Tom Atlee: Surveillance and parasitism harm society’s collective intelligence

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Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

Surveillance and parasitism harm society’s collective intelligence

What this post is about:  Society’s collective intelligence needs to be able to see clearly what’s going on and take action about it.  Both NSA surveillance and corporate suppression of activism interfere with that vital dynamic.  This post clarifies what’s going on in these dynamics and suggests strategies to counter them and increase society’s collective intelligence.

Any healthy living system will try to weed out challenges that threaten its functioning. That’s what immune systems do: they preserve business-as-usual in a body.

But this natural maintenance activity of a system can be counterproductive:
(a) when changing circumstances demand adaptive responses, when the system NEEDS to change its business-as-usual – and
(b) when the system has been parasitized by something that is using it for the parasite’s own purposes at the larger system’s expense.

Entire post below the line, with links.

Examples of parasitic system dynamics include:

  • humanity’s exploitation and degradation of the natural environment;
  • corporate colonization of politics, government, and the media;
  • metastasizing cancer’s fatal takeover of its host’s body.

In this post I’m interested in circumstances where both (a) and (b) exist – where we find demand for change and systemic parasitism simultaneously – because that’s what we see in our society today. I’m interested in how the NSA creates conditions where needed changes will not be talked about. And I’m interested in how major corporations* parasitize our politics and government. The articles below address both dynamics.

Three of these articles give further information about how deep the NSA’s intrusion goes, and how it may be used. The first, from whistleblowing journalist Glenn Greenwald at the UK Guardian, describes NSA’s XKeyscore program which “collects nearly everything a user does on the Internet’ and “allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals” including American citizens. The second, from NSA expert James Bamford in the NY Review of Books, overviews the history of major NSA revelations, including listening in on Americans’ phone conversations without a warrant and establishing secret illegal agreements and technical installations with major telecommunications companies. Bamford notes disturbing similarities to George Orwell’s vision in his infamous book 1984. The third article, by Salon columnist and movie critic Andrew O’Hehir, describes how the NSA has been turning over certain surveillance data (which is supposedly to counter terrorism) to drug enforcement authorities – a link intentionally hidden from courts and lawyers – raising the specter not only of race-based targeting but of using drug laws to suppress dissent.

The last article, by investigative journalist Steve Horn, reveals the strategies used by major corporations – through the private intelligence firm Stratfor – to weed out or co-opt activists who challenge corporate activities or seek to change the systems they control.


Stratfor sorts activists into “radicals, idealists, realists and opportunists,” as follows:

1. Opportunists seek visibility, power and followers, so they can be seduced into siding with corporate players to create solutions that will advance their careers.

2. Realists are pragmatic and just want results, so they tend to avoid radical programs. Willing to work within the system and live with trade-offs, they can be co-opted into agreeing with industry or engaged in negotiations and common projects that involve minimal compromise for the corporations.

3. Idealists are altruistic and want a perfect world. They can be convinced (and “educated”) that an oppositional stance is not justified and then cultivated into becoming realists.

4. Radical activists want to change the system. They tend to see multinational corporations as inherently evil and do not trust governments to protect them and to safeguard the environment. They usually have underlying socio/political goals like social justice and political empowerment. They should be isolated and their credibility undermined.

Consider Stratfor’s activist strategy in light of the systemic dynamics described earlier. Stratfor cleverly marginalizes activist voices that could lead to systemic change. So if you think business-as-usual is good and should be sustained, then you should support Stratfor’s approach. On the other hand, if you think business-as-usual is damaging human and natural life, then you should see Stratfor’s efforts to disrupt activism as a threat to be neutralized by society so that society is better able to use its collective intelligence to heal and transform itself.


In any case, to the extent serious change is needed – and I definitely believe it is – efforts to stop it will, by definition, ultimately fail. Technologies to impede needed change only delay it. We see many examples, from air conditioners (which shield us from the effects of climate change, reducing our sense of urgency while mostly running on fossil fuels that increase global warming) to public relations campaigns (which make us feel we are getting our needs met by the parasites that are consuming our world).

But if a changing environment REQUIRES that an entity – whether animal, person, or society – makes certain changes, then those changes WILL happen or the entity will die. Efforts to maintain business-as-usual will only increase the factors that press for change – factors that generate disequilibrium and disruption – factors in society like unemployment, injustice, weather disasters, social unrest, etc. We can view all these as information-rich messages to the system – messages precious to the system’s collective intelligence – and their energies will keep mounting until there is an appropriate response or the system collapses or there is a (usually violent) revolution of some kind.

The alternative to collapse and brutal change is wise, proactive, conscious foresight and evolution that arise from and feed our collective learning. This approach involves far less destruction and suffering than the approach of engineered distraction leading to collapse and/or revolution. But that wiser approach requires facing society’s most fundamental issues – those issues that can only be dealt with by significant transformation. It requires neutralizing the forces that keep society from confronting those issues and taking effective action.


So here we see the NSA’s surveillance programs – which inspire silence and inaction by those who see what needs changing – and Stratfor’s efforts to divide and conquer activists who critique dangerous corporate activities. Both initiatives serve to corrode the ability of society-as-a-whole to see, think, and act clearly – to exercise our society-wide collective intelligence to achieve and sustain our collective well-being.

The time to neutralize or bypass both of them is now, while we have the collective wits and resources to do so. I can see at least four strategies for this:

A. Spread awareness of the existence of these efforts to subvert society’s capacity for collective intelligence. Shine light on manipulative strategies that depend on secrecy to corrupt the workings of democracy. This approach aligns well with other forms of political and corporate exposé and whistleblowing and with battles against centralized media control and manipulation of elections (from gerrymandering and voter ID laws to hacked voting machines and Super-PACs).

B. Sponsor strategic conversations among diverse activists that deepen awareness of (a) the common systemic sources of most issues; (b) the potential complementarity of diverse activist strategies and tactics; and (c) the considerable common ground between Left and Right activists who recognize the danger of unaccountable centralized authority in both governments and corporations. Together these understandings can be used to build alliances and strategic leverage. For example, radical activists can coordinate with pragmatic activists to push negotiations towards more fundamental outcomes – and Left and Right activists can publicly proclaim “We don’t agree on a lot, but we agree on this issue”, making it harder to divide the public against them.

A complementary approach is based on what I call “intercentricity”: Identify oneself as a climate- (or justice- or peace- or liberty- or community-) CENTERED activist, rather than simply a climate (or justice or peace or liberty or community) activist. Instead of setting boundaries between the focus of my activism and yours and seeing each other’s issue as a distraction, we can both identify the heart of our activism and seek strategic connections between what most matters to me and what most matters to you.

C. Related to (B) but more primal: Build a movement based on the disciplined spiritual potency of truth, love, evolution, or some similar universal power. Gandhi urged his adversaries to join in a shared, peer exploration for deeper truth regarding their shared situation. If his adversaries were not willing to do that, Gandhi’s movement had the organizing skill and discipline to totally jam up their business-as-usual and revolutionize the context within which they existed. Much of Gandhian power derived from its authentic focus on Truth rather than mere victory. Martin Luther King, Jr., engaged a similar dynamic by tapping the power of Love, of unconditional positive regard for his adversaries while exerting disciplined and lovingly forceful engagement with the injustices that stood in the way of creating a loving society. In my book Reflections on Evolutionary Activism I suggest similar transformational potency is available from an inspired identity with the 13.7 billion year old mother of all change dynamics, evolution, a power that lives within us all, individually and collectively. Nowadays, any such movement could use modern tools like Nonviolent Communication, Dynamic Facilitation, and Open Space to call forth people’s deep needs and passions to generate individual and collective transformation. This kind of consciousness taps a power that is both higher and deeper than business-as-usual and even most activism, a power that doesn’t merely solve issues and conflicts but uses them as resources to lift both activists and society to a saner, wiser plane of functioning.

D. Broaden our strategic purpose to enhance the collective intelligence of our whole society. We can view collective intelligence as a “meta-issue” within and around every other issue because collective intelligence (in its stupid and/or brilliant manifestations) is what we inevitably use to deal with every issue anyway. (It is important to remember that collective intelligence is a capacity of the whole system – the whole group, organization, community, or society – rather than simply the aggregate individual intelligences of the people in the system. See here.) Activism to promote a wise democracy bypasses and trumps special interests by empowering We the People (inclusive of the actual diversity of people and perspective) to be more informed and wise in their pursuit of the common good. It is much harder for special interests to counter policies that are clearly the considered judgment of a whole democratic community.

Any and all of these – and perhaps other strategies you can think of – can serve to neutralize the efforts of social parasites to colonize our collective intelligence when we urgently need that shared intelligence to wisely adapt and innovate in our times of extreme change, challenge, and opportunity.


* Corporations that relentlessly maximize quarterly profits and executive salaries are almost always parasitic, especially when they are multinational. But not all corporations are social parasites – and not all social parasites are corporations. Indeed, some activists and corporations are working to transform corporate relationships with society and the environment from parasitic to symbiotic – that is, mutually beneficial. I will be writing more about that in a subsequent post. (At a deeper philosophical level, we can look at my – and others’ – statements about “corporations” as generalizations and therefore problematic. All generalizations fail to describe reality fully and accurately. Some generalizations are useful for highlighting certain aspects of reality. Acknowledging the gifts and limitations of all – and specific – generalizations can reduce the dangers of using them. I am trying to briefly do that here.)


1. XKeyscore: NSA Tool Collects ‘Nearly Everything a User Does on the Internet’
By Glenn Greenwald – The Guardian (U.K.)

2. They Know Much More Than You Think
By James Bamford

3. The NSA-DEA police state tango
by Andrew O’Hehir

4. How To Win The Media War Against Grassroots Activists: Stratfor’s Strategies
By Steve Horn | July 29, 2013

Phi Beta Iota:  This is the only web site on the planet — at least in the English language — that simultaneously promotes collective intelligence (wisdom of the aggregate) and professional intelligence (decision-support).  THERE IS NO CONFLICT!  There will be no change in how the USA “does” intelligence in the near future, but eventually — no later than 2020 — the USA will transform into a Smart Nation that integrates education, intelligence, and research, in which the human brain is recognized as the principal national asset, ethics and transparency as the principle methods for optimizing collective intelligence, and strategy is understood as Edgar Morin understands it: programs are retarded anal retentive attempts to hold on to what is dead; strategy is a frame of reference for maintaining course while being agile in the face of compelling disorder and change.  The Taliban have a strategy.  The USA does not have a strategy, in part because strategy, to be viable, demands a grip on reality.

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