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Rid and Hecker’s War 2.0 – The Long Tail

24/06/2009

I picked up a copy of War 2.0: Irregular Warfare in the Information Age by Thomas Rid and Marc Hecker. Just as the Internet transitioned from Web 1.0 – where info flowed top-down from producers to users – into Web 2.0 – info is now inherently social and user-generated – so has conflict.

War 1.0 is strictly military. The political is separate and the media is to be distracted, censored, and/or locked out as much as possible. War 1.0 is all about internally-driven controlled info, increasingly sophisticated weapons technology, manoeuvre, decisive force, and decisive victory orchestrated from top to bottom on a well defined field of battle.

War 2.0 is a political and social animal phenomenon enmeshed in cultures and inextricable from the population. Enemies hide among the people and are generated by those base elements that make up a society –religion, kinship, etc. It is defined by bottom-up initiatives and decentralization.

In War 2.0, the environment is saturated with information that is generated from all corners and bursts past controls toward external consumption all over the field of battle – which is, in a very real sense, everywhere. War 2.0 demolishes the division of labour between military affairs and political affairs.

The book explains how the phenomenon of War 2.0 has affected the US, British, and Israeli militaries as well as Hizballah, the Taliban, and al Qaeda.

There are lots of big ideas here, but I am just going to look at a small sliver – perhaps their most controversial conclusion, which is about AQ. Chris Anderson of Wired came up with something called the ‘Long Tail’ to explain the emerging business model of the future where companies like Amazon can make huge profits selling a small amount of a wide variety of products thanks to efficient distribution, marketing, and manufacturing.

These companies do business at the long flat end of the tail (seen here), while more traditional companies sell fewer products at higher volumes.

Applying this concept to terrorism, insurgency, and population they argue that a terrorist-driven insurgency strategy like AQ’s does not require popular support to sustain itself due to the Internet and new media bringing together small numbers of highly-motivated people from around the world.  As they put it on page 219, this means

…the critical mass of people necessary to pass the threshold to an enduring terrorist movement has shrunk. Suddenly, popularity no longer has a monopoly on feasibility.

More traditional insurgencies on the higher end of the curve still rely on popular support. The effects of this, however, are not all that great. Rid and Hecker note that just because the threshold for a sustainable insurgent campaign has been brought low by new media, this does not mean the threshold for a successful insurgent campaign to take political power is any lower. That still requires popular support and the fact that al Qaeda does not have incentive to garner popular support to endure means the movement is doomed to fail:

…Web-enhanced organizational setups boost terrorism but bridle insurgency. The new media, in conjunction with ideology, change political extremism into precisely the opposite of ‘population-centric’.

This creates a division between the flat end of the curve and the rest – between terrorism and insurgency. This is very very interesting, but I am skeptical. The use of new media may not be so deterministic – insurgents are active users of tech (rather than passive victims) that make strategic choices outside of how to use media.

 

Just because al Qaeda uses new media so heavily, does that mean it has been forced into avoiding population-centric strategy? I’d argue that ideology and other considerations factored into this as well.

This was my only significant disagreement. This book is excellent. And if you are in London, I’m told that ICSR and Tim Stevens (of this very blog) are hosting Thomas Rid this Thursday the 25th in a seminar called  Insurgency, Terrorism, and Popular Support: How Useful are Historical Analogies? If you go, ask him (politely and briefly of course) about his Long Tail argument for me. I’ll be listening on the podcast.