Anyone interested in recent developments in intelligence-gathering (and, even more to the point, intelligence-sharing) must read this article by Clive Thompson published in the New York Times Magazine yesterday. While no brief excerpt can capture the full range of points made in the article, these paragraphs describing an idea presented by Calvin Andrus, chief technology officer of the CIA's Center for Mission Innovation, suggest one of the ways that social learning can be (and, in fact, has been) developed within the intelligence community:
Andrus argued that the real power of the Internet comes from the boom in self-publishing: everyday people surging online to impart their thoughts and views. He was particularly intrigued by Wikipedia, the "reader-authored" encyclopedia, where anyone can edit an entry or create a new one without seeking permission from Wikipedia's owners. This open-door policy, as Andrus noted, allows Wikipedia to cover new subjects quickly. The day of the London terrorist bombings, Andrus visited Wikipedia and noticed that barely minutes after the attacks, someone had posted a page describing them. Over the next hour, other contributors--some physically in London, with access to on-the-spot details--began adding more information and correcting inaccurate news reports. "You could just sit there and hit refresh, refresh, refresh, and get a sort of ticker-tape experience," Andrus told me. What most impressed Andrus was Wikipedia's self-governing nature. No central editor decreed what subjects would be covered. Individuals simply wrote pages on subjects that interested them--and then like-minded readers would add new facts or fix errors. Blogs, Andrus noted, had the same effect: they leveraged the wisdom of the crowd. When a blogger finds an interesting tidbit of news, he posts a link to it, along with a bit of commentary. Then other bloggers find that link and, if they agree it's an interesting news item, post their own links pointing to it. This produces a cascade effect. Whatever the first blogger pointed toward can quickly amass so many links pointing in its direction that it rockets to worldwide notoriety in a matter of hours.
Spies, Andrus theorized, could take advantage of these rapid, self-organizing effects. If analysts and agents were encouraged to post personal blogs and wikis on Intelink--linking to their favorite analyst reports or the news bulletins they considered important--then mob intelligence would take over. In the traditional cold-war spy bureaucracy, an analyst's report lived or died by the whims of the hierarchy. If he was in the right place on the totem pole, his report on Soviet missiles could be pushed up higher; if a supervisor chose to ignore it, the report essentially vanished. Blogs and wikis, in contrast, work democratically. Pieces of intel would receive attention merely because other analysts found them interesting. This grass-roots process, Andrus argued, suited the modern intelligence challenge of sifting through thousands of disparate clues: if a fact or observation struck a chord with enough analysts, it would snowball into popularity, no matter what their supervisors thought.
There's much more in the article, including an extensive discussion of some of the problems that wiki- and blog-related information-sharing pose in an organization in which the need to share information (in order to "connect the dots" when trying to unravel complex plots) must be balanced against the need to keep secrets.