We experience cultural continuity with our parents’ and our children’s generations. Even when we don’t see eye to eye with our parents on political questions or we sigh in despair about our kids’ fashion sense or taste in music, we generally have a handle on what makes them tick. But a human lifetime seldom spans more than three generations, and the sliding window of one’s generation screens out that which came before and that which comes after; they lie outside our personal experience. We fool ourselves into thinking that our national culture is static and slow-moving, that we are the inheritors of a rich tradition. But if we could go back three or four generations, we would find ourselves surrounded by aliens — people for whom a North Atlantic crossing by sail was as slow and risky as a mission to Mars, people who took it for granted that some races were naturally inferior and that women were too emotionally unstable to be allowed to vote. The bedrock of our cultural tradition is actually quicksand. We reject many of our ancestors’ cherished beliefs and conveniently forget others, not realizing that, in turn, our grandchildren may do the same to ours.
Let’s focus on the next three generations and try to discern some patterns.
Generation X’s parents, the baby boomers, grew up in the 1950s. It was not unusual to expect to work in the same job for life. They seldom traveled internationally because it was expensive and slow, and their cultural environment was predominantly defined by their nationality — an extraordinary international incursion such as the arrival of Beatlemania in the 1960s was shocking precisely because it was so unusual.
With few exceptions, Generation X never had the job for life. Members of the generation are used to nomadic employment, hire-and-fire, right-to-work laws, the whole nine yards of organized-labor deracination. But they also grew up in the age of cheap jet travel, on a globe shrunk so small that 48 hours and two weeks’ average wages could take you to the antipodes. (In 1813, you could pay two weeks’ average wages and take 48 hours to travel 100 to 200 miles by stagecoach. In 2013, that can take you from Maryland to Hong Kong — and then on to Moscow.)
Generation Y’s parents are Generation X. Generation Y comprises the folks who serve your coffee in Starbucks and build software at Google. Generation Y has never thought of jobs as permanent things. Most Generation Y folks will stare at you blankly if you talk about loyalty to one’s employer; the old feudal arrangement (“we’ll give you a job for life and look after you as long as you look out for the Organization”) is something their grandparents ranted about, but it’s about as real to them as the divine right of kings. Employers like Google or Facebook that provide good working conditions are the exception, not the rule. Employers are alien hive-mind colony intelligences that will fuck you over for the bottom line on the quarterly balance sheet. They’ll give you a laptop and tell you to hot-desk or work at home so that they can save money on office floor space and furniture. They’ll dangle the offer of a permanent job over your head but keep you on a zero-hours contract for as long as is convenient.
On the other hand: Generation Y has grown up in a world where travel is cheap and communication is nearly free. Their cultural zeitgeist is less parochial than that of their grandparents, more global, infused with Japanese anime and Swedish heavy metal, as well as local media produce. This is the world they grew up in: This is the world that defines their expectations.
The problem is, you can’t run a national security organization if you can’t rely on the loyalty of the majority of your workers — both to the organization and to the state it serves. At one time, continuity of employment meant that the agencies at least knew their people, but there is now an emerging need to security-clear vast numbers of temporary and transient workers with no intrinsic sense of loyalty to the organization.
The NSA and its fellow swimmers in the acronym soup of the intelligence-industrial complex are increasingly dependent on nomadic contractor employees and increasingly subject to staff churn. Security clearance is carried out wholesale by other contractor organizations that specialize in human resource management, but even they are subject to the same problem: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
Charles Stross, Spy Kids
Charles Stross is the author of masterworks of sci fi like Accelerando, and he thinks like a futurist. Here his ruminations about the rapidly shifting work compact between the intelligence services and its workers in an increasingly Benthamite surveillance state is dark and dead on.
Interestingly, while he describes our new economy as something of a successful cultural shift toward libertarianism, it also points up why libertarianism’s drive for decentralized & lucrative privatization of services is ultimately incompatible with today’s modern government, social behavior of groups, & (as is necessary for far right-wing corporate ideology to thrive in practice) the panoptic security state.