At the age of 22, when I entered the American intelligence community, I didn’t have any politics. Instead, like most young people, I had solid convictions that I refused to accept weren’t truly mine but rather a contradictory cluster of inherited principles. My mind was a mash-up of the values I was raised with and the ideals I encountered online.
It took me until my late twenties to finally understand that so much of what I believed, or of what I thought I believed, was just youthful imprinting. We learn to speak by imitating the speech of the adults around us, and in the process of that learning we wind up also imitating their opinions, until we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that the words we’re using are our own.
My parents were, if not dismissive of politics in general, then certainly dismissive of politicians. To be sure, this dismissal had little in common with the disaffection of nonvoters or partisan disdain. Rather, it was a certain bemused detachment particular to their class, which nobler ages have called the federal civil service or the public sector, but which our own time tends to refer to as the deep state or the shadow government.
None of those epithets, however, really captures what it is: a class of career officials (incidentally, perhaps one of the last functional middle classes in American life) who—nonelected and nonappointed—serve or work in government, either at one of the independent agencies (from the CIA and NSA to the IRS, the FCC, and so on) or at one of the executive departments (State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, and the like).
These were my parents, these were my people: a nearly 3-million-strong professional government workforce dedicated to assisting the amateurs chosen by the electorate, and appointed by the elected, in fulfilling their political duties—or, in the words of the oath, in faithfully executing their offices. These civil servants, who stay in their positions even as administrations come and go, work as diligently under Republicans as under Democrats because they ultimately work for the government itself, providing core continuity and stability of rule.
These were also the people who, when their country went to war, answered the call. That’s what I had done after 9/11, and I found that the patriotism my parents had taught me was easily converted into nationalist fervor. For a time, especially in my run-up to joining the Army, my sense of the world came to resemble the duality of the least sophisticated videogames, where good and evil are clearly defined and unquestionable.
However, once I returned from the Army and rededicated myself to computing, I gradually came to regret my martial fantasies. The more I developed my abilities, the more I matured and realized that the technology of communications had a chance of succeeding where the technology of violence had failed. Democracy could never be imposed at the point of a gun, but perhaps it could be sown by the spread of silicon and fiber.
In the early 2000s the internet was still just barely out of its formative period, and, to my mind at least, it offered a more authentic and complete incarnation of American ideals than even America itself. A place where everyone was equal? Check. A place dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Check, check, check.
It helped that nearly all of the major founding documents of internet culture framed it in terms reminiscent of American history: Here was this wild, open new frontier that belonged to anyone bold enough to settle it, swiftly becoming colonized by governments and corporate interests that were seeking to regulate it for power and profit. The large companies that were charging large fees—for hardware, for software, for the long-distance phone calls that you needed back then to get online, and for knowledge itself, which was humanity’s common inheritance and so, by all rights, should have been available for free—were irresistible contemporary avatars of the British, whose harsh taxation ignited the fervor for independence.
This revolution wasn’t happening in history textbooks but now, in my generation, and any of us could be part of it solely by dint of our abilities. This was thrilling—to participate in the founding of a new society, one based not on where we were born or how we grew up or our popularity at school but on our knowledge and technological ability.