Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Future Was Yesterday

This is the first of a multi-part series in which I want to focus on the future by looking at the past.
I tend to pay attention to what the military is thinking and learning about conflict. Why? Because so much of foreign policy is related to the artful combinations of hard and soft power. Thus, I find the history of war fighting particularly informative to understanding today’s geopolitical jockeying. For example, I lean on two periods to instruct my thinking about how today’s international relations challenges are evolving: the Napoleonic age from the late 1790s to early 1800s and the WWI period from the early 1900s to about 1920. In that case, I am actually going to jump from the turn of those centuries to the 1940s. Something interesting is taking place in the way the Army is confronting security challenges that is worth returning to the 1940s.

Last week I tried to be pithy and suggest that the future was now. After some reflection, I think I was wrong. The future was yesterday. We can speak in clichés like "we need to take a step back before we can take a step forward." Ok. Let us take a step back to 1943, when Reserve Captain Lowell Limpus writes an important treatise on How the Army Fights. What is so important about that? Well, today, the Army is again trying to think about and learn how it should fight on a new contemporary battlefield.

When we look back in time, the thing to notice is not so much what was being done and said. That is interesting and nostalgic. Instead, look at why it was being done and said. Consider the literal implications at the time, but then consider the figurative implications in the logic of thought for a future time — today. In many respects, our future has already happened. We just need to go back to it in order to see where we went, and where we can go. Lowell Limpus’ examination of how the Army fights in the 1940s is particularly interesting because, the reason for the way they fought then is instructive for the way they do fight now. It is also instructive for how they are re-thinking how they might fight in the future. Here are some excerpts to illustrate this point.
The problem we face is admittedly difficult. It is singularly simple – and doubly complex. It is singularly simple with regard to what we want to do. It is doubly complex as it concerns the how and where of doing it. We all know what we want to do. We seek to destroy the military might of the Axis Powers…But the subject becomes considerably more complicated when we endeavor to discuss the how and where of the problem: how we shall go about defeating the Axis and where we shall strike, in order to accomplish our purpose.[1]
Today the problems we face are also admittedly difficult. They seem simple to identify: ISIS, antagonizing powers, rising powers. Yet the doubly complex trouble with these problems is figuring out how and where to confront the idea of ISIS, the sustainability of principled norms, and the balance of legitimate power in a crowded international space. One of the challenges confronting the Axis powers in the 1940s was in merely confronting them with better forces, better materiel, better delivery of materiel to the European and Pacific fields of battle. However, one of the other challenges was in confronting the ideas behind the Axis powers. The question then and now remains, who could provide a better idea for order; for opportunity; for morality? As for good ideas, Limpus offers this anecdote.
A host of suggestions were submitted, and these recommendations ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. At one extreme was the proposal for a period of national fasting and prayer and at the other a whole series of weird “inventions,” each guaranteed to win the war within a month.
Typical of the latter was the proposition of a very sincere and well-meaning gentleman who haunted the War Department for weeks, trying to interest the authorities in a scheme to burn Tokyo by capturing all the bats in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave and releasing them from a transport plane above the city, with an incendiary pencil attached to each. His theory was that every bat would head for the eaves of the nearest paper-built house and so contribute to a monster conflagration.[2]
The imagery of bats laden with explosive pencils is somewhat comical. However, let us think about the implication of a bunch of bats able to make their own decisions and go wherever makes sense to them. As farfetched as it sounds, what is not farfetched is employing the tactic of swarming by independent, self-capable entities. Consider how the military has been exploring this tactic today with the use of relatively cheap drone technologies. Or, consider this use of cheap, drone explosive devices, used for the first time by ISIS earlier this year. This advancement in tactical techniques raises a much larger question – how to operate with these “new” means against others employing similarly “new” methods.
The combat team grew out of the experience of the First World War. It was created to correct a defect in the military organization which existed at that time and which was revealed by the failure of infantry and artillery to coöperate [sic] efficiently, in times of stress. The guns and doughboys all too frequently got out of touch with each other. And it took too long to get a message from one to the other.[3]
Today the Army has evolved this idea coordinating and combining the capabilities of arms in their newest concept: Multi-domain Battle. Confronting the Army and the military writ large is the ability to efficiently cooperate across multiple domains. The idea of a coordinated team has been expanded from getting the infantry and artillery to work closely together to getting the infantry and artillery, and Air Force and Navy, and Marines, and Special Operations, and drones, and autonomous bots, and artificial intelligence, and virtual systems, and so and so on…all together.
What I wonder, though, is whether taking a fresh approach on old ideas is going to suffice against future challenges? Part of the reason why I ask is that the pace of change seems to be getting faster and faster. Can we keep pace? Whereas before we might have been able to adapt by doing more, better, I do wonder whether getting better with the what we do will necessarily adapt to problems quickly enough. If we are on the cusp of fundamentally changing about the way we think about what we are thinking about, then do we need to fundamentally rethink how we face future challenges and where those challenges might actually appear?

[1] Limpus, Lowell M. How the Army Fights. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1943, p. 3..
[2] Lowell Limpus, How the Army Fights, p. 5.
[3] Lowell Limpus, How the Army Fights, p. 65.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Keeping Pace With Pace

No, we are not talking about picante sauce. We are talking about the rate at which things change — things being technologies, social structures, institutions, norms. Those things are changing fast. Not only are they changing fast; they are changing faster and faster. In other words, the rate at which our world is changing is accelerating. It is not a constant rate; it is an exponential rate. At some point, if we have not already approached it, that rate will begin to grow, then leap, then bound. Can we keep pace?

To guide us through this question are two references. One is the now infamous Moore’s law. However, when you read it, in between commercial breaks this weekend, you may not quite notice the law, per se, embedded within what Gordon Moore hypothesizes. There is more to the notion that computing power will double every several years. Instead, you will see some technical jargon about depreciating costs of increasingly efficient circuits — more stuff in smaller spaces at less cost. The impact of that prediction has been and will continue to be dramatic. Thus, the companion reading is a chapter from Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late. I cannot more strongly recommend reading this book than to say, go get it and read it right now. If you haven’t done so yet, you are already behind. Now go get it.

Friedman’s thesis is that the pace of change is accelerating and that the phenomenon of acceleration is the forthcoming global challenge. While I am not advocating for the exactness of the components of his thesis, the issue of accelerating pace is very thought-provoking, and very concerning. It should raise many questions related to how we will handle both change and the pace of change in the future. Consequently, the future is now.

The obvious and observable example of what Moore and Friedman discuss is in the arena of emerging technologies. These technologies are interesting in and of themselves. However, I think they represent something deeper, that is embedded in the way social contexts are organized. As innovation spawns more innovation, social behaviors adapt to those new ideas and vice versa. The question to ask, then, is whether existing institutions can handle both the innovation specifically and the impact to social behavior generally.

Therefore, in our present context of predominantly democratic institutions, can democratic institutions manage the foreseeable accelerating rate of change? Are democratic institutions as we currently understand them in need of a drastic overhaul? Could we conceive of an evolved organizing political framework that is agile enough to handle, exploit, and manage what might be a new normal – disruptions? Similarly, what happens when defense can no longer comprehensively defend the polity? What happens when what needs defending is beyond the technical, procurement, and procedural capability of a defending institution, like the DoD? 

These are not unfamiliar questions. In fact, about 100 years ago, the world was facing a titanic shift in the way polities organized and defended themselves. A confluence of technological, social, and ideological changes reprogrammed the way the world works in the early part of the Twentieth Century. In 1951, Hannah Arendt characterized it like this.

Only two decades separated the temporary decline of the antisemitic movements from the outbreak of the first World War. This period has been adequately described as a “Golden Age of Security” because only a few who lived in it felt the inherent weakness of an obviously outmoded political structure which, despite all prophecies of imminent doom, continued to function in spurious splendor and with inexplicable, monotonous stubbornness. Side by side, and apparently with equal stability, an anachronistic despotism in Russia, a corrupt bureaucracy in Austria, a stupid militarism in Germany and a half-hearted Republic in continual crisis in France — all of them still under the shadow of the world-wide power of the British Empire — managed to carry on. None of these governments was especially popular, and all faced growing domestic opposition; but nowhere did there seem to exist an earnest political will for radical change in political conditions.[1]

Are we approaching a bubble of some sort — be that a technological bubble, an innovation bubble, a social structural bubble, a learning bubble? Or are we headed straight into a wall? Is the accelerating pace of change going to collide with the currently understood laws of physics? In other words, are we going to reach a point technologically, structurally, socially, where we can go no further, at least until something gives way?

What might these questions imply? I tend to think we need to think differently. That does not mean we need to think about things in a different way. No. We need to do the process of thinking in a fundamentally different manner. We need to recognize that we exist or are about to exist in a wholly different plane of existence. If we do not, someone else will. Or more likely, someone else already has. At that point, we will not only be left behind. We may never be able to catch back up.

[1] Arendt, H. (1966 (originally published 1951)). The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., p. 50. Emphasis added.