Time To Choose: Entrench or Challenge

In today’s Wall Street Journal, John Bussey (Twitter: @johncbussey), writes about the #NSA controversy and Edward Snowden’s purported role, saying:

Fairly or not, public opinion will be shaped by answers to a coming wave of questions. Were there no red flags that Booz Allen or others could have spotted? Mr. Snowden harbored deep misgivings about his government and employers, and yet no one ever heard him gripe? Were there gaps in security between government and contractor? And would these secrets have been better protected if this sensitive work had been kept inside government?

I’d challenge that Snowden’s intents should have been apparent – that he surely must have, say, said something to colleagues. I think knowing one’s heart is hard, despite the world of social media in which we live. If anything, the transparency has made people more careful about saying anything “really out there.” We’re learning to play it safe, to hedge, born of concern about the extent of the very prying that Snowden may have exposed. We now fear that our words could lead to a “knock on the door.” I think many people out there have nagging doubts about the system within which they work and that they enable – they just keep it very private.

Whether you agree with what Snowden did or not, I know from first hand experience that many in the consulting business, of which Snowden was part, are having quiet reservations about the work they do. I think they experience some variant of the epiphany that “My day job is empowering ‘the man.’” I did. And while I in no way advocate sedition or criminal behavior, I do think increasingly think one must “choose sides”. Do you want to focus your energies, your short time on Earth, on expanding and defending the current power structures? Or will you play some role – even a small, “safe” one – in challenging power structures, both corporate and governmental? Here’s a comment I made in response to my friend Betsy Ashton on Facebook:

Booz, PwC, IBM, DTT – it’s all part of the same oligarchy that has come from the near total fusion of governmental and corporate power. Could have been any of them – just happened to be BAH. Glad I’m out. Folks need to start realizing you can’t have your cake and eat it to (I did, albeit very slowly). 

If you work for one of these firms, all the volunteer days, “impact days”, community give back in the world won’t change the fact that 1) if you work in the public sector practice you’re aiding and abetting existential threats to many of our essential freedoms and 2) if you work in the private sector practices you are defending the broken business models of entrenched, bloated incumbents. Quit, join a VC firm, do a start-up, go to a non-profit – anything that helps challenge the entrenched power system short of sedition itself.

Even somewhat cheeky suggestions, such as one a prominent NYC VC made Sunday are a way to challenge power. Challenging and questioning power structures is not un-American. It is, in fact, very American and in my view a patriotic duty. We are “rugged individuals” with a fundamental distrust of government (and corporate?) power. It’s ok to ask “why?” In fact asking why is critical.

Some may argue that in a “total surveillance state” the only safe move is to be apathetic and apolitical. I hope you don’t choose that choice, for your sake and the sake of our children, country, and world. It wasn’t comfortable for our founding fathers (and mothers) to ask tough questions about their governance, and thankfully, I think we’re still a far way from having problems that require steps as drastic as actual revolution. But we can’t accept the status quo either. We must challenge the oligarchy – and do so from both the right and the left.

You don’t need to drop out altogether to make a difference. I think people who create start-ups (or even invest in start-ups) are doing a service in challenging the existent power structure of big businesses. I do my thing, by day, by challenging how we educate our children and young adults. One can challenge and still put food on the table. You can be a capitalist, a proud American, and still ask why, still challenge the orthodoxy. But to the “cake” metaphor above, I think it’s getting harder to play both sides, to entrench by day, and challenge by night.

So, what side are you on? Will you further entrench and enrich existent, established power structures? Or will you ask why, embrace the uncomfortable and uncertain, and challenge what we’ve built and where we’re going? The time to decide is now.