Tuesday, February 19, 2013
History is Repeating Itself...Again
The Internet is like the Caribbean in the Sixteenth Century. No, I don't mean it's full of Spaniards, French and Englishmen, though they are present on the Internet too. I mean that the Internet seems to turning into a lawless area prone to increasing levels of conflict. I'm not talking flame wars here, people, but rather "cyber war". I personally don't like that term, but I'll use it because I don't have a suitable replacement. If you read the article I just linked, you'll read an us versus the world story, but the whole time I read that article I couldn't help but draw links to a time centuries ago when the Spanish were probably saying much the same things about the English and French.
The Spanish were constantly shipping silver from Mexico to Spain and their rivals and independent entrepreneurs wanted in on that action. Eventually, piracy became a huge problem in the Caribbean and led to several wars between the European powers as they fought to control shipping in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans (not to mention their religious differences). Eventually, things settled down when England emerged as the biggest naval power in the Caribbean and shut down most pirating organizations there.
I've been reflecting on similarities between that period and now. Right now, on the Internet, it seems that there are lines being drawn and sides taken in this new free-for-all battle happening on the Internet. The US is on one side, Iran, China and Russia seem to be on their own sides. Everyone seems to be attacking everyone else out there right now, much like in the sixteenth century in the Caribbean. If you read the history of piracy there, you'll note that players came and went and eventually, England won out by outlasting the competition.
That could happen with the Internet, too, and brings up several questions.
-Do we really want it to go that far?
-How much virtual destruction, theft and damage will happen if we let it play out like it did in the Caribbean?
-Would there even be an end to the "cyber war"?
-How will the cyber war play out in the real world?
-Will it cause real wars, much like piracy in the Caribbean caused (and was caused by) real wars?
I don't know the answers to these questions, but I would like to posit some guesses. First of all, I don't think we want events to run like they did in the Caribbean. We don't want a long period of conflict that only works itself out when one power can dictate how the others will behave. That path would mean incalculable damage to the world economy and leave one nation in control of Internet security or governance.
That is assuming that one nation (or a coalition of nations) could even win the struggle. In the modern world, that would mean that the conflicting nations would probably have to fight a real war, or find a way to control an enemy nation's Internet infrastructure (not likely). I do think that large scale cyber wars would be likely to spill into real world conflict.
For example, let's say that Iran manages to bring down our nation's power grid (not that I'm saying that's possible). We would go through some amount of time recovering from the event and then figuring out who was responsible. Do you know what would happen after that? We'd invade Iran and I don't think there's anyone in the world who thinks that their military really stands a chance against ours. What would that mean though? It would be like Afganistan and Iraq all over again. There would be a long period of occupation and fighting a guerrilla war against foes who have all the time in the world to kick us out and a population motivated to see that happen.
Switch that to China or Russia. Say one of them decided to initiate a full-scale cyber war against us. We'd duke it out on the Internet, and then someone would end up declaring war in the real world. I don't think that anyone really knows how a war against Russia or China would end up, but it wouldn't be pretty and could even end up in Nuclear War. None of which I'd be excited to have to endure. Hell, switch it to England or France and you're likely to get the same outcome. They are our allies right now, but things change.
This line of thinking makes me think of the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times". These are interesting, and scary topics. I wish I knew what was going to happen, or even what was likely to happen. I only know that I want things to go smoothly and peacefully. We'll see if that can happen.
It also makes me think of the far future, when we start mining Near-Earth Objects. Will space piracy be next? At least with that, we do have a direct historical reference and not an inference, but would events play out any differently than they did in the sixteenth century?