We’re living in a time when technology and geopolitics seem to have been tossed together in a fusion reactor. Something strange is happening, and we’re not sure what: social networks spreading disinformation, consumer-grade drones carrying grenades, cryptocurrencies minting millionaires.
Technology has gone from being an empowering force to a destabilizing one. And few people have been more astute explainers of the shifts we’ve been going through in the post-9/11 era than John Robb.
Robb is an Acton author, blogger, former tech entrepreneur, and onetime counter-terrorism officer with the US Special Forces Command. He’s also publisher of the Global Guerillas report and podcast, which offer his take on what just happened, and what is coming next. As a speaker, his audiences have included the government of Singapore and, in December, participants in a homeland security seminar organized by the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
These are some of the concepts Robb has defined and mapped out in recent months:
Weaponized social networks
Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist, said “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Robb notes that “we’re not fighting physical wars so much anymore, and even the guerilla wars are fewer and further between.” Instead, we are witnessing fierce struggles “on social networks. If you’re online, a lot of the time you can feel you’re in a war zone.” Digital bulletin boards on sites like Reddit and 4chan are used to forge new kinds of insurgencies and promote ideas by crafting graphical “memes” — our era’s version of propaganda posters. Those are spread on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. “There are a billion daily users who get their primary news from Facebook and Twitter,” Robb says. “The right kind of disruption in a social system can have a huge effect. You had a presidential candidate that used it,” he adds, referring to Donald Trump and his supporters in 2016.
After the end of the Cold War, Robb says, the United States “didn’t put economic and trade policy as #1. We continued to look at global stability, and maintaining a common market, as more important than our national success. Other countries progressed, and we sacrificed so they could do better. Zero tariffs and a free trade world is the most efficient, but it doesn’t mean that you benefit the most as the global pie grows.” The tariffs President Trump hastily proposed this month may be an overreaction to that dynamic — Trump has approached the issue “like a crazy man,” he says — but Robb calls what’s going on “a controlled trade war. Some amount of tit-for-tat is accommodated in the World Trade Organization. We’re not going to slip into depression; there’s not going to be any global collapse.”
Off-the-shelf drone warfare and terrorism
Robb notes that it’s now inexpensive for anyone to buy a drone “that can navigate itself — it goes from GPS coordinate to GPS coordinate. There are also now drones that can follow people while they’re running.” Robb recalls an incident in July in eastern Ukraine, when a drone carrying about a one-pound grenade was flown into an ammunition stockpile. “It did a billion dollars in damage,” Robb says. “What if someone got the idea to do that in a major airport? Landing on the wing of a 747, which is full of fuel, could probably destroy the whole airport. That threat is not fully accounted for.”
Software-based political parties
“The traditional political parties are still there,” Robb says, “but they’re incapable of getting anything done.” An online movement that was almost totally separate from the Republican party propelled Trump’s candidacy, he says, and “almost all the opposition to Trump is being run on Twitter and online — it’s not even coming out of the Democratic party.” Robb says that “the online network has the potential to set the agenda, and take the reins away” from both established political parties. New parties will use apps and software to attract adherents and communicate with them. “Software-based political parties will just trounce the existing ones,” Robb says.
The new moral network
With the decline of traditional moral authorities and the growth of social networks that connect people across national borders, Robb believes we are seeing the emergence of a “new moral network.” Social media hashtags like #MeToo, highlighting incidents of sexual harassment, or #NeverAgain, focused on preventing gun violence, are “changing the way speech and behavior is regulated,” Robb says. Loosely organized online movements are holding individuals, politicians, and businesses accountable in new ways. “If you go outside the moral code, like Harvey Weinstein, you can be held accountable,” Robb says. “There’s a positive thing here,” even though this new moral network also has the potential to engage in virtual witch hunts, Robb says.
The cryptocurrency bubble
When it comes to digital cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum, Robb says, “the big question everyone should be asking is, is cryptocurrency transformative? Has it changed our lives? The answer to that is a solid no. That means in its current form, it’s simply a bubble.” But, he says, he’s tracking a newer variation of transactional technology that is similar to the “blockchain” protocol that underlies most cryptocurrencies. “Keep an eye on IOTA’s Tangle, and tech like it,” he says. Tangle is a secure and open protocol, like blockchain, but using it may prove less costly and complex.
AI terrorist recruiters
Artificially intelligent chatbots can carry on fairly realistic conversations with humans in the online realm, helping with customer service inquiries, for example. What if you programmed a chatbot to seek out disaffected young people online, and recruit them for a terrorist group or other ideologically driven crusade? “You’d recruit people the same way ISIS did,” Robb says, “by looking for people who are searching for connection and context and meaning.” Chatbots could be “a completely automated terrorist [recruiting] system.”
Yes, Robb’s analyses can provoke anxiety — or despair — in part because they are so plausible.
Robb says he has “an underlying optimism, but I don’t see a lot of tangible things underway that would make me optimistic. Most of the stuff I see is going in a negative direction.”
But, he adds, “I’ve always had a hope that something would come out of left field and change the dynamic.”Scott Kirsner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.