While re-organizing some notes for my upcoming book, I chanced upon this piece… written in early 2001 for a speech. Enjoy…
The First War of the Information Age
Strangely, the phrase “information age” entered the vernacular with very little assessment of what was meant or implied by the term. We understand clearly that the “Iron Age” and the “Bronze Age” have a meaning beyond being colourful names for historic periods.
Bronze was an early metal alloy that could be worked and shaped after heating to 2000’ F. The ability to work bronze meant that a civilization possessed the ability to create knives, swords, utensils of more usefulness than could be produced by a society without the ability to work the metal.
Bronze was power. A bronze weapon was sharper and more deadly than stone, and could be forged or pounded into more useful shapes. No one could make a stone sword, and a three meter long stick with a bronze cutting edge at the tip was a far more useful weapon of war than a similar length of wood with a thrusting stone point.
Bronze tools allowed for greater precision in the creation of desirable products whether made of bronze, or alternatively wood which had been shaped by bronze tools.
In fact, the desirability of bronze created the earliest trading networks. Bronze required copper and tin, materials which were not usually found in close proximity.
At the moment iron was introduced, the weaponry of a Bronze Age civilization became obsolete. Iron was harder to work and required higher temperatures, but an iron sword could easily hack through the bronze helmet of a Greek mercenary. Bronze swords broke when blocked by an iron sword. Bronze remained useful for decoration, but successful nation states adapted iron weaponry rapidly.
What then is an Information Age and how does it differ from the Bronze Age, or the Industrial Age that we are exiting? The Industrial Age used specialist machines that were controlled by humans to manufacture goods. In the late 1800’s, the power of a nation could be largely measured by its ability to produce steel and turn that product into a specialist weapon of war or an implement of peace.
Fundamentally, Germany lost World War 2 because its ability to produce and utilize specialist weaponry was inferior to the Allied Powers’ ability to do the same. German specialist designs were equivalent to, or in many cases superior to the weapons of the allies, however the combination of manufacturing capability and Germany’s difficulty in providing fuel for their machines doomed the 3rd Reich.
In 1989, the wall dividing East and West Berlin fell. It was symbolic of the collapse of the Soviet empire. Many western observers attributed the collapse of Russia to the demonstration of military might and resolve which had characterized the Reagan administration. Oddly, this military might has proved insufficient to induce Cuba to change its ways, yet success was claimed in the Cold War.
What actually occurred was indeed a victory, but it was victory in the 1st war of the Information Age. The opponents were unaware they were fighting the war, and remain blissfully unaware of its outcome. The Soviet Union collapsed not because of ICBM’s, rather it was destroyed by the photo copier and the personal computer.
In the year 2000, the economic systems of most western countries could be brought to their knees by another power’s ability to erase the information that records our relationship to each other. Imagine an attack that resulted in the complete erasure of the bank records of a single major U.S. bank. Naturally this would be exceptionally difficult to accomplish. There are multiple redundancies and multiple backups stored in many places. Yet there is in fact no paper record of the bank’s transactions. If it were possible to erase the information, the result would be chaos. What then is the agent of power? The money is not…, as we have already established that money is simply a convenient agreement between men. The industrial power of the businesses whose records are erased is not. The single item whose absence would result in chaos is information.
Hackers attack the Net routinely with viruses designed to make life inconvenient to users, yet no hacker has as yet accomplished anything remotely close to the scenario just mentioned. What however, could a nation state accomplish if it proposed to conduct a war in this manner?