Science in a Complex World: When big secret data meet future science

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Note: This appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican on December 2, 2013.

By , Research Associate, Santa Fe Institute

Did you know Top Secret intelligence by the U.S. government has had an important impact on helping scientists understand how human societies and ecosystems have evolved over the last 10,000 years.

The catch, of course, is that this impact only happened after the declassification of this 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 these 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 discovery that depended critically on declassified Top Secret data. 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 this entire region. We didn't always know this. Twenty years ago, we used to think the evolution of these earliest economies occurred only in a restricted area of southern Mesopotamia , mostly south of Baghdad. This area has been called the “heartland of cities," in the words of the eminent archaeologist (and former SFI Trustee) Robert McCormick Adams. This land requires irrigation for agriculture.

New ways of thinking and new evidence have changed our view. The earlier view envisioned a core area of initial social innovation, while regions outside this 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 this 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 these communities evolved. One of these ideas was that a lack of material resources forced centralized trade and, thus, centralized bureaucracy.

Over the last 15 years, however, new data have been recovered that are now 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 this 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, these discoveries were 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. in the 1950s, launched the first spy satellites. By the late 1960s, these systems were able to collect imagery with a ground resolution of less than six feet – easily good enough to identify small trees and large vehicles.

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Caption: CORONA declassified satellite imagery, taken in the late 1960s, showing the site of Tell Brak, a large prehistoric settlement in north-east Syria (ancient Nagar), which during the time of state formation in Mesopotamia some 5,500 years ago would have been home to perhaps 10,000 people. The radiating lines are ancient tracks that connected Brak to its surrounding settlements and fields.

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These 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, for example), these 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. This most closely held secret of our 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, at the time the U.S. Director of Central Intelligence. (Woolsey was also a Regent of the Smithsonian at the time). Whatever the background of the declassification, the last CORONA camera was given to the Smithsonian, a presidential order was signed on February 22, 1995, and the imagery from these missions was transferred to the National Archives; the United States Geological Survey took responsibility for releasing these data publicly.

These 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, http://corona.cast.uark.edu, a project by colleague Jesse Casana of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.)

Archaeologists were, in some instances, able to visit the remains of these damaged sites and systematically recover traces of the past cultures that inhabited these lands thousands of years ago. What we've pieced together from excavation and from archaeological survey aided by these 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 only archaeologists. Glaciologists, geologists, and ecologists all have used the imagery to monitor how our world has changed.

Unfortunately, for reasons that remain unclear, this initial declassification tapered off, despite its broad scientific success. Yet, in these days of post-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 meta-data. But we are now well beyond space photography and into an era of Big Data (as discussed in past articles in this newspaper by SFI's Chris Wood and by SFI’s 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 question of if, when, and how to release this data is important to us all. Asking this question is in keeping with the Open Government Initiative signed by President 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. Towards 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.

This column is the latest in the "Science in a Complex World" series written by researchers at the Santa Fe Institute and published in The Santa Fe New Mexican.

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