by James Bailey |
Word Cloud 2b

Lucas Kello studies war. He is concerned that others in his field are ignoring the impact  that programming and computer networks are having on the field. His colleagues are still viewing warfare as the business of conquering physical territory, a result they (and Mr. Kello) see as beyond the ability of bits. By restricting their studies to what we now call "kinetic" warfare, these researchers can continue within the old habits of thought passed down from the Enlightenment centuries. They can, for example, prioritize “order” and “analysis.”

Mr. Kello is alive to the risks of forcing new realities into old conceptual frames.

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At every stage of interpretation of new threats, the tendency appears and often prevails to assimilate them into conventional threats

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Nevertheless, as is clear right from its front cover, Mr. Kello's new book The Virtual Weapon and International Order assumes that, in his hands, the old epistemological toolkit of the Enlightenment can still be brought to bear unchanged on the new cyber realities. No need, for example, for biology. Physics suffices. The title of the book simply assumes René Descartes' age-old paradigm of "order." And the cover graphic skins an old-fashioned bomb in ones and zeros, as though it is all the same underneath.

This stuff matters. If malicious apps really do behave the same way bombs have behaved for centuries, we have much to learn from Mr. Kello. If they behave in totally new ways, akin to biology instead of physics, we have much to fear from influential academics who think they "get it," but don’t.

This essay will take the slow road. Rather than going straight to the book’s conclusions, it will focus on the habits of thought that its author’s words reveal along the way. Such a deliberate approach is out of fashion today. We live in a world of bottom lines and elevator pitches. So, for those who will not stay the course, here is one example before you click the close button.

The world we lump under the terms "cyber" and "virtual" assumes procedural literacy: the ability to read and write programs. Dr. Kello asserts that such literacy is not necessary to his task. As support, he points to the way security students contributed to the Cold War without knowing the details of nuclear fission. He then compares the field of nuclear physics to the complexities of the Stuxnet program used against Iran’s centrifuges. Both involved big teams of experts. If you believe, with Mr. Kello, that the future of informational conflict is a future dominated by big Stuxnet-style set pieces, you will agree that trying to understand the underlying code is unrealistic. It is crazy complicated. If, however, you see the 2016 Election as the harbinger of what is to come, you need to know enough about the underpinnings to appreciate how crazy easy that was.

What’s “Order” Got To Do With It?

Starting right on the front cover, "order" is taken for granted. Mr. Kello plausibly singles out the 1648 Peace of Westphalia for its introduction of a European world that could be described as "ordered." What came before was certainly different. As described by R.R. Palmer’s ubiquitous European history text of the 1960s:

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The whole struggle, resembling nothing so much as the croquet game in Alice in Wonderland where the players used the necks of flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for balls, was too fluctuating, oblique, contradictory, and protracted to be recounted in any detail.

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Westphalia put paid to all that annoying bottom-up, unable to be recounted, nonsense. As of 1649 it was cuius regio eius religio all the way down. Pleasing uniformity (order) was poured in from the top.

The diplomats at Westphalia did not invent this business of order. That came from others of the day, primarily René Descartes, who defined order as the relationship that the numbers along the Cartesian number line have to each other. At a time when algebra was replacing geometry, that number line was the model for good habits of thought.

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Order is what is needed: all the thoughts that can come into the human mind must be arranged in an order like the natural order of numbers.

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Mr. Kello is a loyal Cartesian, assuming order so as to make his scholarship tidy:

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Foundational notions such as "anarchy," "order," and "international system" guide the formulation of ordered research questions, as well as the selection of dependent and independent variables when answering these questions.

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We desire order as our foundational notion because it is understandable and makes possible "the formulation of ordered research questions" and even the use of algebraic habits of thought with their dependent and independent variables.

And so we have Mr. Kello's Panglossian assertion that, "orderly investigation of cyber issues is possible." Is orderly investigation of that pre-Westphalian world possible? Does the 21st century’s online world look basically like the divine right of Enlightenment kings or the tumult of the Thirty Years War?

Top-Down or Bottom-Up

Mr. Kello's world is a top-down world where it is assumed that the whole is equal to the sum of the pieces, so we can break reality up and study it a piece at a time. That’s how we make our world “orderly.”

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If the popular perception of a cyber danger is to be translated into orderly concepts and propositions, then we must break it down.

Our theory - the body of concepts and orderly propositions that select and organize the complex phenomena that we study…

Almost any human task can be rendered as a mathematical function

The reordering of the systems organizational units into a new hierarchical arrangement

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Mechanized warfare has always been a top-down affair, where the big guys impose their will on the little guys. Mr. Kello seeks to take the lessons learned and somehow use them in the new context.

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The discussion will draw lessons and insights from… mechanized warfare and the nuclear revolution to derive lessons and insights for the contemporary era.

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To be sure, Mr. Kello understands that, in the information age, asymmetric warfare is a reality. Some of the most insightful parts of his book focus on the new ways that the little guy can stick it to the big guy. But when the book reaches for specific examples, what does it inevitably choose?

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Take, for example, the Stuxnet worm

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Why Stuxnet? Because, of all the examples of informational malfeasance we have, none aligns with the old realities of mechanized warfare and the nuclear revolution as sweetly as does Stuxnet. As is well known, Stuxnet was a tour de force attack (three day zero exploits! three day zero exploits!) on the Iran centrifuges. Like nuclear bombs, it took the technological resources of a major state to pull it off. But notice the target. A centrifuge is helpless against attack. It cannot evolve. It cannot adapt. The operation could be, and was, tested on identical domestic centrifuges ahead of time, assuring that it would work as planned. If, as Mr. Kello asserts, “The chief concern of inquiry is to develop conceptual lenses and models that serves to interpret, explain, or predict interstate behavior,” Stuxnet fits right in. It is Mr. Kello’s go-to precedent.

Getting With the Program(ming)

Mr. Kello's 2017 book is an outgrowth of his 2015 paper The Virtual Weapon and Future Scenarios. In between, we get an inconvenient development: Russia hacked the 2016 election. The operation required no single massive exploit bearing three day zero exploits. As best we can, tell, it was all sorts of little things all over the place, many of which came to nothing, but others of which took on lives of their own. One has the feeling that the Virtual Weapon book was pretty well in the can when this new reality poked up from the bottom. The resulting penultimate chapter puts on a brave face and makes the important point that there are clashing habits of thought at work here:

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Russia's century-old theory of information warfare refutes the idea of a decisive military clash that is so central to Western security thinking. Its core tenant is that the psychological element of conflict is as important as the physical one.

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But, for all its excellent analysis of Russia, all this chapter can offer is a litany of how bad it was. There is none of the promised “body of concepts and orderly propositions that select and organize the complex phenomena.” There is a reason for this thrashing. Mr. Kello and his colleagues, as we have seen, deign to understand what is actually going on because they have convinced themselves it is crazy complicated and that they may sally forth "while largely eschewing technical arcana.”

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In our own times, mastery of coding is not a prerequisite for cyber strategy any more than intimate knowledge of atomic physics was for nuclear strategy. Indeed, a technical mindset may in fact hinder strategic learning if it leads the analyst to assume a false preeminence of technical over human behavioral forces.

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This assertion is wrongheaded and self-serving on so many levels. At the top level, it brings to mind the scholars who legendarily refused to look through Galileo's telescope because they knew that information did not reside in optical tubes. Information resided in books.  

Galileo iPad Centered

In addition, it assumes that a philosophy major has no intuition about any technical arcana. In fact, even philosophy majors spend over a thousand hours of their young lives doing the arithmetic, algebra, and calculus of the number sciences. They may not grok the conclusions that nuclear physics arrives at, but they know whence those conclusions come, because they have the same habits of thought installed in their own neurons. 

No survivor of the current K-12 curriculum is technologically agnostic. That curriculum teaches students what it means to be dead: what it means to be a planet or a parallelogram, not what it means to be, for example, a protein or a political system. As a product of that distorted education, Mr. Kello asserts that the "technical plane" and the "political and social plane” are disjoint.

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Cyberspace is a technical plane comprising machines and networks whose uniform feature is manipulative ability by code; by contrast, the cyber domain is primarily a political and social plane subject to wholly different interventions and behavioral rules. We require separate concepts to capture their separate essences.

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Say again? In an era of Deep Learning, it is hard to discern such "wholly different" planes. Prof. Geoffrey Hinton makes the point that running human-generated code, Stuxnet style, is no longer the only way computers get things done. More and more, we just show our computers lots of (political and social) data and they figure it out. They are now part of the mix, not something separate.

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There is a huge sea change going on, basically because our relationship to computers has changed. Instead of programming them, we now show them. And they figure it out. That's a completely different way of using computers… Showing computers is going to be as big as programming them.

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It turns out a lot of this stuff is crazy easy. If Mr. Kello took himself a Deep Learning course, he would start to understand how easy the election caper was, and how much more low-hanging fruit is still dangling out there. And he would be justifiably alarmed at 145 million Equifax records being ingested by Russian and Chinese deep learning algorithms.

Mr. Kello Has Met the Enemy

Mr. Kello is wholly persuasive that his colleagues in the security studies world are not pulling their weight. Too many are still orbiting the old Machine Age forms of war that aligned so nicely with the top-down habits of thought. He is too glib by half, however, when he asserts that he can see clearly into the new information age without himself abandoning those top-down habits. Please, Mr. Kello, learn to program in Python and take that Deep Learning course, and maybe a neuro- course or two, and see firsthand where all this is coming from. Then you can get to grips with where it is leading.

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