Friday, September 13, 2002

A new kind of War? Not with old kinds of thinking: After the attack on the World Trade Center, it took little time to figure out who was behind it. Our corporate leader realized that in a world where you are the largest industrialized nation, there are certain tasks you must cover for yourself. You have to self-insure health coverage and – in some cases – police actions. No one else was going to bust this bin Laden guy – so we had to do it ourselves. Fine.

With ears still ringing from the disaster – and smoke still rising from the pile in NYC – we undertook what W. called a “new kind of war.” But he undertook it with the same old weapons of war we have used for years – planes, tanks, rifles and people. We blew away a lot of al Qaeda, unseated the government of Afghanistan, and won ourselves a long-term bodyguard duty in that country. We didn’t get bin Laden, however – at least, we can’t prove it – and there is some evidence to the contrary.

So what are the next tactics of this “new kind of war?” Well, go after someone else of course – someone we already despise – go after Saddam & Iraq. Ok, so bin Laden attacked us, and Saddam, by God, is going to pay? That’s a new kind of war alright.

Remember the old story about the guy looking for the quarter here on Maple St, although he lost it way over on Pine St. Why? Because the light’s better over here. Well Saddam really screwed up this time – he left the lights on in Baghdad, and W’s gonna come get him.

This is ridiculous. It is certainly a new kind of situation, and most certainly does require new kinds of tactics. Among other things, bin Laden and al Qaeda used the Internet and a lot of disposable cell phones to pass their communications and make their plans. They used some crude but clever networking techniques to build the conspiracy.

“It is ironic, however, that the terrorists themselves have clearly used our networks against us. On the one hand, the notorious bin Laden was trained and extensively funded by the CIA during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, when he and his compatriots were warmly referred to as "freedom fighters." U.S. taxpayers' funds helped to build the terrorist-training camps that the U.S. military's bombs are now destroying. At another level, other terrorists have struck at the heart of the networks that support the modern world. Nothing connects us together like the postal service, through which letters charged with anthrax have stealthily crept. The initial attacks on September 11 employed our own air transportation network against us, and were organized via remote financial dealings and communications over the Internet. This kind of coordinated effort would have been far more difficult a decade ago.” Nexus, by Mark Buchanan, pgs 21-22 (Norton, 2002)

Turns out, networking is something we are only just now beginning to understand more fully. This goes beyond “network topologies” that have so concerned systems managers these last 20 years or so. This gets to the heart of networking we have found around us since time began: the network that makes up our environment and the organisms that live within it, the network of forces that make up weather, the networks of human relationships, business relationships and more and more.

This issue of networking is a part of an emerging science of complexity. One of the features of these networks is that they exist and function at a wide spectrum of scales – very small to very very large. The human network, for example, works at the planetary level, the continental level, the national level etc. right on down to the family-and-friends level. Many characteristics are the same at each level, sometimes size makes a difference.

But the fact is networks are robust – difficult to disable and destroy. That’s a good thing if you are talking about a beneficial network like the Internet. It’s a bad thing if it’s a network of bad guys – like al Qaeda and their cohorts.

The counteractions to disable if not destroy networks are likely to be very different than the actions we have seen from our current leadership in Afghanistan and what they are so eager to employ in Iraq. Networks of communications methodologies – especially today – are filled with redundancies and other protections that make the mere destruction of equipment in a few localities completely meaningless. Bombers and Rangers and Humvees simply cannot win this kind of war.

A new kind of War? Well, that may be the most significant contribution W and his gang of hawks are capable of making – they accidentally discovered the real problem. But they don’t seem to have any idea how to implement such a counterattack. These are not subtle people – they’re the types who poke fun at “eggheads.” The fact that they don’t have a clue between them does not deter them from action, whether it makes sense or not.

Bin Laden remains the danger to the US – he and his network of hoodlums and dupes. They have an advantage on the sophisticated US forces in a way: they have time – time to wait for the urgency we currently feel to cool down, time to focus on the next tiny little hole in some system they can exploit against innocent people. If we were smart we would be looking for ways to disrupt their current sabbatical – not by going after an unrelated and irrelevant thug like Saddam.

We have to stay on task – go after bin Laden with the new tools that science is giving us – not explosives, but new insights into existing characteristics of society and the human condition.

For more info on the emerging science of networking, I strongly recommend 3 relatively new books dealing with the subject:

--> Linked: The New Science of Networks
by Albert-László Barabási (2002)

--> Ubiquity: The Science of History . . . or Why the World Is Simpler Than We Think
by Mark Buchanan (2002)

--> Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks
by Mark Buchanan (2002)

There is more information coming faster and furiouser about this subject as time goes on – not only public policy but personal and business strategy is enhanced by an understanding of these principles.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

It's very difficult for me to imagine the grief that follows the unexpected death of a loved one. It's one thing when illness makes the end inevitable in a foreseeable future. It's a whole different thing when someone walks out the door to follow their normal routine - and word comes back that something terrible has happened, and that person won't be coming home.

And that's the gut story we deal with in the 9/11 attacks. So many people - went to their jobs, pursued their travel plans - and they never came home. I don't know how I would deal with that situation, and I hope I never find out.

But I know that ultimately, the survivors have to to live - they must come back to their life - albeit changed - and go on. On the personal level, this is the hard task - and for those who want to help, feel empathy, make things better - this is what we want to do for 3000 people - and their families - who did not deserve they end they faced. Anyone whose heart does not go out to these people - needs to apply for a transplant.

On the larger scale, societal level, healing is characteristically well under way. The Pentagon has been re-built. The World Trade Center is now an empty construction site, awaiting the next step.

Tragedies happen to cities - and it seems that most cities - in the end - are better for the recovery process. Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco are among the major cities in the US that have suffered catastrophic destruction, and then come back stronger than ever. Turns out New York has also suffered such disasters in the past. One was an even larger-scale of destruction (though not loss of life) than 9/11. The story appeared last week in the Wall St. Journal (9/4/02) under the headline New York City Rebuilt Itself With Style After Fire of 1835.

The essence of the story, of course, is the re-building. Time moves forward, life moves on. Such disasters provide an opportunity to replace out-of-date infrastructure that otherwise would just be piled upon year after year. The land is not exactly a blank slate - everyone remembers where things were - for a long time. The ambitions for what the land could be mark the area as well.

The New York Times - house organ for the organism known as NYC - has published two great stories in the most recent Sunday Magazine. The notable thing about these pieces is that the staff actually took the time to make the online version better than the print. The online version contains not only the printed text that appeared in the Sunday paper, but also animated and narrated experiences that show the story in addition to telling it.

If you want a recap of what happened to the towers, don't miss (New York Times Magazine, 9/8/02) The Height of Ambition.

As important as it is to avoid repeating past mistakes - to learn from the tragedy - it is perhaps more important what happens next. We can't change the past, but we certainly can sculpt the future. And there are New York people facing the prosepct with gusto:
Don't Rebuild. Reimagine.

People, viewed from above, must look like ants - constantly moving, constantly building, tearing down, building again, while constantly moving and building and destroying and re-building. Over and over. And as deep as the scars may be in our hearts and in our memories, we cannot seem to help ourselves - we move, we rebuild, and we become a stronger and a better tribe, for all the travail.

Monday, September 09, 2002

View Toward the Edge is a Web log focusing on events and trends in industry and our culture that look important to the future of new media - and old media, for that matter. Check back frequently - and feel free to send comments to!