Speculations on Armed Conflict

In a Time of Free Silicon




Radical change -- as the growth of information technology portends -- creates a logic which must be grasped on its own terms.

Great change occurs in two ways.

In one, the sleeper awakes to an entirely new world whose methods and mores are so different from custom as to engender the sense of being somewhere abroad. The shock between the future and the present stands as a mighty mountain whose ascent requires arduous and steadfast efforts goaded by the nagging stretch that lies ahead. Many of these changes are sudden, many catastrophic. Adjustment is conscious, and often reactionary -- the accidental tourist trying to recreate the comfortable in a sharply changed milieu. It is a tomorrow that is far different from today.

In the other, the sleeper awakes to a world little changed from the one that slipped into the previous night. This new world is comfortable, and easy -- or so it seems. Not until some occasion has compelled a look back is it obvious how far one has come and how effortlessly. It is the past that is unfamiliar, holding within it, some dim memory of a life that, in retrospect, made little sense -- how did one cope? It is a today far different from yesterday.

Given a choice, most would choose the second path of change and, as it so happened, the important changes have been of the second type. Think of a life without the car, the phone, the television, and the machines capable of bridging the vast oceans that kept the rest of the world far from America's shores.

Unfortunately, the second path is also far more dangerous. The world changes, but those in it do not. Never forced to think anew about the implications of change, rarely aware of its pace, people scarcely notice how dysfunctional their assumptions have become. The few who see the future as quite different from the past, and the rest that grow up in the future and have no past, develop assumptions more consistent with the new rules. The rest notice their marginality only if forced to; if the change is gradual enough, man's mortal life span can hide this disjunction within the normal cycles of growth, maturity, and the yielding of place. Barring rigid institutions that mindlessly replicate the reflexes of the past into the future, successive generations can cope.

If the change is steady but rapid, no such optimism is possible. A clash between those who live in the future and those who only think they do because old habits are comfortable will occur within the active lifetimes of both. The consequences of maladjustment cannot be buried in the mortal life-cycle; they must be faced and squarely so.

The challenge of information technology to national security is of that type. Between 1950 and 1980 the number of instructions per second that a dollar could buy doubled every three years; since 1980 the number has doubled every sixteen to twenty months. In the first few years of the 1990s, the pace has, if anything, accelerated. Some slowdown is inevitable, but even at the 1980s rate, a thousandfold improvement can be expected in sixteen years; at earlier rates, a leisurely thirty years. By the time this acceleration runs its course, life and war will have changed radically.

The first reaction of any organization to such crisis -- using the classic Chinese definition meaning threat and opportunity -- is to absorb new technologies into old ways. So it was with electricity. The electric motor replaced the watermill; the electric trolley, the horse-drawn trolley; television was radio with pictures- -and so on. Over time radical changes in technology are understood to involve radical changes in the organization of work and society as well. Initially the electric motor did not help productivity compared to the belt-driven machines it replaced; in time, vertical factories designed to minimize the amount of belting gave way to horizontal factories designed to help the flow of men and material. Similarly, computers cannot help most firms very much until they reengineer their work processes to accord with the silicon logic. Conflict both conventional and unconventional will perforce follow the same path -- accommodating change first by incorporation, and next by reinvention.

No change so large can breathe without metaphors, in this case: Mesh, Net, and Silicon. Mesh -- the term applied to military applications -- points to the holes; as information technology places a finer mesh atop the battlefield, more objects are caught in it. Net -- the term applied to civilian applications -- points to the substance of the system; the connectivity of people and their machines suggests new patterns of social relationships and new venues for conflict. Silicon, that which is to become free, stands for both semiconductor chips (for computation) and optical fibers (for communications).

Argument: The relationship of the once and future revolution in information technology to warfare is analyzed in several steps: