New kind of war will breed innovation

Opinion

New kind of war will breed innovation

Despite the bombing of Afghanistan, the real war on terrorism has to be fought on the battlefields of information and intelligence, writes Martin Butler in this personal view of the conflict. The technological advances that result should eventually benefit all of us.

President Bush and his administration have made it very clear that the war against terrorism is primarily one of intelligence and information.

This uncharacteristically considered conclusion is more profound than at first it might seem. However unpalatable it may be, war is nearly always a catalyst for technological and scientific progress. By indicating that this new war will revolve around intelligence and information, Bush is establishing a platform for much that will be new in the domain of information technology and its application.

If we are to salvage anything from the tragedy of September 11, it may be that we are on the threshold of an entirely new era in the use of information and the technologies we use to process it.

That wars act as a catalyst for scientific advance is well understood. We only have to consider the race to the moon during the Cold War, or the development of the atom bomb during World War II to see this. Even Leonardo da Vinci dedicated much of his effort to the development of new war machines.

This war against criminals who operate on a global scale will require a much better understanding of information and how it can be used to establish a real advantage in a situation of conflict.

It has been said by many in the Bush administration that the fight against terrorism will take at least a decade. This is a long time, and is sufficient to see sustained research and development programs launched, and for benefits
"The rest of us will sooner or later pick up the crumbs that drop from the table of military intelligence and information processing know-how. Businesses will start to employ a science of information and intelligence, in exactly the same way that military organisational structures formed the basis for most corporate structures."
Martin Butler
to be achieved.

Issues around security, information capture and most importantly using analytical techniques such as those embraced by games theory, will need considerable development if the US and its allies are to win the war of information.

After half a century of using information technology we still have no real understanding of information, or how it can be used in a manner that is scientific, where results can be predicted. Most of what passes for information technology is actually data processing technology. Data is collected, stored, rearranged, and presented in new formats, but it is rarely turned into information.

Of course the real danger in all of this is the creation of a "Big Brother", where the movements and activities of individuals are always known to the state. In reality much of this information is already gathered via credit card and mobile phone data. The key issue is actually the protection of such data; that its use is controlled and that civil liberties are maintained.

I believe that the terrible events in New York will be seen as a turning point in the history of conflict. No doubt the US and its allies feel obliged to make a display of military force, but it has become clear that the real damage can only be inflicted through the gathering of intelligence and the use of information. Intelligence on the location of suspects, on the sponsoring organisations and governments, on financial arrangements, on weapons supply and the myriad of issues that organised criminals have to address - it is here that information will play a devastating role in undermining criminal activities.

The rest of us will sooner or later pick up the crumbs that drop from the table of military intelligence and information processing know-how. Businesses will start to employ a science of information and intelligence, in exactly the same way that military organisational structures formed the basis for most corporate structures.

It is tempting to predict that wars of the future might avoid bloodshed, being played out in an abstract world of information. This would be to assume that cunning and corrupt behaviour could always be trapped; a situation that will never come about. The best we can hope for is that developments in our use of information technology, and our understanding of the use of information, act as a brake on the ambitions of those who seek to use terror for political ends.


Will IT benefit from the war?
Do you agree that this will be a different kind of war? And will business eventually benefit by the technological advances it stimulates? Let us know your views.


Martin Butler is one of the world's foremost thought leaders on technology and strategy. He is the chairman and founder of the Butler Group, one of Europe's leading analyst groups.

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This was first published in October 2001

 

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