Digital Democracy?

MIT’s Carlos Ratti on the Internet and Democracy:


These Aren’t the Drones You’re Looking For

Robert Haddick on the drone wave:

“No one should doubt the unmanned tsunami is on its way. Robert Gates badly thrashed the Air Force until it increased its UAV presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. The upcoming QDR is certain to prominently promote UAS and UUV development. In addition, in his review of the Army’s FCS program, Gates terminated the combat vehicles but retained much of the sensors and unmanned systems. So unmanned systems are getting close attention from the top of the Pentagon.

In his presentation at the Pentagon, General Deptula likened UAS development to where airpower was in the 1920s. Then, rickety platforms needed to mature and military planners needed to imagine new battlefield doctrines. Pressured by OSD if by nothing else, the Air Force and Navy will push ahead with their unmanned plans. Army and Marine Corps leaders need to involve themselves in those plans to avoid being left behind.”

I think it’s fair to say that the AF is also looking at how drones figure intellectually into future warfare. Check out this Air and Space Power Journal debate between some leading airpower theorists and futurists on integrating UAS into the organizational structure and doctrine. Particularly interesting is Col. Sung-pyo Hong of the South Korean Air Force’s input on the matter, because debate on military futurism is usually dominated by Anglosphere perspectives.

Guerrillas Aren’t Invincible

Starbuck of Wings over Iraq makes a good point while reviewing an article on why insurgents frequently lose:

“We in the Small Wars Community often take a pessimistic view on counterinsurgencies, focusing on the mistakes that the counterinsurgents make, rather than focusing on exploiting the mistakes of the insurgents. 59% of counterinsurgents are successful, so to steal another Life-of-Bryan-ism, we COINdinistas need to look on the bright side of life.”

Like Chet Richards, I have some quibbles with the methodology used in the article’s survey of insurgency. However, I think the article does do a valuable service. Sometimes asymmetric warfare theorists can make the enemy seem invincible while giving our forces all of the flaws. Insurgencies face substantial difficulties as well.

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Moralism and Nichepapers

By now everyone knows that I’m not a great fan of Umair Haque. To me, he is the tech industry’s version of Thomas Friedman. However, I thought his “nichepaper manifesto” was an interesting look a the changing dynamics of the media. He’s right that small-start up and scaled-down ventures are increasingly driving coverage and content, especially stuff that eschews the dominant 20th century journalism model of “he said, she said” objectivity. This is hardly an original observation, but it’s reminiscent of the early days of the press, with bloggers substituting as pamphleteers and the new “nichepapers” mirroring the somewhat sensationalistic and partisan tone of the 19th century press. The problem, of course, is Haque’s enthusiastic over-selling of nichepapers and niche forms of media.

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Disruptive Technologies May Change the World But They Don’t Pay Much

Your invention can revolutionize the world but it won’t necessarily make you rich, Marco Rinesi argues:

“But for all of its undeniable power, the printing press wasn’t the source of large fortunes for the engineers, investors, and businessmen involved in this industry. Profits were made, yes, sometimes significant ones, but nothing quite proportional to the influence of the technology. The bulk of the benefits came to the organizations that leveraged this technology for their own ends like modern states, which would have been logistically impossible without the printing press, or the myriad business that cannot be conceived without a superbly well-educated (for pre-modern standards) source of workers and consumers.

The same pattern can be seen in many other technical advances, specially those that impacted society the most. Contraceptives, telecommunications, refrigeration: they are often overlooked foundations of the contemporary world, each of them enormously disruptive, yet none of them, over the long term, a gold mine of extraordinary returns.”

Why is this so? Rinesi notes that “most industries, no matter how advanced,” simply sell tools to other people. Those who use the tools are most likely to gain the most benefit from them. When reading of this, I think mostly of Mikhail Kalashnikov, whose humble assault rifle was widely pirated and copied. Despite the production of 100 million AKs, Kalashnikov lives on a meager state pension and is buying shares in umbrella companies. This is a reason to look askance at claims of disruptive innovation making instant billionaires. Rather, it’s worth reflecting on how niche inventions and tools developed out of existing platforms have been the most successful. Kalashnikov did not invent the first assault rifle–rather he invented the most cheap, reliable, and user-friendly variant. Similarly, the team behind Facebook didn’t invent social network sites but created a juggernaut through innovative redesign of an existing template and platform.

Textbook Case

Normally, most commentators tend to overrate the singular impact of technological change. Thomas P.M. Barnett has a good point about this WSJ story on a Chinese waitress who stabbed a would-be rapist in self-defense:

“Chinese court on Tuesday dismissed murder charges against Deng Yujiao, who was accused of killing a local government official, after her cause was championed on the Web. Ms. Deng, a hotel worker in the central province of Hubei, said she acted in self-defense when the official and his colleague tried to rape her.

The case prompted an outpouring of public sympathy for Ms. Deng on the Internet by people who were angered by an apparent abuse of power by government officials, and who expressed concern that Ms. Deng would be given a heavy sentence despite the mitigating circumstances.”

Barnett argues that “Globalization’s radical influence through connectivity is the same the world over,” and it’s hard not to agree. Not too long ago Ms. Deng would have likely wasted away in jail and the dead official would be given a state burial. In some ways, the case is a perfect example of globalization’s techno-sociological-organizational convergence effect. Greater political openness and a newfound public assertiveness is bolstered by growing material affluence and technological global-local fusion. A local morality play becomes a national spectacle, and the government backs down.