4th Generation Warfare on the Internet
Technology hasn’t worked out quite like we imagined. For you and I, it has made us dramatically more efficient. But institutions, despite superficial changes, remain fundamentally unchanged. Tim Ferriss looked at this paradox in the the Four Hour Work Week, asking how, with the advent of the computer, internet and cell phone, could office habits and expectations still be exactly the same as they were fifty years ago. And now people are turning that thought process towards warfare–specifically John Robb in Brave New War (he also has an awesome blog) and Robert Greene.
The problem is that on one end we have groups competing amongst themselves to be better, more fluid and more powerful and on the other end groups colluding to maintain the status quo. We have nation states (conglomerates) and terrorists (the internet). One of them gets better every day and the other gets a little bit worse. Eventually, those trajectories intersect. So we’re seeing that the same tools that have made one man as powerful as a newspaper now make twenty Muslims as powerful as an entire army.
For the first time in almost all of history, the individual can now compete with the state. That is, the path to power militarily or economically doesn’t necessarily lead through a nation’s capital. And this competition is defined by one pretty immutable law: The people coming up want it more than the people already on top. Do you think that Forbes wakes up everyday as hungry for one more reader the same way that I do? And when they can’t compete, they can at least make us look like a bumbling fool. Which really is what terrorism is: the use violence to de-legitimize the state. But it won’t always have to be through violence. I could shut down half of LA by abandoning a bus on the 10 Freeway and not even risk my life doing it.
The parallels between the rapid growth and decentralization that we have seen online is precisely what we are seeing in Iraq. Except for a beheading isn’t quite as admirable or as inspirational as revolutionizing an archaic industry. But that is essentially what insurgents are: individuals and small groups more efficiently serving the needs of the people more than the standing leaders (which in this case is the State).
When we take away the blinders we see that despite our mass and size, we are being beaten in the exact areas that the size is supposed to be an advantage. Pleasing the people, at providing infrastructure, at distributing global resources, at providing education, at maintaining electricity–these are the things a superpower is supposed to be good at. But Iraq (and well, daily life in America) shows that that is not the case. And just as newspapers and universities are failing at the basic service they were created to provide–getting scoops, investigative reporting, ground breaking research–individuals and private groups have started to step up and replace government functions. Criminal gangs–a major component of insurgencies that we do not acknowledge–work the same way. This is why you see such an affinity for gangs and criminal activity in the inner cities. Where the governments have failed, individuals stepped up and at least attempted to fill the void. Why should rappers and basketball players and hip-hop entrepreneurs suddenly like the State after they’ve made their money? They learned to exist without it.
The solution that Robb proposes is to embrace the very methods of our adversaries. Of course this seems absurd–but while you’re laughing, say hello to the Entrenched Player Dilemma. The state might be slipping you say but it’s not on the verge of collapse. Indeed, and that it why we ought to change now. The time to change–in life and in strategy–is before you become utterly obsolete, not after.
Cuban knows what he is talking about. We might be served welled by a politician who just started red-lining laws. We have too many; the enemy has none. Michael Raynor sent me a paper a few weeks ago that suggested this tactic for newspapers and other industries facing emerging threats. His advised the companies set up autonomous and independent divisions to handle the situation instead of trying to do it in-house. This way they could create new institutions around conditions as opposed to attempting to slow alter old ones or ignore the glaring disparity. They would know the space and the culture and avoid the blunders of hubris and projection. I posted a few weeks ago about private vs government monopolies and this is the perfect example. We have the government strangling efficiency in media and technology because it serves the needs of politicians and not the people. This is the philosophy of failure. Our enemies do not think this way.
There are some solutions. Decentralization is one of them. In Charlie Wilson’s War, the author discuses a CIA program that paid entrepreneurs to create innovative weapons for Afghani rebels to use against the Soviets. A $10 million cash fund that created incentives for home-made lethality. That power is currently being used against us instead of in our favor. Robb talks about using things like crowdsourcing to limit the effectiveness of calculated strikes and system disruption. And it seems to me that the tragedy of the anti-commons prevents individuals from picking up the burdens that eventually fall on the government. How do you make government work harder? By taking its assets away.
It’s funny because on one end I sit and cheer the rise of decentralization and its likely victory over obtuse and inset competitors. On the other, I clearly don’t wish to see the United States falter militarily. The rise of the anti-state won’t end in Iraq, just as it won’t end on the internet or in entertainment. Imagine if Katrina had been a few magnitudes worse, who knows what would have arisen to make sense of that chaos.
This is an awesome post. I am a fan of John Robb’s blog, but I often find it difficult to understand: the ideas he talks about are much more complex than Robert Greene, for instance. This post articulates the ideas I’ve been exposed to from John Robb’s blog in an accessible way, and it really is, quite profound.
Is there any reading you would reccommend as background to better understand the stuff John Robb writes about?
“We have the government strangling efficiency in media and technology because it serves the needs of politicians and not the people. This is the philosophy of failure. Our enemies do not think this way.”
Don’t they though? The majority of traditional media outlets in the Arab world are owned by the governments to whom the unchecked flow of information provided by the internet can only be viewed as disastrous. Could it just be that our enemies have a tighter strangle hold on their citizens, either through fear or propaganda, and that this hold forces the needs of the people to align themselves with the needs of those in power?
Also, I don’t think abandoning a bus on the 10 comes without risks. You should at least be prepared for some small arms fire.
His ideas aren’t any more complex, they are just more specific.
Knowing some of the internet terminology is key. Try The Long Tail, An Army of Davids, Wisdom of Crowds.
Also I linked to a Strategic Studies Institute paper a few days ago, read that. It covers a lot of similar ideas in an easier way.
Our enemies have nothing to do with those traditional media outlets or governments for that matter. Our enemies are a loose collective of individuals. That is why they are winning.
Can you recommend other blogs explaining these concepts further? I have tried http://www.timferriss.com and got some useful info on productivity etc.
“tools that have made one man as powerful as a newspaper now make twenty Muslims as powerful as an entire army.”
Made me think of the storm worm stories on reddit and CNN recently. Probably ~20 people control it, if that. If the network is 50 million computers, then can they shut down much more than an army could in much less time. Granted they couldn’t shoot someone, but if they jammed every airport in the US, there will be casualties.
And the worst part is, we wouldn’t even know who the enemy was past the network operators. If they don’t say who won the auction for the network, who could we invade?
Here you go:
the path to power militarily or economically doesn’t necessarily lead through a nation’s capital
That depends on what you want to do. If you’re a nihilist and just want to influence states by killing and destruction, it is partially true. However, faced with a dedicated and overwhelming enemy, insurgencies eventually falter, just as the one in Iraq has.
If you want to project power and protect your civilization, decentralization doesn’t work very well. It’s hard to imagine an anarchistic society developing an aircraft carrier. It’s hard to consistently project power across the sea without one.
Unfortunately you’re wrong. These groups are far from anarchistic. They actually wish to take over the responsibilities of the state. Look at the things they do: Enforce religious codes, regulate commerce, provide schooling and protect citizens from foreign invaders. Sounds like a state to me. Bloggers are the same. They don’t wish to see newspapers out of spite, but rather so they can take their place.
Not to mention you’re forgetting the rapid increases in technology. The power in an aircraft career 50 years ago was let’s say 1 million times the power an individual could have. Today it is 100,000. In ten years it will be 10,000 more. And so on and so forth.
And lastly, these groups don’t need to win. They just need to be problematic enough that it’s not worth fighting them. THAT is becoming easier and easier to do.