The War on Information

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- "We only wish to represent things as they are." - Clausewitz, 1832

There is a popular platitude known as Moore's Law that explains how computers and the information processing discoveries that accompany them double in speed and memory approximately every 20 months. This was postulated in 1965 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore; interestingly, this law has found purchase in the analysis of technologies as diverse as military sensor capabilities and the growth in resolution of digital cameras. It might even be cliché to say that as a consequence of Moore's Law, the modern warrior can find himself awash in various forms of data that may or may not prove useful to decision-making in training and in war itself. So if the hastening weight of this complex, context-free data has the potential to fall on the shoulders of those who are in the fight, how can we help build habits of mind that encourage proper martial action in the face of massive quantities of data, unresolvable contradictions, and the inevitable Monday morning quarterbacking that plagues all bureaucracies?

The eternal problem for warriors is not information - we can fail with a dearth or surfeit of information. The problem is how to identify and transform timely, useful information into knowledge and how to turn knowledge into wisdom and wisdom into action. Wisdom will allow those in the fight and those of us training to be in the fight to recognize and seize opportunity in spite of odds.

It is currently fashionable to claim that because our youngest airmen have been reared with a video game controller in one hand and a cell phone in the other, they are somehow capable of multitasking through torrents of data in ways that previous generations are not. As with most slapdash assertions, there is a grain of truth that serves as a point of departure for specious, derivative claims. I would allow that our young airmen's technical skills as a generation are truly impressive and their ease in adapting to technologically-driven situations is wondrous. However, it is a bridge too far to claim from this observation that there is a magical, trainable ability to multitask in any meaningful, complex way. A nefarious by-product of the institutional validation of multitasking is justification for the endless act of sorting through haystacks of data. This mindset is appealing because it avoids the accountability that accompanies decision. This is self-deception and it is unmilitary.

At the core, we remain human in ways that transcend history - we are physically and intellectually proximate to those who fought at Marathon, Plataea, and Agincourt. Just like the victors in those battles, we must prioritize correct information in a well-timed manner to make a decision that allows for action that will resolve the problem at hand. Because of this - especially in our age of accelerating information - we must force ourselves and our organizations to seek toward the principles of war while accounting for circumstance. Principles envisioned as simple truths and common sense approaches that encourage the selection of timely and relevant data thus enabling operators to seize the initiative and maintain momentum.

Do we really need to fear over-reliance on technology and its self-justifying, self-perpetuating processes? Yes. By its very nature, technology eliminates alternatives that it can't circumscribe or that don't "fit the model." In short, we become incapable of even conceptualizing creative alternatives because our habits of mind have become so reliant on technology that we are unable to contextualize problems. If we become incapable of developing bold, creative solutions to military problems, our strength as a service and as a nation will falter. If we forget that information technology is a tool, if we allow ourselves to be shaped by it, we potentially cede the initiative of context and circumstance to our adversaries. In the fog and friction of war this can mean the difference between fighting for and attaining the peace we seek and writing letters to parents and spouses explaining how their beloved airman was lost. Or worse - we have our enemies' peace imposed upon us.

How do we fight for the habits of mind and judgment that immunize us to the crush of information or its endless pursuit in the form of technology? We turn to history. We turn to the ancients and the Enlightenment. The Roman philosopher-king, Marcus Aurelius said, "At every action, no matter by whom preferred, make it a practice to ask yourself, 'What is the object in doing this?' But begin with yourself; put this question to yourself first of all." Context. Objective.

Machiavelli counsels that disunity renders organizations unable to generate and project power - struggling for principled unity thus empowers an organization to swing history on its hinges. Principle. Vision.

There are others - seek them out. Put down the video game controller. Turn off the cell phone. Read. Reflect. Find useful, humane principles and carry this wisdom into the fog. Bend Moore's Law to your will.