Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Systemic complexity, the internet & foreign policy

2011 is going to be an interesting year.

In Can Gillard last?, Paul Barratt muses over the vexed question of Julia Gillard's ability to do the job, presently quite a common topic of discussion. He writes in part:

Like most Australian politicians Julia Gillard has had a career path which has equipped her very poorly to manage complexity. There is nothing in Gillard’s career path or performance to date that suggests that she is up to the complex agenda which confronts her.

There is a well established body of literature that demonstrates that the capacity to manage complexity is a product both of intrinsic capabilities and maturing through one’s career in the management of rising levels of complexity. No matter how talented a person might be, he/she cannot successfully “jump in the deep end” when it comes to handling complexity, which necessarily involves managing multiple variables over a long period of time.  This is the very good reason that military organisations do not fast track people through the ranks; they spend time at each level not only to demonstrate that they can handle that level of operational complexity, but to have time to absorb the lessons of that experience before moving up to the next level. For the definitive work on this subject see Elliott Jaques, Requisite Organization: A Total System for Effective Managerial Leadership for the 20th Century, Cason Hall & Co., Arlington VA, Revised Second Edition, 1996.

I agree with Paul's general point here.

On the internet, 2010 was the year of Assange. It was also the year of apps (application software) and cloud computing.

Neither application software nor cloud computing are new. What is new is the sheer scale achieved by cloud computing and the supporting infrastructure. This brings gains, but also introduces new vulnerabilities into communications and processing systems. Our society has become system dependant in a way never seen before.

Sooner or later there is likely to be a serious system crash. 2010 saw the NAB (National Australia Bank) payments system go down, causing acute short term difficulties to many. This gave a small taste of the difficulties that might arise. To quote from just one story on Royal Pingdom:

If Facebook has its way (and it usually does), over the coming years a ton of websites and online services will become part of the open graph that Facebook is promoting, with Facebook firmly planted in the middle. The concept is very interesting, and the potential for this web of data from a wide variety of sources is enormous. You could say that Facebook will tie all our information, and the whole web, together.

There’s just one problem (two, if you count privacy): When the web becomes “interconnected” with Facebook, it also means that when Facebook breaks, the web breaks. In short, Facebook becomes a single point of failure for the web.

Facebook is only one element in systemic vulnerability.

If 2010 was the year of Mr Asssange, 2011 may be the year in which the internet itself fragments.

The original concept of an open self-governing web has already been replaced by a myriad of controls at national and organisation level. These have accreted slowly over time. 2011 is likely to see an extension of this as Governments use a combination of law, regulation, commercial pressure and controls over infrastructure to try to bend the internet to their requirements.

In addition to Government pressures, various commercial organisations are effectively slowing the internet as they seek to control traffic and data flowing from that traffic. 

2010 was, I think, the year in which Chinese replaced English as the largest language on the internet. While English will continue as the most common lingua franca for the present at least, the continuing rise of non-English language content means that non-English language domains become richer and more self-contained.

I don't write a lot on foreign policy, but 2011 is shaping up as a difficult year in global terms. Old trouble spots continue, there are continuing shifts in economic and demographic power, while the ability of the US and EU to influence events are increasingly resource constrained.

The problem with all imperial powers over history is that at the time they most need to project power they can least afford it. The diversion of resources to defence then further drains their strength. The US and EU are now in that position.

From a purely Australian perspective, the economic and demographic analysis I did several years ago (GDP - Australia in its Region) sketched out both the decline in the traditional Western powers and the relative decline in the Australian position as our proportion of global wealth and population declined. I also pointed to the way in which Australia was trying to use both multi- and bi-lateral trade policy to establish a framework of economic links. Freer trade was central to this.

2010 saw the return of protectionism as the global financial crisis ripped previous arrangements apart. To my mind, this has been something of a disaster for Australia because it essentially put the carefully crafted trade initiatives that had underpinned longer term policy on hold.

At the time of Mr Rudd's first overseas trip I was very critical of his approach (Saturday Morning Musings - foreign policy, Mr Rudd and the dangers of Australia's middle power status). We now know from, among other things, the Wikleaks cables that I was right to be concerned.

Sadly, 2011 is shaping up as another year of the boat people. Yes, I know that I have a humanitarian position here somewhat at odds with political perceptions on the issue. However, my concern here is the way that the refugee issue twists foreign policy.

From a national perspective, this is a second order issue. Yet it appears to have become a dominant driver in our immediate regional relationships. This is both silly and dangerous.

Staying international, I also think of 2011 as the year of the Chinese economy. Can China continue to grow, or will the growing imbalances in the Chinese economy stall economic growth? This economic issue plays out in the context of growing complexity in foreign policy in North and East Asia as the Chinese attempt to assert what they see as their traditional hegemony.

To a degree at least, the Japanese co-prosperity scheme that we saw in the period up to and including the Second World War has been replaced by a Chinese version. India adds to the complexity, for that country's population and power is rising inexorably.

This makes Australian life uncomfortable for we have to balance China and India as well as the US.

2010 marked the end of the War on Terror. Back in August 2007 in Moral Courage, Fear, Technology and the Decline of the West I tried to explain why I thought that the so-called War on Terror had become self-defeating. There I said in part:  

In all this, what began as a "war on terror", a response to a terrorist attack by a small but well organised group, has turned into real war fought on a number of fronts involving hundreds if not thousands of casualties each day, mainly innocent civilians.

It has also become a technology war.

War always drives the development of technology.

Those involved in terrorist activities have been able to use the new computing and telecommunications technology to contact each other, to spread information and as a PR weapon. Here they use internet technology not just to instil fear in Western countries - a necessary requirement since this drives the Government responses they need to spread their cause - but also to recruit. In some ways, Al Quaeda has become the web 2.0 version of terrorism.

Those involved in terrorism have also been able to develop new, simple, destructive weapons to kill or maim, using our own systems, technology and fears against us. Their capacity to do so is enhanced by media reporting that facilitates the spread of knowledge about both successes and failures.

On the Government side, the war on terror has encouraged the development of technologies used in monitoring, surveillance, control. All this gives the state far greater power to monitor and control its citizens. That's fine, but only so long as we can trust the state not to misuse the power. And the evidence world wide is that we cannot.

And all for what?

In 2010 we dropped phrases like the War on Terrorism because we were now dealing with real wars in which terrorism had become just one weapon.

My views on both refugees and the War on Terrorism appear to place me in the left wing camp. I am not. I span. Indeed, I think of 2010 in Australia as the year of the ideologues as resurgent warriors of left and right fought it out. The end of ideology, of left and right, was replaced by new battles.

Internationally, and crudely, it was anti-globalisation protestors vs the Tea Party.

I may be wrong, but I think of 2011 as the likely year of values, of a paradigm shift in which previous approaches will be replaced by a still messy set of new approaches.

I haven't mentioned climate change to this point. Here I think of 2011 as the year of grind.

To my mind, much of the discussion around climate change in terms of pro and anti has actually become irrelevant in a longer term sense.

The majority position at official level is that climate change is happening or is, at least, a real risk. We are at the grind stage in which a large number of individual nations are trying to work out common positions taking individual interests into account.    


Anonymous said...

Hello Jim -a couple of minor points:

re the internet, I'm surprised you didn't note the looming IP address shortage, due to hit some time next year as an issue of significance. (discussion at )

- I would think this has (already) given our masters much pause for thought as to how it might be turned to advantage.

Second, I have always wondered why it is that Asia has such an inordinate share of the world's population? I'm assuming something like fertile land, benign climate, etc. but have you ever read any explanation as to why that 30% of the world's land surface has 60% of the population?

Apart from that, thanks for an interesting article - and I agree (in sorrow) about Ms Gillard.


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, KVD. I would very much like to be proved wrong on Ms Gillard.

I was aware of the IP address issue but hadn't really focused on it, so thanks for the link.

I really don't know enough about population history to know how proportions have shifted, although I did browse the wikipedia articles. Where would be without it?