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Order emerges from chaos - ready or not
, May 14, 2007
This review is from: Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization (Hardcover)
Since the end of World War II, the world's population has nearly tripled, the Internet has allowed anybody to network with everybody, nuclear weapons have made conventional war obsolete among major powers, and the fall of the Soviet Union has unleashed a witches' brew of armed non-state groups - global guerrillas - that operate in the cracks of the disintegrating state system.
This is just the static picture; the dynamics are even scarier. Global guerrillas practice something Robb calls "open source warfare," which means that in the modern environment, people even on different continents can form or join groups, train, and carry out operations much more quickly than in the past or than the major legacy states can today. As the groups learn from each other (and a sort of Darwinism selects out the unfit), a larger pattern forms, an "emergent intelligence," similar to a marauding colony of army ants, no one of which is very sophisticated, but operating together according to simple rules, they are survivable, adaptable, and in a suitable environment, invincible.
As Robb summarizes it:
... the behavior of these insurgencies as a whole seems to learn, achieve goals, and engage in self-preservation, despite the vast differences in how individual groups are organized. (p. 126)
One could dismiss all of this as speculation except for a couple of facts:
* Much of the software industry and a lot of the Internet (e.g., the Wikipedia) operate using the open source model today
* Nothing else seems to explain the success of the people attacking our forces in Iraq
To construct this model, Robb employs a number of concepts that may be new to people unfamiliar with modern systems theory: close-coupled systems, self-organization, emergent properties (particularly "intelligence"), stigmergy, and the concept of complexity arising from simple processes. He also introduces new tools for understanding how systems work in the modern world: open source insurgency, global virtual states, superempowerment, systempunkts, and "black swans."
These are all powerful ideas and not in the least theoretical as Robb illustrates with events from the evening news. Whether you agree with Robb's end position or his solutions, these are concepts that are needed to describe why today's world is different from that of the Cold War.
As the framework for his solution, Robb proposes a modern version of survivalism. We won't all be holed up in cabins in the woods, a la the Unabomber. But if we are living in a world that is "tightly coupled," where a glitch in the power system in Ohio can cascade into a massive outage involving 50,000,000 people along the entire East Coast, then the solution must involve some loosening.
Robb's general strategy is to improve resilience by any means possible. I could imagine, for example, that instead of building new power plants that, along with their distribution systems, are vulnerable to disruption, the government provides market incentives to improve resilience. The government could increase subsidies to utilities and require all of them to buy electricity from homeowners during the day and sell it at reduced rates at night. As more people add power generation capability to their houses - solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, whatever - resilience improves. This may not be the most efficient solution, but in the age of open source insurgency, too much efficiency can be dangerous.
Robb makes a compelling case that this model will also work for national security. It is certainly working very well for the groups we are fighting.
Whether you agree with his particular solutions is not important. However, the pieces of the problem are real and we are going to have to create ways to deal with open source conflict - an intelligence that emerges through the dynamic interaction of religious fanatics, street gangs, criminal cartels, and at times even other states - or face a series of disruptions that will severely degrade our quality of life.
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