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15 November 2007

Lessons of the strike

We have never been much a fan of unions in this modern era of incredible individual opportunity and rapid innovation – qualities seemingly quite at odds with the behavior of most forms of organized labor. We do however freely admit that unions have their place in a competitive market economy so long as individuals are free to choose to organize (or not) as their preference dictates, free from pressure or intimidation. For a variety of reasons, however, we have never had much call to consider organized labor within the context of the intelligence community (though the actions overseas unions were indeed a prominent feature of political analysis during the Cold War.)

Thus, the ongoing Hollywood writer’s strike is quite unfamiliar territory to contemplate. We have long known that the studios which drive that town are essentially specialized forms of financial vehicles designed to leverage investment against the high initial costs of media production and distribution against a potential return measured in popularity (and attending profits). In the course of our musings on the death of other forms of traditional media – particularly those of the fishwrapper variety - we have enjoyed the analysis of various contemporary commentators and pundits who sought to describe the impact of the digital revolution on these entities’ future. However, in the past they had seemed sufficiently disconnected from the concerns of the community’s own revolution in intelligence affairs that we could discern no potential lessons learned – with the possible exception of the fiasco that digital rights management (DRM) implementations have become, and the attending incentives for new cryptanalysis and covert communications technologies that emerged for defeating such DRM and related copyright enforcement systems.

However, the serial entrepreneur (and philanthropist) Marc Andreessen offers up a new piece regarding the strike that has spurred us to reconsider that opinion. His take on the situation is a classic example of opportunity analysis - and one well worth reading not merely for its insight into the potential of a Silicon Valley business model for the next generation media business.

While we differ with those who characterize the profession of intelligence as a specialized form of journalism or (albeit wonkish) media, we cannot argue with many of the very real parallels between intelligence community production processes and consumer outcomes issues to those experienced in the “Industry”. Among the similarities we will concede are the eternal quest for consumer attention, the need for a perceived return on investment of that time for the consumer, and the increasing demands of a more mobile consumer base more closely attuned to 24/7 information streams, and the increasing availability of numerous alternative sources of substituting products. We also see the same kinds of monolithic industrial age structures – adapted for the demands of an earlier age, and often adrift in the current environment.

Thus Andreessen’s piece strikes a unique sort of chord as we contemplate the vast legions of line analysts and field collectors who toil under cumbersome layers of management bureaucracy – both within government and their contractor counterparts. Increasingly, the barriers to entry for those attempting to produce high quality finished intelligence based on unique information sources not commonly available are falling ever faster. In many cases, only the inertia of the incumbents and the market-distorting effects of a cumbersome clearance process are arguably the only reasons why alternative products based on open source information and other, non-governmental intelligence efforts do not surface to defeat entrenched but uncompetitive offerings. But the incentives for the development of alternative models are clearly also present. And in key emerging issue areas, such as the cyber domain, there is the earliest indicators that such alternative may yet develop – perhaps paving the way for other efforts targeting other key accounts.

There is also a line that we note particularly well in the context of our earlier examination of the numbers of intelligence students graduating from the academic programs that will likely never hold a clearance, but will still seek employment utilizing their professional skillset and education. “after all, if you really can't work for the Man, why not start your own company, if you can”? We have no doubt that many of those not in the favored 28% will also take note – and we would not be willing to bet against their chances of success.

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