MIT Security Studies Program
Techno-Blinders: How the Cult of Technology is Endangering US National Security
Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service
March 18, 2009
- Whereas most studies focus on the consequence of technologies for military effectiveness, she will focus on the effects of technologies on culture.
- Specifically, she argues that technology results in cultural biases towards a particular set of strategies and tactics, which may or may not be effective.
- Our techno-centric culture relies so extensively on technology that human beings have been ignored. We need to bring humans back to the mix.
What is culture? How Does Culture Shape Security Policy?
Culture + structural/exogenous conditions -> security policy
- Culture influences how events, pressures or conditions are perceived, such that it magnifies certain aspects of reality while screening out or minimizing others. In other words, culture frames how problems are defined and thus which solutions are considered. In short, culture helps to define what is possible and appropriate, and what is not.
- Culture gets entrenched through institutionalization, some of which are formal but much of which are not, such as through language, humor, etc.
- Scholars offer two conceptualizations of culture:
- Ends-based conceptualization: Culture shapes policy by supplying ends or values. Most political scientists adopt this conceptualization of culture, understood as assumptions, values, and beliefs. Culture is “how we see and make sense of the world”
Culture -> identity -> interests -> policy choices
- Means-based conceptualization: Culture shapes policy through practices, “toolkits” and “strategies of action” (Anne Swidler). Culture is “how we do things around here.”
- She thinks it is important to focus on both conceptualizations of culture, even though the means-based understanding of culture results in a more complicated casual chain. She offers three reasons:
- Over time, practices shape the beliefs and values. For example, when the US military began integration in 1948, it did so because of an executive order. Over time, US military values changed.
- Practices and strategies of action at an organizational level are parallel to how cognitive structures work for individuals. They help to interpret signals from the environment.
- This is the process by which culture becomes institutionalized. The stories, traditions and language arise through practices and strategies of action.
Two levels of culture in security studies
- In security studies, political scientists focus on two levels of culture, both military-organizational culture and strategic culture.
- Military organizational culture is culture within specific military organizations (e.g., Kier 1999, Legro 1995; Sagan 1993; Stanely 2001)
- Strategic culture is culture within specific states that is shared by the elites who influence decisions about security policy that state (e.g., Johnston 1995; Tannewald 2007; Dueck 2008)
- Both Kier and Johnston have a duel conception of culture, as does she, but they focus on one level of culture. In contrast, she tries to expand her argument to both levels—organizational and structural.
- The US techno-centric culture spans both levels, because civilian and military worlds have been converging (in cultural terms) since World War II:
- In convergence from the military towards civilians, she refers to changes in military since World War II in terms of technology and officer recruitment, which have moved the armed forces towards “military manager model.”
- In regards to civilians moving towards the militarized view, she argues that convergence began with the belief, which began during World War II and crystallized thereafter, that the Allies won the war because of their advantage in military technologies. In the aftermath of World War II, civilians and the military made preserving America’s preeminent technological position a central goal. This meant a large and ongoing research effort, funded by government and conducted privately, but sheltered by the military. It led to particular set of structures—the military-industrial-academic defense establishment, which blurred line between civilian and military.
US Techno-centric Culture: Values, Assumptions and Beliefs
- The US techno-centric culture is as follows:
- Technology as Progress: More technology is a positive good. The idea is that technology confers power over nature and provides greater control over the environment.
- Technology provides Control: Technology minimizes risks and reduces uncertainty. In turn, technology helps to control outcomes.
- Efficiency: This value encourages specialization and rationalization, with an emphasis on bureaucratic efficiency over effectiveness.
- Speed: Speed makes the US more effective and efficient. The US has an especially short sense of strategic time, which our enemies, through their use of asymmetric strategies, try to exploit by waiting us out.
- Inherent faith in rationality and logic: It is a Preference for logic over meaning. The problem is that most humans derive meaning from both emotions and intellect.
- US Techno-Centric Strategic culture’s practices and strategies of action:
- Data-driven focus on the quantifiable: This moves towards ethnically neutral empirics. The tendency is for things that cannot be measured easily, such as relationships or virtue, to be disregarded from the model or treated as unimportant.
- Specialization and rationalization: Technology rather than expert knowledge drives diagnostics. This leads to the fragmentation of problems into pieces, rather than addressing problems as a whole.
- Preference for scope over depth: The result is a lack of intimacy in the depth of knowledge.
- Simulations, war-gaming and scripts: War games are built around scripts, which creates a belief that the US can control outcomes. It results in contingency planning that leaves the US without the ability to respond in a flexible and resilient way.
- Trend towards unmanned, tech solutions: The emphasis is on trying to eliminate the human and opportunities for human judgment and error.
US Strategic Culture S-Curves
- S-curves are typically used to describe discontinuities in products or technologies
- Each S-cure represents a technology optimized along one dimension, usually to meet a particular market “need”
- S-Curve trajectories are influenced by institutional factors
- S-Curves can also depict discontinuities in culture as well
- US Strategic Culture S-Curves:
- She argues that two institutional factors at the end of World War II influenced why the US locked onto a techno-centric strategic culture:
- At the end of World War II, there was a decision that the US needed to maintain its position of technological preeminence in order to remain secure. To have this innovative capacity and remain a free market economy, the US could not have a big government. This led to a set of public-private partnerships, which became the military-scientific-academic-industrial complex.
- The US had a specific market need, which was the external adversary (the Soviet Union). The Soviet Union had a particular set of capacities and features, which made a techno-centric culture particularly attractive. In short, the Soviets had a large land mass and a big manpower pool, from which it could create a large standing army. Therefore, in any future war with the Soviet Union, the US would have to fight outnumbered. To withstand competition with this kind of adversary with numerical preponderance, the US comparative advantage would need to be technological.
- By the Vietnam War, the US techno-centric strategic culture had matured. This strategic culture was not necessarily the most appropriate or effective for the guerilla warfare of Vietnam. However, rather than use the Vietnam experience as an opportunity to adopt a new strategic approach, the US national security establishment reaffirmed its commitment to this techno-centric strategic approach with the establishment of all volunteer force. The numeric preponderance of the Soviet Union became an even more significant, such that the US would need better trained and technologically superior forces to fight them. Accordingly, R&D expenditures doubled under Reagan Administration.
- She argues that US, given where it sits on the S-curve, does not necessarily achieve better performance from more technology.
Symptoms of the US techno-centric strategic culture
She identifies nine maladies associated with the US techno-centric strategic culture:
- Misallocation of Resources: overspending on technology modernization, underspending on human-centric tools, see this in homeland security, intelligence, etc.
- Poor Strategic Assessment and policy choices: US strategic cultural bias leads to both the overestimation of US capabilities and selection of strategies not necessarily appropriate for the problem
- Decreased ability to work with allies and coalition partners: Allies and partners have been less willing or able to make similar technological investments, resulting in interoperability problems.
- Increased vulnerability to potential adversaries: Both high-technological vulnerability (e.g., cyber attacks) and low-tech ways to get around our technology (e.g., IEDs)
- Increased psychological insecurity: As technology becomes more visible, it increases public consciousness of insecurity (e.g., bomb screeners at the airports).
- A Misunderstanding of Networks: The US equates networks with a formal set of links between computers. However, the power of networks is human relationships and informal networks between people. By focusing so much on building the technology side of networks, the US ignores the real power of networks, on which our adversaries very much capitalize.
- The outsourcing and privatizing of security: Human beings become an overhead expense. Private contracts account for 70% of the intelligence budget.
- Rigid and archaic personnel systems: Personnel management for armed forces still uses World War I era standards of organization and equipment.
- Technical Bureaucratization of the Military and a Concomitant Decline of the Military Profession: A focus on objective data gathered by systems supplants a focus on human judgment, experience and mentorship.
Is the US on the right S-Curve?
She argues that for today’s adversaries, the US needs a new underlying strategic culture. Today’s strategic environment calls for a more balanced approach that blends technology with human-centric “strategies of action.”
Rapporteur: Kelly Grieco
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