Us and Them, Through the Looking Glass

Roger Smith is the Chief Technology Officer at the U.S. Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation. As such, he’s one of the Army’s best and brightest where the use of computers as training aids is concerned, and he’s written the papers and presentations to prove it.

Many of them are highly interesting, if you’re into this sort of thing; in particular, I’m impressed with The Digital Long Tail of Military Simulation Systems (1.84MB PDF), which is significantly more interesting than the title lets on.

Now, I haven’t managed to have a substantiative exchange with Mr. Smith, as he’s an important military thinker and I’m just a pseudonymous Z-list blogger, but another of his presentations caught my fancy, as well – Over the Horizon: the Impact of 3D Gaming, MMOG, and Mobile Technologies on Politics and Social Order (2.65MB PDF.) I’m a sucker for anything that mentions Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which this presentation does, but there’s one part in particular that rather demands attention.

In light of recent news stories on the military viewing the media as a threat, consider the following three sequential slides from this April, 2007 presentation:

The threat to citizens from MMOGs like Second Life

Chart of a coordinated MMOG attack

Staying ahead of the competition with MMOGs

Note how, in the second image here, every aspect of a coordinated MMOG attack ultimately leads to the “physical news media” – and before that, the virtual news media.

Without having witnessed the full presentation, I’m really not sure what the exact point of all this is, nor how machinima leads to “physical action” in any kind of flow chart, and my attempts to contact Mr. Smith for comment or clarification were… unrewarding. Dismissing the machinima reference as geeky buzzword-dropping, though, it seems the basic premise is that the many and various parties in the world who aren’t America’s stoic allies in the Global War on Terror Long War could, at least in theory, be using video games as training aids to practice for and plan real-world attacks, after exploiting the open-source datamine that is the internet for information.

I know, I know, old news; CSI: Miami did an episode about that, what, two years ago? I have to wonder about this sort of fearmongering, though – I’ve yet to see any evidence that AQI or other terrorist groups are actually using such technology for these ends, and it seems unlikely that our purpose-built technology – stuff like Darwars: Ambush! and America’s Army – is so functionally inferior to any of the commercial online games as to put “us” at a disadvantage. As far as purpose-made software goes, we’re well ahead of the pack, if games like Special Force are any indication.

Too, despite a lot of hand-wringing about sites like Cryptome’s Eyeball Series, I don’t believe there’s any real evidence that such resources have ever been used, or even considered, as part of terror planning. Yeah, information-acquisition costs are “falling to zero”, but I don’t really consider that a threat. It sounds like a disingenious argument for either increased censorship, which I don’t believe is the answer to much of anything, or overhyped FUD to try and drum up funding for an unnecessary pet project.

Neither, frankly, would surprise me much. What does surprise me, if only a very little bit, is what seems to be, from the flowchart above, an attitude that attacks planned online have more value to their perpetrators – and more danger to their targets – as propaganda and recruiting tools than as acts of violence. If everything leads to the media, it’s not too hard to imagine a mindset where preventing publicity of attacks, regardless of the cost in terms of damage and loss of life, is seen as victory. Given the recent crackdown in Iraq on media coverage of bombings, the restricted access our troops now have to the internet, and the re-clarified restrictions on email and blogging in place, this incredibly perverted strategy of “victory” seems altogether too possible. Denying these attacks – scores per day – are happening doesn’t bring back the dozens of victims injured or killed in them.

Sure, there’s a war on, but the media aren’t the enemy, and that “democracy” we’re supposed to be spreading throughout the world needs a free press to flourish, much like flowers need sunlight. Whatever your feelings about media bias, it’s hard to remain positive about the broader picture when even the brass are less than completely optimistic (182KB PDF), as in this testimony before Congress earlier this year by Lt. General Michael Maples, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency:

The perception of unchecked violence is creating an atmosphere of fear, hardening sectarianism, empowering militias and vigilante groups, hastening a middle-class exodus, and shaking confidence in government and security forces. The sectarian violence, an inexperienced and weak central government, immature institutions, problems in providing basic services, and high unemployment are encouraging more Iraqis to turn toward sectarian groups, militias, and insurgents for basic needs, threatening the unity of Iraq. Moreover, robust criminal networks act as insurgent and terrorist force multipliers.

Those are the problem, at least in Iraq – violence, weak government, immature institutions, a continuing inability to provide basic utilities, unemployment, and rampant criminal organizations. Pretending those conditions don’t exist – conditions every Iraqi sees, experiences, and lives with every day – and preventing publicity of them isn’t going to fix the problem. Denial didn’t work out very well for Baghdad Bob, and it’s not going to work for us, either. Nor is reactively addressing the symptoms going to cure the disease. The sooner our leadership accepts this reality, the sooner we can stop pretending the media is the entirety of the problem, and move on to something that could work.

Published in: General, History, Security | on May 17th, 2007| Comments Off on Us and Them, Through the Looking Glass

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