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I have a new piece up at War on the Rocks, written in conjunction with Nate Finney and Ben Kohlmann. I situate the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum within the broader context of military history, and answer the question: Does DEF have any significance for the Department of Defense?

My answer is yes; large hierarchical have always depended on informal, peripheral networks to generate fresh thinking. DEF is only the latest iteration of a very long trend. Check it out!

By the way, if you aren’t already following War on the Rocks, you should. My friend Ryan Evans has done a spectacular job launching this resource, which bridges the gap between operations and policy.

Also, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum has a new permanent website! Check it out.

What I Learned at DEF2013

October 15, 2013 — 2 Comments

As someone who sits on the DEF board, I have a little confession to make: I wasn’t sure this would work.

Ben Kohlmann and his colleagues were already hard at work planning DEF2013 when they invited me onto the board, and I don’t think they knew what they were getting. If they’re the passionate idealists, I’m the detail-minded critic who questions assumptions, pokes holes in plans, and makes himself an all-around pain in the ass. I loved what the DEF board was doing, but I also had real concerns about strategy and execution. We had many discussions about these subjects over the past few months, all the way up through the final morning of the conference itself. All that to say, this has been a journey for me.

Now that DEF2013 is over, I’m delighted to call it a success. I’m convinced some of my concerns were valid, but I also need to admit that I was wrong about a lot of things too. DEF2013 stretched me past my limits; it defied almost all military best practices for strategic planning, but it worked amazingly well for precisely that reason.

DEF2013 introduced me to an entirely new way of operating. I’m still sifting through the wreckage of some of my prior beliefs, and trying to figure out what to build in their place. In the meantime, I’d like to share some tentative thoughts about what I learned at DEF2013.

Sometimes the best strategy is anarchy. This principle feels so dangerous to me that I’m having trouble even typing it, but I’m now convinced it’s true. If you want to stimulate creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, a clearly articulated strategy with well-defined goals can be fatal. An ambiguous strategy means flexibility, intensive experimentation, and rapid learning. You don’t want to run an organization that way forever, but during the “discovery” phase or for an organization that requires a creative culture, anarchy can be vital. When Gordon MacKenzie was brought onto Hallmark management to foster innovation, he insisted on the job title “Creative Paradox” and had no formalized list of job responsibilities. He drove senior management crazy, but the very ambiguity about his role is what made him so successful. We need creative paradoxes.

Success can be intangible. Traditional business says, “Show me the return on investment” and traditional military thinking says, “Show me the mission impact.” I can’t do that for DEF2013. I have no idea what the impact will be. What I can tell you is that every single DEF attendee is fired up to do great things in his or her organization, and each of them is now better equipped with tools, experience, and relationships to do that. DEF2013 also ignited a spirit among its attendees. Anyone who has experienced that elusive phenomenon called “morale” should understand what I mean.

Effective leadership takes a diverse team. Most of us know this in the abstract, but it can be challenging when you’re up against hard decisions, the stakes are high, and you have fundamentally different viewpoints and approaches. Still, that negotiation among diverse viewpoints is essential. The bottom line is that teams typically produce better work if they include diverse types of individuals. You need visionaries and critics. You need analysts and artists. You need hammers and you need goofballs. Major kudos to Ben Kohlmann for assembling a diverse team in the DEF board.

Innovation needs the right conditions. Innovation does not happen on its own; studies are clear that creative thinking occurs best in a semi-structured environment. The challenge is knowing what that environment should be. I’m still struggling with that. In one sense, DEF2013 itself created the right conditions for creative thinking on a large scale. Within our small groups, each group differed. We saw failures where the topic was too open-ended or too narrowly tailored. There seems to be a sweet spot in the middle, where the team is focused on a specific topic with specific constraints, but has unlimited freedom within those constraints.

Trust is scary but worth it. DEF2013 was an experiment, and we had to put a lot of trust in our attendees and speakers. A few of us were concerned about the possibility that somebody show up with an axe to grind, who would poison the atmosphere with bitterness or ranting. We didn’t have a single case of that. Without fail, our attendees and speakers were professional, courteous, and interested in positive, collaborative solutions. I also was worried about the Ideation groups, because we didn’t have a clear model for how the groups would work, and I questioned the viability of certain topics. We had to let go of control, and at each stage I was amazed at the teams’ creative problem solving. Some teams spontaneously dissolved and recombined; others took their topics in totally unplanned directions. The results were not at all what I expected, but everybody came through with results that were quite impressive for the compressed timescale.

Diversity is powerful. The military will always be a hierarchical organization for good reason, and subordinates should always respect superiors. But there is a time and a place for setting rank aside (we do it in crew aircraft all the time). DEF attendees wore civilian clothes and their name tags did not indicate rank. Our attendees included Cadet through Brigadier General, a few enlisted, business professors, veterans who became entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs who later commissioned, government civilians, defense contractors, and more. We let those people sit down together in a variety of settings to exchange knowledge and hammer out ideas. That was pretty remarkable to watch.

People thrive when empowered. I’m convinced one main reason people attended DEF2013 is that they feel disempowered. They are frustrated because their voices aren’t being heard. DEF2013 extended the promise that every attendee would have a voice, and it’s amazing how people responded to that promise. Maybe your idea will be a good one, maybe not. Maybe it will see the light of day, maybe it won’t. But the simple knowledge that somebody is respectfully listening to you, and treating you as a valuable source of ideas for the organization, can be life-changing. One of DEF2013’s greatest successes was creating an environment where that held true, and I hope our attendees will spread that culture back to their home units.

Rapid failure, adaptation, and iteration is extremely hard. I wish I could tell you that it was fun leading a small Ideation group, but it mostly wasn’t. My team members themselves were great, but nothing went as I expected. I spent weeks beforehand developing what I thought was a perfect topic for Ideation, and it was a spectacular failure. After an hour, we were gridlocked. We took a break, tried again, and hit another dead end. The next morning, I talked offline with another member about when we should admit failure. We kept at it that afternoon, trying new directions, and finally we found a little gold and started digging. Within the final hour, we developed two actionable ideas that will likely become part of DEF’s future. These ideas had almost nothing to do with our starting place. I’ve never before experienced this degree of failure, iteration, and learning on such a fast timescale. This stuff sounds great in the innovation literature, but actually doing it is hard work. It is emotionally and mentally taxing for somebody accustomed to careful planning processes aimed at clearly defined ends.

Nothing motivates self-starters like relationships. Because of the high barrier to entry, our attendees were all self-starters. It takes a lot of intrinsic motivation to give up a three-day weekend and pay for a trip to Chicago. These are people who will innovate because it’s in their blood, not because someone is dangling an OPR bullet or a quarterly award in front of them. So how do you reward those people? Can you show that you value them, in ways that satisfy their intrinsic motivations? Our Ideation group realized that self-starters are largely motivated by relationships. They want to make a difference in the lives of others, they like to meet other people who appreciate their work, and they like to meet people who can lead them to new opportunities. That is why attendees loved DEF2013; it offered no tangible “reward”, but it connected them with like-minded people and created new opportunities for collaboration. This is not just about “networking” in some pejorative sense of the word; it is about the joy that comes with being part of a living community.

Informality is fun and liberating. One of my favorite moments of the weekend came at the start of our small group presentations. We had a very impressive judging panel, and I was worried about setting poor-quality products in front of them. At the very least, I was expecting some real awkwardness. But then, before the presentations started, a fellow DEF board member showed the audience the prizes: cases of cheap beer with Doctrine Man cartoons taped to them. My fears dissolved in the uproar of laughter. Genius! I thought. It was the perfect way to set the right tone for our presentations. The pressure was off, and we could have fun showing off our half-baked creations and sharing what we’d learned. That is just one small example of the fun we were able to have at a tiny conference on a shoestring budget. And if you’ve never been to a Twitter-enabled conference, the freewheeling audience interaction and sidebar conversations totally transforms the conference experience.

It’s often hard to predict what will succeed and what will fail. It’s kind of amazing; I’ve been studying strategy both informally and formally for years, and I’ve never grasped this fundamental principle until this weekend. We all know von Moltke’s quote that “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”, but that took on a new meaning for me at DEF2013. If you’re doing something that’s never been done before, you simply don’t know if it will work. Carefully planned and executed ideas may crash and burn, and some absurd sketch on a bar napkin may evolve into a major success. So you need to think on your feet, watch for feedback, adapt quickly, and continually try new things. Practicing this in the safe laboratory of DEF2013 probably did as much to prepare me for high-level strategy jobs as any formal strategy course I’ve taken.

For other reflections on DEF2013 see Peter Munson, Joe Byerly and Kristen Rouse.

Day one of DEF2013 is complete, and so far I think we can call it a success! Last night SoFi generously hosted a social for us at a local bar, so I had the opportunity to talk with many of our attendees about their impressions in a relaxed environment. Without fail, everyone was thrilled.

The most common reaction I encountered was gratitude. I found that surprising, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. After all, what would lead a hundred people to shell out a lot of their own money and sacrifice a three-day weekend to attend a work-related conference? Clearly, DEF appealed to something deep within them; it went right to the core of their identity, to that place from which their intrinsic motivation springs. Our attendees are talented and energetic self-starters, which means they are brimming with ideas and thrive on challenge. They want to do good things for their organizations and their country. However, I suspect that almost all of them feel disempowered to do the kind of work they most care about. They have been suffering from the soul-sickness that comes when some of their highest intrinsic motivations go unsatisfied.

For these attendees, the single greatest gift DEF offers is a sense of empowerment. DEF gives them permission to throw out their ideas, to innovate, to experiment, to take risk, to fail without punishment, to get up again swinging. Even if their ideas don’t make it past the starting gate, the sheer freedom to explore these ideas is liberating in its own right. But DEF doesn’t stop there; it holds out the promise that successful innovation IS possible, though the journey can be hard. DEF gives attendees the tools and the mandate to be change-makers in their organizations. Finally, DEF gives attendees a supportive community to encourage them on the way.

I think the gratitude springs from this sense of empowerment.

So what are some highlights from day one? Nate Finney and Roxanne Bras facilitated an excellent group discussion about what defense innovation means, and whether the language of “disruption” is helpful or not. BJ Armstrong and Peter Munson gave excellent presentations about how to effectively create change in large organizations. What I really appreciated about these guys was their class and their professionalism; they are not trying to unleash renegades, but thoughtful and effective professionals who can get things done. That requires competency, relationships, and a lot of “grit”–a word that appears to have now permanently entered the military innovation lexicon.

I also enjoyed our afternoon ideation sessions, in which we explored a variety of problems facing the DoD and brainstormed potential solutions. We generated a lot of good discussion, and all of our attendees are getting hands-on training and practice in leading innovation. We are learning plenty on the way. When DEF is over, I plan to write a post about what I’ve learned personally.

In the meantime, we’re getting ready to launch day 2. Follow our live stream and follow us on Twitter at #DEF2013. You can check out yesterday’s videos on our YouTube page.

 

 

I’ve always been a geek at heart, and I also try to keep one eye on cyber issues because they’re so important to national security.  So lately I’ve been reading numerous books about networking, computer hacking, and hacktivism.

One of the most intriguing books in this collection is We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency by Parmy Olson.  Despite a string of 1-star reviews on Amazon by disgruntled Anonymous members (all curiously posted within a two-day spread shortly after the book’s publication), I thought the book was absolutely riveting.  It is a tour through the digital underground: the IRC chat rooms where attacks are planned and botnets are controlled, message boards where virtual flash mobs are born, and the dark basements where socially alienated teenagers become world-famous hackers.  The exploits themselves are fascinating: social engineering and exploitation, network penetration, data theft, d0xing, denial of service attacks, and many more.  For a nonfiction book, it has plenty of suspense.  I was constantly looking forward to learning what the next attack would be, and enjoyed the progressive revelation of the identities of Anonymous and LulzSec leaders–a subject about which I knew nothing.

The book is also fascinating from a national security and defense standpoint.  It forced me to do some deep thinking about how networks and headless organizations conduct themselves, and how to fight them.  Here are a few of my observations, with the caveat that they are based mostly on this one book.

The author challenges the idea that Anonymous has a powerful hive mind.  In the author’s view, the spread of this belief is one of Anonymous’ greatest feats of social engineering.  In actuality, Anonymous is a brand under which almost anyone can rally, and which has been subject to bitter infighting, splits, and even FBI informing by key members.  Any apparent hive intelligence is less the result of the crowds, and more a result of key leaders or teams within Anonymous.  For example, although hundreds of people participated in some key DDoS attacks, nearly all the computing firepower came from one or two botnet owners.

Following from this, even decentralized networks need leaders.  It’s hard to get anything done otherwise.  It’s interesting that after a period of creative anarchy, some key members of Anonymous broke off to form their own hacking group, LulzSec, which was smaller, more structured, and more disciplined.  Without this kind of centralized structure, groups are mostly limited to lone wolf or one-off attacks.

The very atmosphere of paranoia and anonymity is easy to exploit.  In a virtual environment where nobody knows your real identity, it’s easy for white hat hackers and government officials to roam freely.  The hackers know this, so groups are constantly jumping between communication networks and methods and new, tighter circles of trust are constantly being established and re-established.  As circles slowly expand and trust erodes, new circles form again.  It isn’t easy for groups to function like this.

The author highlights the extent to which core Anonymous hackers manipulated eager wannabes.  During large DDoS attacks, for example, core members encouraged Anons to use free, downloadable software that would allow them to participate in the attacks.  However, they downplayed the legal dangers and didn’t do much to help these less technologically adept recruits mask their identities.  The fun and games were over when the FBI knocked down their doors with arrest warrants.

I had no idea how banal and sordid Anonymous’ beginnings were.  The media plays up the “hacktivist” and libertarian spirit of Anonymous, so I was surprised to hear about the organization’s beginnings on 4chan–within subcommunities that essentially celebrated depravity as a means of escaping boredom.  That included everything from taunting pedophiles, to exploiting and blackmailing young women into sending nude pictures, to swapping photos of appalling violence.  When a new generation of members wanted to steer the hive efforts towards moral or civic goals, they were treated with disdain.  When LulzSec was born, it deliberately rejected crusading and focused on hacking/exploiting for the mere thrill of it.

It’s hard for decentralized organizations to have a coherent vision and mission.  Different individuals and subcommunities came to anonymous with different goals, and these subcommunities could fight bitterly over what they were trying to achieve.  As stated above, libertarian hacktivists collided with those who just hacked to lift themselves out of despair and boredom.

We should be careful when we claim, “it takes a network to fight a network.”  That’s true, but in the defense world, we should only go so far in trying to emulate decentralized networks.  They are fluid and responsive, but they also have severe handicaps.  We should seek hybrid models that allow rapid information sharing and decision-making, but still have strong executive “deciders” who can steer the organization towards a common purpose.

It only takes one mistake to blow your cover.  The Internet is designed in such a way that masking your identity is relatively easy, and a savvy hacker can count on anonymity.  For these reasons, attribution of attacks can be extremely difficult.  However, virtually everything on the net is logged and stored somewhere for future reference, and it only takes the tiniest slip to permanently expose your identity.  In the case of Sabu, one of the core members of LulzSec, a single logon to IRC without his anonymizing software momentarily exposed his IP address. That’s all it took.  So for persistent hackers, it seems like it’s just a matter of time.  Everybody is going to screw up sooner or later.

What you’d expect: many Anons are socially alienated young males living in their mother’s house.  Not all of them, but enough that we can make some hypotheses about why people join groups like Anonymous.  For some it’s really about libertarian ideals and the commitment to the free flow of information, but for others it’s probably not.

Finally, I constantly found myself comparing Anonymous to al-Qa’ida and other jihadi groups.  Not because they pose the same level of threat, but because so many of the organizational dynamics appear to be similar.

Doing disruption right

March 29, 2013 — 5 Comments

IR326 SampleIn my previous post, I told a story about doing disruption the wrong way.  I violated the principles that make disruptive thinking effective, with disastrous consequences.  In this post I’d like to share one time when I really got it right.

When I was a C-17 copilot, Google Earth was still relatively new and pilots in my squadron were trying to put it to work.  It was a great tool for visualizing 3D terrain, especially for airdrop run-ins in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to use; there was no way to link it to the DOD’s mission planning software (PFPS/FalconView), so pilots had to manually enter coordinates for each point.  I thought there had to be a better way.

I spent the next year developing a powerful software program that would convert PFPS data into a format readable by Google Earth.  By the time I was done, it could map routes, plot threats, and manage large collections of colorful 3D airspace.  I was extremely proud of the finished product, and released it through a slick website that included a PowerPoint briefing and capabilities demonstration.

The PFPS Google Earth Tool met a legitimate need, and spread quickly among the crew force.  Still, there were obstacles.  Google Earth wasn’t authorized on Air Force computers.  Most of us got around this by running GE from thumb drives, back when that was allowed (sort of), but it wasn’t an optimum solution.  It also wasn’t certified; I couldn’t guarantee the output was 100% accurate.  This was a rough tool to assist pilots, but nothing more.

As the tool caught on, I started getting phone calls.  A C-130 pilot had used GE to create orientation videos of the drop zone run-ins used by his unit.  He sent me a disk.  A Pentagon staff officer in charge of procuring geospatial tools wanted to use my work to build his case for procuring Google Earth.  A network administrator offered to migrate the tool to SIPRNET, so it could be used for classified missions.  The most important call came from a Major at a USAFA think tank known as the Institute for Information Technology Applications.  They were developing a suite of mission planning tools called Warfighter’s Edge (WEdge) and were intrigued by my work.  They paid for a TDY out ot USAFA, where I hung out with their coders and briefed the retired 4-star who ran the Institute.

Until this point, the software had been my baby.  I’d developed it singlehandedly, and was excited to see it take hold around the Air Force.  But I also knew that I was hitting the ceiling of my capabilities.  The WEdge team offered resources I didn’t have access to: a budget, an entire team of engineers and programmers, access to higher Air Force leadership, and the ability to get software products certified for Air Force use.  I made the painful decision to give them all my code, and transfer full responsibility for the product to their office.  In the year’s since, WEdge has integrated my work into a tool called WEdge Viewer.  It is now Air Force-sanctioned, certified for flight, and in use throughout the Air Force.

This was a success story, and it was a success because I obeyed the principles laid out in my essay.  I found allies (or rather, they found me).  We were able to persuade higher leaders in the Air Force, because we had an excellent product to “sell” and it was packaged well.  We offered something positive and constructive, that could meet legitimate needs.  My allies were able to work through difficult challenges, like flight certification and authorization for installation on government computers.

Most importantly (and most painfully) I was willing to share credit.  I let others run with my idea, and they made it into something great.  I’ll admit this hasn’t been easy.  The tool is in use across the Air Force now, but even my own peers now don’t know that I designed the initial application.  But hey, I changed something, and that’s pretty awesome.  Change in a large institution is always a team sport.

 

For those who might care, this is my admissions essay for SAASS, which is supposed to explore challenges facing tomorrow’s practitioners of air, space, and cyberspace power.

The greatest challenge for air, space, and cyberspace practitioners is building an organization agile enough to meet threats across the spectrum of conflict in a dynamic, fast-changing environment.  The USAF has superior hardware, training, and overall competency in warfighting and should theoretically be able to dominate any and all enemies.  In practice, however, the USAF has had a difficult time adapting to different types of conflicts and translating its tactical dominance into strategic success.  Because it is impossible to predict the exact nature of tomorrow’s conflicts, it is futile to prepare for one hypothetical future; a much better approach is to shape the USAF into an agile learning organization that can rapidly adapt to new threats and missions.  Air Force leaders need the capability to rapidly “reprogram” the institution to meet emerging challenges.  Developing this agility will require reforming the service’s intellectual climate, personnel system, and acquisitions process.

First, an agile Air Force must cultivate an intellectual environment that fosters critical thinking, open-mindedness, and creativity.  Clausewitz famously said that the supreme act of a commander is to “establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking.”  Unfortunately, the Air Force has traditionally been oriented towards one kind of war and has resisted adapting to others–or even recognizing that they are different.  It lagged years behind the Army and Marines in exploring COIN theory, and there is still a strong institutional bias towards using conventional aircraft to wage strategic air campaigns against states.  A decade into a long war against unconventional foes, the ACSC capstone war game in late 2011 still entailed allocating strike sorties to static, unthinking targets until their percentages reach zero.  The Air Force is heavily invested in AirSea Battle (ASB) for major combat operations against China, but has given less attention to partner capacity building and the management of low-level disputes we are actually seeing in the Pacific.  A scathing 2012 “Dear Boss” letter published on Small Wars Journal, which reflects common sentiments among the Air Force, lambasts senior leadership for selling out the USAF in order to support the joint force in Afghanistan and Iraq.  These examples illustrate how deeply entrenched this institutional culture is, and how slow the organization has been to adopt lessons from ten years of continuous war.  Preparing for great power conflict is vital, and the Air Force must retain its unique canon of airpower doctrine, but it also needs to institutionalize more thoughtfulness about war in its entirety.

Visionary officers must be empowered to make meaningful change across the entire organization.  The traditional channels for “reprogramming” the Air Force are official doctrine and PME, but both develop extremely slowly by today’s standards.  Adaptive, networked enemies who are unconstrained by bureaucracy can easily get inside this OODA loop.  PME lagged several years behind current events in institutionalizing COIN knowledge; by 2011 it was heavy on COIN and Iraq, but almost totally silent on tomorrow’s most likely threats: a highly unstable Pakistan, an ascendant China, war in the Koreas, criminal insurgency in Mexico, and the huge ramifications of debt and budget cuts on the Department of Defense.  Cyberwarfare is still glaringly absent; even the new Chief of Staff recently admitted he doesn’t understand it and is reluctant to commit resources until he does.  Formal channels for institutionalizing such knowledge must be accelerated and supplemented with new real-time channels like blogs and discussion forums.

A second challenge for creating a more agile Air Force is overhauling an industrial-age personnel system.  The current pyramid system rigidly enforces narrow career paths, punishes deviations, and limits the ability of commanders to match talent to requirements.  When urgent new manning requirements arise, personnel who fill them are often gambling with their careers.  A crucial requirement like the CJCS-priority AfPak Hands program has thus gained a reputation as a career-killer.  Perhaps the most significant recent example of institutional reprogramming is the Air Force’s expansion of ISR platforms.  Countless pilots were pulled from their Major Weapons System to become RPA operators or MC-12 pilots, but the rigidity of the personnel system put their futures in question.  This has damaged morale, eroded service culture, and driven personnel out of the force.  The USAF should anticipate further revolutionary changes such as miniaturization, swarming, and expanded roles for robots and cyberwarfare.  To be truly agile the Air Force needs a personnel system that rewards instead of punishes those who usher in such change.  It must attract and retain talent in emerging fields, and create more flexible career paths that allow personnel to deviate from formulaic progressions.  The Air Force should also expand opportunities for higher education and decentralize assignment matching by giving both subordinates and commanders a greater voice in the process.


A third challenge for agility is reforming the DOD’s acquisitions process, which is slow, expensive, and suited primarily for small numbers of high-technology weapons systems.  The Air Force inventory is badly aged, and cutting-edge weapons systems like the F-22, F-35, new tanker, and replacement bomber are essential.  However, an acquisitions system built primarily for such weapons systems has inherent weaknesses. These programs are vulnerable to mismanagement, extravagant cost overruns, and a slow pace of development.  The Air Force has lost much of its moral capital in Congress, has had to pare down future aircraft orders, and now risks losing some of these programs entirely.  The service needs to get its acquisitions processes in order or risk losing the very programs that it needs to survive.  There is also a risk that with this much money and this many jobs at stake, acquisitions programs will drive strategy rather than the other way around.  The Air Force needs sound processes and constant Red Teaming to ensure that rigorous strategic thought and valid assumptions drive acquisitions.  Small fleets can also be uniquely vulnerable to asymmetric attacks.  American airpower owns the skies, but a few low-tech insurgents in Afghanistan destroyed 7% of the Marine Corps’ Harrier force in the recent attack at Bastion.  Copycat attacks could be devastating.  The USAF is already bracing itself to face anti-access/area denial weapons, but it should anticipate many other types of asymmetric attack.  Imagine hijacked RPAs, a virus in the F-22 or F-35 flight control software, or even Bastion-style attacks on US soil.  High-tech, low-quantity weapons systems are vital to tomorrow’s Air Force, but to mitigate risk Air Force leaders should simultaneously explore alternative lines of development, such as swarms of low-cost robotic aircraft or cyber weaponry.


This leads to another acquisitions requirement: an agile Air Force needs better processes and streamlined regulations to facilitate the rapid adoption of new technology.  Today Air Force members have better Internet access at Starbucks than they do at work, are issued iPads they aren’t allowed to take online, and must cope with clumsy military imitations of popular social media sites.  If the Air Force still wrestles to adopt technology as prolific as social media and mobile devices, how will it possibly be on the cutting edge of nanotechnology, biotechnology, 3D printing, or augmented reality?  The Air Force needs to anticipate such technologies, lay the legal and regulatory groundwork for their adoption, and experiment with their use.


It is impossible to predict the exact nature of America’s next conflict, but the Air Force should expect to face myriad threats across the spectrum of conflict in a rapidly changing world.  The primary challenge for air, space, and cyber practitioners will be ensuring the Air Force is sufficiently agile to meet these threats.

I’ve spent the past week working on my admissions essay to the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS), which is supposed to be about challenges facing tomorrow’s practitioners of air, space, and cyberspace power.  I am focusing on the challenge of building an organization agile enough to adapt to a wide spectrum of threats in a dynamic, fast-changing world.  Agility is hard for any large organization.  The Air Force has been slow to adapt to revolutionary change, such as learning and institutionalizing COIN, transitioning to enormous ISR and RPA requirements, and adopting Internet and mobile technology.

Let me share a small illustration of how far the DOD, with its cumbersome overregulation, lags behind the rest of the world: I was recently issued an iPad as part of a modernization effort for flight publications.  I am not allowed to install software updates or apps, use the camera, or even connect it to the Internet.  Because going online is strictly forbidden I cannot use it to check e-mail, receive or file flight plans, check the weather or NOTAMS, file post-mission paperwork, or do anything else that a pilot might be expected to do.  All it’s good for is reading government-issued publications.  Needless to say, this paperweight has never left its box, and I will continue to use my personal iPad until I’m ordered not to.

What worries me is not my ability to use a government-issued iPad; that is a small gripe.  What worries me is the prospect that the DOD will get farther and farther behind as technological progress accelerates.  We are years behind in embracing mobile technology, which is probably the most ubiquitous technology on the planet.  The biggest revolution in airpower in the last few decades was the transition to remotely-piloted aircraft, a change that has been agonizing for the Air Force.  As I wrote my SAASS essay I tried to envision what future revolutions might be coming.  What changes will we need to adapt to–and quickly–if we are to maintain our edge?

I see a few possibilities in the long run, like nanotechnology/miniaturization, or biological engineering and biological-technological interfaces.  Cyber is already here, but comparatively few people truly grasp its significance; we are in for a rude awakening sooner or later.  But there is one more revolution underway that Air Force leaders should be paying attention to: 3D printing, DIY manufacturing, and the overall concept of the “internet of things.”  The implications are innumerable–for the entire global economy.  To cite just one defense-related example, imagine how much it would (or SHOULD) transform our logistics system if we could print aircraft or vehicle parts on demand.  Instead of identifying and prepositioning crucial parts or making provisions to ship them when required, what if we could deploy units with 3D printers and raw materials to generate their own parts?  That is a revolution, and it’s one that could easily be overlooked because it’s so not sexy… if we can’t get iPads right, how will we possibly get logistics reform right?

As I was pondering this technology and its implications, this video and associated article from Wired magazine passed through my inbox.  It’s a good primer on the upcoming manufacturing revolution.  The author’s book about this revolution will be released tomorrow.

The Stuxnet worm

September 24, 2010 — 1 Comment

What a remarkable story: a super-virus so sophisticated that it can only be created by a powerful nation-state, designed to sabotage control systems and cause real-world explosions in industrial facilities, possibly designed to wreak havoc on Iran’s nuclear program.

Wired, of course, has some of the best coverage.

The Stuxnet worm demonstrates the potential capabilities of cyberwarfare, its unique asymmetrical advantages, and the creative options it opens up for exercising power.  While most pundits and policy gurus treat the Iran problem with old, well-established paradigms, this story suggests that somewhere, in some deep dark cave, some scary smart people are dreaming up and executing ideas that the rest of us can only vaguely imagine.

In my previous post I discussed my concern that being perpetually “plugged in” was hindering my ability to learn.  I’ve had other concerns, too.  I’m less productive than I used to be.  I have a hard time seeing projects through.  My relationships with friends have atrophied; one-line Facebook notes have largely replaced the long, rich e-mail conversations I’ve always favored.  Overall, I’ve had the nagging sense that being constantly wired has made my life less meaningful and satisfying.

That got me thinking a lot about the hazards of our information age, which we are mostly blind to.  After all, information is the medium we swim in these days.  We take it for granted and can hardly conceive how to live differently.  So this week I read two books that thoughtfully examine what the Internet is doing to us as human beings.

First, I liked Nicholas Carr’s Wired article so much that I bought his book.  Carr draws on modern scientific research to show how the Internet is actually rewiring our brains at a physiological level.  New technologies, he argues, fundamentally reshape how we think.  The birth of written language and the creation of the printing press didn’t merely put new information into the hands of the masses; these technologies  overturned centuries of oral culture and an education system based primarily on memorization. They changed how human beings think.  The Internet has done the same thing, and while that brings many benefits, it has risks.  The research is pretty conclusive that the Internet is a medium built around distraction.  While it makes a vast amount of information accessible, deep learning and creativity is hindered.

Some Internet apologists argue that we don’t need deep learning anymore, because we can look up anything we want instantaneously on the net.  Amazingly, Carr cities a Rhodes scholar studying philosophy who has given up reading books entirely.  These people argue that the function of human intelligence nowadays is to index information sources and know where to look up answers we need.  To some degree, that might be true.  But Carr cites scientific studies which show that deep learning is what creates the frameworks and scaffolding in our brains that we use to process and analyze information.  Our ability to synthesize information, place it into larger wholes, and think creatively depends to a large extent on the kind of deep learning that occurs when we read books.

Jaron Lanier’s book You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto attacks Web 2.0 culture, arguing that it is undermining us as human beings.  Lanier is no Luddite; he is the father of virtual reality and one of the pioneers of the digital age.  Lanier draws on his technological expertise to show the profound consequences that design choices can have on human society.  These design choices are not inevitable, but once the choices are made, they frequently get “locked in” and are impossible to change.  By atomizing human beings and reducing them to discrete properties that fit within tidy design patterns, Web 2.0 designs are sacrificing the uniqueness and creativity that make us human.

Lanier frequently compares Web 2.0 technologies to the MIDI music format, which was designed to digitally represent musical notes.  The technology got “locked in” early and acts like a straitjacket now, because MIDI has been so universally adopted.  The problem is that MIDI sounds… well, terrible.  The rigid digital format can’t capture any of the richness, subtlety, and nuance that makes for quality music.  Lanier argues the same thing is happening to human beings.

Lanier has other criticisms.  “Cybernetic totalists” are elevating the crowd (or hive) above human beings themselves.  These totalists tell us that the hive has more worth, creativity, and intelligence than individuals.  Thus a collaborative project like Wikipedia will somehow be superior to the contributions of any one individual.  The truth, Lanier argues, is frequently the opposite.  Passion, creativity, and real art spring from individuals.  Web 2.0 chops, dices, atomizes, mashes up, and resynthesizes these contributions into something less meaningful.

Lanier also believes that Internet business models–which flow directly from design choices–are destroying art and creativity.  A handful of information gatekeepers like Google make extravagant amounts of money, while artists, content creators, and producers get nothing.  Most Web 2.0 enthusiasts bash “old media” like newspapers and the music business, blaming them for being slow to adapt to changing technology.  Lanier argues that with our current designs, adaptation is impossible; there is no alternative business model that will help musicians or newspapers survive.

Whether one agrees with these authors or not, they do a great service by challenging conventional wisdom and asking hard questions about the digital age.  What is the Internet doing to us as human beings?  We are familiar with the benefits; what are the risks?  Are these inevitable or can they be redesigned?  How do we live effective and satisfying lives as human beings in response to these technologies?  These two books have given me plenty to think about.

Posting has been light lately.  That often happens when I’m juggling more projects than I can manage, which is the case right now.  But lately there’s been another reason I’ve spent less time around the blogosphere.

Over the past two years I have spent less and less time reading books and journals, and more and more reading online.  Throughout my day I drink from a firehose of news sites, blogs, e-mails, and other sources.  This connectivity has brought many benefits, but I’ve gradually come to realize an alarming fact: although my information intake has multiplied, I’m learning less and less.

I have tried to understand why.  This article from Wired magazine shed a lot of light on the subject.  It discusses how spending time online physically rewires our brains.  I was particularly interested in studies that show how much nonlinear reading impairs our ability to learn and retain information.  The bottom line is that we learn at a much deeper level when we read in a concentrated, linear fashion.  Frequent distractions hinder our ability to transfer information from short-term into long-term memory.  The mere presence of hyperlinks can be enough to break concentration and hinder retention.

Another reason I’m learning less is information overload.  When I try to consume too many articles in a given day, I don’t really read any of them.  I scan, I look for highlights, I try to dig out the gold.  But the amount of real learning is minimal.  This last week I probably skimmed 200 e-mails and 50 articles about General McChrystal’s media blunder and General Petraeus’ assumption of command.  I learned a good deal, but I would have learned more if I’d read 5 articles about McChrystal and Petraeus and one good book about civil-military relations.

A third reason I’m learning less is that online communities are self-selecting and tend to focus on the same sets of issues.  In the national security community that usually means current political, economic, and military events.  The world is much broader than that, and there is so much to learn, but deep immersion in the blogosphere can leave little time for other areas of study.  This myopia isn’t inevitable, but I think it is common.

I’m not turning my back on the blogosphere.  I like being connected to the world, and I remain a believer in the power of new media to accelerate the flow of information and ideas.  Vibrant online dialogue can make us smarter and more adaptable–but it has insidious dangers.  Despite our best efforts to be broad thinkers, we in the military and broader national security are addicted to current events, often at the expense of deeper learning.  We can be too reactive, too obsessed with the hot issue of the day, too reliant on op eds and endless discussion.  I’ve noticed those trends in myself over the past two years.

That’s why I’m making some mid-course corrections.  I’m spending less time online and trying to spend more time in books.  I’ve cut down on the number of blogs I follow.  I’m spending less time on my own blog.  I’m not totally unplugging, but I hope I can strike a better balance in how I spend my time.