The Hubris of Systems

One of the reasons Edward Snowden managed to collect thousands of sensitive documents from the NSA and then escape overseas, is because the NSA’s greatest weakness is its overconfidence in the strength and predictability of its systems—both its  information technology systems and its organizational systems.

Systems are self-contained, predictable, perform specific roles and fulfill pre-defined requirements. The creators, implementers and maintainers of systems tend to conflate human beings with systems themselves. Systems are not capable of originality; they do not act in the world.

The NSA and other surveillance organizations rely on monolithic and consistently patterned systems in order to ensure predictability and prevent outside actions from disturbing the flow of information collection and analysis.

The NSA’s weakness and blind spot is its inability to consider the possibility that an individual from within could act out and disrupt the system by allowing the outside world to enter in – a world that is anti-systematic and disruptive.

In an article about Russia’s decision to grant asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden, journalist Julia Ioffe says: “[The Russians] assumed that the U.S. and its government was one sleek, well-functioning monolith, that Obama was omnipotent, and that everyone in the world, including other important (and nuclear!) world leaders, act and must act as Russia demands it should, using Russian foreign policy calculus, and with only Russian interests in mind.”

She says that this statement applies equally well to the US in relation to Russia. It is also a good description of hubristic nature of massive spy organizations like the NSA.

Edward Snowden’s actions are a beautiful example of the capacity of human beings to create new beginnings by acting in the world in a wholly new and unpredictable way:

“It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before. This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings … The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.”

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

The potential that each person has to introduce new possibilities into the world is a threat to massive information systems. These systems rely on limiting unpredictable actions and behaviour. Such disruptions are perceived by the system as malfunctions or new elements that must be subsumed and stripped of their uniqueness.

Ed Snowden broke ranks with his fellow system maintainers: “…one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.” -Hannah Arendt