The publication this month of Niall Ferguson’s new book The Square and the Tower has illuminated both the power of networks and the human tendency to overstate the power of networks. For longer than one might expect, tech enthusiasts, corporate executives, social scientists, and military theorists have proclaimed that networks will revolutionize some, if not all, aspects of human existence, generally for the better. As Ferguson’s book explains in devastating detail, their lofty visions have been repeatedly confounded by reality.
Because these predictions began surging in the 1990s, we now have considerable historical evidence with which to assess them. In the realm of international security, network enthusiasts have predicted that the spread of information through the internet would promote global harmony and peace. In the words of one wonk, “New information technologies open up new vistas of non-zero sumness.”
The events of the early twenty-first century have shown that the networking facilitated by information technology has often resulted in increased international conflict. The Information Age facilitated the so-called Arab Spring, the primary results of which have been violence and destabilization in the Arab world. Islamic extremists have exploited the internet and cell phones to recruit supporters and orchestrate acts of terror across the globe. China and Russia have used network technologies to steal American defense secrets and interfere with American elections.
During the 1990s, American defense intellectuals began championing “network-centric warfare,” in which networks of sensors and weapons would find and destroy the enemy with little need for hierarchical direction. The wars of Iraq and Afghanistan undermined enthusiasm for this vision, as they showed that modern technology could not locate and obliterate guerrillas who used civilians as cover. Success still depended upon hierarchical governmental institutions and the people responsible for leading them.
With the passing of large-scale American counterinsurgency operations, interest in “network-centric” warfare has revived. The technological advances of the past twenty years have reduced the distance between vision and capabilities. Nevertheless, those planning for the next big war would do well to remember that effective use of networks requires recognition that networks are limited in power and subject to misuse, and hence will invariably fall short of idyllic expectations.
For further discussion of these and related issues, please see this conversation with Niall Ferguson at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.