Over at Small Wars Journal, Benjamin Kohlmann wrote an interesting piece “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers.” I especially agree on creative thinking rather than doctrine and diversifying military education. However, the author himself is too focused on business and technological innovation as in “look-I-made-a-cool-new-widget.” Frankly, a lot of people from diverse business and technology backgrounds have done a great job of “fucking up” (to borrow a Boydian phrase) not only the Pentagon but all elements of American society. Moreover, the author is too wrapped up in the “new” and the “now” as this moment of progress when it may be quite the opposite.
Business and technology does not have a monopoly on instilling creativity; in fact, they may be antithetical to it. The mention of Steve Jobs made me chuckle a little, because he was the champion of closed systems. Mac OS X is a great operating system with a lot of virtues, but it was built on the backs of open source projects and is largely proprietary. iTunes is a great media program, but it is built to make you dependent on Apple products and formats. Is AAC the best audio codec? I don’t know, but everyone uses it because Apple has fostered that dependence. The various iPods, iPhones, and now iPad are great devices, but they too are designed channel its users to proprietary services and products. The production of these widgets might be “creative,” but they follow a model that stifles creativity and choice. Why did Jobs advocate this model? To sell more widgets, not enable people. That is how Apple became a billion-dollar enterprise, and I do not think it is a model defense should emulate.
Being creative isn’t a matter of using some new gadget how Steve Jobs wanted you to use it, but taking the device and using it in creative ways. That is the origin of word “hacker”–taking a device and doing more with it than its creators intended. When I think of this kind of creativity, I think more of people like Steve Kondik who, with a team of like-minded individuals, developed a version of Android called CyanogenMod, which is intended not to sell more widgets but to overcome the limitations placed on existing Android phones by hardware manufacturers and carriers.
This mindset has direct applicability to defense. We are so wrapped up in this idea of the “new widget” whether it is an idea or a product that will win our wars; we seek to “understand the moment” as the author says. We have bought into this concept that there is this historical and technological progress that we are better now than we were, which is completely false. Case in point: the 2002 Millennium Challenge. LTG Van Riper creatively used “obsolete” tactics and techniques to overcome the whizbangery of high dollar, high technology systems. He took “old” TTP and used it in a way not imagined by their creators–to subvert high-tech surveillance. Ultimately, the vulnerability he exploited to win was the thinking of technocrats (many from business and technology backgrounds) who bought into the “new widget” rather than using widgets creatively. (As an aside, there is a great interview of LTG Van Riper over at Midrats.)
The fact that the author is so convinced that today’s digital natives have the solutions tells me he should do a better job of challenging his assumptions. No one should fool themselves into thinking that, because he or she understands the latest technology, he or she will be any less prone to repeating the poor decision making of the past. Trust me: tomorrow’s catastrophes–financial, military, or otherwise–will be brought to you by the digital natives of today.