Sunday, June 23

China and secrets?

(additions in italics.)

At the moment, I'm seeing a lot of suggestions that China is responsible for Snowden's actions.

If that is true, I think it might also be fair to claim that the U.S. intelligence structures (which NSA is a "visible" aspect of) is something that China is responsible for. China is known, after all, for its vast bureaucratic structures, for its love of secrets, and for its relatively stable civilizations. And, as a structure, the NSA (or, rather, the shadowy vastness which the NSA is a visible component of) seems to be a reflection of this kind of thinking.

So is this a good thing, or a bad thing? Or is that even the right question? (And is it even true? Note that we might blame the drug war on China - China, after all, was defeated by a drug war back in the 1800s and it's just natural that people will take a tactic which was successfully used against them and try to use it in their defense. On the other hand, it was a British tactic in the first place, and also we've been making major mistakes in our math both in the context of economic theory and in the context of medical theory.)

My current thought is that secrets make for inefficiencies. Sometimes inefficiencies can be seen as good (sales people typically like to keep their contact list secret, for example, because they do not want competitors to be more efficient than themselves, in dealing with the people that they have relationships with). Sometimes inefficiencies can be seen as bad (they do, after all, block certain kinds of actions and innovations).

I also find China's censorship system distasteful. I can understand some motivations that might be behind it (preventing discord, squelching falsehood, and/or exercising people's abilities to overcome adversities), and in some respects it's a fairly gentle system (it's slow, and people can often exchange information before it kicks in). Still, when combined with other things which cause fear, it conveys the message that the government might kill you if you say the wrong kind of thing. And I fear that that limits people's abilities and thoughts.  Also its most notable feature - the suppression of calls to action - is about government stability but also suggests a lack of tolerance for the exchange of ideas. And, most especially, it institutionalizes support for "editing history". And I think respect for history is crucial for the health of a nation. This feels to me like the difference between "learning from our mistakes" and "hiding our mistakes".

People try to solve problems which will prevent them from surviving.

Anyways... my thoughts on this subject are uncertain. Secrecy, after all, is enforced ignorance. Which seems odd, because ignorance is not something we have any shortage of.

On the other hand, privacy and secrecy go hand-in-hand - they are different words describing much the same thing.

But, also, over the long run, secrecy tends to erode, as does knowledge. We converge on a steady state where issues become exposed and details get lost. And I suspect that advances in communication techniques shift this steady state - new ways of expressing ideas allow for understandings which were not previously possible, and lack of support for older information storage formats allow for new ways for information to be lost.

It also seems to me that keeping strategies secret is a mistake. How do you even know if you are cooperating with a strategy if you do not know what it is? But operational secrecy - keeping secret the precise details of how you have implemented a strategy - can sometimes be a good thing. And this kind of thing is probably the distinction between "secrecy" and "privacy".

Meanwhile... about that "NSA" thing... it seems to me also that modern computer architectures leak information at a rate quite a bit higher than most people understand. People fall into the trap of thinking about "solutions" and don't quite realize the mechanisms being used. But computers are electronic mechanisms and they radiate quite a lot of information in the electronic spectrum in various ways. And, at a fine level of detail they execute sequences of instructions which only achieve a purpose in an aggregate and in a context.

So, from my point of view, the "NSA" has been trying to adapt to this situation without changing it. Their mission - stopping really outrageously horrid things - in some ways becomes easier and in some ways becomes harder with modern computer architectures and engineering. But you can't really operate without having some effects, both direct and indirect.

Meanwhile, we see the problems created by elaborate government secrecy more clearly, in the context of the NSA than we do in countries where it's just accepted that people are going to be doing secret things. And regardless of what the best way of doing things is, we have to live with the situation we find ourselves in.


My current thought is we take advantage of the efficiencies that come from being aware of government secrecy. In the U.S.A. we should probably institutionalize this - U.S. courts are designed to be publicly visible, and our contribution to the world is based on our concepts of fairness and rights.

Of course, we have a long way to go, both within the U.S. and outside. We need to learn how to turn negative criticism into positive criticism. We need to re-engage in our economy those who have been lost to us through various mistakes in deregulation and banking. We have been trying to support a large number of other countries - supplying military to Germany and Japan because 70 years ago we did not trust them to supply their own but as a side effect removing that burden from their economies. But also we have been supplying food to a variety of countries, and so on. But we need to recognize that gifts alone are not a solution to problems (and that relates to our own internal struggles).

So... taking a few steps back, I'm going to say some things which I hope are not so obvious as to be annoying:

We need people engaged and active in trading for each other's benefit. We need children to be raised with adequate nutrition and good language and math skills. We need people thinking about real problems and not bored because they have been shielded from the things that matter to them. We need to respect and support those that work hard for our benefit, because our lives depend on them. We need to break out of the "enemy" mind sets where we view conflicts as something inherent in the person rather than the problem.

And here's one that I think should be obvious but seems to be sadly controversial:

We need to get rid of the idea that celibacy is a virtue - I think we should require that our leaders first be good parents.

Since I think that that one is controversial, I think I should try to talk a bit about the mechanisms and the social conflicts hiding behind that statement. But I am not a parent myself, so I'll just mention that issues include dealing with exhaustion, the ability to set relevant priorities, and an appreciation for our lives. (Note also that I am not particularly concerned about the genetic aspects of parenting, I am more concerned about supporting and valuing children (and the elderly, for that matter) - I think that if we can't sort out these issues for ourselves that we should not be telling other people what to do with their lives.)

Anyways, back to national secrets.

My current thought is that strategic secrecy is harmful but that operational secrecy is something we have to accept and allow for. My reasoning here boils down to: We simply do not have the brain power to comprehend all that goes on at a detailed level, and we have visceral needs for privacy (albeit, socially constructed needs) but if we don't agree about some things at some general level we can't even make sense of what we are saying when we talk with each other.

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