ThreatsWatch.Org: Commentary

Legacy Futures in Cyberspace

To deal with future problems, its helps to look forward

By Adam Elkus

At the information security convention Black Hat DC, homeland security expert Paul Kurtz argued in favor of developing sophisticated cyberweapons to deter attacks on American networks. However, as ThreatsWatch's own Michael Tanji observes, cyber-deterrence makes as much sense as trying to ban math. With anyone with a computer science degree able to develop malicious code, Cold War concepts of deterrence and non-proliferation are useless.

Nebulous concepts of cyber-deterrence are but one isolated symptom of a severe problem within the cyber-industrial complex: the pervasive reach of "legacy futures."

Futurist Jamais Cascio writes that legacy futures are old conceptions of the future that act as a deadweight drag on the policy planning process:

"Legacy futures are rarely still useful, but have so thoroughly colonized our minds that even new scenarios and futures models may end up making explicit or implicit references to them."

Cyberspace is a radically new battlespace, but security experts and strategists increasingly draw on the legacy future of the Cold War for strategic concepts and solutions. But can one really deter Russian hackers hiding behind a wall of botnets and proxy servers or contain stateless global guerrillas in an era of porous borders? Applied to the brave new world of cyber-conflict and networked insurgency, Cold War concepts muddle rather than clarify.

However, Cold War terminology survives because generations of Americans were taught to believe that the Soviet threat would endure as it always had, even as the first cracks appeared in the Iron Curtain. The narratives of today's age of terrorism are depressingly likely to exert a similar hold on future security policymakers even as new threats emerge. The concepts we build today will be the ones our grandchildren struggle to displace in future strategic debates.

Security expert Bruce Schneier also writes dismissively of "movie-plot" terrorism scenarios that homeland security experts eagerly consume. Because these scenarios are vivid, they command greater attention than more prosaic policy proposals that may have a greater impact on preventing terrorism. To extend Schneier's critique, it's hard to find a cyberwar thinker who isn't a fan of classic cyberpunk science fiction like Neuromancer or Ghost in the Shell. One might even go as far to claim that Ghost in the Shell's philosophizing cyborg super-hacker Major Kusanagi is the Jack Bauer of cyberspace.

While elements of cyberpunk have proven eerily prescient, we have to recognize that is a legacy future like any other. Ghost in the Shell's Puppetmaster and William Gibson's Col. Willis Corto have colonized our imaginations, crowding out less vivid images that might be more accurate conceptualizations of future threats.

Legacy futures are also the products of organizations whose doctrines, institutional cultures, and organizational interests either implicitly or explicitly dictate certain visions of the future. Without an intellectually diverse environment, organizations will develop consensus products rooted in antiquated conceptions of future threats. This groupthink has had dire consequences for American national security. Though we have greatly improved our response to unconventional threats since September 11, the learning curve--and the corresponding cost in human lives--has been steep.

As ThreatsWatch contributors Michael Tanji and Shlok Vaidya blogged, a more networked and diverse kind of think-tank is needed for information-age security challenges. The challenge, however, lies in making "Think Tank 2.0" organizations viable in a Beltway that strongly resists decentralized solutions. Fortunately, the success of the Small Wars Journal in driving strategic debate over military strategy and national defense is cause for encouragement. Only the most churlish of detractors would deny that the freewheeling exchange that Dave Dilegge has created is truly unprecedented in its diversity, scope, and reach.

As SWJ contributors have proved again and again, good ideas are sometimes found in the unlikeliest of places. Cyberspace thinkers seeking to break free of legacy futures may also paradoxically find utility in consulting the wisdom of classical strategic theorists. While cyberspace is indeed a radically new battlespace, one can find parallels to current debates in the writings of Carl von Clausewitz, Antoine-Henri Jomini, and Alfred Thayer Mahan. Indeed, the notion of "information dominance" in cyberspace has interesting parallels to Mahan's emphasis on dominating the global seas--and many of the same flaws.

We can't rid ourselves of legacy futures. Human imagination is a complex and contradictory superstructure that filters human experience through institutional and cultural norms. Even the most brilliant future thinkers are inevitably trapped by the prejudices of their time and the understandable inability to process the dizzying amount of variables needed to calculate future outcomes. But by recognizing how legacy futures take root, we can better defend ourselves in the emerging information battlespace.