Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Mar 20, 2009 4:36am

here comes cyberwar!

I have a greenfieldian weakness for papers like Cyberwar Is Coming, published by the RAND Corporation in 1997. They're like GI Joe for grownups, and this one in particular resonated with parallel writings on the impending total dominance of the internet for basic communication.

The authors, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, have great admiration for the Mongol Hordes:

...our vision is inspired more by the example of the Mongols of the 13th Century. Their "hordes" were almost always outnumbered by their opponents. Yet they conquered, and held for over a century, the largest continental empire ever seen. The key to Mongol success was their absolute dominance of battlefield information. They struck when and where they deemed appropriate; and their "Arrow Riders" kept field commanders, often separated by hundreds of miles, in daily communication.

It's about information and lines of communication: "the Mongol way of warfare ... may be the closest that anyone has come to waging pure cyberwar.... Use of this example also reinforces the point that cyberwar does not depend on high technology, but rather on how one thinks about conflict and strategic interaction." Arquilla and Ronfeldt show how the Mongols ignored their enemies' conquer-and-hold techniques in favor of a kind of melting through enemy lines, being everywhere at once, sowing confusion and disarray. The "cyber-" prefix is derived from cybernetics and control theory, and suggests war "about knowledge - about who knows what, when, where, and why."

The parallels to the messy world of internet communications are immediately obvious, especially in terms of many-to-many networks:

Organizationally, the Mongols emphasized decentralized command in the field, unlike their foes who were generally required to wait for orders from their capitals. Yet by developing a communication system that kept their leadership apprised at all times, the Mongols enjoyed topsight as well as decentralization. The Khan "advanced his armies on a wide front, controlling them with a highly developed system of communication" - that was the secret of his success (Chambers 1985:43).

Having spoken to a small group of grad students at the UC Berkeley J-School this afternoon, I'm immediately reminded of this month's kerfuffle over the future of journalism. In one corner you've got Clay Shirky arguing that "old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place", while Charlie Gibson blames young people and the internet and hopes for One Big Website that could replace the content (and revenue) of the New York Times. Gibson here is like some unfortunate defender of a city under siege by foreigners with horses and bows, unable to understand how they reached so far so fast. What's interesting is that the invaders aren't even gunning for the citadel, they're just charging through. Individuals publishing online are cutting to the source of raw information, doing their own legwork and analysis, overrunning the central editorial expertise of the traditional newsroom with superior speed, maneuverability, and general unconcern with the consequences.

In strategic terms, the Mongols aimed first to disrupt an enemy's communications, then to strike at his heart. Unlike Clausewitz, they put little store in the need to destroy enemy forces before advancing. Also, Mongol campaigns were in no way "linear." They struck where they wished, when circumstances were deemed favorable. That their Christian and Muslim foes seldom emulated the Mongols' organizational and communication techniques is to their great discredit.

There is very little new under the sun, and the collision between old top-down power structures and young bottom-up ones seems like a cycle that will continue for some time. In particular, I'm unpersuaded by arguments such as Chris Messina's doe-eyed post on transparency and "generation open":

If we are Generation Open, then we are the optimistic generation. Ours only comes around every several generations with the resurgence of pure human spirit coupled with the resplendent realization of intent.

Chris writes about the raging boner he's developed for whatever it is that Facebook has going on the back burner with API's or something, but there's very little open or decentralized about the service. It is, ultimately, a giant directory that wants to be the middleman for all your basic communications with the people you care about, just like the "megacorporations" he blames for dropping cell calls on 9/11. What will happen now that they've seemingly decided to stop letting 80% of their messages fall to the floor?

Decentralization is not permanent change, and it's not ultimately a steady state: things get crystallized into increasingly-rigid structures, or they are allowed to drift apart. Decentralization is a tactic enabled by material detachment, a way to quickly conquer Europe or improve access to information. As the dust settles, new superstructures are built in an effort to consolidate gains and improve efficiency.

We're blessed to be experiencing a time of Big Tactics, when rapid motion and creative destruction set the tone and mobile burger treasure hunt is the order of the day. We have a president right now who just circumvented government structure entirely and made a Happy Nowruz video directly for the people of Iran, how crazy is that?

Comments (4)

  1. Actually, I agree with you. Facebook is basically a generational response to the unidirectional broadcast behemoths of our parents' generation. That isn't to say that many within the organization don't wish to wield a similar bullhorn, only that they will take a largely more transparent (so it seems) approach to getting there. But yeah, in the cycle of decentralization against centralization and back again, I agree that that's the way things have gone for centuries.

    Posted by Chris Messina on Friday, March 20 2009 7:43pm EDT

  2. Hi Chris - do they really take a more transparent approach, though? I think it'd be interesting to look back on previous generations, and see whether they in fact started out as buttoned-up as we like to think, or whether they also had the same goals of openness. I think what I'm really saying is that openness and transparency have to be maintained. They are an active stance, and if we get lazy we'll end up in the same predicament, staring down the barrel of a future generational shift. It does make me happy that economic shifts are getting more people thinking about governance, because ultimately government is where these concerns play out at the highest level. Also sorry I called you doe-eyed. =D

    Posted by Michal Migurski on Friday, March 20 2009 11:56pm EDT

  3. Usefull post! Thank you!

    Posted by Dawid on Sunday, March 22 2009 7:00am EDT

  4. What does this mean for an internet where people increasingly depend on connectivity and availability of t I'm hoping for partially-connected clouds that have their own ideas of security and data exchange rules, and clients smart enough to determine whether a connection can be trusted.

    Posted by mh on Tuesday, March 24 2009 10:38am EDT

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