9/11 Silicon Valley: The Network

Back in the good old days of the early Internet, enthusiasts of the new technology used to talk a lot about how the “state” would become unnecessary. We would, they averred seriously and with the reverent expressions of true believers, become an international community of individuals, empowered and connected by the Internet. We would govern ourselves because the power of network would make us ungovernable.
This was hokum as anyone with any sense realized at the time. And it was fueled in large part by a class of very smart, sophisticated people trying to figure out, as much as anything, how to avoid income and capital gains tax on their new-found wealth or government oversight (and taxation) of their newly created businesses. But back in the late 1990s, here in San Francisco, hokum was consumed daily with the reverence accorded communion wafers.
That stopped for good on 9/11. Even among the more starry-eyed you no longer hear talk of the “uselessness” of the state. The state, they – we – all realize is here to protect us. So lots of people – many who should know better – put their faith in President George Bush’s plans to create a U.S. foreign policy that put protection of the unknown at the top of its list of things to do. How could this – this destruction, this horror – happen to us? We must do something.
Well, we have done something. Exactly the wrong thing, as it turns out.
See, the Internet utopians were on to something, after all. The “war” on terror will never be a contest between two states; at least not in any obvious way that leads to “war.” It will, instead be a varied kind of guerrilla war that relies on some of the very technologies – and insights about the potential – of those technologies that many tried to dismiss in early 2001, as the tech stock bubble burst. A international community of like-minded individual has, in fact, been created using the Internet. It’s flexible, easily hidden, hard to trace and it recruits, as needed, from like-minded souls, it finds through its network. It’s just not working for the general good but for a specific, nefarious cause.
It is remarkably effective and inexpensive. In those two characteristics, it’s no different from the host of other web-based businesses. These enterprises are also changing and challenging a host of once-monolithic businesses. The read the political headlines tell us how the U.S. status in the world has changed. But so do the business pages where U.S. corporations – especially those who manufacture “hard” goods like cars – are realizing that they are not dominant; smaller, cheaper and usually foreign enterprises have eaten away at their market power. This nation’s economic dominance – the foundation of its international military and political influence – is no longer a tall monolithic power; it can be brought down.
That attitude is easy to spot in U.S. foreign policy as well. In both arenas, the once-smaller fish – remember the footage of Palestinians celebrating the fall of the World Trade Center towers? – see a diminishment of U.S. influence as a gain for their side. They’re not shy about letting us know it, either. And we feel it more directly, more quickly. Unfortunately, a lot of folks are getting the wrong message about what to do. The U.S. insistence on finding states to war with – Iraq, of course, but now Lebanon and eventually, it seems, Iran and Syria – misses the important lesson of September 11, 2001. The small smartly-run organization can often beat the big guys at their own game if it harnesses the power of the network. They can be stopped, of course. But it’ll take smarts, not force. And we, as a nation, seem to prefer the tried-and-true method.