March 08, 2013

Beyond Disruption

war in Iraq came at a strange moment in technological history. The 21st century
saw mass proliferation of affordable cellular telephony, altering not simply
the way people kept in touch, but did business and waged war. For the U.S.
military, cell phones posed a potentially dangerous problem. In addition to
enabling a new generation of remotely-controlled IEDs, they helped insurgents
coordinate larger and more complex groups, extending mobile C3 to any group
with a tower in range and minutes bought.

Yet, as Jacob
Shapiro and Nils Weidman argue in a fascinating study
, booming cellphone
use cut against insurgencies. Rather than enabling more IED attacks, they made
it easier for civilians to inform on insurgents. Cellphones could even fill
gaps in counterinsurgent communication networks while exposing insurgent communications
to U.S. superiority in electronic warfare. Looking at a systemic level rather
than narrowly at one actor’s applications of a technology, mobile telephony’s
expansion more likely helped than hindered counterinsurgents.

The dynamic
between new technology, conflict, and social systems frequently lends itself to
oversimplification. Cell phones neither made nor broke U.S. operations in Iraq,
and although the Taliban appears to recognize their threat, they do not
determine the course of the war there either. Despite the rapidly proliferating
quantity and falling price of many new technologies, technical military
dominance remains and incredibly expensive affair. 

While it is
not incredibly difficult to probe the DoD’s cybersecurity or even penetrate its
networks, launching computer network attacks sophisticated enough to
significantly degrade the U.S.’s overwhelming strength requires not just a
built-up IT infrastructure for computer network attack, but a wide spectrum of
electronic warfare capabilities and enough conventional punch to exploit the
gap. Even in these scenarios, states such as China, Russia, the U.S. and Israel
continue to enjoy massive advantages over non-state groups and poor or weak
states when it comes to information warfare. The costs in human and
technological capital significantly mitigates the disruptive effects of the

with remotely-operated and robotic weapons, rudimentary capabilities vastly
proliferated but constraints remain on their ability to substitute for or
supplement inadequate conventional capability. Basic, cost-intensive issues of
physics and logistics, such as size, payload, and the availability of
military-grade air-launched munitions limit the lethality of “personal” aerial drones, while even
state actors without adequate C4ISR infrastructure or the conventional means to
enable drone operations will find it difficult to radically change their means.

It should be
unsurprising that until the mid-20th century, a major narrative in Western
thought was not technology getting the barbarians closer to crashing the gate,
but fueling the rise of an ever vaster and more terrible Leviathan. Increasing
technical complexity and costs to waging war indeed promoted the ascent of the
modern state. As the trend continued, bureaucracies and state power grew even
in the most liberal states, while the Soviet Union and fascist Europe pointed
towards state power, economic advancement, and military-technical strength
going hand in hand. Even before totalitarianism, fin de siècle Britons such as
Halford Mackinder, Leo Amery, and H.G. Wells saw new technology militating
towards stronger and larger states. This was a trend the experience of the
World Wars and Cold War only seemed to reinforce, until the fall of the USSR
and heightened concern with disruptive technologies, anarchic failed states,
and the power of individuals.

Despite the
obvious oversights of those who took the writings of Orwell and Burnham a bit
too far to heart, it’s important to remember that many of the technologies
thought to be rolling back state power came about through state action and
operate most powerfully with the state’s resources behind them. The glut of
small arms and light weapons in conflict zones are frequently legacy of state-backed
mass production
 and proxy
war supplies
, or states
toppled with the aid of conventional power

Lieber ably demonstrated the errors of confounding technical systems with undue
political attributes
 in his dissection of offense-defense balance in IR
theory. For issues of state-building and insurgency, a similar look at how
disruptive technologies require enabling and support from a wider variety of
social and political factors makes it much easier to explain why some
technology erodes the power of one state while vastly bolstering another. At a
broader, systemic level, though, asking whether this or that technology
bolsters or erodes state authority is likely asking the wrong question.

To note the
increasing sophistication of non-state groups is not to imply the erosion of
the state or even an adverserial relationship between state authority and other
forms. Instead, given that assemblages of state power remain the dominant
territorial and political forms (even
if they deviate from our expectations
), investigating the parasitic,
commensalist, and symbiotic relationships between them will likely be the best
way both to assess the political impacts of proliferating technology and the
emergent shape of world order.