Saturday, July 30, 2005

Parameters: The New Strategic Trinity

If a culture does not assign a high value to the unimpeded flow of factual information, it cannot make competitive decisions.

Informational dysfunction generally cripples two types of states or cultures. First, those which embrace comfortable myths over painful reality--such as most of the Islamic world and much of the former Soviet Union--and, second, those which attempt to restrict the flow of information, such as China or North Korea. Often, as in the cases of Saudi Arabia or Nigeria--and even otherwise-promising Turkey--states manifest both failings: the forcible exclusion of threatening information and the propagation of comforting myths. This amounts to volunteering for failure.

Information is a liberating tyrant. It insists on universal access and enforces an often-painful mental sobriety; in turn, it allows receptive states and cultures to compound their success. It is difficult to bring the vital importance of informational freedom home to Americans simply because it is taken for granted. Even those who would remove Darwin from our schools comparison shop for automobiles and expect that the available information will be accurate. We are so informationally privileged that it is difficult to get a perspective on the richness that pervades our daily lives. The news in the papers, on radio, or on television will be amazingly accurate by international standards, and even the most lunatic talk show is constrained in the lies it can proclaim. From stock market reports to the contents list on cereal boxes, information disseminated by business will be accurate. We even learn from television commercials--which today have an amazingly high standard of factual presentation, thanks to the competitive nature of our economy, our laws, and watchdog agencies. Our textbooks are as factual as we imperfect humans can make them, and even our politicians are usually forced to tell the truth. Our waking hours are passed in the most accurate environment in history, and access to the information that enables us to operate in our professions and improve our lives is nearly universal. When we choose, we can make informed decisions. We are part of a small minority of present-day humanity.

Economic data is the most difficult to accumulate and verify, and the speed of today's national and world economy makes the problem ever greater, despite our marvelous informational tools. Yet, we do a superb job of measuring that which can be measured. When Alan Greenspan makes a decision, the data on which it is based is imperfect--but superior to anything previously accumulated and filtered by mankind. Elsewhere, societies are designed to conceal data, or to obfuscate. Consider Russia, with its insurmountable economic problems. A concealing peasant culture formed the basis for the dishonest Soviet regime--and now "capitalist" Russia is plagued by inaccurate reporting and hidden assets at all economic levels. A state cannot move forward without sound data on which to base developmental and fiscal decisions. With its addiction to mythic data, Russia has no hope of gaining full economic health in our lifetimes--since each day it falls farther behind in relation to the states with which it must compete. We may, in the coming decades, see a return to autarchy among failing states, which may provide the highest level of poverty available to them.

Since at least the Civil War period, our economy has towered over our military. In time of crisis, that economy has enabled the creation of military establishments other states could not afford or sustain. While the paradigm has changed to the extent that the technological sophistication of some forms of warfare forces us to maintain a more substantial force-in-being than we did prior to the Second World War, even that larger force is dwarfed by the post-industrial, information-driven economy it serves. We will continue to need a strong, ready military. But our military today is less important to our nation than is our banking system--to say nothing of our educational system. Our military is essential--but it is essential only for limited purposes. It is the medicine we keep in the cabinet for emergencies. On a daily basis, our media has vastly greater effect on the world than does our military.

Yet even our military is information-based and, when it is allowed to fight, its informational adeptness is a force multiplier so strong it cannot be measured (even by our measuring culture). A long time ago technologically, in Operation Desert Storm, we fielded an information-based military and won a victory so lopsided historians strain to find a precedent. Although our casualties could have been greater had we made worse decisions in some areas (and we could have been even more successful, given other potential decisions), the outcome of the conflict was never in doubt--not because we had the better troops or training or equipment (although we did, and each of these things matters), but because we had fielded a new kind of military. The fighting in Mesopotamia was as lopsided as any engagement of Maxim guns against spears.

Fascinating Stuff. Provincial thinking and self censorship seem the two greatest perils to our "information edge"


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