Technology hasn’t worked out quite like we imagined. For you and I, it has made us dramatically more efficient. But institutions, despite superficial changes, remain fundamentally unchanged. Tim Ferriss looked at this paradox in the the Four Hour Work Week, asking how, with the advent of the computer, internet and cell phone, could office habits and expectations still be exactly the same as they were fifty years ago. And now people are turning that thought process towards warfare–specifically John Robb in Brave New War (he also has an awesome blog) and Robert Greene.
The problem is that on one end we have groups competing amongst themselves to be better, more fluid and more powerful and on the other end groups colluding to maintain the status quo. We have nation states (conglomerates) and terrorists (the internet). One of them gets better every day and the other gets a little bit worse. Eventually, those trajectories intersect. So we’re seeing that the same tools that have made one man as powerful as a newspaper now make twenty Muslims as powerful as an entire army.
For the first time in almost all of history, the individual can now compete with the state. That is, the path to power militarily or economically doesn’t necessarily lead through a nation’s capital. And this competition is defined by one pretty immutable law: The people coming up want it more than the people already on top. Do you think that Forbes wakes up everyday as hungry for one more reader the same way that I do? And when they can’t compete, they can at least make us look like a bumbling fool. Which really is what terrorism is: the use violence to de-legitimize the state. But it won’t always have to be through violence. I could shut down half of LA by abandoning a bus on the 10 Freeway and not even risk my life doing it.
The parallels between the rapid growth and decentralization that we have seen online is precisely what we are seeing in Iraq. Except for a beheading isn’t quite as admirable or as inspirational as revolutionizing an archaic industry. But that is essentially what insurgents are: individuals and small groups more efficiently serving the needs of the people more than the standing leaders (which in this case is the State).
When we take away the blinders we see that despite our mass and size, we are being beaten in the exact areas that the size is supposed to be an advantage. Pleasing the people, at providing infrastructure, at distributing global resources, at providing education, at maintaining electricity–these are the things a superpower is supposed to be good at. But Iraq (and well, daily life in America) shows that that is not the case. And just as newspapers and universities are failing at the basic service they were created to provide–getting scoops, investigative reporting, ground breaking research–individuals and private groups have started to step up and replace government functions. Criminal gangs–a major component of insurgencies that we do not acknowledge–work the same way. This is why you see such an affinity for gangs and criminal activity in the inner cities. Where the governments have failed, individuals stepped up and at least attempted to fill the void. Why should rappers and basketball players and hip-hop entrepreneurs suddenly like the State after they’ve made their money? They learned to exist without it.
The solution that Robb proposes is to embrace the very methods of our adversaries. Of course this seems absurd–but while you’re laughing, say hello to the Entrenched Player Dilemma. The state might be slipping you say but it’s not on the verge of collapse. Indeed, and that it why we ought to change now. The time to change–in life and in strategy–is before you become utterly obsolete, not after.
Cuban knows what he is talking about. We might be served welled by a politician who just started red-lining laws. We have too many; the enemy has none. Michael Raynor sent me a paper a few weeks ago that suggested this tactic for newspapers and other industries facing emerging threats. His advised the companies set up autonomous and independent divisions to handle the situation instead of trying to do it in-house. This way they could create new institutions around conditions as opposed to attempting to slow alter old ones or ignore the glaring disparity. They would know the space and the culture and avoid the blunders of hubris and projection. I posted a few weeks ago about private vs government monopolies and this is the perfect example. We have the government strangling efficiency in media and technology because it serves the needs of politicians and not the people. This is the philosophy of failure. Our enemies do not think this way.
There are some solutions. Decentralization is one of them. In Charlie Wilson’s War, the author discuses a CIA program that paid entrepreneurs to create innovative weapons for Afghani rebels to use against the Soviets. A $10 million cash fund that created incentives for home-made lethality. That power is currently being used against us instead of in our favor. Robb talks about using things like crowdsourcing to limit the effectiveness of calculated strikes and system disruption. And it seems to me that the tragedy of the anti-commons prevents individuals from picking up the burdens that eventually fall on the government. How do you make government work harder? By taking its assets away.
It’s funny because on one end I sit and cheer the rise of decentralization and its likely victory over obtuse and inset competitors. On the other, I clearly don’t wish to see the United States falter militarily. The rise of the anti-state won’t end in Iraq, just as it won’t end on the internet or in entertainment. Imagine if Katrina had been a few magnitudes worse, who knows what would have arisen to make sense of that chaos.