Can technology help us win wars and defend the nation? Of course. Can we use technology the wrong way and be counter-productive? Yes, unfortunately.
But we can also learn from past mistakes and do things smartly. Turns out we can also learn from science fiction.
If you have not read it yet, I would like to bring your attention to the incredibly prescient science fiction short story by Arthur C. Clarke titled “Superiority” (available in the collection: The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke). Written in 1951, this is such a great read because it captures some key, apparently enduring qualities of militaries that become seduced by their technological superiority. The result: Even though the story was written over six decades ago Clarke gave us all a lens perfect for the viewing of technological arrogance. And he gave us warnings that apply across the full spectrum of technologies. The story is relevant to new approaches like Cloud Computing, Artificial Intelligence, Mobility, Automation, Robotics, the Internet of Things, Cybersecurity and even the hot and sexy new cyber war!
It is also a fun read! Get the collection and enjoy! But while you are enjoying, look for lessons for what you are doing today.
From the short story:
The situation was now both serious and infuriating. With stubborn conservatism and complete lack of imagination the enemy continued to advance with his old-fashioned and inefficient but now vastly more numerous ships.
More on the story:
- The setting is a SciFi future, where battles occur in space.
- In the story, A losing Admiral has a request of his captors. He hopes to clear up the record on a few things, and especially wants to be sure he is not forced to share a cell with the CTO-type person who got them into the mess he is in (Professor Norden, Chief of the Research Staff) .
- Failures were not due to lack of bravery or the fault of operational decisions. Failure was due to the inferior science of the enemy. Clarke reveals how in a way that is laughable but also causes anyone with military service pause (I believe most veterans have seen situations that the story will remind them of).
- This fantastic story was written in the past, about a future far from now, but echoes stories from throughout military history. Reportedly this particular story was based on Carke’s observations of Allied victory in Europe in WWII, but it could have also been written about the the situation we find ourselves in today. There really are warnings here for our military planners.
- Do you know someone in DoD today who is enamored with a certain technological concept? Do they talk about things like “The Third Offset” or describe how big data will drive operational decisions or how artificial intelligence and robotics will shape the future of war? Do you know people who think offensive cyber weapons are key to our future? They may be right on all those accounts. But they may also be wrong! Maybe a nice dose of mind expanding SciFi will help them think through potential pitfalls of their approaches and help them consider gaps in their strategies.
- Remember, no matter what the technological strategy is, at some point you have to take the adversary into account!
My hope in sharing this is to get you to read this short story and think about it in a context of today’s military. The lessons from this story are the same lessons which should be learned from Thucydides and Sun Tzu and countless others. These are the same lessons that should have been learned when the entire national security apparatus underestimated the enemy in Vietnam. The lessons are, unfortunately, learned again and again. Look for these lessons in every US military battle lost, and look for them in the movies and books that come out of the battles (one very clear example of our arrogance at work and its cost in lives is described in “Black Hawk Down“, the story of the Battle of Mogadishu fought 3-4 October 1993, where our technologically superior force seemed to think technologically inferior adversaries could not be creative and dynamic). The big lesson, learned again and again: If you start relying too heavily on your technology and allow arrogance to set in, you open yourself up to defeat by a technologically inferior force.
Some of the worst problems arise when leaders start to think their technology is so superior it can have no flaws. When you start assuming you are superior to a thinking, creative adversary it is time to question your assumptions (before it is too late).
My view: Lets bring on the technology faster, but do it smartly, and always keep a big dose of humility. Look for potential flaws in the approaches. Fight arrogance!
And, another point that should not be a shock to anyone in uniform or out: The bad guys want to steal our secrets, and we should want to prevent them from doing so. It is hard to accomplish this goal, but one thing we should not be doing is making it easy for them.
Those are my thoughts. Would love yours. But first check out: The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke
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