On 9/11, Asymmetry, Exponential Change, and Washington’s Culture Challenge

As 9/11 comes around again, 11 years on, it’s time to think about risk, asymmetry, and the long term. Because a key lesson of that dark day is a simple one: that advanced technologies and the global communications they have enabled have reset the game of security, once and for all.
Three key reflections as we grieve anew – and look ahead.
The core mission of C-PET, the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, is to advance, in Washington, DC, the long view – in which we ask “tomorrow’s questions” as the context for today’s decisions, at the interface of policy and technology. In parallel, my consulting practice Strategic Futures, LLC (akaFutureofBiz.org) asks “tomorrow’s questions” as the context for today’s decisions at the interface of business and technology. The corporate/government relationship, which we all agree is too mired in lobbying and short-term advantage should be stronger and visionary.
1. I wrote some time back that the past decade been dominated by two global experts on asymmetry, neither of whom worked for the U.S. government. Their names were Bin Laden, now dispatched, and Assange, now incarcerated in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy in a situation somewhere between scandal and farce. Point is simple – and I make no suggestion of moral equivalence between them. These two men intuitively grasped the capacity of strategically deployed small means and small numbers to shape global events. There have always been asymmetries of power – I fly tonight to London, where Karl Marx sat writing Das Kapital in the British Museum. But technology has changed the game. And the key issue for our security in Century 21 is how we play it when we no longer set the rules, and they keep being changed.
2. While destructive technologies are developing apace, and increasingly accessible to individuals – synthetic biology, which we have addressed in our Roundtable series in Washington, is one key example; and cybersecurity, another C-PET theme – the principle we need to keep in focus is that of exponential change. While change has always been at a gathering pace, it’s in our generation – powered by Moore’s Law but other factors too – that the impact of exponential has begun to have dramatic implications. We all know this, of course, as a fact. The degree to which it has been absorbed in Washington is another matter, of course.
3. To begin to grasp the implications of asymmetric shifts and the exponential pace of change, we need not simply to be far-sighted (that is, constantly working the long view, future scenarios, asking what tomorrow’s questions shall be); we need to be integrative, interdisciplinary, radical in our patterns and practices quite aside from our thinking. Our politics, in my own view, is in general the realm of good men and women incapable of rising above a “corporate culture” that sets their foreshortened agendas and is dooming us to decisions that take tomorrow for granted. The rumblings of what I have named “exopolitics” suggest a seismic change to come, one that is indeed cognizant of the asymmetric potential of social media and other aspects of our new communications technologies.
So on 9/11, a day that will always be somber to us, let’s take a fresh look at asymmetry and the impact of the exponential change that has given it such significance, for ill and for good; and let’s redouble our efforts to bring about a culture of government in synch with such dramatic shifts and attuned in Century 21 to the values that laid down the foundations of this nation, and the technologies that, in large measure, have resulted from its efforts.

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