Archive for June 12, 2013

The Fragility of Complex Systems and Snowden

June 12, 2013 4 comments

The last 3-4 years have seen repeated instances of a phenomena that “should” never happen in human societies. I am talking about the effects of massive information leaks pulled off primarily by one or two people. Whether it is Julian Assange and Bradley Manning in the case of WikiLeaks or the stuff pulled off by Edward Snowden within the last few weeks, it is hard to minimize the impact of such incidents on the organisations affected by them. But let us first ask a less obvious but very important question.

Since when did large nation states and huge organisations with annual budgets in the hundreds of billions start fearing solitary dissidents within their ranks?

Did the Catholic Church really fear heretics till Giordano Bruno? Did the feudal lords, vassals, kings and emperors of previous eras fear truth-tellers like Assange, Manning or Snowden? Did the British ruling class fear those who exposed the real reasons behind the Irish Genocide.. I mean ‘Famine’? Did Stalin fear those who told the truth about what was happening in Ukraine in the early 1930s to the rest of the world ?

So what happened? What changed? When did the “elites” start fearing ideologically driven people like Karl Marx, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair or John Steinbeck. When did we reach the point when a single whistleblower like Daniel Ellsberg,Frank Serpico or Jeffrey Wigand could exert such massive influence on the subsequent course of events.

How can one individual who presents a contrary (and often heretic) account of events cause so much damage to institutions vastly larger and more powerful than that individual?

The answer to this question lies in a combination of factors. The easily discerned ones include almost universal literacy and the continuously increasing speed and penetration of information. The ease of distributing information to large numbers of people is yet another factor. But there is one that is overlooked largely because it is rarely seen as a factor in the first place.

Pre-industrial and early industrial societies were different from modern societies in many respects, but none so ignored as the level of systemic complexity necessary to keep them afloat. Agriculture based societies (basically every human civilization till the mid-1800s) and early industrial societies (early 1800s to the early 1900s) were simple enough to operate via forced or coerced labor. Even the USSR in the 1930s and China in the 1960s were simple enough to be successfully operated by a few people terrorizing many others with guns, starvation and prisons. Of course, such societies have very low productivity but can survive with high birth rates (pre-contraceptive era) and some dumb luck.

The industrial revolution has been able to change that five thousand-year old status quo in a most peculiar manner. While complex technological societies can run circles around older societies, they require something that older societies never had to worry about. Technological societies, you see, are far too complex to be successfully maintained by slaves or openly coerced people. The ‘elites’, their ‘overseers’ and ‘enforcers’ simply do not have the numbers, capability or ability to stop or recognize every act of overt sabotage or purposeful neglect. They require the willing cooperation and enthusiastic participation of their “inferiors” aka the people who do the real work.

It is therefore no surprise that technologically advanced societies put a lot of effort in creating and maintaining institutions that are widely seen as reasonably honest, fair, reliable and useful.

The reason we have things like property rights, a reasonably competent judiciary, unemployment insurance, social security, reasonable freedom of speech etc has a lot to with maintaining the image of a society that cares or works in your best interest. The same is true of institutions from schools, universities, hospitals and land registry offices. It all comes down to maintaining the right image and therefore it is all about what people believe or are willing to believe.

Whistle-blowers are so dangerous precisely because they can destroy the carefully crafted image of modern institutions very quickly and with little effort.

Men like Assange, Manning and Snowden are feared and reviled because their revelations have the power to vaporize decades of propaganda, lies and cognitive dissonance within a few minutes. Their actions tear the fake masks of large institutions, public and private, to expose their true and repulsive forms. It is kinda like seeing an aging woman without her makeup. You just cannot unsee the old hag nor can you ever again fantasize about her like you used to. Long story short, she simply loses all significant power over you. Whistle-blowing has the same effect on trust, belief and attachment of “inferiors” to all of those so-called traditional, morally upright, cherished and trusted institutions.

Now some of you might think.. Can’t we just go back to the pre-industrial era? The rhetorical answer to that question goes something like this.. Who won the american civil war? The North or the South? Why? What about the Opium war or the Boxer Rebellion? Who won and who lost? Why? What about the Japanese civil war in the late 1860? Who won.. the traditional samurai warriors or the conscripted army of commoners with guns? Why? The simple fact is that pre-industrial societies are no match for technological societies and therefore it is unlikely that anyone is going to give up technology and bring back feudalism or similar archaic systems.

Technology has thus put human beings on a trajectory they are not really prepared or willing to handle. The old institutions will either reform (extremely unlikely), be replaced (more likely) or most people will just start dropping out of society or acting in bad faith (most likely).

What do you think? Comments?