Futurists vs. Spies


I like the idea of Wikileaks – and I believe Manning is being held illegally – and am usually at least amused, if not excited, by the antics of Anonymous.  But it really sounds like their most recent cache of hacked emails is a desperate ploy to keep Assange and his associates on the media radar.  Ironically, they seem to have done so by taking seriously a firm that had been trying for some time to get on that very same radar.  As Max Fisher writing in The Atlantic put it earlier today,

Stratfor is not the shadow-CIA that Wikileaks seems to believe it is, but much of the blame for this mistake actually lies with Stratfor itself.  The group has spent over a decade trying to convince the world that it is a for-hire, cutting-edge intel firm with tentacles everywhere. Before their marketing campaign fooled Anonymous, it fooled wealthy clients; before it fooled clients, it hooked a couple of reporters.

I think The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, and others who’ve criticized the revelations of the latest leak may be overstating the case (for instance, according to The Statesman, emails included in the leak reveal that Pakistani ISI leaders were in contact with Osama Bin Laden); but for the most part, this seems like more of a takedown of a low level player in the intelligence community.

On the other hand, Stratfor, which operates here in Austin, is criticized by several of the naysayers as being farce because it relies on open source data (a critique people have made of the firm for more than a decade). But as several of Bryan’s posts point out, there is nothing necessarily obvious about the patterns and even the information that emerges from the vast data available openly on the web.  The Atlantic itself reported on an AP story in November that described the CIA’s social media monitoring center, where analysts try to read 5 million Tweets a day.  And other private firms, like Recorded Future, are trying to create big data solutions to predicting events around the world by using openly available media (Open Source Intelligence, or OSINT) and sifting it through various semantic filters to find patterns.  I can’t reveal my source, but I also know for a fact that the Swedish Defense Research Agency has partnered with firms like Recorded Future to enlist their help in developing software and frameworks that are almost identical to what Stratfor claims it uses or has used in developing its intelligence.   I suppose the proof is in the pudding, but there’s nothing inherently faulty in the model they claim to use.

And in any case, the more troubling thing it reveals in the Wikileaks philosophy is the rather thin film sitting between the supposedly unique and isolated realms of journalism, intelligence, spying, academic futurism, and even corporate espionage – where sitting in one of these ill-defined categories is in itself an excuse for Anonymous and Wikileaks apparently because they have a different mission statement and political allegiances. If Coca-Cola can’t be bothered to find out the number of PETA supporters in Canada, and Stratfor has some low level interns it can put on the job instead, it is hardly a case of international significance.  I don’t approve of the actions of Coca Cola or Dow, but I don’t think contracting with them to do what amounts to basic research qualifies as a punishable offense.  If doing this justifies breaching Stratfor’s security and revealing internal e-mails to the world, where do they would draw the line?  It makes Wikileaks less a venue for revealing state secrets to the world and more of a website run by well equipped bullies with more fashionable ways of gathering secret information than even Stratfor (though one imagines Stratfor or Recorded Futures could probably make more sense of the 5,000,000 emails in aggregate.)

Still it does seem that the firm’s secondary specialty is self aggrandizement.  Stratfor founder George Friedman wrote a surprise bestseller  in 2009 where he took his futurist schtick to the next level: attempting to predict The Next 100 Years (excerpted here).  The book sounds impressive (or at least entertaining) and he followed its success with a more manageable time horizon: The Next Decade Though Friedman is obviously well read, according to Daniel Drezner’s review of the latest book, his predictions are basically meditations on two controlling factors:

In both books his prognoses are based on two factors that persist over time: geography and demographics. Geography is what you think it is–a country’s physical attributes and resources. For example, Japan’s island status and dearth of natural resources mean that it relies heavily on sea-lanes. Demographics change more rapidly than geography, but those changes take decades. So when Friedman observes that southern Europe is depopulating, he’s going to be right for quite some time.

Leaning on the se two factors, The Next Decade arrives at a few conclusions that might seem counterintuitive: The United States has devoted disproportionate resources to counterterrorism. China’s ascent has been exaggerated because rising inequality and slower economic growth will lead to domestic instability. Russia and Germany will become closer allies.

The belief that geography equals destiny, though, is complicated by the fact that geography is a constant–and constants are lousypredictors of change. Sure, Friedman sounds sensible when he forecasts that Japan, bristling at its reliance on the U.S. Navy to keep its sea-lanes open, will take a more aggressive approach to the Pacific Rim. This prediction also sounded reasonable two decades ago, when Friedman co- authored a book called The Coming War With Japan. But there are many aspects of world affairs other than geography–historical ties, technological innovation, and religious beliefs, for instance-that can influence governments.

These predictions are more along the lines of academic analysis of world history – an admirable enterprise, to be sure, but one which should teach its purveyor the dangers of making definitive statements.  His understanding of geography as a key to military and economic development figures into many historians frameworks – off the top of my head, it figures centrally into the late Giovanni Arrighi’s World Systems analysis in The Long Twentieth Century.  In that pathbreaking work (which inspired a spirited dialogue with David Harvey in the last years of Arrighi’s life) the relative geographical isolation of England and then the US allows it to devote its economic resources to a less scattered array of military hardware.  But even this is only one among many other factors – and nowhere near the only one Arrighi uses to explain the rise and fall of economic and political hegemony over the course of the last 500 years.  In other words, as one pithy review of The Coming War with Japan (1991) put it:

This one-sided, sensational book contends that a military confrontation between the United States and Japan is likely within the next 20 years. According to the authors, the issues are the same as they were in 1941: Japan needs to control access to its mineral supplies in Southeast Asia and to have an export market it can dominate. In order to do this, Japan must force the United States out of the western Pacific. There is little effort to explore the substantial differences between the 1940s and the 1990s.

In their defense, this seems to have been a popular theme in culture more generally.  Arrighi’s book (also published in the early 1990s) makes dramatic predictions about the rise and supremacy of Japan – predictions he had to revise in his follow up which explained the unpredicted (by him, anyway) rise of China.

So whether Stratfor is a good intelligence firm, a secret spy organization, or just another font of futurist analysis, we can probably assume that a good number of the 5,000,000 e-mails Anonymous hacked and Wikileaks has made available will be even less significant to the course of human events.  As with all such predictions, time will tell.

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