The People have power and we can tap into that again. —Lowell Christy
Last July, as the media reported on Edward Snowden, the NSA, and surveillance through phone and internet service companies like Verizon, Google, and Microsoft, I spoke with Dr. Lowell Christy about his research on the American Revolution and the logic of 21st Century intelligence-gathering.
Dr. Christy, founder and director of the Maryland-based Cultural Strategies Institute and a board advisor for George Washington University’s Research Program in Social and Organizational Learning, has spent more than three decades applying cybernetics insights, systems thinking, and collective IQ techniques to social and cultural transformation initiatives all over the world. His five-part series, The Intelligence Wars, will be released later this year.
KM: Who are you writing The Intelligence Wars for?
LC: I’m writing for ordinary Americans, not policy-makers. During the Revolutionary War, British General Howe’s plans were undermined by an American housewife by the name of Lydia Darragh. Howe planned to move his troops into Whitemarsh, PA, but Mrs. Darragh leaked the details to George Washington so that American forces weren’t taken by surprise.
That was the colonial American informal information network in action: ordinary untrained people outwitting a superior British military. The People have power and we can tap into that again.
There have been a lot of surveillance-related news stories recently: Manning, Wikileaks, Snowden, PRISM, whistle-blowing, Xkeyscore, and the government’s intelligence-gathering systems. Why should an ordinary person care about intelligence-gathering or metadata?
A simple way to define intelligence is as “in tell”—telling into a subject. To understand a network, intelligence agencies can now compile every piece of mail sent through the postal service, every phone call, credit card, every email, every internet keystroke. And every license plate too—more than ten thousand new licenses are added to this database every day. Combined with the interstate camera system, the metadata in the database allows the agencies to know who travels where and when, and who is speaking with whom.
The art of assembly is the attack point here; the monitoring of assembly subliminally oppresses the People. These strategies eat away at the root of American genius, which is our ability to share and debate ideas freely in order to thresh out differences, separate the truth from the chaff, and grow our commonwealth together.
When you say the art of assembly is under attack with meta-surveillance, what do you mean? Are there any insights into this from your study of the US Revolution and the Founders’ writings?
Yes. John Adams wrote that the American Revolution “was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.” He wanted future generations of Americans to codify the Revolutions’ pamphlets, letters, and communications of the Revolution, to archive the war, so that we would build an understanding of not just the war’s surface politics and military strategy, but also the conversations and relationships among ordinary people that the Revolution was based on.
The Revolution was triggered in part by the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed a duty on pamphlets more than half a page long. Ben Franklin was a printer, so he and other writers and critics were directly impacted by this law, and Jonathan Swift predicted that the Stamp Act would “utterly ruin” pamphleteers and the larger press. In England and the colonies, the monarchy used the Stamp Act to raise revenue from writers and inhibit the criticism they distributed through the print media. So that Act was a choke-and control point that strangled the knowledge-building networks of America, and it became the tripwire for the Revolutionary War.
I write more about this in the second article in the series: the data collection programs that are part of the surveillance state today are very similar to the “intolerable acts” that sparked the Revolution.
What other modern parallels do you see?
Have you heard about the anti-pornography regulations in the United Kingdom?
Yes, the Prime Minister is proposing that all broadband subscribers have to opt in to receive the unfiltered internet at home. The justification is “child safety.”
That’s right. But the ISPs’ proposed restricted content includes “adult content” as well as “extremist related content” and “web forums, esoteric material, and web blocking circumvention tools.” And the government wants that content automatically blocked. The UK has also gathered DNA from every newborn as part of a public health program since 2002, so the concept of “personal privacy” is a losing argument in this climate.
Wow. So you write about threats to the People’s assembly and parallels between what we face today and the Revolution era Stamp Act. What else can Intelligence Wars readers look forward to learning about?
In Part 3, I write about the Founders’ principles and the tenets of commonwealth that motivated them. They wanted to build the new nation on the philosophies of natural ability potentials and distributed networked intelligence, not the monarchical model of centralized power and centralized control. Part 4 looks at the organizational pathologies and institutional complexes that work against this natural ability and strangle the organism that is our nation. Finally in Part 5, I explain how we can move forward now we’re dealing with the same issues of centralized power and restricted assembly that colonial Americans dealt with in the 18th Century.
So much else has changed in 250 years. Why do you think we’re having these conversations again now?
It comes down to power. In the 18th Century, America was fighting against a world power. Now we are that power. In 1913, the United States transitioned from its geographical isolation into “America the powerful” and this was a major shift in the context of our role in the world.
But power is an information ecology toxin: it fixes a point and organizes new information and interpretations around it instead of engaging new information in an ongoing conversation. So we became powerful, and we also developed a truncated, militarized mind.
A militarized mind truncates the decision-making process: it fixes one’s attention on deciding and acting, but doesn’t allow for the observation and orientation need to learn intelligently. Our wars have given us a lot of technology, but technology reinforces this shortcut because it is based on “assumption in, assumption out.”
So what’s the way out? What are our alternatives?
The US revolution was an experiment based the Scottish Enlightenment. The Scottish Enlightenment teaches us to understand problems by looking at systems, not just individuals, and to accept the concept of evolution or change. In the Herbert Spencer model, evolution is the capacity to have a different future beyond the condemnation of the past or the present: we have the capacity to leap beyond the limits of our past.
We’re often taught the surface reasons for our revolution—shaking off the monarchy, resentment about taxes—but the Revolution has much deeper roots than that. If we can understand those deeper natural intelligence principles and the tools they give us to break our organizational and institutional pathologies, then we can start navigating our way out of the artificial power-centric hegemony that’s dominant today.
Get future updates on Dr. Christy, the Intelligence Wars series, cybernetics, and the Cultural Strategies Institute by becoming a subscriber of mackenzian.com. Also read about a precursor to the 1765 Stamp Act: the 1643 Licensing Order Act that inspired John Milton’s Areopagitica.