Radical Instrument

IT is changing the exercise of power. Radical Instrument is picking up the signals.

Posts Tagged ‘Israel

Robots and the systematization of war

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After a tortuous ride through blog-space (thanks to links on Opposed Systems Design and Kings of War), I came across this New Year’s Day post (featured on Entitled to an Opinion) featuring a 2005 presentation made by a former R&D head in the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

At the heart of the presentation is a “system collapse model” for Israeli anti-terrorism efforts, which is described as “mostly all maths” and a “thermodynamic model which analyzes the disorder inside the system.” It’s essentially the theory of Jenga:  the more components of a system that are damaged, the greater the probability of system collapse, even if the system’s “critical point” remains undamaged. 

It’s pure speculation to draw lines from this theory to the IDF’s 2006 and 2008 campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza. Still, one can’t help but be reminded of General James N. Mattis’ memo to U.S. Joint Forces Command criticizing “effects-based operations” (which this Air Force briefing describes as an approach that models an “Enemy as a System”):  

For example, a recent analysis of the recent Israeli-Hezbollah conflict found that EBO ‘terminology used was too complicated, vain, and could not be understood by the thousands of officers needed to carry it out.’ … Although there are several factors why the IDF performed poorly during the war, various post-conflict assessments have concluded that over reliance on EBO concepts was one of the primary contributing factors in their defeat.”

Here’s what’s troubling. There’s an argument to be made that the military’s growing use of robots – highlighted by P.W. Singer’s new book and debates over the implications for ethics and laws of war – represents the continuance of a mindset that applies “enemy as a system” thinking to war. General Mattis’ memo highlights the dangers inherent in this reductionism:  “…all operating environments are dynamic with an infinite number of variables…” Variables, in other words, that can’t be overcome with better or even adaptive programming. 

And that doesn’t even start to address the moral questions involved in systems models for warfare, or the ethical and legal questions associated with the application of these models to domains like homeland security … domains which will see technology manifestations of this thinking (e.g., TSA databases) just as we’re seeing with the growth in military robots. It’s not the technology that should trouble us. It’s the theory that defines how we use it. 

Post-script:   The background for the presentation featured on Entitled to an Opinion is intriguing. It was delivered at a Russian think-tank headed by a political theorist with possible links to far-right European and neo-Nazi groups. This same theorist, Sergey Kurginyan, also appeared on a panel with a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official at a 2008 “World Summit on Counter-Terrorism” in Israel. No conspiracy theory here – just a suspicion on the possible attraction of these systems models to the right-wing, and a comment that we should really watch who we associate with on the counterterrorism front. 

Written by Mark

February 10, 2009 at 11:21 pm

Gaza and social media, post-ceasefire

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Wired’s Danger Room has followed up on the Israeli Defense Force’s use of YouTube in the Gaza campaign, and finds that it was not so much planned as suggested by Gen-Y types. According to the piece, “social media” is under consideration for future IDF plans. 

I’d still argue that there’s an inherent conflict between information operations and social media, which leaves the IDF at a disadvantage. The question is whether two million hits on YouTube changed anything, beyond solidifying Israeli opinion and possibly moving U.S. opinion (this survey from RasmussenReports indicated a split over the campaign, while more recent surveys claim broader U.S. support for Israel). The second and more important question is whether this even matters relative to the impact that social and new media channels have in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well among Arab populations abroad.

Written by Mark

January 22, 2009 at 5:12 am

Al Jazeera crowdsources Gaza reporting

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Al Jazeera has effectively circumvented Israel’s ban on reporters in Gaza:  turn anyone with a cell phone or web access into a reporter. 

Al Jazeera Labs has adopted the Ushahidi Engine to set up its “Mapping the War in Gaza” service, which allows users to view, submit, and verify reports posted from both “formal” and informal sources. It isn’t perfect – I was able to “verify” an incident accidentally, as I clicked through the site – but it provides a fascinating model for both information sourcing and information consumption in a rapidly changing situation. By using the site’s filters, for instance, I was able to learn about (a) the possible killing of a senior Hamas figure today, (b) the IDF’s mandated shutdown of cell phone use by its personnel a few hours in advance of the ground invasion, and (c) a Human Rights Watch claim about the possible use by the IDF of white phosphorous.

Practitioners of military “information operations” should really think about tearing up the rulebook. Take the IDF, for instance.  Some questionable experiments with social media aside, it’s resorting to tactics – like the ban on media access, or the takeover of a Hamas television station – that are either simply dubious (how many people in Gaza are even watching television?) or are likely to antagonize any remaining international support. The fundamental flaw seems to be that the IDF is basing its information strategy on an outdated premise of how information is produced and consumed – and this effort by Al Jazeera Labs provides an interesting contrast.

P.S. – Because of what we’re seeing today, watch for the smartphone to evolve as a critical piece of a soldier’s kit in militaries worldwide over the next decade.

Written by Mark

January 11, 2009 at 1:23 am

Gaza and social media

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This article from Wired’s Danger Room is a little surreal and disorienting:  Israel is conducting an information campaign in support of the developing war in Gaza using Twitter and YouTube. As you might expect, there’s more out there in non-governmental channels as well – see this blog for a roundup on the Israeli side. Naturally, there’s a slice of the blogosphere representing the non-governmental Palestinian perspective (this blog, for example, serves as an aggregator), and Israeli media reported on Hamas’ use of a video-sharing service as recently as October.

I’m going to focus on the governmental (and let’s include Hamas in that) use of these technologies, since non-governmental use is really old news.

1.  There’s an inherent conflict between information operations and social media channels. Information operations are designed to control content. Social media are about ceding creation, contribution, and some measure of control to the audience. The IDF’s YouTube channel isn’t really social media, or “Web 2.0” in that respect – it’s simply the broadband version of the Pentagon briefings played out in the early days of the Iraq war. As for Twitter – isn’t omnipresent/always-on interest a precondition of using omnipresent/always-on media? I’m going to assume that anyone using Twitter to track events like this probably already supports one side or the other, with a passion. I’m not sure that you’d want to dedicate information operations to the choir. 

2.  Successful use of these tools depends on the goal, which directly relates to a political entity’s position relative to the international order. Hamas has a clear advantage here:  video-sharing and other forms of cheaper, more loosely controlled, and “instant access” media allow it to stimulate the so-called “street” against regimes in Egypt and other Arab states. Hamas also holds the advantage in content creation:  at a minimum, it can simply circulate graphic images of the dead (instant mental impression), whereas the IDF has the far harder task of using content to convince U.S. and EU populations of the legitimacy of its efforts (requires some degree of analysis). I’m not sure if this is too far removed from pre-digital pamphleteering – at least not yet.

Written by Mark

December 31, 2008 at 6:01 am

Tragedy in Gaza

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On one level, it’s difficult to write anything truly meaningful or insightful about the tragedy that’s playing out in Gaza. I’m going to use the word “tragedy” for the reason that there doesn’t seem to be an exit for any side in this conflict. And like any tragedy, the danger is not just to the protagonist/antagonist, but to those caught in their wake.

In this case, that includes leadership elsewhere in the Arab world, faced with angry demonstrators with instant media access to the Gaza situation. I heard an expert several years ago advise an audience to “watch Egypt,” a focal point for condemnation for Hamas, Iran, and Syria for its closure of the Gaza border. Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah called upon Egyptians on Sunday to force an opening of the border via mass protest, without explicitly advocating a coup – see either this article on Ynetnews or this post from an Egyptian blogger for more details.

Written by Mark

December 29, 2008 at 5:10 am