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The cult of expertise

I just got back from 1.5 days of meetings with members of the CIA’s intelligence analysis community who are interested in what social software can do for them. There were six of us “experts” and about 50 CIA folks. These are the people who put together analyses and “estimates” about what’s going on in the world so that our leaders can ignore them and do what will get them re-elected (or, in some particularly Oedipal cases, do what will make Mommy love them more than Mommy loves Daddy). In short, these folks are among the few representatives of the Reality Principle in our government. I would like them to be able to do their job ever better.

We weren’t given any confidential information (well, except that Mrs. Wanda Appleton of 123 Elm St. better stop what she’s been doing…you know what I’m talking about, Wanda), but we agreed to blog only generalities so that discussion could be frank. Here are my generalities:

This was a totally fascinating set of sessions. The CIA folks there included visionaries (e.g., Calvin Andrus), internal bloggers, the people behind Intellipedia (an in-house wikipedia), folks from the daily in-house newspaper, and some managers not yet sold on the idea of blogs and wikis and tags.

It sounds like there’s a fairly vibrant blogging community already, including some senior people. But, there’s cultural tension over, for example, whether a blog that contains any personal information means that a government employee has been misusing tax payers’ computers. It is a culture in transition, as you can imagine.

It began with an informal presentation by one of the analysts (first-name only, no email address) who took us through a typical day. He gets evaluated on the basis of the written reports he produces. There is some collegiality — more than I encountered as an academic — but the back-and-forth of commentary isn’t captured. It all comes down to the finished written document. (No document is ever finished, the panel said.)

The panel overall stressed that the issues were social, not technical. Also, we pushed for building memory by capturing more of the work-in-process and by linking linking linking. I personally would like to see the Agency get past the cult of expertise, moving instead to a view of knowledge as social. That means showing work in progress and capturing the discussion during and after publication. But that also means changing how analysts are evaluated and promoted. One of the participants said that already one’s “corridor reputation” affects one’s career. There should also be — and will also be — an e-corridor reputation that helps advance you because you’re a great commenter, a frequent contributor to the wiki, or have a blog that’s getting read.

The people we met with are serious about understanding the opportunities, experimenting, piloting, and evangelizing. I liked them. I would like them to get better and better not only at understanding what’s happening in the world but also at not being “spun.” [Tags: ]

Keep in mind that we met with the report-writing analyst side of the Agency. As for that other side where they engage in “operations” — unrepresented at this meeting — I sure would like them to stop torturing people. But, hey, I’m just a crazed Boston liberal.

10 Responses to “The cult of expertise”

  1. I can only imagine the edit wars on the wiki page for the best way to pull peoples’ fingernails out. Is there a Frank Olsen page? I wonder what it says?

  2. Did it occur to you, as a liberal, that perhaps the liberality, openness and efficiency of the people you were engaging with could be directly, even intrinsically related to the death-dealing capacities of the people you were not engaging with? Could it be that a superior fluidity and equality in social exchanges, when concentrated and set to work within a powerful and secretive organization, might actually serve purposes of social domination? What does it mean to be a “liberal”?

  3. Do they monitor blogs using the capabilities of the NSA infrastructure ? I know that’s OT for that session, and you probably wouldn’t be so impolite as to ask .. but I would bet you are / were curious about that.

  4. Actually, Jon it never occurred to me. I guess I don’t much care if the CIA is spidering blogs, alongside Google, Technorati and Robert Scoble.

    But, Brian, yes, that has occurred to me, thanks. And thirty years ago, I would have refused to talk with them. But, life is complex, and I’d rather have the CIA giving our leaders accurate information than inaccurate information. I’d also like to make it harder for our leaders to lie to us about what the CIA has told them. I’d also like to see torturers prosecuted.

    As I say, life is complex.

  5. Hmmm … I didn’t post my original comment, as it didn’t seem worth it, but maybe I should have.

    My standard objection to social blather, including blogs, wikis, “prediction markets”, and whatever else the NewNewThing crowd is pushing: People can’t handle the truth. They don’t *WANT* the truth.

    We need only look to the Valerie Plame scandal (I like the term the “Plame-out”, but it didn’t catch on) to see how much those in charges actively wanted to undermine accurate intelligence. No amount of blogosity would change this.

    I don’t think the danger here is in making the CIA more efficient. I think the danger is in creating yet another way that sucking up to the relevant A-listers and telling people what they want to hear is the path to career advancement. Granted, there’s plenty of that already, so it can be argued this stuff is nothing new. But exhalting the incestuous, petty, bullying, personality-driven processes, can’t be good.

  6. Definition

    Experts = witlessness = the pleasure of being INTELLIGENT.

    1. put together for transport or storing etc. for preservation. pack up (sl.), (of an engine) peter out, go out of action.

  7. You had to be there. The CIA analysts we talked with struck me as 100% sincere in their desire to provide better information to their clients. They recognize that collaboration is necessary to get there, and that social network software fosters collaboration. David and I could probably debate about which of us is more liberal (Boston versus Berkeley), but we agree that these people are looking in the right direction.


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