The Enemy is … WHO?

by rthieme on August 2, 1997

Islands in the Clickstream

There are days I miss the Cold War a lot.

Things were so much simpler then. The world was divided into two great camps, ours and theirs, and everybody who didn’t fit neatly into the schema could be made to fit with a shoehorn of twisted cold-war logic. Countries irrelevant to the ideological battle were either “with us” or “against us.”

One day I looked at the map and realized that — even at the height of the Cold War — the geopolitical domination of the world by the United States was nearly absolute. The enemy controlled much less territory than the USA, but the more the United States controlled, the less secure Americans felt.

I wondered how much we needed in order to feel secure.

That reminded me of a seminar I attended. A man of obvious means was standing up and boasting of making his first million and working on his second. After listening for a long time, the seminar leader asked: How much will you have to have in order to have enough?

The guy was stopped in his tracks. He had obviously never considered the question. He sat back down and went away for a week to think it over.

The next week he stood up again but his manner was different. Finding the answer had changed the way he spoke.

“I realized how much I need in order to have enough,” he said. “I have to have … all of it.”

The Cold War worked because it was written in Big Letters. The economic and political struggle was merely a foundation for the cosmic struggle. The Cold War was Armageddon, Good versus Evil.

Then everything fell apart. Our souls are working overtime to find templates onto which to project the evil that lurks in the hearts of all of us. We’re not having much luck, but a couple of candidates are running hard — computer hackers and technology itself. Rational people — educated, thoughtful people — suddenly launch into tirades against “what computers are doing to the world” or how “hackers want to break into my computer.”

I’ll save “computers” for another time and focus on hackers.
Hackers are often portrayed as whacked-out loners hunched over glowing monitors in the night, breaking into our bank accounts.

Those aren’t the hackers I know. The men and women at DefCon V included some of the best and the brightest. Many wore the costumes of hacking culture but we know better than to stop there, don’t we? Ask what they do for a living and you’ll find ranking technocrats from Microsoft, IBM, banks and large consulting operations, makers of the best firewall and security systems. You’ll find members of every intelligence agency around. Mingling with the hackers and exchanging information at DefCon and the Black Hat Briefings in Las Vegas were people from the military, CIA, FBI, NSA. In fact, those mingling with the hackers … were the hackers.


Where else could agents of military and business intelligence learn their craft and subtle art but in the sleepless, passionate quest for knowledge in the networked world, tunneling through the gerbil tubes of the wired world? Hackers are need-to-know machines who go where they need to go to learn what they need to learn in order to understand how things really work.

In the knowledge economy, the people who know how to find knowledge and link it into meaningful patterns, not just amass collections of data but connect it in ways that illuminate and disclose the human reality behind the information — those are the people with their hands on the throttles of power, and those are hackers at their best. Even when they work for multinational corporations and intelligence agencies.

The revolution in information technology is one reason the boundaries of nation states are growing more and more permeable. Those boundaries evolved to define economic and political reality and protect populations. These days, when we can live anywhere and work everywhere, when multi-national corporations make decisions that transcend traditional political structures, when ideological and religious passions surge back and forth over borders like the ocean at high tide — how are we to identify the enemy?

According to the Chinese Army newspaper, Jiefangjun Bao, speeches at the new Military Strategies Research Center were summarized this way:

The goal is no longer to preserve oneself and destroy the enemy. The goal is to preserve oneself and control one’s opponent. (Wired, May 1997).

Information warfare is the name of the game.

Remember Somalia? All it took was a thirty-second video clip showing one Marine being dragged through a crowd to undermine our will.

I miss those Cold War spy novels. Double agents unmasked at last, spymasters playing global chess. Today the game is more like ten-dimensional chess. Allegiance to who and to what? Our loyalties are nested like Russian dolls, and sometimes even we don’t know on behalf of whom or what we are really acting.

Behaviors that are penalized in one context are sanctioned in others. The determining factor is not the action but the allegiance of the actor.

It is not the behavior of hackers that is threatening but their perceived allegiance. Ally themselves with a government, intelligence agency, or large corporation and they can hack their hearts out, with more computing power at their disposal than they can dream.

Ironic, isn’t it? The “West” won the Cold War, the economy is the best in decades, and Americans have everything they thought they wanted. Yet people are more anxious and insecure than ever.

Security comes not from having what you want — even when you have all of it — but from stability and predictability. And that — in a world undergoing fundamental transformation — is in short supply.

So people will continue to project fear and anxiety onto templates provided by the media. Hackers — not criminal hackers, but real hackers — will continue to be demonized and misunderstood, because the nature of power, influence, and leverage in a global knowledge economy will continue to be misunderstood.

You can’t write a 32-bit application for an IBM XT. It just can’t handle the code.

I won’t remind you that Pogo said “We have met the enemy and it is us” because everybody knows that. I’ll just note that no amount of stuff, including knowledge, can give us what we need. Our desperate search for security in a changing world is really the pursuit of our own souls. That’s all we can ever possess in its entirety anyway. We’re like people wearing glasses running around frantically looking for our glasses. We have what we need, always, here and now. The enemy is anybody and anything that prevents us from seeing clearly what a crazy maze we have built to keep us from remembering that.

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