Posted: Sunday, February 2, 2014
Did you know top-secret intelligence by the U.S. government has played a key role in helping scientists understand how human societies and ecosystems have evolved over the last 10,000 years.
The catch, of course, is that this has happened only after the declassification of the intelligence.
I am an archaeologist and anthropologist at the Santa Fe Institute. With my colleagues, I study the long-term evolution of human societies, seeking the shared underlying principles that are responsible for the emergence of complex social, political and economic organization. To do this, we need two things: ideas about how things happened and data to evaluate those ideas. The evaluation of ideas with data leads to new ideas; this is the process that leads to scientific discovery.
Here is a story about a discovery in which which declassified top-secret data was critical. We know from archaeology that the first large-scale societies with a differentiated labor force, record-keeping bureaucracies and political systems that united communities beyond kinship emerged on the planet at least 6,000 years ago. This happened first in Mesopotamia — not just the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but all the lands drained by them in what is now southern Turkey, western Iran, Syria and Iraq.
The evolution of these first economies, we now know, occurred across the entire region. We didn’t always know this. Twenty years ago, we used to think the evolution of the earliest economies occurred only in a restricted area of southern Mesopotamia, mostly south of Baghdad. The area, called the “heartland of cities” by the eminent archaeologist (and former Santa Fe Institute trustee) Robert McCormick Adams, requires irrigation for agriculture.
New ways of thinking and new evidence have changed our view. Initially, we envisioned a core area of initial social innovation, while regions outside the core were “under-developed” and only passively participated in the creation of the first complex societies.
The mechanisms for the creation of a centralized bureaucracy were thought to have stemmed from the environmental characteristics of the core: In the earlier part of this century, some archaeologists believed it arose from the need to manage irrigation. But when it became clear that complex irrigation systems do not require centralized control, the irrigation hypothesis was replaced by other ideas about how communities in the region evolved. One idea was that a lack of material resources forced centralized trade and, thus, centralized bureaucracy.
Over the last 15 years, however, new information has been recovered that is leading us to an understanding that the origins of complex economies were not as restricted in location or as external in cause; almost all of Mesopotamia was locally involved in the evolution of a more complex regional economy. This new view leads us to new models of how the change occurred, and these new models emphasize internal forces over external conditions. In turn, this new understanding allows us to more effectively compare the evolution of civilization across the planet, identifying key evolutionary phenomena shared among human societies globally.
And here’s the crux of this story: In part, this discovery was made possible by one of the most closely held intelligence secrets of the Cold War. The Corona, Argon and Lanyard programs, initiated by the U.S. government in the 1950s, launched the first spy satellites. By the late 1960s, the systems were able to collect imagery with a ground resolution of less than six feet — good enough to identify small trees and large vehicles.
The remarkable half-century-old images contain detail almost as good as state-of-the-art digital images now available from commercial satellites. In addition to the Cold War mission for which they were designed (as dramatized in the 1968 movie Ice Station Zebra), the space photographs incidentally recorded traces of past human settlements that have survived for 10,000 years — crucial evidence about how we came to live in the world we now inhabit. In the last few decades, we have lost much of this landscape to industrial agriculture and mechanized land-leveling.
In 1995, a remarkable thing happened when this closely held secret of the government was partially declassified. The story of how this declassification occurred is only partly known. (See, for example, the work of authors Dwayne Day or Robert McDonald.) One undocumented story involves conversations between the archaeologist mentioned at the start of this piece, Adams, who was then secretary of the Smithsonian, and James Woolsey, then the U.S. director of central intelligence and a regent of the Smithsonian. Whatever the background of the declassification, the last Corona camera was given to the Smithsonian, a presidential order was signed on Feb. 22, 1995, and the imagery from the the missions was transferred to the National Archives. The United States Geological Survey took responsibility for releasing the data publicly.
The declassified images were of immediate use to archaeologists working in the Near East because they preserved information about a lost landscape. For the first time, we were able to see the land surface before the destruction of the sites we sought to investigate. (See, for example, the Corona Atlas of the Near East, a project by colleague Jesse Casana of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.)
Archaeologists were, in some instances, able to visit the remains of the damaged sites and systematically recover traces of the past cultures that inhabited the region thousands of years ago. What we’ve pieced together from excavation and from archaeological survey aided by the declassified images has helped revise our understanding of how our first complex societies and differentiated economies came to be. The declassified data from Corona have helped not just archaeologists; glaciologists, geologists and ecologists all have used the imagery to monitor how our world has changed.
Unfortunately, for reasons that remain unclear, the initial declassification tapered off, despite its broad scientific success. Yet, in these days of post-Edward Snowden debate over sweeping government information collection, we should keep in mind the importance of declassification to scientists. This is not a proposal to declassify everyone’s metadata. But we are now well beyond space photography and into an era of Big Data (as discussed in past articles in this newspaper by the Santa Fe Institute’s Chris Wood and Simon DeDeo).
While we can, and probably should, limit contemporary collection, part of the debate as we reassess our national surveillance policies should be a consideration of the future scientific utility of archival collections: Should we, in the future, release previously collected “legacy” data in a manner that both protects privacy and helps scientists understand the collective patterns of human interaction that govern our daily lives? If so, what should be the design of a curation policy that would balance privacy concerns and make full utility of what we have already gathered?
This is a challenging problem that pits citizen privacy and limits on government against an almost infinite space of future security concerns and what will surely be vastly improved analytical methods leading to greater utility of legacy data. While its purpose remains unclear, we might surmise from the construction of the so-called Utah Data Center (a government facility possibly designed to curate the digital collections of our intelligence community) that the community understands the future utility of currently collected data. But given the benefits of declassification and our concerns for privacy, the questions of if, when and how to release this data are important to us all. Asking these questions is in keeping with the Open Government Initiative signed by President Barack Obama on the first day of his administration.
We don’t yet know what shape an overall declassification policy should take, but we do know this: The data we collect now, on ourselves, will provide the digital archaeologists and historians of the future a window into how we operate as a society. Toward that gift — the understanding of the drivers of change in human society — we can make a direct contribution by taking into account the importance of future public research on legacy intelligence collections.
~ Eric Rupley is an anthropological archaeologist at the Santa Fe Institute and a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Anthropology. His research analyzes cross-cultural, region-scale data on past human activities and settlement systems to explore how new forms of social organization emerge. His primary field work has been in Syria and Turkey. He can be reached through email at email@example.com.
About the series
The Santa Fe Institute is a private, nonprofit, independent research and education center founded in 1984, where top researchers from around the world gather to study and understand the theoretical foundations and patterns underlying the complex systems that are most critical to human society — economies, ecosystems, conflict, disease, human social institutions and the global condition. This column is part of a series written by researchers at the Santa Fe Institute and published in The New Mexican.