P.W. Singer is the author of Wired for War, and an expert in military technology.
A Robotics Revolution
Technology is fundamentally changing warfare, whether we fully understand the impact or not.
War and Technology
The history of war and technological advance are inextricably linked -- P.W. Singer offers some examples and context.
The Future of War
As we speak, drones are being used to carry out our wars remotely. What are the benefits, and the costs?
What effect does remote war have on those at the controllers?
Our Enemies and Technology
Not only are enemies using our own technology against us, they may eventually be better at it.
Virtual technology is increasingly playing a role in training fighters: how does this work, and what does it mean to train digitally?
Digital Natives are filling up the ranks, and the military is responding in various ways.
As the nature of war and the demands of warfighters changes, the military struggles to keep pace.
What is it, and what does it say about us?
Q: I want to start with your kind of split focus. You are an expert in military and technology and you have this new millennials interest, and why the two interests? So you've written a book on how the military is using technology and now you are writing a book on digital natives essentially, and what the world will look like for them and what the world will look like when they take it over. Why the two interests?
S: I'm interested by how the sands are shifting underneath us and yet those who are in power are often either completely unaware of it or it's like the Lord Valdamore issue, they're unwilling to talk about it, it's the issue that shall not be discussed. And so we have, for the book on Wired For War, we have this massive change and we're using these robotic systems, these things from science fiction, and they're starting to play out in battlefield reality. We've gone from zero ground robots to 12,000 right now from the very start of the Iraq War. In the air we've gone from a handful of drones to more than 7000 in the U.S. military inventory. And it's this massive historic change and yet I remember going to these conferences around DC meeting with pentagon people and no one was saying, "oh by the way we're starting to use robots", it felt like this really big deal. And I have that same kind of feeling when I interact with either millennials, generation Y, or more importantly those who are leading them, be it, in business, be it professors, be it teachers, be it generals. And you have this big demographic shift, you've got the millennials that are larger in size than the baby boomers, they're three times the size of Generation X, and yet we're not really wrestling with all the dilemmas that it's going to bring. It's kind of like trying to talk about the 1960s, without talking about the baby boomers. We're talking about the next decade in that way without talking about the fact, oh by the way, you've got this entire new generation cohort that looks at the world differently, has a very different set of experiences. And it's not just the digital side, it's also for example, the framework they look at, the Vietnam War is as far in history for them as WWI was to the baby boomers. 9/11 is the moment, the JFK assassination, the shuttle explosion, the moment that changes how they look at the world. So of course it's going to create different issues.
Q: And let's look, let's dissect their use of digital media specifically, or how digital media has shaped them. How has it? What are you finding? What is so grandly different that we should be paying attention to?
S: Well there's all sorts of varies that go in. One would be for example, different expectations of control. You have a generation that grew up in an environment for example their favorite TV show, was always on whenever they wanted it. It isn't like, for example, I knew Thursday at 8 o'clock I better be there to see my favorite show, otherwise I was going to miss it. Also it gave my parents a very useful way to sort of control what I was going to do...if you're being bad, you're not going to be able to watch this show, you're going to have to go to your room. My nephew for example, his favorite show is on whenever he wants, be it through DVDs, be it through TiVo, and so all that different, think about how that brings to when you grow up. Another example would be the relationship with information. You have a generation that grew up with Google. So it's not memorization that's important, it's having easy access to information, it's being able to pull it down rapidly. And so the way people utilize information and hunt for information is very different when you're talking about an older generation with the millennials. Ability at multi-tasking is another strong difference. Ah I remember seeing this when I was out at the air operations center for the U.S. airforce out in the Middle East. And you had these young airmen sitting behind this desk that had eight different computer screens in front of them. And one of them had thirty-six different chat rooms open at the same time. And each chat room was controlling a air combat mission out in Iraq or Afghanistan that was either something, a bomber attack, or an air-to-air refueling mission, something going on, each one of those was a separate mission and this one airmen was monitoring 36 chat rooms at a time. And so it's this ability a multi-tasking that they come to the table with, you know it comes from growing up in a world where you know they're talking to you at the dinner table but they're also texting at the same time. That's becoming almost innate to them. But of course what any parent knows from that experience you're not getting the the full brain work at the time. They call this continuous partial attention Centrum. You're able to do more things at once, but you're maybe not putting as much strategic thought into each of those things that you are doing. And that obviously has huge ramifications for the military. Um, face to face interaction etiquette. I experienced this during the Obama campaign. I um, was coordinator for our defense policy task force. We very soon hit upon the fact that, the more conference calls we had, the worse we did. That is, it was better to just do everything online, and to spread out rather than trying to have this sort of bringing everyone in at the same exact moment on a conference call where you couldn't let everyone be heard, and of course hard to coordinate. And it was a very efficient thing for us to do, but we also had this weird phenomena coming out of it where we would sometimes meet face-to-face and actually not know each other by name, we'd know each other by screen name. Even though we were writing the policies that the U.S. military was going to adapt after we won the election.
Q: So taking into account how this generation is different, what do you hear traditional employers saying they're worried about, when these young people enter the workforce?
S: It's very funny, it almost depends on which generation they're from. So the boomers just kind of look kindly down upon them and say, "oh they're just like us", but they often just simply don't understand them, and it's actually the same in terms of the millennials looking up at the boomers, they see them as these kindly old people that listen to them when actually the two sides are simply just talking in ways that they don't understand each other. For Gen X, it's actually where the real tension lies. Gen X, um, supervisors are often incredibly frustrated and it comes out of these, you know these are both stereotypes, but Gen X, um, highly independent, kids that who many of them who come from divorce, latchgee kids, many who made their own way, very focused on success in the workforce, as opposed to Gen Y, often coming from a little bit better parental environment, very much about finding their passion, very much about quick success, quick reward, want to be in charge of things from the very start. And that's where the real generational clash has started right now.
Q: What I'm kind of getting at is when employers meet these millennials in the workplace, is it sort of you know, is it they can't focus, is it they can't spell, is it they don't know how to write an email properly, you know what scares them?
S: I think it's this interesting cross between both amazement at what they can do and amazement at also what they do do. So what they can do, "Oh my gosh, they understand this technology far better than us. It took us a year to learn how to utilize this system, and this kid came in and fixed it in a couple of hours. Um, in terms of their dedication to work to public service. They're often amazed by that, I remember the commandant of the Marine Corp saying you know we had low expectations going into Afghanistan. We were worried about this new generation of videogamers, we worried that they were soft, and as he put it, they turned out to be magnificent. Because they were incredible problem solvers, they were incredible at multi-tasking, all these sorts of areas. Another example of different expectations is different concepts of etiquette, that's often an area where you see frustration. Professors talking about young students coming up to them and calling them, "hey prof", or you know, calling them by their first name and they're like, "yo you don't do that here." Um same within netiquette, how people communicate online. There's often almost a different style often a different language that some people from the millennial generation use, you know, it's even, they call this in the computer world, leet, that only those that know use it and it's a way of keeping outsiders out. You see this with the acronyms, someone emailing a supervisor "OMG". Um supervisor not so psyched about that. Another is different expectations of time at work. There was this great study of millennials talking about, the title of it was something along the lines, What is it with you people and your 8am meetings? Because you have a set of kids who have grown up inside a different world. And it's not when you do the work that matters, it's just getting it done. Spelling etiquette, you have a generation that grew up with spell check. And so basically they have really bad grammar skills and really bad spelling skills. And so that's often a frustration in the workplace when they're sending things up that of course spell check doesn't fix everything. But the way to think about this I think at the end of the day is that they are high intensity, high demand, but also high payoff. And the real question for organizations is which of those highs are they going to drive. You know are they going to have the structures in place to get the high payoffs side or are they going to be so completely frustrated by the high demand side of things that they never get done.
Q: And let's talk about transparency and what transparency means to you. And you know it's not just the millennials either, it's sort of all of us now. All our expectations are either shifting or being forced to shift in terms of what is public information, how much we should put up there about ourselves, the repercussions of being out there, maybe you can speak to that question of transparency?
S: We have this ability now to see everything that goes into a decision and therefore we want to see everything that goes into a decision. We also have a record of all that happened to take us to that place and that record isn't something that you can get rid of. And so it creates expectations at the sort of micro level all the way up to the macro level of politics. So micro level, as an example, us meeting recently with a fellow who was a navy officer who used to run one of their seal training schools. And he talked about how, with his generation, it was told what to do, you know, sir, yes sir, go do it. This generation you have to explain why there's a 'what to do', then they will run through a wall doing it and they might even do it better than his generation. And so it's this challenge. And um for a leader that's an important thing to remember. Ah another example of this, I remember talking to a US coast guard captain and he talked about how there was a young 19 year old enlistman that came aboard his cutter worked as a radiomen. And one day walks up to him, the captain of the ship, and says I want to drive the boat and actually I can drive the boat better than the officer of the deck. And this captain is flabbergasted by it, you know the captain, he's God on that ship, you don't just walk up to him, let alone you don't walk up to him saying, "oh by the way, I'm better at the job than an officer is." And he thought, you know, maybe should I ream him out? And he thought, "no this generation thinks differently. And also he's just joining so I want to we want to keep this talent in the force." And so he said, "okay, you can't just go ahead and drive the ship, you're going to have to pass a certain number of steps, you're going to have to go through a certain number of lessons, and then you will get the honor of driving the ship." And he adds this, he says, "you know he passed all those, he did it, and it turned out, you know what, he was better than the officer of the deck at driving the ship." And so it points to these questions of leadership. Um, but transparency can work out in the macro level. This is an issue that the Obama campaign, ahh, wrestled with. In that it created this online community of those who would support it...
Q: We have to make a few small suggestions. You were talking about Obama I guess. Yeah we stopped you there because we're not going into politics just because it is such a huge thing. But we don't want to stop you if...
S: I mean all I was going to say is that it creates an online record of everything that you say, all your various commitments that anyone can access. And so people can then...I see what you are talking about with the buzzing...
Q: Let's start the thought again, so what are the repercussions of having online records of what we do?
S: This technology also creates an online record of everything that you've said, every speech that you've done, every commitment you've made, be it as a presidential candidate, be it as a CEO, be it as a general and now, you have this community that can measure what you're doing against what you said you were doing, and very easily go back and check it unlike in the past. And actually one the things is that we use this medium to organize around but then that community can take on a life of it's own. One of the fascinating things for example that happened during the 0-8 presidential campaign is that Obama the candidate made a certain policy statement, that then his online community on his mybarackobama.com organized against him to say, no you're wrong and you shouldn't do it. So his own platform, his own community, was crossing against it. And it's this great illustration of where technology can take you. Geez...
Q: So you were talking about accountability and how accountability sort of shifts now, so let's continue with that.
Q: You know where we should go with this, is that this changes positions of power so dramatically. And what power means? And you can go to the military as one of the places where this has really played out with some tension and some success.
S: Well there's a lot in terms of who gets power and who doesn't. And a thing the military talks a lot about is the idea of the strategic corporal. It's the idea that younger and younger troops now have greater amounts of information at hand and greater amounts of firepower at hand. And so the decisions that they make can have the consequence of strategic importance. The idea that a decision that a young corporal makes in the field for better or for worse, can change the direction of an entire war. There's a difference. There's another part to this that people often don't talk about, which is the rise of, Dopplegamer, what I call, the tactical general. Because it's these technologies also allow a massive amount of micro-management. So take the example of these drones. You can not only see everything that is happening in live time, I say you, not just the pilot but also the 4 star general somewhere else. But you can also reach in and decide what happens on the battlefield in real time even though you're from afar. For example, I remember coming across a 4 star general who talked about watching 2 hours of predator drone footage himself. Watching a single compound. And once he was personally assured that that compound was a legitimate target...and he decided, okay I see people walking around with weapons in their hands, which you know when you're talking about a place like Afghanistan that happens a lot but the point is, after spending two hours, then and only then did he give the order to strike. But then he added, "I also decided what size bomb we would drop on that compound." And this makes perfect sense in a certain way. Who better to decide, who better knows the commanders intent, than the commander himself. So why shouldn't he reach out and make those decisions. And if it goes wrong, he'll be the one held ultimately responsible for it. But there's another side to this though. For two hours he was doing the job of a captain. While a captain can't do the job of a 4-star general. That's another way that this technology creates this sort of warping effect. And another professor put it well he said, it's like crack for generals, they can't help themselves. An illustration of that, another one that came across, is a special operations team was on a raid, and above them was a predator drone filming everything that was happening. And the captain in charge of that unit got a radio call into his ear, and it was from a 1-star officer, a general officer, watching this back in the command center who was calling in not just to do with his overall unit but had instructions for him on where a single rifleman was and where they should move them. And you can just imagine being in the middle of battle and receiving that sort of micro-management. And the officer did what, you know its sort of funny, but he did sort of the old, kkkkkk, can't hear you sir. But to that officer back in the command center, you know, he's the all seeing eye in the sky. He's the one with the experience, and also by the way, he used to be out in the field and that's the part of his career that he liked the most. It's almost like the you know football player who's team gets to the superbowl right after he's left the team, so he wants to call in plays, it's the same thing playing out in the military. So there's challenges of communication, it enables you but it enables you to do both good and bad things.
Q: Why has the military embraced technology to the extent that it has?
S: Technology is wrapped up in the story of war. It's wrapped up in the story of history. You know the very first technology that humans used was in all likelihood was Og picking up a rock and hitting someone else over the head. And saying, "ah ha, I've created the perfect weapon". And probably the second technology was probably someone picking up a stick and saying, "no, I've got lethal distance." And that story has continued and war has actually been a driver for technology. You know look at all the things that surround us...everything from the internet to jet engines to now robotics. These are all things where the military is a driver for it. And I think it goes to this question for me, about the duality of humans. That is, it's our human creativity that distinguishes us from all other species. It's our human creativity that took us to the stars. It's our human creativity that builds these works of art and literature to express our love for one another. And now we are using this human creativity to build these exciting technologies that allow us to do fascinating and impressive things. But we're mainly doing it, if we're being honest about it, because we can't get past our age-old need to destroy each other. And that kind of raises the question, is it our machines that are being wired for war or is it us who are just inherently wired for war?
Q: That's so interesting, this keeps coming up, is it technology's fault or is it human beings fault sort of. Not to over-simplify it but this comes up a lot, you mention, you know is the technology pushing us somewhere or is it exacerbating tendencies that are already there in us?
S: That's a good question. I think it probably exacerbates things that are already there and then opens up new frontiers of directions in that we can go in. And really what you are talking about is that every so often is that every so often you have technologies that come along that rewrite the rules to the game. They force us to ask questions about not only what's possible but also what's proper. And these are very rare in history; imagine things like the printing press. Imagine the world before and after the printing press. You know some monk sitting back in the 1300s could not predict all the changes in the world the printing press would cause, not only what you could do but he's wrestling with what's right and wrong. You know before that they couldn't predict things like mass literacy, the reformation, which ends the monopoly of the catholic church of religion in Europe. Also leads to things like the 30 Year War that kills about a third of Europe. That also leads to things like the Sports Illustrated swim suit issue. No monk could predict those sort of things sitting before this technology. And we have the same thing playing out with the computer and we have the same sort of thing playing out with aspects like robotics. These are fundamentally different technologies that really are revolution, in all the terms revolutionary. And for robotics, what's fascinating to me is that they don't just change the "how" of war, they don't just change the ability to shoot faster or shoot further, they also change the "who" of war. They change the very experience of the soldier themselves, the very identity of the soldier themselves.
Q: So technology exacerbating what's already there in us. Let's start from that idea...
S: Technology takes certain trends that exist now, certain tendencies that exist now, and exacerbates them; it often can put them on steroids. And it also opens up new frontiers, new dilemmas, new questions you need to answer.
Q: Great. And you were starting to talk about a little before, not just warfare changing but the identity of the warrior changing...
Q: ...Let's get into that, how that is happening and why that is happening.
S: One of the things that is important that is happening right now is that you have these technologies coming along that are revolutionary and by that I mean they change the rules of the game, they force us to ask new questions not only about what's possible but what's proper. And these are pretty rare in history, these are things like the printing press, you know imagine being a monk and back in 1300s Europe trying to predict the world but also what are the issues of right and wrong, before and after the printing press. They wouldn't be able to predict everything from issues like mass illiteracies to questions that that brought that led to the reformation that ends the monopoly of the Catholic Church over religion in Europe at the time. They also wouldn't have been able to predict things like democracy, citizenry and all the issues that come out of that. You have the questions that lead to the 30 Years War, which leaves a third of Europe dead. This all comes out of this little rickety invention. You also have questions of ethics--you know how could that monk sitting back there you know predict the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and the right and wrong of that? A total different world all coming out of that technology. What we're experiencing today is a similarity of that. The computer, robotics, they're along those lines, and forcing us to ask these new questions. Now what's interesting though, is that war, when you've had these revolutions in the past, they've always been about changing the how of war. They've been a system, a technology, that either had a bigger boom, like the atomic bomb, that either shot dramatically faster like the machine gun that allowed you to kill from a greater distance, like the long bow, or the gun powder revolution. And that's definitely happening right now with robotics and digital technology but it's also the first to alter the who of war, not just the how of war. That is, it affects warriors' experience; it also affects warriors' very identity. Another way of putting it is we're living through the end of human kinds 5000-year monopoly on fighting wars.
Q: What do you mean by that?
S: We right now are utilizing robotics to fight our wars for you. Take the idea, um, the terminology, going to war. Going to war has meant the same thing for over 5000 years. It meant the same thing for the ancient Greeks going out to fight in the Trojan Wars, to for example my grandfather going out to fight in WWII. Going to war meant that you were going to a place where there was such danger that you may never come home again, you may never see your family again. Now compare that experience that has held true for that period to that of a predator drone pilot. I remember talking to one talking about how his experience fighting insurgents in Iraq while never leaving Nevada. He said, "Look, you're going to war, for twelve hours. You're sitting behind a computer screen you're shooting missiles at enemy targets, killing enemy combatants, and then at the end of the day you get back in your car and 20 minutes later you're at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework." So this age-old definition of going to war has changed in our lifetime.
Q: What does that do to someone, to spend all day...
S: That's one of the things we're trying to figure out, in terms of how does this effect the experience of the warrior themselves. And one of the things that's interesting is that we're finding that some of these units these drone pilots actually have higher levels of combat stress and PTSD even than many of the units physically deployed into Iraq and Afghanistan. And it, ah, makes little sense on one level but perfect sense when you pull back and think about it. Because this disconnect of being at war and being at home is very tough for the human mind to wrap itself around. These experiences of war they have are 24/7, everyday, going into work where it's to being at war, there's not that decompression period. And in fact going home immediately is considered for some of them to be even tougher. You know you've just carried out an act of killing and 20 mins later your wife is being angry at you for being late to the PTA meeting. That's tough on someone. It's also a very different experience of what you see at war. Compare that for ah bomber pilot back in WWII, you know they go in they drop the bombs, they don't see what happens before and after. A predator drone pilot, they see the target, they see it up close, and they see the bomb go in, and they see the consequences of their action, they see the death and destruction that plays out. And it's not just the experience of watching the enemy die. Sometimes unfortunately they watch Americans die. I remember one staff sergeant talking to me about how they saw American soldiers die in front of them. And they were flying a drone that was unarmed, and this feeling of utter frustration and helplessness while they watch fellow Americans die in front of them and they can't do anything about it. And again, think about going from that and walking back into an America that's at peace right afterwards. These are really traumatic this is a tough situation.
Q: The disconnect is really fascinating. What are the other repercussions of the disconnect do you think, what other prices might you pay for conducting war remotely?
S: There's a series of them. One example of the impact of robotics and the capability to do this kind of distance of war is the impact it has on our own politics. I remember talking to a former assistant secretary of defense for Ronald Reagan, and he said, "I like these systems because they save lives, but I also worry about more marketization of war, more shock and awe talk to defray discussion of the costs. And that people are more likely to support the use of force if they view it as costless." So for me, what it is is that robotics and these new technologies allow you to take certain trends that are active in the American body politic right now and it drives them to the final logical ending point. We don't have a draft anymore, we don't declare war anymore, we don't buy war bonds anymore. And now we have this final trend that takes those who would be going into harm's way and all the political consequences of that and outsources it to digital technology. So what we may be doing is taking some of those already lowering bars to war and dropping them to the ground. And we have a policy example that's playing out right now, for example. These drone strikes into Pakistan. In the last year and a half, we've carried out more than fifty of them. We've basically had the equivalent of the opening round of the Kosovo War in terms of the number of strikes that we're doing, yet we don't talk about it. Imagine if it was man bombers, maybe we would talk about it, but it's not because it's costless to us. But this leads to other aspects in terms of the consequences. So another illustration. What are robots' impact on our very real, very human war of ideas that we're fighting against these radical groups around the world. That is, what is the message we think we're sending when we use these technologies, versus what is the message actually received in places like the Middle East. So I went around interviewing people about this. One senior Bush Administration official described it this way in terms of our belief. He described how the un-humanity of war and this is his words, plays to our strength. The thing that scares people is our technology. But what about when you go ask those people. And I remember an interview with, he's the leading newspaper editor in Lebanon and he's actually saying this while there is a drone flying above him at the time. And he's saying, actually no, this shows your cowardice. This shows that you're not actually man enough to fight us, you send machines instead. And in fact, it shows that all we have to do to defeat you is kill a few of your soldiers. So you have this disconnect between message we think we're sending using these technologies, versus message being received. Or as one analyst put it, the optics of this look really freaking bad. It makes us look like the evil empire from Star Wars and the other side look like the rebel alliance.
Q: Is it fair to talk about the drone pilots as video gamers? And why has that been a sore point for the military?
S: I think it's definitely a sore point for those in the military because--
Q: The idea that calling these drone pilots video gamers is somehow a sore point for the military. Why is that? What is the relationship to videogames?
S: There's this perception that these drone pilots are just video gamers and in some ways that has a little bit of truth in it. One of the people I remember interviewing for the book was a 19-year-old drone pilot who is a high school drop-out, joins the army wanting to be a helicopter mechanic and he's not qualified to be a mechanic, so they say--because he failed his high school English class actually, which shows you the military logic here--but they say, Do you want to be a drone pilot instead? And he turns out to be incredible at it because of video games. And he's so good at it actually that they bring him back from Iraq and make him an instructor in a training academy. This is, in some ways, a really cool story because he goes from high school dropout to really hitting the high point in a career. The flip side though is, you tell that story to someone in the air force and he doesn't like it all that much. He's in the army. He's a high school dropout. He's not even an officer and you're saying that this young kid had taken out more enemy targets, has saved more American lives than every single F-15 pilot put together? That's not something we like and that's an example of this demographic change that comes out of it just by using video game technology.
And in a lot of ways the military is free-riding off of the video game industry. The controllers for a lot of these systems look exactly like video game controllers like those on your Playstation or your Xbox. And the reason in this free riding is that the military figured out, Hold it. The controllers have already been designed to fit your hands perfectly etcetera. So why don't we just use them? The other is, well we already have this generation that's already trained up in their use. So why would we try to use different systems that we'd have to train them how to utilize. So you've got that aspect. Also for the way we talk about these experiences, including even things like killing. We often turn to parallels in the virtual world and video games. I remember one young officer talking about the experience of taking out an enemy target from afar. And he kind of paused and was searching for words to describe it and he goes, "It's like a video game." And that's kind of the parallel he was making. Now, that said, that doesn't mean that they treat these acts of violence as just something to play at. These drone pilots take their jobs incredibly serious. They see themselves as combatants, they see themselves as people making decisions of life and death, not just on the enemy, but American soldiers will depend on decisions they make that day. And they take it very seriously. They even wear their flight suits into the compound to feel like you really are going into war.
But I do remember an air force squadron commander talking about the grinding nature of this. The 24-7 aspect of it. The fact that you would be flying that drone day after day after day just sitting behind that computer screen. That he as a unit commander described that he had to do something different than what he had to do for example when he was commanding units out in the Middle East. He had to make sure to continually reinforce the importance of the job they were doing. Make sure that they were always staying connected to the reality, staying connected to the fact that lives did depend on them. And he'd have to fight for interface with the real world. Trying to bring back soldiers from Iraq to try and visit the unit and tell them how important the job is that they're doing. Try and get his drone pilots out into the field so that they can meet with the people that they're only talking to right now via text.
Q: So human interaction remains important? It has a place? Can we talk about the tension between the virtual and the real and as the virtual grows, where we need to retain the real, but also where we shouldn't worry.
S: These technologies allow you to operate in ways that changes some of the fundamental understandings we have of how we organize and communicate and even bond in war. So take the idea of the band of brothers, right? Unit cohesion. Well, compare that for example to an incident where we were taking out an enemy mortar site outside Fallujah. The teams flying those drones, carrying out that act of violence never met face to face, they never talked over radio or over the phone. The entire battle was fought via internet chatroom. So the relationship wasn't band of brothers. It was more like Facebook friendship. They didn't even know each other's names; let alone what each other looked like. So those bonds of trust aren't there. On the other hand, they carried out that operation spectacularly. The succeeded in their goal. And moving these operations into things like internet chatrooms though is creating all sorts of new tensions and dilemmas. One of the first things the military will talk about is that in an internet chatroom, identity is often hard to tell.
And so in a world where hierarchy matters in the military, they joke about, there's times when you'd have some staff sergeant telling off a colonel in the room and neither one knows because it's in a chatroom. Or they had to set rules of etiquette where you can't curse someone out; you can't use exclamation points or all caps. All the kind of the things young kids grow up learning, they had to redo in this military world. Also in a chatroom though, there's certain parts of communication that often depend on a face to face. And it's not just what you say or how you look but your stance. Even the vibe I can feel off of you when you're angry. And I remember an officer talking about, there was a time when they needed to turn around a drone very quickly to follow an enemy target and they're in a chatroom and basically they got into what he calls a "pissing" contest. Where someone 9,000 miles away, doesn't want to do that, needs an explanation and he's like, "You better do it now." He may be the officer but they get into this back and forth. And he was saying if we'd been face to face, just by my stance or by the fact that I could have put my finger into his chest, we wouldn't have had this problem. They would have turned the drone around immediately. But that's a problem again of you get this efficiency, you've got units thousands of miles away coordinating with each other, but on the other hand you have no fogs of war emerging, even in the digital world.
Q: We're kind of already there, right? Should we worry?
S: I think in all of this it sounds like we're talking about science fiction. It sounds like we're talking about the future. But notice that every single example that you and I have talked about has been something that's already happened.
Q: I'm going to stop you right there, cause that's really important. Can you just say it without saying, you and I?
S: Sure. It sounds like we're talking about science fiction with these technologies. It very much feels like things from movies like the Terminator, the Matrix coming to life in our real-world battlefields. And in fact, it is. Except for the fictional part. These things are battlefield reality. It sounds like I'm talking about science fiction, but this is battlefield reality already. Notice how every single example I gave is not something that takes place in a Hollywood movie, it; something that's already happened in our wars today. And so the challenge that presents to us as a nation, as a society is are we going to let the fact that these things look like science fiction, sound like science fiction, feel like science fiction, keep us in denial that it is the reality? Another way of saying that is, are we going to make the very same mistake that a previous generation did with another science fiction-like technology. The atomic bomb. The atomic bomb actually comes from an H.G. Wells short story.
The very name, the very concept, even the idea of a nuclear chain reaction is actually something that the physicists at the time say this is absurd and then the Manhattan Project scientists go maybe we could do that. Well that generation looked at this science-fiction-like technology and didn't wrestle with not only the question of how you build it but more importantly the political, social, ethical dilemmas that would come out of this, until after Pandora's box was opened. And we don't have that same excuse that a previous generation did. These technologies aren't being built in some secret desert lab that we don't know about. They're here. They're surrounding us. We better deal with them.
Q: Part of that is control, right? Part of that is loosening some control over them because one of the bases for this technology is that it's ground-up. You can talk about how the military hasn't loosened control where they need to.
S: You mean in terms of autonomy of machines?
Q: Sorry. I think we should transition more to their experience of blogging, what the younger generations expect from technology and whether or not the military is willing to give that.
S: One of the lessons that comes out of these technologies is, don't try to apply rules to things that you don't understand. And the military is definitely going through this right now. Where you'll have these rules, these edicts coming from the top-down that in execution, don't work out with the technology and actually make that senior leadership look every sillier even arguing they should. For example, the military's access to sites like youtube. Certain bases ban it, other bases don't. Is it safe or is it not? Why does it depend on which geographic location you're in, for this virtual technology. The military tried a way around it. They built their own military youtube site. What was funny is, some other U.S. military bases actually blocked the military's version of youtube, this back and forth. Another example is senior leadership sometimes thinks it's using a technology at the cutting edge and will highlight how cool it is, how cutting edge it is that it's using this and it'll turn out that it's actually not.
So the example of blogging. You have several senior military leaders, generals and admirals who've started to blog or what they think is blogging and they'll highlight this and talk about how great it is we're doing this. But what's interesting is that their blogs don't have a response section, don't have a comments section. So to the younger generation, it's actually not a blog. It' just another way of sending a memo, it's another way of giving a speech. It's another megaphone that you have out there. You're not allowing any inter-activity, you're not allowing any response, which is at the essence of blogging. And of course, if you're the senior leader, why would you allow that? Why would you want that young 19-year-old saying, "Actually sir, you said but it's actually that way." Posing questions. You're the general. But you can't say that you're blogging if you do that. And that's just another example of these kind of disconnects that pop up.
Military security is another one. They have a major concern about operational security. So not wanting to allow soldiers to post their own experiences and talk about what they're doing. And what's interesting is that they did a study and they found out that it wasn't soldiers' blogs that were responsible for the leaking of classified information. In fact, more classified information came out of official defense department websites than personal blog sites. Another example is limiting access to certain kinds of technologies. The Defense Department recently had an issue where someone used one of the memory sticks and it downloaded a virus into the military's own internet. And of course they reacted and said, we're banning all of those. No one can utilize these systems from the outside. And so for people like me who go and give these talks at military bases... Okay, we had to change. We couldn't bring our sticks, we had to bring our laptops. I remember going to one base and didn't have my stick but the computer automatically hooked onto the base's wireless network. So you banned me from the stick, but my system, without even trying was inside yours. These are examples of you know, don't put down policy from above if you don't understand the world you're operating in.
Q: We looked at this marine training that uses virtual characters to help marines learn to shoot and not shoot. What do you think is the value of training like that? And what does it say about one of the ways in which the military is embracing technology?
S: The use of these gaming technologies, virtual world simulations etc. is basically about carrying out your training in your practice and your preparation in a manner that allows you to do it again and again and again. And also with a slightly better sense of realism than you're going to be able to get with the older styles of training. It's certainly not the same as combat but you can run people through the bases. So for example, if you're trying to teach someone how to clear a room that may or may not have insurgents there, but it could also be civilians. Well, you can try and recreate that experience of this is how you do it, but these are also the mistake that might happen. And with this virtual world technology, we can play it back. You learn from those mistakes and you do it again and again and again. So when you're having to make these decisions in a split second, you almost have an instinctual response. The same way a golfer will hit that golf ball hundreds, if not thousands of not, in preparation for when they really do go out and play in something like the Masters or the like. It's the same thing for the soldiers, that we're trying to recreate. They found that the best so far are those that combine both human and digital and that also trying to appeal to all the senses. So it's not just going into a room that's virtual reality. It's going into a room that may have virtual reality, but it also has the smell of gunpowder in the air. It may have an actual human actor in the corner, a woman that's playing a civilian mother screaming. And you burst into that room and you've got to figure out in a second. And maybe that digital image of that insurgent pops up but the point is that your mind, your body is getting used to these kinds of situations.
It's walking through the stress again and again. What they've also found that's interesting is that this capacity, this capability actually helps soldiers deal with the after effects of it. We have a generation of those who are coming back from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with very high levels of PTSD-post traumatic stress disorder. And this can emerge immediately after, or PTSD is something that pop up months, if not, years later. In terms of the therapy, they found it very useful to help people walk through that incident, that stressor that created that. But to do it in a safe setting. And that you can add more and more of a sense of realism to it so that they can almost get over it by experiencing it in a more safe way and a moderated way. That is one of the new ideas that's come up in using these technologies that could be very beneficial to people. We've also found that virtual worlds allow this in terms of therapy. People talk about virtual worlds and the distancing and that it enables you to shoot at people that maybe you wouldn't if you were there face to face. But also, think about in terms of therapy. It may allow you to talk about things that wouldn't talk about face to face. And they've seen that too. They've seen veteran's groups popping up in places like Second life where they're actually communicating with each other about these incidents in these safe settings.
Q: It's always this flip side of the coin.
S: This is the thing with technology and I think there was a great lesson here from science fiction. When the American Film Institute gathered a list of the top 100 villains and top 100 heroes of all of Hollywood history, there was one character that made both lists. And again these lists were to gather those Hollywood characters that represented the best of humanity and the worst of humanity. One character made both top 100 lists. It was the Terminator, a robotic killing machine. I think that's a good illustration of how technology can be used both for good and for evil.
Q: But there's ultimately us, right?
S: That's the other part of it. To me, it shows the duality of the people behind the machines as well. We have this human creativity. Our human creativity is what's distinguished us from all other species. Our human creativity is what took our species to the moon. Our human creativity has built these works of art and literature to express our love for one another. And now we're using our human creativity to build these amazing technologies that are literally re-writing the world around us. Creating new experiences around us. Allowing us to do things that once we never imagined. Indeed, if you believe both science and science fiction, we may be using our human creativity to create an entirely new species. But we're really just doing it because we can't get past our age-old need to destroy each other. We're really just doing it because of war. And so it raises the question. Is it our technology? Is it our machines that are wired for war? Or is it us?
Q: If you can inoculate or to use a little more provocative word, desensitize people to combat before they go in... Is that something we really want to do? Do we want to tamp down the stress someone will feel when they go into combat and might have to kill someone?
S: They found a couple things that make it easier to get past that human reversion to killing. One is creating distance, and that distance could be either physical distance or psychological distance. So for example, the bomber pilots in World War II, they carried out the firebombing to cities in Germany and Japan. If you had asked them to use a flamethrower up close, they would have balked at it. But by doing it at a distance, it allowed them to carry out those missions. And that's a concern that people have for example with the greater use of the drone strikes. You're adding to the distance, but you're also importantly creating psychological distance and disconnect. And that's another sign in terms of training and virtual world aspects, is that we come up with ways to retrain our brain to allow us to do these things. One is that we look at the enemy as not a fellow human. They are a "Jap." They are a "Guk." They are a "Hun." They are today a "Hajji." They're not one of us, so that's why I can deal our violence to then. They found this in terms of how we do marksmanship training. We've gone from using unrealistic circles, a bull's eye. You know, the enemy doesn't come at you wearing this bull's eye. To using very sophisticated virtual reality, so it looks like a person that you're shooting and you're body gets trained to shoot a kill-shot on those parts of the body that will kill them.
It's also repetition. Doing it again and again and again. And so that's where these things allow us to kill better, to kill easier. I remember meeting with a U.S. Special Operations Officer and he was actually just back from Afghanistan where he was hunting terrorists. And he said, "Anything that makes it easier to kill, is not necessarily a good thing." And so I thought that was really remarkable coming from this guy who knows better than all of us what it's like to experience war, what it's like to deal out death, saying, you don't want to make it too easy. And that was actually his concern. And he also added, when he talked about these new technologies, particularly the robotic technologies. He said, "Look, this is the kind of stuff that scares the s*it out of me. But it's also inevitable."
Q: Can you repeat that? What's the cost of using these technologies to teach people to kill or desensitize them from the act of killing. If you've done it so many times to a virtual character before you go and actually do the real thing, is that a good thing? That we're making it easier to kill?
S: Making it easier to kill allows you to carry out operations--we should just do the whole thing over, cuase I'm worried about having all these little choppy quotes out there...
The military has found that there are certain things they can do to help soldiers get past that human aversion against killing. What they found is that one is creating distance, both physical distance and psychological distance can make it easier to kill. Physical distance. Think about the experience of the bomber pilots back in World War II. Those who carried out the fire bombings of cities in Germany and also Japan. If you had asked those pilots to use a flamethrower face to face with those that they were going to kill, they wouldn't have done it. They would have balked at it. But because they were doing it at a greater distance, they were able to carry out those missions. That's the same thing with the greater distance allowed by the drone strikes. But there's a psychological side to it. How do you create that psychological distance? And sometimes it's through looking at the enemy as something other than human. Something less than human. They are not a fellow soldier, they're a "Hun." They're a "Jap." They're a "Guk." They're a "Haji." They're someone else that I can deal out death to and not one of us.
But it also can happen through this kind of training. Allowing repetition. That's where, particularly virtual world technologies come into this. Is that you get used to shooting, not just the bull's eye, you know, the enemy doesn't come at you wearing a t-shirt with a circle on it, but actually, what it's like to do a kill-shot at that part of the body. And doing it again and again and again. So just like the golfer who gets that swing down, your body naturally shoots that person always in the chest. That's what the training allows, that sense of repetition. Now the question of all of this, in terms of all these technologies, is first, doing it in the virtual world may actually lead you to do things you wouldn't do in the real world. And I remember talking with an executive at one of these military robots companies and he asked about, "What happens when we take this generation that grew up playing Grand Theft Auto and hand them the same controller that can control the machine gun on a robot. Where does that lead us?" Because we know there's certain things that we might do in the virtual world that we wouldn't do in the real world. And it can sometimes get fuzzy between the two when you're doing it with the same controller and you're also seeing it via screen, not face to face. But there was another broader message that came out of this and it was from talking with a special operations officer. And he was just back from Afghanistan actually hunting down terrorists there. And he said, "look anything that makes it easier to kill is not necessarily a good thing." And I thought that was a very striking and remarkable way of putting it. Because this is a guy who knows it better than any of us. He's just back from having to carry out these acts of violence in the nation's service but he's saying you don't want to make it too easy. But he added something else, he said, "Look, where we're headed, scares the shit out of me, but it's inevitable."
Q: Maybe it's the inevitability that does scare the shit out of someone. Even just as a group--there's different group that have got different demands. They've got a whole different approach to you know politics...
S: Un huh. They organize quicker--everything.
Q: Yeah. So who are they? Who is this generation of vets and what's going on with them, how are they different?
S: One of the things that is interesting about this new generation of youth is that you also have a new generation of veterans coming out of wars like Iraq and Afghanistan. And they're using digital technology...um...
One of the things that is interesting about this new generation, this digital generation, is that you also have got a new generation of veterans coming out of it. Young troops that have come out of Iraq and Afghanistan with their experiences there. And they are actually using these technologies in a lot of ways that are interesting and different in their life after the military. So one for example the VA is wrestling with right now is that this generation of young vets have actually organized far quicker to lobby and push for veteran's services than the previous generations. On issues like PTSD for example: You had the Vietnam vets who were really not pushing for this kind of help from the VA until decades after the war. And a lot of them were reticent to talk about issues like PTSD. Instead you've got the young vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and creating Facebook organizations, setting up online communities, and basically saying we want these services and by the way, we don't want it when we're 50, we want it now. And it's created this huge pressure for an institution, government agency, that's still operating along 20th century lines, particularly in its funding, and wasn't expecting to deal with these young vets until they were ready for retirement and here they are now.
The same is the willingness to use these technologies in issues like therapy. Um you see young veterans gathering in online communities to talk about things like PTSD. Not with the VA but amongst themselves. And that is um allowing veterans that may be in places where they might not have a VA, to still link up with other veterans and share their experiences. And it's one of these opportunities that these technologies offer us.
Q: Can you see how this Virtual Iraq program can be powerful for these young vets? How it can help people who come back from combat zones and going back into it?
S: I mean, from what we talked about before, that's about the extent of what I can go into it.
Q: Drones is where it's going?
S: This is the future of war is using more and more of these machines. And it's not something that is a Republican or Democrat issue. The use of drones went from 0-7,000 during the bush administration on the ground 0-12,00. And it's continued during the Obama administration. In fact you can look at the Obama campaign statements of the defense policies, what it is they are going to buy more of, one of the few systems that is mentioned is unmanned aerial systems. And the defense budget itself is going to stay basically flat; there is one area in it that's continued to grow exponentially, and that's unmanned systems.
Q: Do you if there is any mention in increasing funding and support of some of this virtual stuff, some of this virtual training. I read about systems where you're going to be able to play the mission in simulation before you go into the mission. You can play...
S: Oh yeah, that stuff is all growing, our training programs are getting better and better with more fidelity. What is interesting is what our definition of virtual means. When we say virtual world, we think it's like little 3D characters. But it's also the ability to have the solider feel like they are going down the street, but then you can have a real picture of what that building looks like. You can now even integrate live video into it. Of what that predator drone is seeing at that time. So when they do go out on patrol, they've already seen where they are going to go. And it sounds "wow, that sounds revolutionary, that sounds crazy!" You are actually just talking about Google Earth.
Q: So part of this is, as you have already said, is military has the resources and the ability to create to be at the forefront of breaking edge technologies. But is this the military leading this new generation where they are. Is the military doing that?
S: You have a generation...um...ah...
Q: Who are these kids and how is the military using them?
S: You have a generation that's joining the military today that has grown up in the digital world. They have grown up using computers everyday to the point where they don't even call them computers anymore. They have a computer in their pocket, but they call it a PDA. They have a computer in their kitchen; it's a microwave oven. Their cars have literally 50 or more computers in them. We don't call them computerized car. Same thing is happening with robotics, they grow up in households that have the little Rumba vacuum cleaner. They are driving around in their parents SUV that has crash avoidance technology. We don't call it a robotic car, but it has a device that if the stupid human driver doesn't look in their blind spot the robot car takes over for them so they don't crash. So you are getting this ubiquity, this surrounding of them. SO they are joining the military expecting to use these systems, use to using these systems. And the military is going to adapt to that. Trying to use them as much as possible. There is a challenge though in two parts. One is that the military acquisition system, that is how it buys and what it buys, is falling behind the technologies itself. So you have these kids that are used to using high tech IPODs and then join the military and being handed this creaky old computer from the late 1990's that the military still thinks is cutting edge.
There is another part of this though; while the military is the prime mover and shaker of funding these new technologies, they're moving on to the open market and adversaries, the enemy, can free ride off of them. And so an interesting example that came out of Iraq is, the U.S. military spent literally tens of billions of dollars to put out an array of satellites that created the Global Positioning System, GPS, that allowed you to pinpoint wherever you were. Insurgents in Iraq, were able to target a base using that. Actually using Google Earth, to not only target the base but to know when they targeted their mortars at it, which buildings to hit, not the one's not with hard roofs but to target the tents because it's more likely to harm people. So the U.S. military spent tens of billions of dollars to invent and utilize this, and the insurgents got it for free. And that's one of the things to come out of technology, is that, there's no such thing as a permanent first mover's advantage. And in fact, people can free ride off of your investments.
And think about it this way: We don't use Wang computers anymore, or Commodore 64s, kids don't play Atari videogames. Those companies may have been at the forefront of the digital revolution, they're not anymore. Same thing in war. You know the British invent the tank. The Germans figure out how to use the tank better. And so a question the U.S. military has to wrestle with is that it is at the forefront, it is at the cutting-edge of these systems right now, including because U.S. kids are at the forefront of this digital technology; but...we're not the only ones operating with these technologies in the military, military robotics for example, 43 other countries are using military robotics, building military robotics right now. Not just countries like the U.S., Great Britain, but also countries like China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran. And the same thing in terms of this generation of kids. What if this generation of kids in American isn't at the cutting edge, isn't like for example, like back in WWII when our kids were the ones utilizing things like you know automobiles better than anyone else, so when they went to war it was very natural for them to use things like automobiles and tanks and tinker with the planes out in the war. What if it's these other nations that are out ahead in this? Another way of putting this is, What does it mean to be in this revolution...given where our American manufacturing economy is headed, and where science and mathematics training in our schools is headed...another way of putting it is, where do you stand in this revolution when we're using hardware that is increasingly made in China that's powered by software that is increasingly written in India?
Q: So it's really fascinating. I mean it's kind of the ground-up nature of internet itself, you know. The grassroots, bottom-up nature...that we so proud of but at the same time it's doing this very thing that you're talking about...
S: And that's where I describe this, um, I describe this direction we're headed in as open source warfare. That is, it's not just software that's going open source, it's also warfare. It's not just the big boys that control what's built, and are the only ones that can use it. In software you of course had this change and now you have the ability of anyone not only being able to utilize these softwares but also to improve upon it themselves. And the same thing is happening with our military systems. You know, so take something like a robot--it's not like an aircraft carrier or an atomic bomb where you need this big industrial structure to build it and it's very difficult to learn how to use it. A lot of the technology is commercial. It's off the shelf. You know for about a thousand dollars you can build your own version of the Ravendrone, which is a hand-tossed drone, which our soldiers use in Iraq and Afghanistan. About a thousand dollars you can do it yourself. And what that means is that you have a flattening effect when it comes to war and technology. That flattening effect takes you in a lot of interesting new directions. So for example, there's a story of a group of college kids that held a fundraiser. Sort of classic millennial, they saw that there was a bad thing going on a half a world away, in Sudan, happening in Darfur, genocide, and these kids at a university, in the U.S., wanted to do something about it. So they organized, held a fundraiser, and again, classic millennial, they did better than anyone expected. They ended up fundraising a half million dollars. But then they had the question of: How do you spend that money? And they actually entered into negotiations with a private military company over the rental of a set of drones to deploy to Sudan. They had the negotiations out of their dorm room. And just sort of shows you the strange worlds you can go in with this new technology, with this new political landscape, with this new generation. There's a darker side to this of course. It's not just college kids that can access these new technologies, it may be people with bad intent. So the war with Israel and Hezbollah, that took place a couple years ago; it wasn't just a war that took place against a state government and a non-state actor that a lot of people think of as a terrorist group. It was a war where both sides flew drones against each other. Hezbollah may not be a military, but it had the military capacity to fly four drones back at Israel. It doesn't have to be groups. These things can empower individuals. I remember meeting with one scientist and he said, "Look, if you gave me $50,000 and I wanted to, I could shut down Manhattan right now using these technologies." And what's interesting is is that they may not just empower these small groups, these individuals, they may even be a motivator for terrorism. We may see the rise, of what we can call, neolidites. Think about it this way: Every time there's a great amount of change in our society and our economies, it's disruptive, it's disheartening, for people. For a very small minority, it's so disruptive that they can't handle it and they lash out in violence against it.
Now in history, there was the Ludites. The Ludites were basically the minority of factory workers. They were the minority of those that were put out of work by the early factories that turned to violence. They would actually hold street protests that turned into riots. They'd go smash up the early factories. In fact, in 1814, more of the British army is fighting the Ludites inside Britain than it's actually fighting Napoleon's army in Europe. We could see the return of this. Also, think about questions of human identity, human law. Those spark some people to turn to violence. The issue of abortion, for example. A very small minority turned to violence over concerns about this. People blew up abortion clinics, shot at abortion doctors. What we have is the same potential here, combining both people put out of work by digital technologies, but also people who see them as threatening to human identity. Raising deep questions of human law and human identity. What you're talking about is neo-Ludites. What we're talking about is the Unabomber. We're talking about people who are so opposed to technology, they lash out against it in violence.
And ironically enough, they're made more lethal because of the very technology they're fighting. This is a very scary prospect. And what's interesting to me is that one of the people that brought this up is actually Richard Clark, who is the very controversial counter-terrorism official who worked for both Bush and for Clinton. A lot of people know him as the guy who warned about 9/11, but wasn't listened to. He actually thinks that this is one of the new directions that terrorism is headed. The question for us is, are we going to listen to him or not this time?
Q: Let's go back to this generation that is growing up in this environment you're talking about. What would you tell, what have you told the military about them?
S: I thought of... The bottom line is that this generation is high demand, high risk, high payoff. High demand. They come in with great expectations. Great expectations of how they're going to be led, how much transparency you're going to have into the decisions that are made about them. Great expectations in terms of their advancement. They also have great expectations in terms of constant feedback. You know, this is the generation of kids that grew up getting soccer trophies for 8th place.
High risk. If you don't meet those demands, they don't have a great sense of patience. They walk. High risk in terms of the decisions that they make, particularly in this environment, have a much greater consequence. A young person can make a decisions that once was the remit of a general. They can make a decisions that can turn the entire course of the war. For better or for worse. So it's high risk. And it's the same thing in a business organization. We see this play out. But also high payoff. That is they're capabilities that they bring to the table, are greater than previous generations. And much of how organizations live or die in this world depends on how they are able to adapt including to these new technologies.
Well, you have a new generation coming in that doesn't have to adapt. They grew up with these technologies. It is natural to them. They grew up in a world that is globalized. They grew up in a world that is wired. They grew up in a world that is 24/7. They grew up in a world where they don't care so much about a lot of these old issues of race or ethnicity or creed. The old culture wars of the 1990s. That's outdated to them. So it can be very high payoff for an organization if you figure out how to utilize, how to lead, how to integrate this generation. And that's the big question for organizations. Be it militaries, be it businesses, be it schools, be it churches. How do you deal with this new generation?
Q: Last question. War porn. Can you describe what these videos are? Describe what this says about us and tendencies we have.
S: These new technologies don't just remove the human from risk, they record everything that they see. So they don't just de-link the public and their relationship to war, they actually reshape it. The way to think about this is what I call "youtube war." That is, there are several thousand videos of combat footage in Iraq and Afghanistan, up online right now on sites like youtube. Some of it has been released officially from the military. Some of it's been put up there unofficially. Now this ability to watch combat footage, at your home computer, could be a good thing. It's building links between the home front and the war front, that didn't exist before. It's widening the scope. You're not getting the reporting from those major networks for just a couple of minutes like it happened in Vietnam. But now you can go out and find what's exactly happening and watch as much or as little as you want and hone in on down on what's going down there. But we need to remember with these technologies, they may sound like science fiction, but they're playing out in our very real, very human world.
For some people, the ability to download a video clip of combat and watch it on their ipod is turning war into a king of sick form of entertainment. And the soldiers have a name for it. They call it war porn or pred-porn, after predator porn. And a typical example that I got was an email that was sent to me and the title of it said, "Watch this." And we all get those kind of emails sometimes and the clip attached will be some clip from someone from American Idol singing really out of tune, or some nerdy kid in his basement dancing in his underwear. Something stupid or silly like that. Well in this case, the "Watch this" was of a predator drone strike, missile goes in, hits the target, explosion, bodies tossed into the air. It was set to music. It was set to the pop song, "I Just Want to Fly" by the band Sugar Ray.
And so what we have happening here is the ability to watch more but experience less when it comes to war. And it's very easy to forget that the violence is real when you're just watching these clips. It's easy to forget that not everyone is fighting from afar. It's also easy to get distracted by the distortion effect of it. And think about it this way. It's a lot like watching an NBA game. A professional basketball game on TV. Where the players are these little tiny figures on the screen. Versus the experience of watching a basketball game in person, where you see what someone who is 7 feet tall really looks like face to face. Versus the experience of playing in that basketball game yourself and knowing what it's like to let Lebron James dunk on your head. The interesting thing though is that these clips are not even like watching the entire game. You're just watching the highlight reel. You're actually watching the ESPN Sportscenter version of the war.
And so all the training, all the context, everything else that went into that war and how it plays out, it's all just slam dunks and smart bombs.
Q: Where did your interest in this come from? Why does the intersection of military and technology fascinate you?
S: A lot of... I'm the kid who grew up playing with toy soldiers, but also Star Wars action figures. I came from a family where a great deal of my relatives served in the military. And all the artifacts of that were all over our house. I was the kid who took my uncle's model of the F4 he flew in Vietnam and I'd take it down to bomb Legoland. That's the world that I grew up in and the idea that I would looking at these issues today, I think makes sense in a certain way. But I think there's something bigger here which is that I'm drawn to issues, emerging trends where people are in denial over them. My first book was on private military companies. And actually when I said to a professor up in Boston when I was in graduate school, I wanted to do a book, a dissertation about these private companies starting to operate in war. He told me that I actually should quit graduate school and go to Hollywood and become a screenwriter, for thinking to write about this fictional idea. Guess what? We now have more private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan than we have active duty troops. Frontline did a documentary about it. But we were in denial about that it was happening.
The next book that I did was on child soldier groups. The first time I did a presentation about child soldiers at Harvard, a professor there told me that I was making it up. I was making up the idea that children are operating in war. There are more than 300,000 children serving as combatants today. One out of every 10 combatants in the world is a child. And yet we were in denial because we didn't like to think about it. And it's the same thing now with these new technologies. They are not technologies that come from science fiction. They're technologies today in our very real world. And we've got to deal with the consequences of them. They are not the end of the story, the way Rumsfeld thought about technology. They're the start of a new story. We're getting incredible new capabilities, but we're also seeing incredible new dilemmas. And yet what is always fascinating to me is that those who are making the decisions about what to build and how to use them, what's the right or wrong of them, are often woefully ignorant of where we are already at with this technology.
And it's interesting, my favorite illustration of this is that I was out on a book tour for the "Wired for War" book talking about the use of these robotics. And a very senior Pentagon advisor came up to me after one of these speeches and he said, "I didn't know we were using this many of them." And I was like, how could you not know? You're helping to shape the decisions of how we use these robots and you don't even know how many we're using. But then he added this. He said, "It's crazy. I bet one day, we might even have a 3D version of the internet. The internet will look like a little video game and you'll be able to move around in it in this way." I looked at him and was like, what do you mean "one day?" You're talking about virtual worlds. You're talking about something like Second Life. And that's not "one day." That's not even something that's new today. That's something that's been around for five years. And you don't even have to be tech-savvy to know about it. It's in pop culture. If you've seen CSI or the sitcom "The Office" they talk about it. And yet you're talking about this thing, these virtual worlds as something that might happen one day.
And that is just a graphic illustration of the disconnect between where we are at with our technology and those that make decisions that shape how that technology is utilized.
Q: And then what about millennials?
S: To the millennials, this is all old hat. This is something that they're already familiar with and they're going to come into this with expectations of why you don't have these systems. And the funny thing is of course is that the generation that comes after the millennials will look at them and say, "Oh my gosh, you're just like those other old fogies. You didn't understand the world we were in." You used email? That's so boring.