The anti-establishment mindset that gave us the personal computer, the internet, and smartphones – ironically – also produced the NSA’s surveillance programs.
I’m currently reading Nicco Mele’s The End of Big and we’ll discuss it in depth next week at BPICampus.com. But Mele’s core thesis explains how 9/11 happened and why it changed our perception of “national security.”
Mele uses the term “radical connectivity” to describe the nexus between the personal computer, the internet, and smartphones. His argument is not simply that we can now connect to each other in more ways than ever before, but also that the technology we use to do that was developed by people with an anti-establishment worldview, and that worldview is embedded in the technology and how we use it.
Before the PC, we lived in the age of Big Computers that cost millions of dollars and filled entire rooms. Needless to say, only Big Government, Big Education, and Big Business could afford Big Computers. The internet was created by Big Military and then branched out to Big Education for scientific research, decades before it was opened to the rest of us. Cellular phones, once status symbols for Big Spenders, now put a personal computer and the internet into the hands, literally, of almost human being. In fact, more people have cellular phones than toilets.
Each of those advances was led by anti-establishment nerds-cum-icons, and each faced resistance from the Big institutions it challenged. That, Mele argues, baked an individualistic, anti-establishment worldview into the technologies and the ways we use them. The nexus of “radical connectivity” now challenges most of our Big institutions: Big Media, Big Politics, Big Entertainment, Big Government and – on and since 9/11 – Big Military.
“National security” used to mean protecting Americans from other nation-states and their militaries. The asymmetric clashes we call “terrorism” did not begin on 9/11, but the horrific scope of that attack catapulted that asymmetry into the national security spotlight. The U.S. could be attacked with devastating effect by a relative handful of individuals who took full advantage of radical connectivity – personal computers, the internet, and cell phones – to plan, fund, and coordinate their operations.
That nexus has enabled other events that, while not terrorism as most of us define that term, also threaten Big institutions. Arab Spring activists used the same radical connectivity to help topple their governments. Groups like Anonymous employed the same tools to challenge a drug cartel … and one of the nation’s largest website hosts, and the Department of Justice.
The anti-establishment credo, of course, holds that these Big institutions should be toppled. Josh Marshall, whose Talking Points Memo is part of the online challenge to Big News, explored that credo in a column yesterday:
Here is I think the essential difference and where it comes back to what I referred to before – a basic difference in one’s idea about the state and the larger political community. If you see the state as essentially malevolent or a bad actor then really anything you can do to put a stick in its spokes is a good thing. Same if you think the conduct of US foreign policy is fundamentally a bad thing. Then opening up its books for the world to see is a good thing simply because it exposes it or damages it. It forces change on any number of levels.
From that perspective, there’s no really no balancing to be done. All disclosure is good. Either from the perspective of transparency in principle or upending something you believe must be radically changed.
On the other hand, if you basically identify with the country and the state, then indiscriminate leaks like this are purely destructive. They’re attacks on something you fundamentally believe in, identify with, think is working on your behalf.
Now, in practice, there are a million shades of grey. You can support your government but see its various shortcomings and even evil things it does. And as I said at the outset, this is where leaks play a critical, though ambiguous role, as a safety valve. But it comes down to this essential thing: is the aim and/or effect of the leak to correct an abuse or simply to blow the whole thing up?
In The End of Big, Mele writes that the anti-establishment ethos that spawned and is embedded in radical connectivity can be summarized in a paraphrase from the 1960s: “Burn the System Down … But Let Me Make Money.” And he emphasizes that the emerging nerdocracy values the last part just as much as the first. In many sectors we’ve replaced Big with Even Bigger: high tech behemoths whose market dominance and global influence exceed the institutions they are displacing. All of this, Mele writes repeatedly, has been happening with little thought for how the end of Big (and the rise of Even Bigger) will impact privilege, privacy, freedom of expression, and challenges whose inherent scope requires Big solutions.
Meanwhile our government struggles to address national security threats that are less about the military forces of rival nation-states and more about small groups using radical connectivity to magnify their destructive capacity. The end of Big Military, it seems, leaves us with Even Bigger computers sifting Even Bigger data to identify and stop those small groups.
Welcome to the Not-So-Brave New World.