Tag Archives: Internet

Being Open to the Serendipity of Sharing

A good friend (almost 40 years younger than I am) asked me last week what I thought of the message in this vide0.

I wrote my friend back yesterday and what I’ve posted below is my response unedited.

“So as someone who has essentially lived by herself her entire adult life–I have absolutely no problem with being alone. At the same time there is nothing I value more than having good conversations with people I know well–and also with new people who bring some interesting new dimension to the way I think.

I have personally found social networks very enriching because I learn so much more about people, both the ones i know in real life–though truth be told most of them hardly use social networks–and the ones I have met NIRL. I don’t think I’m confused about the difference between conversation and connection; that said I think some of my on-line relationships are quite substantial. These individuals appreciate the way I think and I appreciate the way they think and we bring interesting ideas to each others’ attention. If I post something unusually negative for me, they notice and ask me if something is wrong. This is not something that replaces IRL friendship but is an interesting and developing complement to it. (It is very helpful when I’m sitting in an airport waiting for my flights, for example. I always have the best on-line conversations in that hour at the gate.) I’ve often heard the 150 number and while I generally think there is a limit to whom we can know, the 150 number is based I think on experiments done before the advent of these new technologies. I’d like to see research done about the conditions we find ourselves in now.

The video doesn’t talk about what I think is one of the great new phenomena today–how near or complete strangers can delight each other through things they share online. I share a slice of my inner dialogue on-line. I see something interesting that makes me think; now I post many of those in case someone else might find it interesting as well. Some great exchanges happen as a result of being open to the serendipity of sharing.

What I actually think has been much more corrosive to the quality of people’s lives, much more so than sharing and the online life, is the culture of entertainment, which long predates Facebook and Twitter. I’m really troubled when I see people seemingly living their lives through the entertainment they consume. It drives me nuts really. Living your life as if the purpose of it is to be entertained is my definition of hell on earth.

Hope you have a great weekend and thanks for asking me what I thought about the video.

Your IRL friend,

Carmen”

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.

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.

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?

Lessons from a CIA Heretic

Last week I told a story at the Business Innovation Factory Summit, a wonderful event that I was blessed to attend. The storytellers were awesome. (Let me also give a big shout-out to my friends and reverse mentors Tony and Jen Silbert of Innovation Partners, who were the kind folk who connected me to Saul Kaplan and all the wonderful people at the Business Innovation Factory.) I was talking to a friend last night about all the interesting people I met and I couldn’t talk fast enough to keep up with my memories.

Anyway, even as a retired CIA person, I still need to get public or published comments approved if they deal with subjects pertaining to my CIA employment. And so this forced me to actually write out a draft of my extemporaneous comments to submit to the publications review board. You can catch the differences (not that significant) between what I wrote and what I said here, where you can download the MP-3 file of my remarks. So I thought I would post that text below. I think particularly toward the last half there are some ideas I rushed through or omitted that might be of some interest. I’m sorry it’s so long…

TALK BEGINS

My hope is that 15 minutes from now you will have developed your own answers to the following three questions or at least be provoked to think about them.

The questions are:

1.  Is the perception of the CIA in the popular media accurate, distorted, and/or useful to the organization and US national security?

2.  What is the motor that runs the world? Is it the secret agreements and machinations of men (and historically it’s been men) getting together in smoke-filled rooms generally up to no good; or, Is it the large dynamic and trends that emerge on the planet from God knows where and set in motion events that elude our attempts at prediction and manipulation.

And

3.  Are we the world?

So question 1. The perception of the CIA. Now first I have to tell you that I hate spy fiction and spy films and I even dislike nonfiction about the topic, so I’m not the best person to have an opinion as to whether the common perception out there is accurate. But I can tell you a little bit about my early days at the Agency. That’s a start.

Unlike many young people I’ve met over the years, I never dreamt of working for the CIA. As the first person in my extended family to graduate from college, I of course had no idea what I was supposed to do with the degree I was earning but because I was a college debater I’d always assumed I would be a lawyer. Until at Catholic University I started meeting law school students and went “OOOO….I don’t want to end up anything like them.” At that point I was at a loss. The only thing I was really interested in was the world, and so I thought well, I’ll go to Georgetown for graduate school. And so I did and the first semester there was a CIA recruiter on campus and I said sounds good. That’s the sum total of the story.

Now when I first joined the Agency, in 1978, it wasn’t what we would call a very diverse environment. (and even today Agency leaders are not satisfied with the level of diversity in the organization.) In later years I would tell people that I used to wander the halls searching for another Latino or Latina, because someone had told me there was another Puerto Rican working in the Agency and I was determined to find that person. Now that story is not specifically true, but it is generally accurate, if you get my drift. I used to get strange comments, like people in a conversation suddenly volunteering, in a culinary non sequiter,  how much they liked Mexican food or assuming that I would only want to work on Latin America. But for the most part, the Agency environment was a meritocracy, specifically I can say that about the analytic directorate where I worked, and I can’t point to any particular issues. In fact, when I would speak on college campuses kids were always asking me to comment on how being a woman and Latina affected my career, and I always told them the truth, that neither had as near the effect as being a different type of thinker—but I’ll talk more about that later.

I soon learned that most of the work at the Agency was, well, like the work at any other knowledge organization, although of course we didn’t use that term then. (By the way, given the malodor in which managers and management are generally held, I just don’t understand why consultants banded together and decided they could make a lot of money pitching organizations on Knowledge Management, but I digress.) True, the CIA is by law responsible for carrying out covert actions, an activity that, for my taste, assumed a heck of a lot about the planning abilities and foresight of the average American, whatever, but for some time now great powers (another term I rather dislike) have assumed they needed the ability to do some things secretly to make their way around this big, blue planet and, rather endearingly, the US decided to give this activity a legal structure. But much, most of what most Agency employees do has very little to do with covert action. It has to do with trying to make sense of the world, and trying to gather information about the world that others would rather us not know, so it’s a bit like trying to figure out what Steve Jobs is going to do next at Apple. But for the press the CIA is like the Lindsay Lohan of government. No matter what we do, how insignificant or banal really, it makes headlines and it’s always bad. “CIA uses solar-powered lawn mowers!!” Ridiculous!! I guess stories about the CIA sell newspapers, if anyone bought them anymore. I had a colleague at the Agency, wonderful fellow, who started every morning reading multiple newspapers (and he also has his office decorated with Brooklyn Dodgers memorabilia, so you know the type—salt of the earth.) And for the last six or seven years, I would stick my head into his office and say, “You know, newspapers are dying.” It was really mean of me.

So this is a good point to start making the segue to the second question, which as you recall has two parts. So I’ll repeat them.

What do you think is the motor that runs the world?

Is it the secret agreements and machinations of men (and historically it’s been men) getting together in smoke-filled rooms generally up to no good or

Is it the large dynamic and trends that emerge on the planet from God knows where and set in motion events that elude our attempts at prediction and manipulation.

So right about now, I’m going to start connecting my comments to the topic of innovation, which will be very exciting, I think.

So my point in asking you to think about this question is that how you choose and/or what reality is tells you a lot about what kind of intelligence organization you’ll need. 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.

Now of course the question is a false dichotomy, because it is not either/or, and both dynamics can exist at the same time. But what is critical for understanding the CIA and why I spent my last 20 years there as a frustrated innovator, is that much of the Agency’s theology and modus operandi are built on the first assumption. This was the driving principle in the Cold War—countries hostile to us are planning to destroy us and do us harm and we’ve got to get out there and figure out what they’re up to. And of course it’s a Mad Magazine Spy vs. Spy world and the bad guys are trying to figure out what you know, so you have to be secret about everything, be very, very quiet, and trust no one.

It’s all very tiring but it was all very important up until about 1990 or so, which curiously, now that I reflect back on it, was when I published my first article in Studies in Intelligence arguing that we needed to do analysis in new and different ways. We needed to recognize that policymakers often knew as much about the open world as we did and that these newfangled operations like CNN were providing news faster than we could and well we needed to adjust. And then the internet came along and the Agency was really thrown for a loop. One has to understand that for intelligence organizations how one handles information is not a secondary or enabling activity. Handling information is the essence of our mission so that changes here are doctrinal and theological. Well, of course, we had a really hard time figuring out what to do, and I would argue we are still having a hard time.

This period, the 90s, ended up being the most difficult of my Agency career because it just became harder and harder for me to reconcile what I believed needed to be done with what the Agency was actually doing. There was a small group of us that I in any case referred to as the Rebel Alliance. We tried to raise the Agency’s awareness of how the world was changing around it, we would bring in guest speakers to talk about Change—how naïve it all seems in retrospect. During this time, and I’m afraid this is a danger all innovators run, I began to get the reputation of being cynical and negative…positive thinking has its limits, you know. During a reception up in NYC around then, I was approached by someone who had been watching me, I remember she worked for DuPont, who said. “I can see you are a heretic in your organization. And I just want to tell you that you need to learn to live with the feeling of discomfort all heretics get. In fact you need to learn to be comfortable with these feelings of discomfort. Not just comfortable, you need to learn to like, love them, because when you get those feelings then you can be sure you are being true to your convictions.” I never spoke to this person again and I’m convinced she was one of the two guardian angels I’ve encountered in my life. (If you want to know the other one, catch me later!!)

Despite all this doom and gloom, I spent the last ten years or so of my Agency career as a senior executive—and ended up in positions of increasing responsibility. I wish I could tell you exactly how I as a heretic innovator managed to succeed in the system anyway, but part of it was just sticking to it, many good friends and mentors—especially reverse mentors, and that extremely important variable in all plans—luck. By 2005 I was part of the executive team that led the analytic Directorate, the Directorate of Intelligence. Very soon after I assumed that position, a young man and his manager approached me about an idea they had at that time to use the media wiki software to create an Iraqipedia so that analysts throughout the Intelligence Community could collaborate and work together on the problem set. I thought what a great idea but did they know that the Agency was OK with using collaboration software as long as you only collaborated with people within the Agency. No, they didn’t, they said. And I said that was OK because I doubted anyone in the bureaucracy realized any longer this stricture existed so let’s proceed, full speed ahead. (It never ceases to amaze me how bureaucracies create rules at a rate no human can ever remember, not even bureaucrats.)

So that was my small role in getting Intellipedia started, which is still viewed by many as the most important adjustment the intelligence community has made to the Internet Age. Nothing came easily and I remember Sean and Don, the two heroes who ended up pushing the concept throughout the intelligence community and winning last year one of the Service to America awards given to outstanding civil servants, often asking in frustration if we couldn’t just MAKE everyone use Intellipedia. To which I said, wrongly or rightly, no, we can’t. I happen to believe organizational change is a lie—organizations don’t change, people do, and each person changes for particular reasons of their own. You can’t make people think differently. You can create an environment where they can have a Eureka moment. You can MANIPULATE them into thinking differently. But you can’t FORCE the issue.

Not only that, many in the intelligence community then, and perhaps now, didn’t think ideas such as Intellipedia were such good ideas in the first place. Virtues of Intellipedia such as transparency don’t sound too hot to intelligence professionals accustomed to clandestinity. The CIA and Intelligence Community also were hung up on the concept of authoritative views. National Security intelligence is just too important to be handled through collaborative processes, they would argue. During this period I came to the exact opposite view. 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.

Which brings me to the last question: Are we the world? In the immediate aftermath of WWII, the US was 50% of the world economy. We also make a big deal of how we led the world in innovation, but of course most of that was probably just a function of our size. So during the Cold War we dealt with the world as if we were the world. We called the shots. And that is the world our intelligence community learned to function in. Of course individuals were ready to share secrets with the US government because we were after all where the action was.

That world is ending very rapidly. The world to follow will be a good world too. A world in which the US will remain very influential and prosperous. But once the US represents, let’s say 10% of the world economy, which could happen in most of our lifetimes, the arithmetic of dealing with the world from a position of absolute strength sort of falls apart. Much of the American public, from what I can tell, doesn’t appear ready for this turn of events. We learn, as kids, that America owes its prosperity to its independence from the rest of the world. It is part of our founding myth. We also believe that the world and its problems scale to the capabilities of individuals or small groups of individuals, freely associating. So in a very real sense, Complexity is Un-American!

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. I found myself a few weeks ago teaching a group of 20-somethings my Twitter secrets. This is nuts, I thought, but what a blast.

So there you have it. My last lesson: All organizations, no matter how reactionary or conservative, always have people in them thinking how we can be better.  All organizations need to find better ways to tap into what these individuals have to offer, because they often have an orientation to the outside environment that you may be lacking.

And for you frustrated innovators out there, form a Rebel Alliance. But remember, that optimism is the greatest act of rebellion.

Thank you.

Twelve Stupid Things People Say about the Internet

I remember when I was a kid people  would always say that to find life elsewhere in the universe, we had to look for carbon, because life was carbon-based. And I remember thinking, probably as a 10-year old, well who says that all life has to be carbon-based? Can’t we imagine a different kind of life? And people would say, no, that’s wrong, except now it isn’t so wrong to think that way. And I thought the same thing about the chances of finding life in the deep, deep ocean. I bet we will find weird life down there, I thought to myself, because these arguments that life can’t survive the lack of light and the intense pressure, they’re based on our very limited experiential base. After all, in terms of how life works, our N = 1. It can’t be right to be so sure.

So when I read critiques of the new culture we may be creating using all this internet stuff and mobile devices and Twitter and all the other things certain people like to make fun of, my ear is always listening for these unproven and unjustified assumptions. For example, almost all these critics assume that the good is self-evident and that the internet is displacing a wonderful tradition of knowledge, wisdom. and contemplation, offering very little of substance in return.  Hmmm…I’m just not so sure about that, and I offer the following list of shaky assumptions that we should question fiercely and for which we should demand either evidential or logical proof

  1. Heavy internet users have short attention spans and lack mental discipline. This is just plain silly, if you ask me. When I get deep into researching a topic on the internet, I have a very long attention span. And if I am traveling across many different topics, how is that proof of anything other than a curious disposition?
  2. Digital life is shallow. Says who? By what standard? Compared to what? Going to the movies? Watching old I Love Lucy reruns? Reading a thick economic treatise? And in any case, digital life itself is neutral. It’s the person who is shallow or not, if indeed we want to use this rather elitist formulation.  Even in the old analog culture, I never bought the line that going to the symphony is somehow culturally more significant than catching Bonnie Raitt at Wolf Trap. (I have to say I’ve even been to a Donnie Osmond concert in my lifetime….or was it the Osmond Brothers…the synapses misfire.)
  3. Slow is better than fast. You often hear the digital culture beaten up for its quick answers or its provision of instant gratification. But independent of all other values, such as accuracy, fairness, completeness, etc, there is nothing inherently bad about fast. In fact, fast will always, all other things being equal, be more efficient.
  4. Always “on” is bad. Prove it. As our societies and economies have become more complex, there are significant costs to periods of non-sentience. We may want to go back to an era of slower pace and tempo, but we can’t wish our way there. My experience as a manager is that organizations work best when they sustain momentum; there’s a favorite saying among managers: if you want something to get done, assign it to the busiest person on your team. And I actually believe that for many crackberry addicts, being constantly aware of the status of projects or other activities is actually less stressful than not knowing what is going on.
  5. Work based on reflection is better than immediate reactions. This is actually the ultimate argument of individuals who criticize the internet culture for being too fast or too persistent. And I think you have to admit that reflection has many advantages. Let’s unpack them. Reflection usually contributes to completeness and, in most cases, to accuracy. But reflection is at best neutral in terms of creativity; many argue for example that the best way to be creative is to generate as many ideas as possible without stopping to be judgmental. And there are certainly opportunity costs associated with reflection. As a CIA manager, I was always aware that one never had a monopoly on good ideas.  The longer you wait to propose a new way of looking at a problem, the greater the chance that some other entity will beat you to it. (Whether knowledge work should be competitive in the first place–now that’s another question.)
  6. Formal work is better than casual work. By formal, people usually mean work that has gone through some recognized quality control or expert process. Writing in a hurry is just not as elegant and good, goes the argument, as a carefully constructed essay. The arguments used in discussing reflection apply here as well. There are certain situations where formal work is obviously appropriate, but they are not as numerous as the critics would have you believe. And informality has many advantages in addition to immediacy. For example authenticity, directness, and, often, honesty.
  7. Correct spelling and grammar is essential for communication and is an indication of careful expression. Now I have sympathy for this position because I would tell people whose work I was editing that the worst thing that could happen was for me to gain the impression that I as the editor was paying more attention to their piece than they ever did. Finding obvious typos was one of the events that would create that impression. But that said, I also reviewed many pieces that were impeccable in terms of spelling and grammar but deplorable when it came to logic or original thinking. So sometimes correct spelling and grammar indicates nothing more than that.  The argument that spelling and grammar are essential for communication cannot be disputed. But special communication methods, such as the telegram for example, have always developed spelling and grammatical shortcuts that quickly became well understood. Twitter is just following in that tradition.
  8. It is more serious to do things by yourself than to do them in collaboration with others. Oh, for heaven’s sake!! This can only be accepted as gospel by individuals enamored of the great person theory of knowledge work.
  9. The internet is destroying literature. You’ve heard this. Nobody reads serious fiction any longer. Although I do believe classic forms of literature are threatened, I don’t buy the theory that it is the internet’s fault. Actually, it is probably more the fault of movies, television, DVDs, and video games. And in my view the real issue is that, compared to other, newer media for storytelling, the advantages of the novel just aren’t that apparent any longer.
  10. People who are playing Farmville on Facebook would otherwise be writing the great American novel or reading Proust. Please…(the game I like to play is Typing Maniac.)
  11. Most people don’t have anything interesting to say. This point is made peevishly in reaction to the fact that anyone now can blog or tweet. Again, I’ll concede that good writers of 500-word essays are not that common; but my experience, and I bet the experience of many others, is that lots of people actually do have something worthwhile to offer in the short form.  Twitter and Facebook –and let’s not forget YouTube–are great democratizers of the public space and, if anything, are giving many the confidence to share their views with others. I’m darned if I can figure out why that is bad for a democracy. Now in your average dictatorship…
  12. Our current culture, which has taken millenia to develop, is better than any culture we could develop over the next ten years. At face value, that sounds pretty reasonable, but given the explosion of information, connectivity and transparency, I’m not so sure we should  concede even this point. Knowledge is doubling in many fields at a faster rate than the education cycle for those disciplines. I don’t know about you but I’m putting my money on the future.