Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year

A guide to the intellectual trends that, for better or worse, are shaping America right now. (Plus a bunch of other ideas, insights, hypotheses, and provocations.)

9. The Next War Will Be Digitized

James Fallows
National Correspondent,
The Atlantic

Sometimes America has worried primarily about external threats. Sometimes, about the enemy within. The attempts to detect and suppress internal dangers generally look bad in retrospect, because they so often come at the cost of the liberties, absorbency, and flexibility that are America’s distinctive strengths. The Alien and Sedition Acts in the new republic’s first decades, the “Red scares” after both World Wars, the propaganda office Woodrow Wilson set up during the First World War, and the Japanese American internment program FDR approved in the Second—these illustrate how much more complicated it is for a democracy to deal with unseen inside threats than to confront enemies on a battlefield. Through the past decade of the “global war on terror,” the United States has faced a new version of this old challenge of protecting itself without destroying or perverting its essential nature.

That challenge is already taking on another and even more complicated form. The biggest change in human interactions in the past generation is the rising importance of “the cloud”—the electronic networks that let us witness disaster or upheaval wherever it happens, connect with friends wherever they are, get a map or see a satellite photo of virtually any point on Earth, and coordinate business, financial, scientific, and educational efforts across the globe all at once. Of course, the indispensability of these systems creates their danger. If the factories, the banks, the hospitals, and the electric and water systems must all be online to function, they are all, in principle, vulnerable to electronic attack.

With last summer’s discovery of the insidious Stuxnet virus, we know—or “know,” since neither the Israeli nor the U.S. government, nor any other, will come out and say that it developed malicious software to disable Iran’s nuclear-weapons program—that this threat is more than hypothetical. We also know that it can be posed by states, as the latest form of war, and not just by bands of scammers trying to steal your credit-card numbers or make you wire money to Nigeria. It is a potential external menace as hard to detect as an internal one, and very hard to control without limiting the fast, open connectivity that gives networks their value.

Grand-scale geostrategy has always involved locating the opponent’s choke points and vulnerabilities, where concentrated damage can produce widespread harm. That once meant harbors, railroads, ball-bearing works, airports. Now, it’s what comes through the USB connector and the Ethernet port.

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