Food as 5th-gen warfare vector

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2011

There’s a lot of things on which Thomas Barnett and I would disagree, but there’s no getting around the way he can see further ahead than most foreign policy wonks. Forget oil, and start worrying about food supply:

Everybody thinks that the future is going to see fights over energy, when it’s far more likely to be primarily over food. Think about it: The 19th century is the century of chemistry and that gets us chemical weapons in World War I. The 20th century is the century of physics and that gets us nuclear weapons in World War II. But the 21st century? That’s the century of biology, and that gets us biological weaponry and biological terror. My point: obsessing over nuclear terrorism is steering by our rearview mirror.

Which gets me to our Spanish friend over here: an actual E. coli outbreak in Europe, centered largely in Germany, kills upwards of two dozen while sickening hundreds more. The early fingers point at Spanish cucumbers, but that’s looking iffy on investigation. Truth is, we may never know, but once the accusation is levied, Spain’s vegetable and fruit export industry may never be the same, and to me, that’s an interesting pathway for what I expect Fifth-Generation Warfare (which focuses – by some experts’ definition – on the disruption of the enemy’s ability to “observe” in John Boyd’s OODA loop)  will be all about in the 21st century: biological terror to create economic dislocation and loss (along with the usual panics).

Not so sure about his “century of [x]” reasoning, and I’d argue that we’ve seen the “wars over energy” being played out in the Middle east over the last few decades (with, sadly, more to come, though I think we could be in the final act of that particular movie), but by highlighting food supply as an infrastructure that could (and will) be leaned on to highly disruptive effect, I think he’s pretty much spot on. Likewise with the idea of ideological factions piggy-backing on events that may simply be natural or emergent; why invest effort on complicated terror schemes when you can just claim random events for free?

However, I’m surprised that he misses (or maybe simply fails to mention) food’s close sibling, water, which is already becoming a critical resource in developing nations, and is the infrastructural elephant-in-the-room in The Artist Formerly Known As The First World. Seriously, talk to people who work in utility infrastructure; we’re going through way more water than is sustainable, and climate change is likely to exacerbate the problem by changing availability patterns at local levels (hi, Australia!). We’ve already got Alaskan towns looking to export their allotted water rights to the more thirsty corners of the world… and while there’s a possibility we could wean ourselves off our addiction to long-chain hydrocarbons (technically simple, but politically fraught), water is a fundamental need, and an issue that demands we either start thinking in global terms or face some sort of Mad-Max-esque descent into feudal squabblings over the echoing mouths of artesian wells..

Civilisation is a product of cognitive surplus… and if you’re constantly wondering where your next drink of water is coming from, you’re all out of cognitive surplus.


Excellent Bill Gibson interview

Paul Raven @ 06-12-2010

The best author interviews are surely the ones where the interviewer asks the sort of questions that you yourself would have picked, had the opportunity arisen. Granted, the list of questions I’d like to ask of William Gibson is long enough that I could keep the poor guy occupied with them until the heat death of the universe, but Aileen Gallagher of NY Mag‘s The Vulture column has whittled a few of them away on my behalf [via MetaFilter]. Here he is, rethinking terrorism:

You also wrote in Zero History that terrorism is “almost exclusively about branding but only slightly less so about the psychology of lotteries.” How so?

If you’re a terrorist (or a national hero, depending on who’s looking at you), there are relatively few of you and relatively a lot of the big guys you’re up against. Terrorism is about branding because a brand is most of what you have as a terrorist. Terrorists have virtually no resources. I don’t even like using the word terrorism. It’s not an accurate descriptor of what’s going on.

What do you think is going on?

Asymmetric warfare, when you’ve got a little guy and a big guy. [There are] a lot of strategies that the little guy uses to go after the big guy, and a lot of them are branding strategies. The little guy needs a brand because that’s basically all he’s got. He’s got very little manpower, very little money compared to the big guy. The big guy’s got a ton of manpower and a ton of money. So this small coterie of plotters decides to go after a nation-state. If they don’t have a strong brand, nothing’s going to happen. From the first atrocity on, the little guy is building his brand. And that’s why somebody phones in after every bomb and says, “It was us, the Situationist Liberation Army. We blew up that mall.” That’s branding. By the same token, you get these other, surreal moments where they call up and say, “We didn’t do that one.” That’s branding. That’s all it is. A terrorist without a brand is like a fish without a bicycle. It’s just not going anywhere.

And a vindication of Twitter:

I’ve taken to Twitter like a duck to water. Its simplicity allows the user to customize the experience with relatively little input from the Twitter entity itself. I hope they keep it simple. It works because it’s simple. I was never interested in Facebook or MySpace because the environment seemed too top-down mediated. They feel like malls to me. But Twitter actually feels like the street. You can bump into anybody on Twitter.

[…]

Twitter’s huge. There’s a whole culture of people on Twitter who do nothing but handicap racehorses. I’ll never go there. One commonality about people I follow is that they’re all doing what I’m doing: They’re all using it as novelty aggregation and out of that grows some sense of being part of a community. It’s a strange thing. There are countless millions of communities on Twitter. They occupy the same virtual space but they never see each other. They never interact. Really, the Twitter I’m always raving about is my Twitter.

Lots more good nuggets in there; go read.


Because we don’t have enough sources of terrorism false-positives already

Paul Raven @ 03-08-2010

Psychology boffins at Northwest University reckon they can detect “guilty knowledge” with 100% accuracy using scans of P300 brainwaves. Haven’t we reached a point where we should just abolish all modes of collective transportation, close down all buildings and spaces to which the general public have access, and oblige everyone to walk around naked with their ID tattooed onto their foreheads? After all, we’ve handed terrorists most of the victory they wanted by means of our descent into technology-mitigated paranoia, so why not just disassemble civilisation totally and treat everyone as a potential enemy? Better we destroy the freedom “the terrorists” hate so much than let them do it for us, AMIRITE?

Paranoia bonus: for those Statesiders feeling smug about not living in camera-infested Orwellian Britain, GizMag rounds up a few loophole-exploiting surveillance schemes that your own government is using to keep an eye on you. Don’t you feel safer now?


Marine animals join “War on Terror”

Paul Raven @ 20-05-2010

It might help curb your concerns about terrorist attacks channeled through nature to learn that some of God’s creatures are fighting on the side of righteousness: the US Navy has a Marine Mammals unit that trains sea lions and dolphins to detect and apprehend terrorists trying to sabotage or disrupt coastal infrastructure [via SlashDot].

Apparently the unit has existed since the Vietnam War… how in hell did they not get their own TV show?


Technothriller threat of the week: insect-borne bioterrorism!

Paul Raven @ 18-05-2010

Via Bruce Schneier, still tirelessly cataloguing the monetization and manipulation of movie-plot threats: a workshop to “address the threat of insect-based terrorism”.

How real is the threat? Many of the world’s most dangerous pathogens already are transmitted by arthropods, the animal phylum that includes mosquitoes. But so far the United States has not been exposed to a large-scale spread of vector-borne diseases like Rift Valley, chikungunya fever or Japanese encephalitis. But terrorists with a cursory knowledge of science could potentially release insects carrying these diseases in a state with a tropical climate like Florida’s, according to several experts who will speak at the workshop.

I’m no expert, and I’ll gladly cede the floor to someone who can really run the numbers on this sort of thing, but it strikes me that the effort involved in kicking off a terror plot involving the use of insects to spread killer diseases (not to mention the number of failure points and spill-overs involved in using the natural world as your attack vector) makes this a complete non-starter.

Lovely pulp-era plot hook, though…


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