Thoughts – How did this research project begin?


Before starting Part 2 of this research blog I want to share a couple salient thoughts and relevant data points. The research that constitutes this blog has been in the works for a number of years.

  • Part 1 was written in June 2013
  • Part 2 was written in October 2013
  • Part 3 was written in June 2011

Due to the evolving nature of technology and politics I decided to take a wait and see attitude on publishing any of my work. I considered publishing the paper that comprised Part 1 as a stand alone but reconsidered due to the evolving and ongoing nature of the Snowden leaks and other political developments. This was my own personal research. Having no strict institutional research/publishing deadlines hanging over me meant that I could be patient and let the already solid arguments cure as more surveillance revelations occurred.  I also decided to leverage the paper comprising Part 1 as an intelligence gathering apparatus to learn more from people in the academic, legal, and foreign policy environment that were publicly commenting on issues of national surveillance and governance. I learned a lot through that process and it fed the research developments leading to the paper supporting Part 2 of this research blog.

The initial shock of the Snowden leaks generated a lot of public debate in the news about the efficacy of U.S. surveillance programs and the nature of the legal structure supporting them. Essentially the debate was and still is about the nature of governance and technology with respect to our rights.  Many of the people I contacted are public intellectuals from academia, think tanks, and/or prior public officials. Since the direct contact information for these people is widely and publicly available, I decided to contact as many as possible with the same formatted email to see what they thought about my research findings and perhaps gain further insight into additional research questions.  As you will soon learn it was a fruitful exercise that led to the writing of Part 2, which focuses on the nature of technology and governance and how they evolve over time with respect to our rights. I also received questions on how this research project started, so I will answer that question now for the readers.

My professional background has been in technology within the Mobile Device Management software sector (Enterprise Software), however I always did and still do a lot of personal reading on foreign policy, economics, politics, etc. This dual interest eventually led me to attend The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Fletcher is the oldest school in the United States solely focused on graduate studies in International Affairs. It was originally founded as a joint school between Harvard and Tufts University. My focus at the Fletcher School was to understand how technology has changed politics. I firmly believe the majority of people think and feel that modern information technology has changed the political landscape; the real question is how and to what meaningful purpose. It’s a big topic so I sought to break it down into logical compartments.

My thesis focused on the question: If this is the information age, is our information sufficiently secure from theft and illicit use? The answer is No, our information is not secure from theft and illicit use and I argue that it is of paramount importance to know and protect your digital self because nobody is quite like you in the digital sense or the physical sense. Every day we see a new major hacking and theft of personal private information in the news. It’s a huge problem and only getting bigger. After defending my thesis and culminating my studies at Fletcher in 2011, I decided to invest my time going forward consuming as much literature on governance, law, politics, economics, and technology as possible given my other significant priorities.

A few people I have respect for suggested I expand my research and write a book. Seeking out a PHD or Research Fellowship seemed logical, but I wanted full control over my time and priorities. Besides, institutional politics and conflicts of interest within organizations can be deadly to ideas and careers in just about any place you go. Most people don’t learn that lesson until after they have already experienced it in some fashion.

Fast forward two years to March 2013. I came across a one-year academic oriented Fellowship program at the Harvard Weatherhead Center for International Affairs that culminated in a work product in the form of a manuscript for a book. On the surface it seemed like a good fit, but I was two weeks passed the application deadline when I became aware of the program. Nevertheless I contacted Harvard, gave them a quick research pitch, got an almost immediate response, scored a phone interview a few days later, and was urged to expedite an application by Harvard. I expedited the application and scored an in person interview soon after.

Long story short, I got turned down for the Fellowship position. Both success and rejection are normal parts of life, but the structured and unstructured data that comprises the rejection or success is critically important to understand if a person is going to learn from the experience. Given I was well past the application due date for a highly competitive program at Harvard that only has 20 spots a year meant that l was already at a disadvantage. However, my research topic is of high interest in the minds of just about everyone. The prestige of a Fletcher Education probably contributed to taking me far in the application process too, but Harvard was also coaching me on how best to apply even though I was well past the application cut off. There was clear and genuine interest on Harvard’s part and I felt they wouldn’t waste their time with me if they didn’t see synergy and opportunity too. I am also confident the necessary submission materials were of sufficient quality to give me the best shot possible. The opportunity to collaborate with Harvard faculty to expand my body of work seemed like a natural alliance of mutual interest and terrific opportunity.

The reason I was turned down by Harvard was that they felt it was too early to be researching the intersection of technology and politics.(1)  A couple of thoughts on this:

  • It is never too early to start research.
  • This response came in Spring 2013 and if there has been one issue that consistently permeates the mainstream press over the last two decades, it has been how technology is changing society and thus by implication our politics too. In fact, go all the way back to the creation of the printing press and you will find people talking about how that piece of technology changed politics.
  • The rejection response made some of the information gleaned during the Harvard fellowship interview even more interesting to me.

Nevertheless the rejection confused me more than anything and nurtured my curiosity in Harvard’s research portfolio. Two months later in June 2013, the initial Snowden leaks hit the news and I quickly shifted gears into writing on my own because I could and it was there to be done. In hindsight The Harvard rejection was actually a gift because I uncovered the U.S. and global community has Harvard to thank for the nature of our national surveillance programs as well as the current nature of our governance system in the U.S.

After writing the paper that comprised Part 1 of this blog in June 2013, I sent it to Harvard to see what they had to say about my findings and conclusions. In short, they didn’t have much to say.  The Harvard Weatherhead Center (People who rejected me) did however introduce me via email to to Gary Samore, who is the Executive Director of Research for The Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Calestous Juma, one of the world’s preeminent international development scholars in technology, science, and civil liberties who is also at Harvard Kennedy.

Mr. Juma quickly responded to the introduction and basically thanked the person for the note and then boasted about recently returning from his adventures in Tanzania and climbing Mt. Kilamanjaro.(2) I quickly responded with the research pitch and expressed interest in pursuing the conversation with the two gentlemen in the near future.(3) No response was received. Five days later I sent a follow up email, to which Mr. Juma responded and said this was outside the scope of his focus area, which is funny because his area of focus is in making the world a better place through science, technology, and innovation.(4) Needless to say it was a conversation on the fast track to nowhere, perhaps on purpose.  Samore never responded at all.  Nevertheless given two of the biggest names at Harvard Kennedy School of Government wouldn’t touch this issue, it got me thinking about the nature of technology and governance and how they evolve over time with respect to our Constitutional and natural human rights.  It also got me thinking that perhaps ‘prestige’ can only take people so far.

During the same time I also reached out to the Center for International Studies at MIT and The Fletcher School too.  MIT and Fletcher were both interested in my work, but I wasn’t interested in doing a PHD or Fellowship at that time given my other priorities.   Essentially, MIT and Fletcher didn’t really know what to do with me but both were supportive to truth seeking scholarship and suggested I should think of ways to expand my work and perhaps write a book.  I took them seriously on the expanding of my work, I took them less seriously on writing a book.  What you are about to read in Part 2, is the area of expansion I focused on and what I learned.

I will now begin Part 2 of this research blog with an introduction and specific aims.

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3 Responses to Thoughts – How did this research project begin?

  1. Pingback: Thoughts – Rules for Radicals | @The Heart of Big Brother

  2. Pingback: Thougths – What does Obama & His NSA Review Panel really think about security & Surveillance? | @The Heart of Big Brother

  3. Pingback: Thoughts – How can the U.S. Government restrict our First Amendment Rights? | @The Heart of Big Brother

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