party. The Tea Party Movement’s emphasis on minimal government interference with individual lives and choices (except of course for homosexuals and women) is in essence an expression of pure Natural Selection as a Governance Philosophy. The philosophy of the Tea Party Movement supports a fair society above a just one. Which strikes me as somewhat odd, given that the majority of Tea Party supporters, judging by their candidates, oppose the unchallenged teaching of evolution. My guess is that the average member of the Tea Party movement would either assert that the “natural selection” society would be the best possible or just not be interested at all in the concept of a best society–just some nutty, socialist thinking that.

It’s an interesting question to ponder, or at least I find it interesting. What should we strive for? Our maximum individual fulfillment or the maximum betterment of our group, by which I mean humanity. One would hope the two are not often in conflict, but I know that is not the case. Isn’t this in fact the fundamental question in political life?

So why is it that it’s never discussed?

On Another Subject: What is the Difference Between Government and Community?

One of the things I like best about my public identity is that advertisers and spammers are in disagreement as to my gender, my age, whether or not I know how to speak English, and, most interesting, my political affiliation. I get bombarded with emails from every possible political angle. Today I received one from a very conservative group who is worried that schools will soon start forcing boys to wear dresses and that an army of 80k troops is lurking to put down civil unrest. Normally I would pay little attention to such an email, in the same way I wouldn’t pay attention to one from the opposite end of the spectrum. But the tag line on the email grabbed my attention:

The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.

Well, I agree with that I thought. Everything I know about history and human nature tells me that governments which purport to take care of a long list of needs for individuals somehow mess up the essential motivational structure of the human being.  And accounts from many totalitarian states agree that the dignity of the human and her independence suffer horrifically under these regimes. Among the eeriest things I ever watch are the documentaries about the so-called life of ordinary citizens in North Korea.

But I do have one caveat about the phrase. And I present it in the form of a question: What is the difference between government and community? Because if you replaced the word government in that phrase with the word community it stops making sense.

The bigger the community, the smaller the citizen.

That doesn’t sound right. Being a member of a thriving community enriches the life of an individual. That’s why urban areas worldwide are the essential centers of innovation and economic activity. That’s why individuals find mega-churches enriching, both socially and spiritually. And that’s why, in all but the rarest of cases, hermits seem like very diminished persons indeed.

My memory of civics class tells me government is, at its best, an expression of the community. This tendency to see government as some type of monstrous entity independent of the individuals it serves is very disturbing. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t like very much the survey of political attitudes on Nolanchart.com that’s been bouncing around Facebook the last couple of weeks. Government is presented as some kind of monolithic THING that acts independently of the wishes of any citizens. The agenda of the government is somehow seen as completely independent of the agenda of the citizens. This is an unhealthy view. In a democracy, the agenda of any elected government will of course not be to the liking of some citizens (perhaps even 50% minus 1) but regardless of which side we’re on, we cannot view the expression of another reasonable view as illegitimate.

One last point rant. This depiction of government as an independent, weight-throwing monolith also carries with it the view of bureaucrats as evil, aspiring tyrants. Here’s my problem with that. For the life of me, I don’t understand how we bureaucrats can be both lazy and stupid AND evil and dominating, but I’ll leave that to cleverer people to explain.