In the 21st
century, the U.S. National Security Agency (and other espionage agencies) face a storm of system-wide
problems that I haven't seen anybody talking about. The problems are
sociological, and they threaten to undermine the way the Western security state
government/civil service agencies are old.
The NSA's roots stretch back to the State Department's "Black Chamber"
(officially dissolved by Secretary of State Henry Stimson in 1929 with the immortal words
"Gentlemen do not read each other's mail"). The CIA is a creation of the late
1940s. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was established as the Bureau of Investigation in 1908.
These organizations are products of the 20th-century industrial state, and they
are used to running their human resources and internal security processes as if
they're still living in the days of the "job for life" culture. Potential
spooks-to-be were tapped early (often while at school or university), vetted,
and then given a safe sinecure along with regular monitoring to ensure they stayed
on the straight-and-narrow all the way to the gold watch and pension. Because
that's how we all used to work, at least if we were civil servants or white-collar
paper-pushers back in the 1950s.
the walled garden of the civil service, things don't work that way anymore. A
major consequence of the 1970s resurgence of neoliberal economics was the
deregulation of labor markets and the deliberate destruction of the job-for-life
culture (partly because together they were a powerful lever for dislodging unionism and
the taproots of left-wing power in the West, and partly because a liquid labor
market made entrepreneurial innovation and corporate restructuring easier).
departments may be structured on old-fashioned lines, but their managers aren't
immune to outside influences and they frequently attempt reforms, in the name
of greater efficiency, that shadow the popular private-sector fads of the day.
One side effect of making corporate restructuring easier was the rush toward
outsourcing, and today around 70 percent of the U.S. intelligence budget is
spent on outside contractors. And it's a big budget -- well over $50 billion a
year. Some chunks go to heavy metal (the National Reconnaissance Office is
probably the biggest high-spending agency you've never heard of: it builds spy
satellites), but a lot goes to people. People to oil the machines. People who
work for large contracting organizations. Organizations that increasingly rely
on contractors rather than permanent labor to retain "flexibility."
problem: The organizations are now running into outside contractors who grew up in the
globalized, liquid labor world of Generation X and Generation Y, with
Generation Z fast approaching.
cultural continuity with our parents' and our children's generations. Even when
we don't see eye to eye with our parents on political questions or we sigh in
despair about our kids' fashion sense or taste in music, we generally have a
handle on what makes them tick. But a human lifetime seldom spans more than
three generations, and the sliding window of one's generation screens out that
which came before and that
which comes after; they lie outside our personal
experience. We fool ourselves into thinking that our national culture is static
and slow-moving, that we are the inheritors of a rich tradition. But if we
could go back three or four generations, we would find ourselves surrounded by
aliens -- people for whom a North Atlantic crossing by sail was as slow and
risky as a mission to Mars, people who took it for granted that some races were naturally
inferior and that women were too emotionally unstable to be allowed to vote.
The bedrock of our cultural tradition is actually quicksand. We reject many of
our ancestors' cherished beliefs and conveniently forget others, not realizing
that, in turn, our grandchildren may do the same to ours.
on the next three generations and try to discern some patterns.
X's parents, the baby boomers, grew up in the 1950s. It was not unusual to
expect to work in the same job for life. They seldom traveled internationally
because it was expensive and slow, and their cultural environment was
predominantly defined by their nationality -- an extraordinary international
incursion such as the arrival of Beatlemania in the 1960s was shocking precisely
because it was so unusual.
exceptions, Generation X never had the job for life. Members of the generation are used to nomadic
employment, hire-and-fire, right-to-work laws, the whole nine yards of
organized-labor deracination. But they also grew up in the age of cheap jet
travel, on a globe shrunk so small that 48 hours and two weeks' average wages
could take you to the antipodes. (In 1813, you could pay two weeks' average
wages and take 48 hours to travel 100 to 200 miles by stagecoach. In 2013, that
can take you from Maryland to Hong Kong -- and then on to Moscow.)
Y's parents are Generation X. Generation
Y comprises the folks who serve your coffee in
Starbucks and build software at Google. Generation Y has never thought of jobs as permanent things. Most Generation Y folks
will stare at you blankly if you talk about loyalty to one's employer; the old
feudal arrangement ("we'll give you a job for life and look after you as long
as you look out for the Organization") is something their grandparents ranted
about, but it's about as real to them as the divine right of kings. Employers
like Google or Facebook that provide good working conditions are the exception,
not the rule. Employers are alien hive-mind colony intelligences that will fuck
you over for the bottom line on the quarterly balance sheet. They'll give you a
laptop and tell you to hot-desk or work at home so that they can save money on
office floor space and furniture. They'll dangle the offer of a permanent job
over your head but keep you on a zero-hours contract for as long as is
On the other
hand: Generation Y has grown up in a world where travel is cheap and
communication is nearly free. Their cultural zeitgeist is less parochial than
that of their grandparents, more global, infused with Japanese anime and Swedish heavy
metal, as well as local media produce. This is the world they grew up in: This
is the world that defines their expectations.
is, you can't run a national security organization if you can't rely on the
loyalty of the majority of your workers -- both to the organization and to the
state it serves. At one time, continuity of employment meant that the agencies at
least knew their people, but there is now an emerging need to security-clear
vast numbers of temporary and transient workers with no intrinsic sense of
loyalty to the organization.
The NSA and its
fellow swimmers in the acronym soup of the intelligence-industrial complex are
increasingly dependent on nomadic contractor employees and increasingly
subject to staff churn. Security clearance is carried out wholesale by other
contractor organizations that specialize in human resource management, but even
they are subject to the same problem: Quis
custodiet ipsos custodes?
beings are primates. We have a deeply ingrained set of cultural and
interpersonal behavioral rules that we violate only at social cost. One of
these rules, essential for a tribal organism, is bilaterality: Loyalty is a
two-way street. (Another is hierarchy: Yield to the boss.) Such rules are not
iron-bound or immutable -- we're not robots -- but our new hive superorganism
employers don't obey them instinctively, and apes and monkeys and hominids tend
to revert to tit-for-tat strategies readily when they're unsure of their
relative status. Perceived slights result in retaliation, and blundering,
human-blind organizations can bruise an employee's ego without even noticing.
And slighted or bruised employees who
lack instinctive loyalty, because the culture they come from has spent
generations systematically destroying social hierarchies and undermining their
sense of belonging, are much more likely to start thinking the unthinkable.
might seem to provide a bulwark here, buttressing loyalty to the institutions
of state with loyalty to the ideals of the state itself. But if the actions of the
state deviate too far from the ideals embodied in the foundational myths its
citizens believe, cognitive dissonance ensues. The public perception of America
as being a democratic republic that values freedom and fairness under the rule
of law is diametrically opposed to the secretive practices of the surveillance
state. Nationalist loyalty is highly elastic, but can be strained to breaking
point. And when that happens, we see public servants who remain loyal to the
abstract ideals conclude that the institution itself is committing treason. And
an organization that provides no outlet for the concerns of loyal
whistle-blowers like Thomas Drake is creating a rod for its own back by
convincing the likes of leaker Edward Snowden that it is incapable of reform from
within and disloyal to the national ideals it purports to serve.
Snowden is 30; he was born in 1983. Chelsea Manning is 25. Generation Y started
around 1980 to 1982. But the signs of disobedience among Generation Y are merely a harbinger
of things to come. Next up is Generation Z -- the cohort born since the
Members of Generation Z
are going to come of age in the 2020s, in a world racked by extreme climate
events. Many of them will be sibling-less only children, for the demographic transition to a
low birthrate/low death rate equilibrium lies generations in their past. They
may not be able to travel internationally -- energy costs combined with
relative income decline is slowly stripping the middle classes of that
capability -- but they'll be products of a third-generation Internet culture.
To the Z
cohort, the Internet isn't a separate thing; it has been an integrated part of
their lives since infancy. They do not remember a time before the Internet or a
life without smartphones. All of them will have had Facebook pages, even though they had
to lie about their age to sign up (and even though having a social network
presence is officially a no-no for spooks). All of them have acquired long
histories visible on the Internet, even if only through the tagged photographs
of their schoolmates. Mostly they photograph everything (even though taking photographs or being photographed is
officially a no-no for spooks). Many of them even use lifeloggers (which has
got to be a career-killer if your career lies in the shadows). They grew up in
a surveillance state; they might want privacy, but they are under no illusions
that the centers of authority will permit them to have it. Steeply climbing
university fees and student-debt loading have turned a traditional degree into
their version of Generation X's unattainable job for life; their education will
be vocational or acquired piecemeal from MOOCs (massive open online courses), and their careers will be
haphazard, casual, and dominated by multiple part-time contracts.
their grandparents' and parents' generations screwed by the great
intergenerational transfer of wealth to the baby boomers -- their
great-grandparents, many of whom are lingering on into their twilight 80s.
To Generation Z's eyes, the boomers and their institutions look like parasitic
aliens with incomprehensible values who make irrational demands for absolute
loyalty without reciprocity. Worse, the foundational mythology and ideals of
the United States will look like a bitter joke, a fun house mirror's distorted
reflection of the reality they live with from day to day.
will arrive brutalized and atomized by three generations of diminished
expectations and dog-eat-dog economic liberalism. Most of them will be so
deracinated that they identify with their peers and the global Internet culture
more than their great-grandparents' post-Westphalian nation-state. The
machineries of the security state may well find them unemployable, their values
too alien to assimilate into a model still rooted in the early 20th century.
But if you turn the Internet into a panopticon prison and put everyone inside
it, where else are you going to be able to recruit the jailers? And how do you
ensure their loyalty?
If I were in
charge of long-term planning for human resources in any government department,
I'd be panicking. Even though it's already too late.
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