Technology And Intelligence In The Next Decade

The below is an essay I wrote for my Technology and Intelligence class in early 2008 (STIA-432 at Georgetown University). It is meant to describe a few of the current problems faced and the nature of those problems, but not to offer up solutions. In the past year we have certainly seen the continuation of existing challenges coupled with the emergence of new ones. Today’s scientific and technological paradigm is by no means a simple one. But I do believe that with the collaboration of bright minds and the continued objective to ride and guide the progressive technological waves of the 21st century, substantial risks will be mitigated.

If History Could Tell

Since the establishment of the Office of Strategic Services in 1942 and subsequently the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947 (via the National Security Act), a core mission has been the collection and analysis of strategic, actionable information. This process has always required technology in the form of communications equipment, navigational tools, security systems, listening devices, and many more. Historically, the Intelligence Community as a whole has been way ahead of the technological curve, and in most cases, has established and controlled the curve. With information security and access to federal funds, various agencies have been given the ability to turn novel ideas into useful instruments for collection, analysis, and dissemination. However, history has become the past, and no longer dictates the way in which the world of technological development can move forward. Federal and international regulations, advancement in information theory, collaborative networks, and the global information age via the internet have all contributed to rapid, world-wide technological development that is no longer behind the IC on the tech curve. In the next decade, the Intelligence Community has the potential to fall even or behind any lines of global technological development, and as a result will find new struggles in all sources of intelligence, whether clandestine or not. Some arguments state that the IC, with some elements of special authority granted to preserve national security interests, will flourish as a developing technical lab for operations. However, the best and the brightest technical and analytical minds are not necessarily organized within the IC anymore, but rather are connected without boundary via the internet. Open-source development and the speed at which the commercial world can access capital may eventually move the IC technical approach to the back of the line.

The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts

Collaborative technologies have particularly flourished in the past five years. Social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Flickr, knowledge management platforms such as Microsoft SharePoint and TheBrain Technologies, and the entire blogosphere have accelerated communications without any distance barriers to get around. Information is passed, shared, and edited with the click of a button. SourceForge, an online network for open-source software development, has brought a vast array of new technologies to a market that never before existed. This lack of predictability for the technological market puts the IC in “catch-up” mode. Wikipedia, as well as other information warehouses, accelerates knowledge consumption for the individual – not just a business or state entity. With a horizontal, access-free, organizational structure, these applications have few barriers. Although the IC works to chase these technologies with A-Space and Intellipedia, an accompanying hierarchical structure and tiered-access system could truly dampen collaboration on a technological front.

Getting Small Could Lead To…

As the world grows in size and energy, the capability to pack information, data, and logic into smaller and smaller units continues to develop. Through nanotechnology and quantum computing, academic research groups as well as large corporations have minimized size requirements and increased processing speed in the same products. The associated power that now exists in these products outside of the Intelligence Community weakens the IC’s ongoing ability to leverage such products for foreign surveillance tactics with communications, imagery, measurements, and signals collection.

…A Much Bigger Problem

In the next decade, the IC and the United States as a whole will face incredible security and technological challenges. The tension will be increased as national policy will have to deal with finding a balance between civil liberties and national security interests. With recent information warfare events such as hacks into Pentagon computers, developmental advantages can change in an instant. International policies will also affect development within the U.S. government and could unfortunately give an edge to non-governmental organizations that have easier ability to practice CBRN weapons testing (with high-tech delivery instruments), removed from many international regulations. Unfortunately, if the Intelligence Community is to drift toward a more reactionary state, the technological and security risks become increasingly more serious.

A (New) Final Thought

It’s just as important to anticipate the wave as it is to ride and guide the wave. Surfers find waves through reaction AND proaction. The same goes for the collection, analysis, and technological development. There is more historical and real-time data than ever before. Deterministic and probabilistic models are more advanced than ever before. We can do something with all this data to find patterns and indications of technological risk. At the same time, we have more intellectual and psychological understanding of cultures around the world, and the associated mechanisms of travel, prayer, consumption, loyalty, and desire than ever before. Pairing one with the other gives us the connect-the-dot power that can truly shape our understanding and awareness of the world and the technological risks that threaten our security and sustainability as people.

Negative Space Is A Positive Thing

“It weighs, therefore it is.” – on the study of carbon dioxide by Joseph Black (c. 1756)

I’m currently reading The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson. It’s about the life, work, beliefs, time, and impact of Joseph Priestley – an 18th century scientist and theologian. With his life’s work, Priestley can be credited with enabling what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm shift” in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He did this through transparency of his experiments, thoughts, and findings, and the creation of information networks similar to the coffee shops and online forums we see today.

What I find very interesting about Priestley’s work was that he was interested in negative space – the ether surrounding the things we see and touch and feel. Although physically clear, air’s purpose and nature were not. It was not until Priestley questioned the negative space of Earth that the human race began to fully grasp the purposes of plant life, respiration, and chemistry.

Aside from with air, negative space can be found in every subject in all throughout history. In art it’s a resting place for the eye in a painting or photo. In music, it’s a purposeful section of silence. In science, it was the hypothetical medium through which electromagnetic waves travel. In Taoism is was the inaction that served more purpose than action.

Negative space is more representative than anything. It’s the unclear existences, the non-obvious relationships – that which eludes the immediate naked eye. But when sought after, the negative space provides power and energy. It shifts science into new paradigms, pushes art into new dimensions, and builds new meaning from otherwise empty space.

We should continuously embrace the negative space and utilize it for the power and meaning it can hold. Whether in a logo, painting, thought, vision, scene, or air we breathe, it’s often the negative space that brings us life.