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As a kid, I had a bookcase devoted to 24 leather-bound tomes containing “the Sum of Human Knowledge.” Whenever I had to do a school report, from aardvarks to Zanzibar, I would pull out the correct volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica and take notes. (It was tougher to report on Krakatoa and Martin Luther since my cousins’ Irish Setter ate K-L. [Remind me to tell you about the time he chewed through a wall.])
When I mention this to my kids, they look at me like I’m Grandpa Simpson yammering about rich men riding around in Zeppelins, dropping coins on people. “Why didn’t you use the Internet, Dad? Couldn’t you afford an iPad?”
Within a few years, what used to be the accepted view of “the way things work” was completely replaced by a new paradigm. In business, this is called a disruptive innovation.
"A disruptive innovation creates a new market by applying a different set of values, which ultimately (and unexpectedly) overtakes an existing market." I got that definition from Wikipedia, the disruptive technology that supplanted my chewed-up Britannica set.
The disruptive innovation of the automobile redefined transportation. Disruptive digital cameras redefined photography. Amazon.com disrupted the retail model. These weren’t incremental evolutions, but radical reinventions that lead to the death of once-powerful industries and the creation of unforeseen markets.
Last week may have brought another disruptive innovation, but this one won’t upend technology so much as political parties. Edward Snowden’s leak of top-secret NSA surveillance programs has upset the entrenched left-right divide over security, privacy and constitutional rights.
As the story developed, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Boehner (R-Ohio) called Snowden a traitor, while Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) criticized the NSA’s secretive project. Liberal Glenn Greenwald and conservative Glenn Beck praised Snowden as heroic while the Weekly Standard and MSNBC defended the importance of the NSA snooping.
We’ll learn a lot more in the coming weeks and months about Snowden’s motivations and the PRISM program, but what is clear is that this story has shaken up long-standing ideological categories and party allegiances. When self-identified leftists are accusing President Obama of violating the U.S. Constitution, there is a huge opportunity for the liberty movement.
The old guard in both parties want the NSA story to just go away, so they are trying to turn it into a personality-driven feeding frenzy. This early on, I have no idea if Snowden is a bad guy or a great guy. But the story isn't about him—it's about our rights.
If the 29-year-old leaker turns out to be the devil himself, I still wouldn't want my government spying on Americans’ emails and phone calls. I'm indifferent to Snowden, but I am passionate about civil liberties.
I am glad that conservatives aren’t the only ones upset that Obama's NSA is snooping on Americans while his IRS punishes political enemies. Party leaders should jump on this rare alliance of left and right to build a stronger coalition of Constitution-loving civil libertarians.
Follow Jon on Twitter at @ExJon.