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Open Source Warfare

IED-mobilephone.jpgGlobal Guerillas may be the best weblog that I hate to read. I hate to read it because the author, John Robb, is terrifically insightful when it comes to seeing how emerging forms of networked communication, information-dense environments, and bottom-up, emergent organization have transformed the world of warfare and conflict. It's painful to see the ways in which these forces -- which we tend to consider catalysts of positive change -- can be used instead in the cause of violence. (Alex mentioned Global Guerillas, and one of Robb's concepts -- "systempunkt" -- back in January.)

I've been reading Global Guerillas for awhile, but Robb's series of posts on the London bombings reminded me of the power of his central concept: that the "open source" model, when applied to political violence, can be as disruptive to incumbent institutions as open source software is to existing software markets. In the world of the Global Guerillas, the West=Microsoft.

The Open Source Warfare concept takes the developmental model for free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) and applies it to how guerilla movements learn and expand. Robb elaborated on the idea last September:

The decentralized, and seemingly chaotic guerrilla war in Iraq demonstrates a pattern that will likely serve as a model for next generation terrorists. This pattern shows a level of learning, activity, and success similar to what we see in the open source software community. I call this pattern the bazaar. The bazaar solves the problem: how do small, potentially antagonistic networks combine to conduct war? Lessons from Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" provides a starting point for further analysis. Here are the factors that apply (from the perspective of the guerrillas):
  • Release early and often. Try new forms of attacks against different types of targets early and often. Don’t wait for a perfect plan.
  • Given a large enough pool of co-developers, any difficult problem will be seen as obvious by someone, and solved. Eventually some participant of the bazaar will find a way to disrupt a particularly difficult target. All you need to do is copy the process they used.
  • Your co-developers (beta-testers) are your most valuable resource. The other guerrilla networks in the bazaar are your most valuable allies. They will innovate on your plans, swarm on weaknesses you identify, and protect you by creating system noise.
  • Recognize good ideas from your co-developers. Simple attacks that have immediate and far-reaching impact should be adopted.
  • Perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away (simplicity). The easier the attack is, the more easily it will be adopted. Complexity prevents swarming that both amplifies and protects.
  • Tools are often used in unexpected ways. An attack method can often find reuse in unexpected ways.
  • This may seem like I've excerpted the heart of his argument, but trust me -- there's a lot more to it.

    The irony in all of this is that these six elements would likely also apply to innovative, emergent efforts to counter guerilla/terrorist activity. This is what David Stephenson is talking about when he writes of "smart mobs for homeland security" -- iterative, collaborative, tactics that remain open to novel uses of technology and systems. Stephenson's depiction isn't quite as abstracted as Robb's, but there's a clear genetic relationship.

    If there's a positive take-away from Robb's observations (aside from providing a deeper understanding of the process at work) it's that Open Source Warfare is a demonstration that the FLOSS model can work when applied to political organizations largely divorced from technology -- the model applies to more than software. Even while watching the evolution of Open Source Warfare (vs. Homeland Security Smart Mobs), we can start to think about the ways in which this structure would serve more worldchanging needs. What would Open Source Sustainability look like? Or Open Source Leapfrogging? How can we become Open Source Worldchangers?


    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Open Source Warfare:

    » Open Source Warfare and the Networked Republic from South Sea Republic
    Global Guerillas is John Robb's blog, expounding the theory that the asymmetrical warfare practised in Iraq and elsewhere is organised along the same lines as open source software. Intertwined technological and political innovation is a house theme at... [Read More]

    Comments (10)

    I'm sure you've unpacked the FLOSS acronym somewhere else, Jamais, but could you (or someone) also do that here?

    I've been reading Robb for a couple of years; endlessly fascinating and distrubing, as you say, and finger much closer to the pulse than most analysts, imho. One can only hope (assume?) that DOD et al read him (he's former Air Force - pilot I believe - as well as former software exec).

    Especially pertinent to WorldChangers: how his views on vulnerability of mideast oil fields inform energy policy.

    Sorry, Gil. "Free/Libre/Open Source Software." I'll make sure that it's clear.

    Like ants and scientists: try in parallel, share what works and doesn't work, iterate.

    I hope the "share" part finds its way to the "killer database" referenced here. There are many other people trying to do just that, only perhaps much simpler.

    That "meta-worldchanging" activity in itself is something we can "try and share".

    How fast can we learn?

    Jamais, what lessons from this post would you apply to your thinking on terraforming Earth?

    Excellent coverage.

    A couple more thoughts on the accelerating distribution of global violence...

    Technology decentralizes power; military, political, economic, media, energy... all of it. Once a medium becomes digitized, it must move with the laws of networked information. Distributed, networked, decentralized, democratized, Peer-to-peer ... Eventually grass roots. From the hands of the few to the masses.

    The recent transit attacks from Madrid to London illustrate both the rise of distributed military power and mass media.

    The same thing is also occurring within manufacturing.

    But the decentralization of violence represents increasingly dramatic shifting political power. There is an ugly economy to violence. It's cheaper to destroy than build, and to take by force than negotiate. And across the political spectrum there are those who would employ violence to achieve their ends.

    The nexus of technology and warfare are probably the biggest challenge we face as a species. But the increasing acceleration and magnitude of political violence is also driving technological solutions to it. Ultimately, the solution to global violence will be distributed as well, meaning we, the masses will somehow become the solution.

    There may be a hint of this scenario as London authorities appeal to the public for photographs, video footage, or cellphone camera images taken of the London bombings.

    Global Guerrillas is indeed a scarey but necessary read. David Stephenson shows the flip side, how we can use FLOSS to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, I don't believe anybody in the US govmint is listening to David. This administration is constitutionally opposed to citizens self-organizing. I'd venture to say that this administration is pretty much opposed to both the concept of citizens and self-organization.

    Fact is, folks, we have to watch out for each other rather than just watch out. The Bushie would much rather have us in a watch out mode than a watch out for each other mode.

    see, this is a typical case of using a 'model' on the good and on the bad side too. it's like nuclear theory: it is out there, it exists - it's up to us, people, to decide what we use it for.
    never blame the bazaar method for terrorism - it's always the people who do it.

    "How can we become Open Source Worldchangers?"

    I wonder if we're seeing something like this with alt.energy. These days there seem to be dozens of blogs and discussion groups sharing tips, discoveries and HowTos on home solar etc. And now we're seeing more entrepreneurs, and investment in this area. Could there be a connection?

    I have to disagree; information-technology may decentralize power, but technology in general centralizes it. A person with a sword can realistically threaten around ten people at a time; a person with an automatic rifle can threaten about a hundred people at a time; a person with a jet fighter can threaten a few thousand people at a time; and a person with a nuclear bomb can realistically threaten whole cities. And all of these technologies require more and more infrastructure to create, making them more and more dependent on centralization.

    The reason we live in a world of nations and not city-states is modern warfare technology.

    However, technologies that reduce or eliminate the need for expensive infrastructure--good leapfrog technologies--are inherently democratizing, as you said, because they reduce the need for centralization of resources that infrastructure usually depends on.

    The automobile decentralizes mobility much more so than trains.  The personal empowerment created by technology isn't limited to IT.

    Cogeneration and solar (and, to a lesser extent, wind) decentralize electric generation.  If we get the $15/m^2 plastic PV's we will see decentralization such as you've never seen.


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