Some specific cases of the Shirky Principle at work UPDATED

A couple of months ago Kevin Kelly identified what he called the Shirky principle, namely that "institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." (This is not the only simple, brilliant aphorism by philosopher of the internet, Clay Shirky; if you are unfamiliar with his work I recommend you read Here Comes Everybody, which is packed with pithy and compelling ideas about ways in which the internet is transformative.)

The notion resonated with me because it explains in one short sentence the systemic failure of international aid organizations, who win battles, but never wars. Those working in hunger relief, for instance, are paradoxically attempting both to feed people and to eliminate their own jobs; the ultimate goal is for 'hunger-reliever' to disappear entirely as a job category. This is not a sustainable model, so despite the best intentions of countless sincere individuals, whose heartfelt desire to help others I in no way wish to impugn, it is easy to understand that the inevitable institutional tendency is to self-preservation. Hunger, therefore, must exist, and even be promoted.

The Shirky principle also helps explain military dictatorships and some of the reasons armies declare war on their own populations, as in Guatemala in the 1980s. Counterinsurgency campaigns often result in a radical mobilization of people willing to join the insurgents, particularly when the military overreaches, treating the civilian population as a target indistinguishable from the guerilla. Cuba in the late 1950s is a perfect example. Such mobilizations are usually presented as an unfortunate side-effect of inevitable "collateral damage," but viewed through Shirky's lens, we understand that such an expansion of an insurgency is a logical, and even desirable outcome for the military; suddenly, more resources are diverted to an institution, the army, in order to combat a problem, a growing revolutionary movement. But in the event that the problem is solved, those additional resources will dwindle, so the army has every interest in promoting and sustaining the insurgency, even to the point of pretending that it still exists, even if it has been weakened, eradicated or dissolved.

An article in the NYT a couple of days ago describing some of the pitfalls of hiring private security forces to protect NATO supply convoys in Afghanistan, is another prime example of the Shirky principle at work. The same day that two large Afghan security companies were banned from working "after a pair of bloody confrontations with Afghan civilians," a supply convoy was attacked. Soon thereafter those security contracts were restored. The suspicion is that the companies colluded with the Taliban to promote the attack, justifying the urgency of their continued employment, despite any human rights shortcomings. There are further suspicions of entirely phony attacks, staged just in case NATO were to start to imagine that things are secure enough for them to move material on their own. Given the lack of transparency that accompanies the widespread outsourcing of military functions to private companies, both Afghan and American, the Shirky principle also sheds light on why the Afghan war is now the longest war in United States history.

UPDATE: I'm tremendously interested in coincidence, particularly in that phenomenon, with which we are all familiar, when a subject, once broached, suddenly seems to crop up repeatedly in a variety of contexts, as if the topic has become a spirit in the air around us. Only hours after I had posted this, reading Raffi Khatchadourian's June 7 New Yorker profile of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, I came upon this passage: "[Assange] had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith verson reason, but as individual versus institution. As a student of Kafka, Koestler and Solzhenitsyn, he believed that truth, creativity, love and compassion are corrupted by institutional hierarchies...." (My emphases. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, one of Koestler's many works is The Roots of Coincidence.)

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