Why the Children of tomorrow are the NSA's biggest nightmare (by Charles Stross)
n the 21stcentury, the U.S. National Security Agency (and other espionage agencies) face a storm of system-wideproblems that I haven't seen anybody talking about. The problems aresociological, and they threaten to undermine the way the Western security stateoperates.
The biggovernment/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 late1940s. 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 theyare used to running their human resources and internal security processes as ifthey're still living in the days of the "job for life" culture. Potentialspooks-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 stayedon the straight-and-narrow all the way to the gold watch and pension. Becausethat's how we all used to work, at least if we were civil servants or white-collarpaper-pushers back in the 1950s.
But outsidethe walled garden of the civil service, things don't work that way anymore. Amajor consequence of the 1970s resurgence of neoliberal economics was thederegulation of labor markets and the deliberate destruction of the job-for-lifeculture (partly because together they were a powerful lever for dislodging unionism andthe taproots of left-wing power in the West, and partly because a liquid labormarket made entrepreneurial innovation and corporate restructuring easier).
Governmentdepartments may be structured on old-fashioned lines, but their managers aren'timmune to outside influences and they frequently attempt reforms, in the nameof greater efficiency, that shadow the popular private-sector fads of the day.One side effect of making corporate restructuring easier was the rush towardoutsourcing, and today around 70 percent of the U.S. intelligence budget isspent on outside contractors. And it's a big budget -- well over $50 billion ayear. Some chunks go to heavy metal (the National Reconnaissance Office isprobably the biggest high-spending agency you've never heard of: it builds spysatellites), but a lot goes to people. People to oil the machines. People whowork for large contracting organizations. Organizations that increasingly relyon contractors rather than permanent labor to retain "flexibility."
Here's theproblem: The organizations are now running into outside contractors who grew up in theglobalized, liquid labor world of Generation X and Generation Y, withGeneration Z fast approaching.
We experiencecultural continuity with our parents' and our children's generations. Even whenwe don't see eye to eye with our parents on political questions or we sigh indespair about our kids' fashion sense or taste in music, we generally have ahandle on what makes them tick. But a human lifetime seldom spans more thanthree generations, and the sliding window of one's generation screens out thatwhich came before and thatwhich comes after; they lie outside our personalexperience. We fool ourselves into thinking that our national culture is staticand slow-moving, that we are the inheritors of a rich tradition. But if wecould go back three or four generations, we would find ourselves surrounded byaliens -- people for whom a North Atlantic crossing by sail was as slow andrisky as a mission to Mars, people who took it for granted that some races were naturallyinferior and that women were too emotionally unstable to be allowed to vote.The bedrock of our cultural tradition is actually quicksand. We reject many ofour ancestors' cherished beliefs and conveniently forget others, not realizingthat, in turn, our grandchildren may do the same to ours.
Let's focuson the next three generations and try to discern some patterns.
GenerationX's parents, the baby boomers, grew up in the 1950s. It was not unusual toexpect to work in the same job for life. They seldom traveled internationallybecause it was expensive and slow, and their cultural environment waspredominantly defined by their nationality -- an extraordinary internationalincursion such as the arrival of Beatlemania in the 1960s was shocking preciselybecause it was so unusual.
With fewexceptions, Generation X never had the job for life. Members of the generation are used to nomadicemployment, hire-and-fire, right-to-work laws, the whole nine yards oforganized-labor deracination. But they also grew up in the age of cheap jettravel, on a globe shrunk so small that 48 hours and two weeks' average wagescould take you to the antipodes. (In 1813, you could pay two weeks' averagewages and take 48 hours to travel 100 to 200 miles by stagecoach. In 2013, thatcan take you from Maryland to Hong Kong -- and then on to Moscow.)
GenerationY's parents are Generation X. GenerationY comprises the folks who serve your coffee inStarbucks and build software at Google. Generation Y has never thought of jobs as permanent things. Most Generation Y folkswill stare at you blankly if you talk about loyalty to one's employer; the oldfeudal arrangement ("we'll give you a job for life and look after you as longas you look out for the Organization") is something their grandparents rantedabout, but it's about as real to them as the divine right of kings. Employerslike Google or Facebook that provide good working conditions are the exception,not the rule. Employers are alien hive-mind colony intelligences that will fuckyou over for the bottom line on the quarterly balance sheet. They'll give you alaptop and tell you to hot-desk or work at home so that they can save money onoffice floor space and furniture. They'll dangle the offer of a permanent jobover your head but keep you on a zero-hours contract for as long as isconvenient.
On the otherhand: Generation Y has grown up in a world where travel is cheap andcommunication is nearly free. Their cultural zeitgeist is less parochial thanthat of their grandparents, more global, infused with Japanese anime and Swedish heavymetal, as well as local media produce. This is the world they grew up in: Thisis the world that defines their expectations.
The problemis, you can't run a national security organization if you can't rely on theloyalty of the majority of your workers -- both to the organization and to thestate it serves. At one time, continuity of employment meant that the agencies atleast knew their people, but there is now an emerging need to security-clearvast numbers of temporary and transient workers with no intrinsic sense ofloyalty to the organization.
The NSA and itsfellow swimmers in the acronym soup of the intelligence-industrial complex areincreasingly dependent on nomadic contractor employees and increasinglysubject to staff churn. Security clearance is carried out wholesale by othercontractor organizations that specialize in human resource management, but eventhey are subject to the same problem: Quiscustodiet ipsos custodes?
We humanbeings are primates. We have a deeply ingrained set of cultural andinterpersonal behavioral rules that we violate only at social cost. One ofthese rules, essential for a tribal organism, is bilaterality: Loyalty is atwo-way street. (Another is hierarchy: Yield to the boss.) Such rules are notiron-bound or immutable -- we're not robots -- but our new hive superorganismemployers don't obey them instinctively, and apes and monkeys and hominids tendto revert to tit-for-tat strategies readily when they're unsure of theirrelative 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 wholack instinctive loyalty, because the culture they come from has spentgenerations systematically destroying social hierarchies and undermining theirsense of belonging, are much more likely to start thinking the unthinkable.
Nationalismmight seem to provide a bulwark here, buttressing loyalty to the institutionsof state with loyalty to the ideals of the state itself. But if the actions of thestate deviate too far from the ideals embodied in the foundational myths itscitizens believe, cognitive dissonance ensues. The public perception of Americaas being a democratic republic that values freedom and fairness under the ruleof law is diametrically opposed to the secretive practices of the surveillancestate. Nationalist loyalty is highly elastic, but can be strained to breakingpoint. And when that happens, we see public servants who remain loyal to theabstract ideals conclude that the institution itself is committing treason. Andan organization that provides no outlet for the concerns of loyalwhistle-blowers like Thomas Drake is creating a rod for its own back byconvincing the likes of leaker Edward Snowden that it is incapable of reform fromwithin and disloyal to the national ideals it purports to serve.
Snowden is 30; he was born in 1983. Chelsea Manning is 25. Generation Y startedaround 1980 to 1982. But the signs of disobedience among Generation Y are merely a harbingerof things to come. Next up is Generation Z -- the cohort born since themillennium.
Members of Generation Zare going to come of age in the 2020s, in a world racked by extreme climateevents. Many of them will be sibling-less only children, for the demographic transition to alow birthrate/low death rate equilibrium lies generations in their past. Theymay not be able to travel internationally -- energy costs combined withrelative income decline is slowly stripping the middle classes of thatcapability -- but they'll be products of a third-generation Internet culture.
To the Zcohort, the Internet isn't a separate thing; it has been an integrated part oftheir lives since infancy. They do not remember a time before the Internet or alife without smartphones. All of them will have had Facebook pages, even though they hadto lie about their age to sign up (and even though having a social networkpresence is officially a no-no for spooks). All of them have acquired longhistories visible on the Internet, even if only through the tagged photographsof their schoolmates. Mostly they photograph everything (even though taking photographs or being photographed isofficially a no-no for spooks). Many of them even use lifeloggers (which hasgot to be a career-killer if your career lies in the shadows). They grew up ina surveillance state; they might want privacy, but they are under no illusionsthat the centers of authority will permit them to have it. Steeply climbinguniversity fees and student-debt loading have turned a traditional degree intotheir version of Generation X's unattainable job for life; their education willbe vocational or acquired piecemeal from MOOCs (massive open online courses), and their careers will behaphazard, casual, and dominated by multiple part-time contracts.
They sawtheir grandparents' and parents' generations screwed by the greatintergenerational transfer of wealth to the baby boomers -- theirgreat-grandparents, many of whom are lingering on into their twilight 80s.To Generation Z's eyes, the boomers and their institutions look like parasiticaliens with incomprehensible values who make irrational demands for absoluteloyalty without reciprocity. Worse, the foundational mythology and ideals ofthe United States will look like a bitter joke, a fun house mirror's distortedreflection of the reality they live with from day to day.
Generation Zwill arrive brutalized and atomized by three generations of diminishedexpectations and dog-eat-dog economic liberalism. Most of them will be soderacinated that they identify with their peers and the global Internet culturemore than their great-grandparents' post-Westphalian nation-state. Themachineries of the security state may well find them unemployable, their valuestoo 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 insideit, where else are you going to be able to recruit the jailers? And how do youensure their loyalty?
If I were incharge of long-term planning for human resources in any government department,I'd be panicking. Even though it's already too late.