Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."


On Information

A Twitter "tweet" from @Selil earlier this evening roused a long-dormant post idea. Since Twitter is a "micro-blog", its constraint of just 140 characters limits its utility to low-bandwidth, big-idea (or mundane-activity) broadcasting. Prof. Liles's "big-idea" (in response to @mtanji of Haft of the Spear and CTLab fame) was:
"C4isr as the battle space. More than the Arquilla network centric warfare concept. Beyond hacking. Sun Tzu and Clausewitz"
I certainly agree with Prof. Liles that there is more to the information domain than John Arquilla and net-centric warfare (which always struck me as an attempt to create a self-fulfilling prophesy -- despite the fact that network superiority has no deterrent value). Where I differ is in the proposition that C4ISR is a "battle space".

C4ISR, or (as ADM Giambastiani liked to refer to it during his tour as my boss at U.S. Joint Forces Command, "C2 + C2ISR"), is simply a tool. The technology only provides a medium by which information can be shared, the same way that Roman signal towers allowed information to be conveyed rapidly across great distances millennia ago.

Part of the Tanji-Liles dialog emphasized the lack of any truly "revolutionary" capabilities in recent decades. I'm inclined to agree -- from a purely technological perspective. Our modern technology -- though impressive -- has not ushered in a unique "Information Age". In fact, today's technologies have not created wholly new capabilities; they have simply enriched capabilities that have existed for centuries. Rather than living in "The Information Age", I believe we are actually living in the fifth "information age":
1st: Verbal exchange of information (oral communication)
2nd: Physical representation of information (Sumerian writing)
3rd: Portability of information (papyrus)
4th: Mass-production of information (Gutenberg's movable type press)
5th: Information freed from physical form (telegraph, telephone, Internet)
The most significant effect of proliferating information technology and communications capabilities has been to neuter the initiative and empowerment of subordinates -- stunting the audacity that makes (or breaks) battles. Rigid hierarchies coupled with pervasive communications grids -- with "Net-Centricity" -- are demonstrably less effective than ones with "weak" links (q.v. Linked by Albert-László Barabási).

Consider the "Operational Level of War" -- the level between "Tactics" and "Strategy". Many organizations of the U.S. Department of Defense invest inordinate numbers of labor hours in developing an idea that peaked in Napoleon's time (when it was called "Grand Tactics").

Napoleon's logic was simple: he commanded an army so vast that its interior lines could exceed the distance of daily information propagation. (Information in the late 18th/early 19th century could propagate at approximately 100 miles per day.) But when technology increased the bandwidth of information transfer (as well as the speed, thanks to decoupling it from physical form and allowing velocity=c), the intermediate layer that once served as a proxy for the Imperial edict (i.e., empowerment of the on-scene commander to act on behalf of the Emperor) has remain entrenched.

Modern C4ISR tools have served to perpetuate this folly, giving today's commanders a beguiling sense of "Situational Awareness". MIL STD 2525, the military standard for unit symbology merged with theater-scale maps, can give a commander a "realtime snapshot" of the entire physical battlespace. But as the scale increases (since warfare is not scale invariant), the trade off between "relevance" and "intelligibility" becomes akin to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: as one becomes more precise, the other becomes dangerously less so.

The temptation to treat warfare like a game of chess (with its ordinal moves and perfect battlefield intelligence) is fallacious. ARHerring, a co-contributor at Dreaming5GW, recently opined about the nature of chess on multiple boards -- a closer approximation to the adaptive and complex nature of war. Clausewitz's description of "Genius" in battle is the antithesis of a reductionist thinker who seeks the unique solution to a given problem. Complex adaptive environments can have multiple solutions -- but an even larger number of incorrect options.

Therefore, a better description of an effective military leader is not simply "charisma", but "network fitness": per Barabási, the ability to "attract" links in order to influence their perceptions. This applies not only to COIN, but also to Information Warfare (h/t mtanji) and the renascent field of Public Diplomacy championed by Mountainrunner.

Update: Michael Tanji and Tyler Boudreau (h/t John Robb) sound off.

[Crossposted at Dreaming5GW]

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