October 22, 2009

The Commodification Of War

Another first draft. I’ll likely revise this later, but here it is. Is this coherent? I can’t tell anymore, I’m tired.

Lock Bolt

“I’m a guy of simple taste. I enjoy dynamite, gunpowder, and gasoline. And you know the thing they have in common? ”

“They’re cheap.” – The Joker

So, funny story: a large, wealthy and thoroughly entrenched institution suddenly finds itself threatened, at first just incrementally but soon really, existentially threatened, by a loose association of small groups who’ve sprung up seemingly out of nowhere. These little competitors are small, they’re tiny and pretty green, but they’re smart and focused and just a little too nimble. Loosely coordinated and taking advantage of cheap tech and pervasive communication, somehow they’re punching way above their weight class and, worse, they’re sharing information about what works and what doesn’t. And that so fast that it ultimately doesn’t matter if they individually succeed or not – failures are just as informative as victories, and fighting any one of them means tipping your hand to the rest. Borders mean nothing, and their tactics are evolving faster than that large, entrenched institution and its large entrenched processes can turn its head to look, much less keep up.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

You can bet that by the time an idea floats to the cusp of popular culture it’s been quietly stewing for some long time on the fringes, waiting for that moment that the unthinkable becomes inevitable. And right now, here in the death throes of the 20th century, rolling a brand-new F-22A into service costs $142,000,000 dollars and takes a more than a year, but a smart teenager can wire a GPS up to an off-the-shelf autopilot for less than a $100. And shipping is free.

It’s too early to know for sure, but it seems to be the nature of our time that it is always either too early to be sure or far too late to belabor the point. But don’t get your prognosticator’s merit badge for waffling, so I’m going to call it. The defining new truth of the twenty-first century is this:

War is cheap.

In the history we’ve still got on record, there have been two big ideas about what constitutes the indivisible atomic value of human society. One model, with its roots in the Code of Hammurabi and embodied in the Magna Carta, says that it is the single individual; the unitary person has rights that even the Crown cannot arbitrarily abridge. The other idea, embodied in the Treaty of Westphalia that effectively ended both the Thirty Years’ War of the Holy Roman Empire and the Eighty Years’ War for Dutch independence from Spain, codifying the idea that power in a society is not to the people, person or even to the Crown, but to the indivisible State.

And there’s nothing there about small, loosely-assembled groups of people driven by a common ideology. Nothing codified as rights or erected as limits, nothing but a wide open world where a handful of smart, driven people with an idea that’s bigger than they are can be very nearly unstoppable.

This is hardly news, and hardly new. It’s been true for centuries; but what’s gaining wide acceptance now is that in a world dominated by those other models, this isn’t some arbitrary way to collaborate. It’s a defense mechanism, an offensive tactic and a shortcut, all in one.

In the political realm, all of this adds a lot of tension to the relationship between the State and the Individual. The details depend on where you are, but time was the State secured its borders and provided the Individual with a degree of security and autonomy, and in return was well-served by the Individual having an ideology roughly but usefully aligned with the continuance of the State and just generally behaving themselves. But suddenly we’ve got this new agitator on the scene, the Small Group. And the State not only doesn’t really have a mechanism to deal with that but worse, the actions it can take make the more reflective Individuals really nervous, because they impose on the individual’s personal sovereignty in frightening ways. And if the State is going to start doing that, says the Individual, um, do you still want my support? What’s in it for me? And the small group, if it’s making that individual’s life better in some incremental way, just gained itself some friends, maybe even some participants.

“Journalism is a gun. It’s only got one bullet in it, but if you aim it right, that’s all you need. Aim it right and you can blow a kneecap off the world.” – Warren Ellis

But if we’re talking about wars on the business or culture front, it gets even better; big organizations don’t exist by the consent of the governed, merely by the participation of the people buying in, and all of a sudden the people who bought in last year have dozens or hundreds of alternatives this year, and money and attention is moving around in ways that seemed impossible not long ago. But those big organizations have had a long time to get cozy with the State and get to pull the politicians they’ve bought aside, hold their well-greased hands and say, my goodness, can you believe the temerity of these people? Now, you know I can’t make laws, little old me, and I don’t have any sort of the monopoly on the application of force within this country’s borders, but I sure know you do! And maybe you could help me out here? I’ll show you my quid pro if you show me your quo.

But the State is now in a hell of a pinch, because everyone, and I mean everyone, knows that our BigOrg friends haven’t really been doing right by anyone but themselves for years. And these new guys, whatever else you can say about them they’re not BigOrg, and people seem to be digging that, and you know we’re all about the consent of the governed here, and maybe we can do something, and maybe we can’t, but we’ll see. So let’s make a bunch of noise and do something half-assed that looks like it might work; we might as well be showing our cards to all those new players we don’t know about yet, but hey. That’s what BigOrg asked for, right? Even if it makes people angry enough that our small group now has a dozen new members, a thousand new friends and a ton of sympathy, that’s what they wanted and that’s what they’re going to get. Right in the neck, says the State, just like we did.

Macro Penny

This doesn’t end well if your small groups are gangs or terrorist cells, because by and large nobody likes being shot or blown up. But if we’re talking about Internet Startups, Artistic Collectives, whatever, and the broad outlines of the playbook are pretty much the same. Get some driven people together with a shared vision. Then it’s just cellphones and laptops and somebody in front of them who can wind them up and point them in one direction. When the internet is your lever, wherever you’re standing will do just fine.

The vision, brains and drive are the keys now, the limiting factor. The vision to see a niche you can own is expensive. The drive and talent to build what goes into that niche, that’s expensive. The rest, cpu, storage, connectivity, you know what they have in common? They’re cheap.

There’s so much in the world that needs changing, fixing an improving, and making a world where the big organizations are afraid of small ones, that’s more than just tactics and shortcuts. That’s a strategy, short-circuiting too soon to be sure and getting to too late to dispute it that much faster. The big organizations will push back, they have to. But it won’t ultimately matter. Listen, learn and move.

You’ve noticed how a lot of people are starting to say this sort of thing? You might have read something like it somewhere else on the internet recently.

Yeah, that’s pretty much how that works.

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