Edward Snowden and the Disruption of Government

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Edward Snowden yesterday revealed himself as the whistleblower behind the now infamous NSA leaks. Snowden, a former worker at the CIA and most recently an employee of private contractor Booz Allen, has worked on NSA related projects for the past four years. Amongst the statements made by Snowden, and at least partially supported by the leaked documents, is the claim the US government has virtually unlimited capabilities when it comes to listening in on phone calls and tracking Internet usage. As Snowden stated, “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.”

Some ask why this is news. Haven’t we known the US government watches everything we do online, or is at least developing the capability? The newsworthiness of the matter stems from the evidence being as detailed and credible as it is and coming as it does on the heels of stories of abuses of government power such as the targeting of political groups by the IRS. What many viewed as the domain of deranged conspiracy theorists, novels like 1984, and Hollywoodsuddenly looks more like reality. The NSA leaks are a large stone removed from an already eroding foundation of trust in the US government.

What will happen to Snowden is now anyone’s guess. He is holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong, the same city I now call home, apparently waiting for someone else to make the next move.

What I want to focus on in this post is not Snowden himself, but what he represents, and what this may mean for governments and peoples over the next few decades. I believe we are in the midst of a centuries-long shift of power from state entities to the people those states have traditionally governed. What exactly the result of this evolution will be I don’t know, but I believe “the State” as we know it has a limited lifespan and what replaces it, while perhaps imperfect, will be an improvement in terms of peace and prosperity. Much of this transformation will be due to greater educational opportunities for the general population and increased transparency in governmental affairs. And it can be explained in part by examining the research and teachings of noted icons of the business world Clayton Christensen, John Boyd, and Sun Tzu.

Let us first examine the backgrounds and core theories of each of these figures.

Clayton Christensen is a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of the wildly popular books The Innovator’s Dilemma and its sequels. Christensen introduced the concept of disruptive innovation, a process by which small companies with inferior products have disrupted industries and eliminated competitors by targeting non-consumption. The smaller company with the inferior product survives because it is of no immediate threat to the larger, more established corporation. In fact, the larger competitor will sometimes gladly give its least profitable customers to the smaller company, glad to move upstream and focus on bigger customers and markets with larger margins. But over time the inferior product improves, and one day its quality and convenience surpasses that provided by the larger company, and suddenly the larger company is out of business. Think about what the home PC did to the supercomputer, and what Netflix did to Blockbuster. The graph below illustrates this concept.

 Image Courtesy Wikipedia

Think about Blockbuster and Netflix. Netflix entered the market as a “low-quality” product compared to Blockbuster. You had to wait days to get your DVDs instead of being able to pick them up immediately. It also wasn’t very profitable compared to Blockbuster’s business model. But Netflix improved. Eventually the quality of the product surpassed the quality of Blockbuster’s, at a much lower price, and it was game over for Blockbuster. By the time Blockbuster reacted it was too little, too late.

John Boyd was an Air Force officer, military strategist, and to say he was unpopular with the majority of his superiors would be an understatement. But his ideas and insights were so profound and his drive so incessant that despite this opposition he changed the art of warfare forever. His ideas led directly to the designs of three of the most successful aircraft in operation; the A-10 Warthog, F-16, and F-18.

One of John Boyd’s most notable contributions to military science is the OODA loop (for observe, orient, decide, and act). As Boyd put it, “Operate inside the adversary’s observation-orientation-decision and action loops to enmesh adversary in a world of uncertainty, doubt, mistrust, confusion, disorder, fear, panic, chaos… and or fold the adversary back inside himself so that he cannot cope with events/efforts as they unfold.” In other words, he who performs the four activities of the OODA loop faster than his opponent and then repeats the cycle, will generally win.

Boyd was in turned influenced by Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher who lived around 500 BC. The concept of OODA loop would have been familiar to Sun Tzu, who stated “He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.” If Sun Tzu had only included the time component, it would have been almost exactly what Boyd’s OODA loop. When one opponent can change his tactics faster than his enemy, the enemy gets thrown off balance, becomes confused, and ultimately will lose.

Applied to the State, these theories spell the end of government as we know it. Perhaps not now, perhaps not in our lifetimes, but it is a likely occurrence at some future date. The State is in the process of being disrupted.

It is difficult to say when it started, but we could point to the Magna Carta, Revolutionary War, and adoption of the US Constitution as major developments. Let’s look at these events through the lens of disruptive innovation as taught by Clayton Christensen. Christensen might first ask us to look for non-consumption. This is somewhat trickier than looking for non-consumption in a business sense. The “product” in this case is power. In England circa 1150 power was consumed primarily by the king, his courtiers, and other well-connected individuals and institutions. The non-consumers were the masses. Then what was the disruptive innovation?

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