Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/02/23/james_harkin_cyburbia/

War, Web 2.0 and the Fail Loop

From Hezbollah to Twitter

By James Harkin

Posted in Media, 23rd February 2009 12:56 GMT

Cyburbia The Twitterings of Web 2.0 may seem a million miles from battlefield skirmishes in Lebanon, but they both have something in common. Both illustrate perils of continuous electronic feedback loops.

To most of us, the idea of being in the loop means no more than being "in the know", privy to information known only to those in a privileged inner circle; to be cut out of the loop, by contrast, was to be distanced from your colleagues and excluded from a hallowed circle of power. The general idea of being "in the loop", however, is older than you'd think.

It can be traced back seventy years to an idea called cybernetics. What the progenitors imagined was the perfect human society would see us all hitched to an electronic information loop defined by a continuous cycle of messaging and feedback among all those involved in it.

Writing in the dark shadow of the Holocaust, the American mathematician and father of cybernetics Norbert Wiener convinced himself that society was in danger of spiralling out of control; and that only by putting us into constant touch with each other could he prevent it from careering towards collapse. From there the idea passed to the media guru Marshall McLuhan in Toronto, who predicted as early as the 1960’s that a whirring electronic information loop was going to shake modern society to its foundations, tying everyone and everything together in a "new electronic interdependence." The impact of this electronic information loop coursing through all our veins, thought McLuhan, could only enhance our ability to understand one another. It would, he felt sure, precipitate the rise of a "global village" and a new era of greater responsibility and understanding.

In the late 1960's, exactly the same idea was borrowed by some hippie veterans of the counter-culture from the San Francisco Bay Area to fill the vacuum left by their radical politics.

Through cybernetics, the bohemians of the counter-culture like Stewart Brand saw a means of routing information around the control of the authorities and putting ordinary people back into direct communication with each other. Those hippies slowly morphed into electro-hippies, and many of them went on to become enormously influential in the development of the computer industry and the net in the 1970's and 1980's.

A life in the loop

Only after the collapse of the dot-com boom, however, when the huge fibre-optic information cables which had being laid in the ground to give us lightning new broadband connections to the net were abandoned by the companies which had built them, did ordinary people show any interest in spending time on online social networks. In an entirely spontaneous flight over the last seven years, millions of us have quietly migrated to a vast electronic suburb to burrow under the control of mainstream authorities and spend vast tracts of our time messaging and responding to a constant stream of information from our electronic ties.

I call this place Cyburbia. When we inhabitants of Cyburbia return there compulsively to check for updates, we are not only trying to be more efficient and more productive, but to ward off a persistent fear of falling out of the loop. But what does it really mean to spent vast quantities of our time hitched to an electronic information loop along with everyone else?

Today's breathless and very well paid internet gurus would have you believe that all this makes us and our organisations more agile, more efficient and more responsive. This isnt necessarily so.

The delivery of a continuous stream of messages might well be slowly stretching our brains, turning us into creatures who are better at doing many different things at once. Preliminary studies from neuroscientists and psychologists, however, suggest that in the meantime our brains are likely to become strained and confused if we make too many demands on them. All this is common sense but, buoyed up by fanciful cybernetic ideas about the electrifying power of information, institutions and companies are prone to forgetting it.

Network-centric warfare

Take the American and Israeli militaries, which since the late 1990's have been seduced by successive iterations of the cybernetic conceit of "network-centric warfare".

The idea, rooted directly in cybernetic principles, was that tying together all the different nodes in the military's network in a single information loop would give troops the clearest possible picture of the battlefield, allowing everyone to act in concert and making the enemy's communications seem primitive in comparison. The plan was nothing less than to eliminate "the fog of war", and to replace it with "complete situational awareness" – to make sure everyone knew what everyone else was doing and what was going on all of the time.

Only, it didn't quite work out as planned.

The IDF's attempts to co-ordinate human activity via a high-tech electronic information loop can help to explain why, when asked to stage a full-scale military operation during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict of 2006, they failed rather spectacularly.

In July 2006, after Hezbollah fighters seized two Israeli soldiers and stole them back across the border into Lebanon, the IDF invaded Southern Lebanon. The invasion, however, did not progress as they had expected. For a start, the Israeli Army seems to have become so convinced of its own military and technological superiority that it didn't think it would have to fight any "real" wars anymore. The IDF, as a result, relied too heavily on its air force to wipe out South Lebanon's infrastructure – its telecommunications networks, for example - in the vain hope that Hezbollah's guerrillas would simply cave in.

IDF soldiers went into battle armed with high-tech communications; many were also allowed to hang on to their mobile phones. During the ensuing ground war, "small but smart" mobile units of Israeli soldiers, which were supposed to use high-tech communications systems to "swarm" around the enemy, seemed unsure of what their aims were and where they were headed.

In the official inquests into the war which followed the five-week invasion, military officials blamed the complicated operational jargon of one of its think-tanks, the OTRI, whose staff had been greatly influenced by cybernetics and network-centric warfare. During a meeting of the heads of Israeli military intelligence just prior to the incursion into Lebanon, for example, there were complaints that the army had stopped relying on Hebrew for its operational instructions, and that the dominant language was now "gibberish".

But what do we know about the other side?

Subverting the feedback loop

The Westerner currently most trusted by Hezbollah is a former British diplomat and spy called Alastair Crooke. Crooke, who worked as an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) before being seconded by Tony Blair to be the European Union’s envoy to the Middle East between 1997 and 2003, now lives in Lebanon and spends his time encouraging discussions between Islamist movements and Western governments. After the 2006 war, he was taken to South Lebanon by Hezbollah officials and allowed rare access to its battlefield commanders.

In October 2008 I visited him in Beirut and asked him what he had seen and heard. At the beginning of the 2006 war, Crooke told me, Hezbollah fighters were given general orders and were then broken down into tiny cells, each of which operated quite independently of any central command. A specialist team was given high-tech listening devices and managed, according to Crooke, to intercept electronic communications flying to and fro between IDF personnel.

The bulk of Hezbollah’s military units, however, were encouraged to avoid unnecessary electronic chatter; when unit commanders did need to pass on messages they relied on relatively primitive means such as motorcycle couriers. At the beginning of the 2006 war Hezbollah fighters seem to have been given general orders and were then broken down into tiny cells each of which operated independently of any central command, and that they performed very well without either high-tech communications or complicated military manoeuvres to help them get around the battlefield.

Despite the fact that their information loop was not speeded up by new communications technology, it seems, Hezbollah's fighters were much better equipped to swarm around their enemy with great agility. "Rather than have to react faster than the IDF's decision-cycle", one early analysis of the war from Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies concluded, "they could largely ignore it, waiting out Israeli attacks, staying in positions, re-infiltrating or re-emerging from cover, and choosing the time to attack or ambush."

Quality not quantity

Hezbollah's commanders found that giving their fighters clear and prior battle instructions was vastly more important than allowing them to liaise with each other electronically during the conflict itself. Faced with a technologically superior enemy, they seemed to understand, it was still possible to knock your enemy off-balance and confuse him. But only if those under your command had a very clear idea of what was expected of them, only if they ignored that enemy's electronic information loop – and only if they switched off their mobile phones and fell back on their own initiative.

A post-script to all this emerged in December of last year, when the Israelis came to mount their invasion of Gaza. This time the Israelis didn't rely wholly on its air-force or its drones, and was relatively quick to put boots on the ground. It drew up clear and achievable plans and didn't rely on "smart" battlefield units communicating with each other and making it up as they went along. Last but not least, it was reported in The New York Times, this time the IDF's military commanders meticulously confiscated all its soldiers mobile phones.

Web 2.0, with its requirement that we participate in a continuous flow of electronic information, is being pushed as the saviour of government and organisations. But it doesn't always work. ®

James Harkin is the author of Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea that's Changing How We Live and Who We Are. Catch our interview with James tomorrow. See cyburbia.tv for more details of the book.