A Slashdot post on one of the recent logos for an NRO mission led me into several hours of reading on past missions, then capabilities, then intelligence agencies in general, and finally the Snowden leaks.
I have to admit that in the abstract, this is like seeing a good horror movie. There’s something dreadful about all of it, but also something thrilling. Should I be feeling this way? I think it’s the same thing that little boys feel when they see an SR-71 blackbird or when they watch Star Wars and see the Death Star filling the screen.
These are great and terrible things. The “terrible” is the part that modern, enlightened, politically-left-of-center people tend to focus on, and certainly it is that part and the implicitly negative perspectives on it of which discussions are culturally sanctioned in such company. But the “great” in the previous phrase bears mentioning as well, because it is the source of much temptation (and, I suspect, much trouble in the world).
The little boy in me is fascinated by these things because they are immensely powerful. Powerful agencies. Powerful technologies. Powerful social structures. If, as some have argued, the essence of masculinity is efficacy, then it is easy to see why young boys gravitate so frequently toward power. Anyone that’s been a little boy, or that’s had one, can sense this before the capacity for speech even develops.
Big things. Loud things. Carniverous dinosaurs. Efficient predators. Electrical tools. Train engines. Trucks with large wheels and growling exhausts. Jet planes and race cars. Swords and guns. Power. The power to get things done. Just what things—is too often beside the point.
— § —
As a young pre- and early-teen at my parents house, I built (simply because I could) a monster computing system starting in the late ’80s and evolving into the early ’90s. Symmetric multiprocessing, dozens of megabytes of memory (huge at the time), large multi-mechanism SCSI RAID arrays, two 4-bit raster heads and three RS-232 VT-100 heads, all tied into a UUCP feed. It didn’t run MS-DOS, Windows, AppleDOS, etc., or indeed any of the common applications of the day. It ran an obscure Unix variant (the only one that I could afford to license) better suited to particular infrastructural needs in enterprise computing.
What did I do with it? Keep a diary. Play with code. Most of the storage space went unused. Four of the five heads were constantly running “screen savers” (think of it—getting a bunch of VT-100s and connecting them up via RS-232 just to log in, run a text-based screen saver over serial, and then ignore them).
Why? Power. The system and its integrations was/were powerful. No, I didn’t use most of its capacities or capabilities in the least. I used the UUCP feed to send personal email and pull a few humor newsgroups off of Usenet. I didn’t have many uses for it at all, in the end. But somehow the fact that I could do all kinds of computationally and socially intensive things with it, that it had the capacity to be a powerful instrument and system made me love it, fetishize it. Somewhere there is a photo of me holed up there with five heads and several large towers in my bedroom as a young teenager. It was taken by a friend. No doubt many of the other teens that stumbled into my bedroom thought I was doing all kinds of wild computational and networking stuff, rather than just playing around with dynamic Huffman encoding every now and then and optimizing algorithms that I didn’t really use all that much, or have any use for in fact, and all for for no particular reason.
I just wanted power. Not to use it. I had no use for it. Just to have it. Just to see it sitting there in front of me, being powerful.
— § —
The “great” in the “great and terrible” programs of the NRO, NSA, CIA and the like—and in “great and terrible” states—is too often overlooked or denied. The greatness is a matter of great scale and great efficacy. These are seductive things still, to the little boy in me.
They lead me to read about these programs, technologies, states, and so on with overt disgust and aversion while covertly repressing both a thrill at their capacity and a regret that they are not under my control, or no longer exist, or some other caveat that carries them beyond my reach, that leaves me unable to experience their power directly. Because somehow, even if they had and have been used for evil, the capacity that they represent, the raw power, lies beyond good and evil, in the realm of massive potentialities for action and effect.
The seductiveness is dangerous, I think, and it surprises me and at times makes me ashamed that I feel it. But I do. I’ve never stopped. I see it in my son, too, in his constant quest to identify bigger, badder dinosaurs, and faster, stronger vehicles. Not because he can imagine any use for them, but because they are powerful.
— § —
Another thing that I used to do on my massive system (and have still been known to to from time to time on my current, far less extravagant in contemporary terms white-box Core i7 system) is run benchmarks that basically make a big show of using every last drop of processing ability and throughput that a system offers—all in the interest of showing a cute dial or calculating an abstract number that ostensibly represents the “capability” of the system but that in fact, underneath it all for most users, shows that you have put the system to its maximum use.
Why? Why burn all of this electricity to engage in pointless calculation, only to discard it?
Because once you have power, you feel compelled to make use of it from time to time, just to revel in its raw capability. To see the power exercised, even if toward no particular end. So when I’m not busy doing a big render or processing video for my day job, I nonetheless find myself tempted now and then to crank the thing anyway. Because.
This is the place where I say that power corrupts.
— § —
I see this tendency in myself and in my three-year-old son, but I don’t see it in the same way in my wife or in my five-year-old daughter.
I stand in a kind of solidarity with my son, understanding what he feels, but I’m also well-aware as a (however inadequate) student of the world of the ways in which this fascination can come to no good—of the seductiveness of power and efficacy, the compulsion to pursue them for their own sake, and then, once they’re in hand, the compulsion to put them to use, just to see power exercised, not as good and not as evil, but merely as power itself (yet with good and evil epiphenomena that the adult in me realizes are its real importances and legacies).
Hopefully as he ages, this impulse in him will also be sublimated into the kind of bibliophilia that leaves him reading books and articles about various kinds of power, about the NROs, NSAs, CIAs, and superstates of his time—overtly to worry about it all, and covertly to get a thus (I tell myself) harmless fix.