We are, if you haven’t noticed, in the midst of a cyber-scare. Pretty much everywhere from Washington to Beijing to London you will find some public official talking loudly about cyber threats of one sort or another. For me it brings to mind nothing so much as Stanley Baldwin’s famous House of Commons speech (helpfully transcribed and brought to you on the web in full on the Airminded blog) in November 1932 in which he warned:
I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on Earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through…
Likewise, in recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee incoming CIA Chief Leon Panetta predicts that ‘the next Pearl Harbor that we confront could very well be a cyberattack that cripples’ America’s electrical grid and its security and financial systems.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think there are significant threats and challenges to be faced as a result of cyberspace which has come a helluva long way since it was coined in science fiction nearly thirty years ago. On which point some some thoughts I’ve written on the matter fairly recently in Parliamentary Brief: Keeping the Enemy out of your Hard Drive and Prevention Trumps Cure especially with Cyberwar. [Edit: If you’ve an hour to waste you can also listen to a lecture I did at Carleton University a few months ago on Cyberspace and War: 2011 through the Prism of 1911)
But, you know, as strategists it is important to get altitude on the existential threat du jour and ask is the current phreak-out really justified? My answer: no. The panic is understandable and predictable because it has happened before in history many times in response to other technological changes. I think Bruce Sterling’s sage observation in his book The Hacker Crackdown is very apposite on this point:
For the average citizen in the 1870s, the telephone was weirder, more shocking, more ‘high-tech’ and harder to comprehend, than the most outrageous stunts of advanced computing for us Americans in the 1990s. In trying to understand what is happening to us today, with our bulletin-board systems, direct overseas dialling, fiber-optic transmissions, computer viruses, hacking stunts, and a vivid tangle of new laws and new crimes, it is important to realize that our society has been through a similar challenge before–and that, all in all, we did rather well by it.
In short, calm down. Have a nice cup of tea. Some of the apparent consternation about cyberspace is perhaps explained by Marshall McLuhan who, drawing on Søren Kierkegaard’sThe Concept of Dread(1844), observed in 1967 that ‘wherever a new environment goes around an old one there is always new terror.’
This is a wise basis upon which to develop a strategic sensibility about cyberspace which, frankly, looks rather discombobulated at the moment. Whether the technology is the printing press, telegraph, telephone, television or the internet the contemporary ‘shocks of the new’ have tended, in time, to be absorbed and normalized by the species. I wouldn’t deny the transformative effects of technology, nor their potentially deleterious impact on the status quo of human social and political affairs, including war, but it is important, as strategists, to maintain a degree of perspective on events and processes that at close hand appear as existential threats yet with respectful distance and consideration take on different hues.Cyberspace alters much but it doesn’t change everything. Moreover, I suspect it changes things militarily much less than is frequently supposed. [Edit: For one thing, I think its effect on military asymmetry is far less than is supposed. Most new military technologies end up making strong powers stronger and weaker ones weaker. I don’t see why that would not be the case here too.]
That said, there was another thing which caught my eye in Panetta’s speech that is noteworthy:
This is a time of historic change. We are no longer in the Cold War. This is the Blizzard War – a blizzard of challenges that draws on speed and intensity from rapidly developing technologies and the rising number of powers on the world stage.
Is this the newest rebranding of the GWOT/SAVE/Long War/whatever in Washington? It’s the first I’ve heard it. Can I be the first in the blogosphere to say cut it out? Death to buzzwords! The field of strategic studies is beset with neologisms and hyphenated war-types which are pointless and distracting.
Photo is from The Analogue Revolution where you can buy a cool t-shirt.