Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Elite Establishment Has Lost Control of the Information Environment


tandfonline |  In 1993, before WiFi, indeed before more than a small fraction of people enjoyed broadband Internet, John J. Arquilla and David F. Ronfeldt of the Rand Corporation began to develop a thesis on “Cyberwar and Netwar” (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1995 Arquilla, J. J., and D. F. Ronfeldt. 1995. “Cyberwar and Netwar: New Modes, Old Concepts, of Conflict.” Rand Review, Fall. https://www.rand.org/pubs/periodicals/rand-review/issues/RRR-fall95-cyber/cyberwar.html archived at https://perma.cc/NNT3-C6U3. (Excerpted from “Cyberwar Is Coming,” by Arquilla and Ronfeldt.” Comparative Strategy 12: 141165. 1993. doi:10.1080/01495939308402915 archived at https://perma.cc/8RQY-S3SW.)[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]). I found it of little interest at the time. It seemed typical of Rand’s role as a sometime management consultant to the military-industrial complex. For example, Arquilla and Ronfeldt wrote that “[c]yberwar refers to conducting military operations according to information-related principles. It means disrupting or destroying information and communications systems. It means trying to know everything about an adversary while keeping the adversary from knowing much about oneself.” A sort of Sun Tzu for the networked era.

The authors’ coining of the notion of “netwar” as distinct from “cyberwar” was even more explicitly grandiose. They went beyond bromides about inter-military conflict, describing impacts on citizenries at large:
Netwar refers to information-related conflict at a grand level between nations or societies. It means trying to disrupt or damage what a target population knows or thinks it knows about itself and the world around it. A netwar may focus on public or elite opinion, or both. It may involve diplomacy, propaganda and psychological campaigns, political and cultural subversion, deception of or interference with local media, infiltration of computer networks and databases, and efforts to promote dissident or opposition movements across computer networks. (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1995 Arquilla, J. J., and D. F. Ronfeldt. 1995. “Cyberwar and Netwar: New Modes, Old Concepts, of Conflict.” Rand Review, Fall. https://www.rand.org/pubs/periodicals/rand-review/issues/RRR-fall95-cyber/cyberwar.html archived at https://perma.cc/NNT3-C6U3. (Excerpted from “Cyberwar Is Coming,” by Arquilla and Ronfeldt.” Comparative Strategy 12: 141165. 1993. doi:10.1080/01495939308402915 archived at https://perma.cc/8RQY-S3SW.)[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar])
While “netwar” never caught on as a name, I was, in retrospect, too quick to dismiss it. Today it is hard to look at Arquilla and Ronfeldt’s crisp paragraph of more than 20 years ago without appreciating its deep prescience.

Our digital environment, once marked by the absence of sustained state involvement and exploitation, particularly through militaries, is now suffused with it. We will need new strategies to cope with this kind of intrusion, not only in its most obvious manifestations – such as shutting down connectivity or compromising private email – but also in its more subtle ones, such as subverting social media for propaganda purposes.

Many of us thinking about the Internet in the late 1990s concerned ourselves with how the network’s unusually open and generative architecture empowered individuals in ways that caught traditional states – and, to the extent they concerned themselves with it at all, their militaries – flat-footed. As befitted a technology that initially grew through the work and participation of hobbyists, amateurs, and loosely confederated computer science researchers, and later through commercial development, the Internet’s features and limits were defined without much reference to what might advantage or disadvantage the interests of a particular government.

To be sure, conflicts brewed over such things as the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material, presaging counter-reactions by incumbents. Scholars such as Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig (2006 Lessig, L. 2006. Code Version 2.0. New York: Basic Books. http://codev2.cc/ archived at https://perma.cc/2NCX-UGBE. [Google Scholar]) mapped out how the code that enabled freedom (to some; anarchy to others) could readily be reworked, under pressure of regulators if necessary, to curtail it. Moreover, the interests of the burgeoning commercial marketplace and the regulators could neatly intersect: The technologies capable of knowing someone well enough to anticipate the desire for a quick dinner, and to find the nearest pizza parlor, could – and have – become the technologies of state surveillance.

That is why divisions among those who study the digital environment – between so-called techno-utopians and cyber-skeptics – are not so vast. The fact was, and is, that our information technologies enable some freedoms and diminish others, and more important, are so protean as to be able to rearrange or even invert those affordances remarkably quickly.