Alliance by Uber?
13 Oct 2021|

The multifaceted failure in Afghanistan and the AUKUS announcement have generated deep reflection in Australia and elsewhere on the reliability of foreign commitments made by the United States, and on the conditions attached to them. If a fresh equilibrium settles, it’s likely that US land power in Eurasia will have dropped to levels not seen for decades. Air and cyber power now largely carry the stick of American coercive force globally, and a naval arms race is accelerating. The implications are arresting for nations like Australia.

Most of the mainstream discourse here and in the US places the strategic and political parameters of the Australia–US alliance within the familiar frame of isolation versus engagement. In general, notwithstanding quibbles about fears of entrapment, hubris and strategic autonomy, Canberra views isolation as bad and engagement, good.

For Washington, the discussion falls largely within a similar frame regarding the Australia–US alliance and much of America’s foreign policy commitments around the world. The White House is calculating the costs and benefits and looking at recalibrating US engagement with the world. But the broad position is that engagement is an indispensable component of US power and influence.

You could spend a doctoral thesis trying to understand whether that frame captures enough of reality and still not come to a conclusion—which I did, and didn’t. But viewed through the lens of developments in military technologies and concepts over decades, another framing is becoming visible.

What if the age of networked digital information technologies has opened up a type of strategic third way? What if, by building and scaling the infrastructure that supports and delivers network effects, the US has been quietly building what I have dubbed—borrowing from Albert-László Barabási—a ‘web without a spider’?

What if this networked structure could release the US and allies from the strategic and political constraints implied by the isolation–engagement frame: the tensions of entrapment and abandonment and so forth?

At the same time, the US has dragged the rest of the world onto the digital turf on which Washington assumed it had all the incumbent advantages. The advent of cognitive warfare has demonstrated the naivety of that assumption, even as the digitisation of every aspect of our lives continues apace.

Reading Barabási’s work on scale-free networks informed this thinking. The technical definition of the network effect is that with each node added, the overall value of the network increases exponentially. The political definition is a bit of an inside trade: by the time your competitors notice what you’re doing, it’s too late.

The penny would drop later that network dynamics are expressed only sporadically in military affairs.

It’s the commercial digital tech sector, with substantial government seed funding, in which these effects have been deployed and exploited. Look at the growth-before-profit strategies of the likes of Amazon and Uber to understand how it works. Get really big as quickly as possible, make it too costly for others to establish a rival network and instead cultivate their preferential attachment to yours. Then sit back and watch the network effects kick in.

Network effects and the digital information age go hand in glove. The same can be said of Australia’s embrace of US digital products and services, and this applies equally to military and civilian domains. Silicon Valley platforms are at the heart of Australia’s adoption of surveillance capitalism. Californian big tech attitudes to big data, machine learning and automation have had a huge influence on Australia’s digital landscape. Our legislative and regulatory settings have been similarly open-doored, with a few notable bumps along the way and one cautionary eye on Europe.

Now, AUKUS further deepens and expands Australia’s military integration with US systems technology, in line with longer geopolitical and technological interoperability trends.

As the various implications of digital networks become more visible, however, how much have Australians been informed participants in the full meaning of this embrace? What would the answer mean for the social licence for this cluster of technologies, especially those working under the hood of a whole new way of managing a multi-faceted supply network of goods, services, parts, know-how and labour it takes to co-build a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines?

In particular, and never stated, is the advent of automated mechanism design, or AMD, which underpins the way Australia’s digital evangelists think the brave new economy should work. AMD offers almost every sector, from national security to health, education, insurance, finance and retail, the promise of optimisation and efficiency by shedding processual redundancies in favour of automated algorithmic functions.

Think Uber, but for everything.

AMD is replacing, in a staged way, the institutional and contractual negotiation of business with automated auction markets. AMD lives and dies on data, and the massive streams each consumer now emits are sucked up and transformed into the profiles and scores which are its lifeblood. The same goes for industry and every business therein. When somebody refers to the ‘digital economy’, this is what they mean, whether they realise it or not.

Experimenting with, predicting and manipulating business through designer markets is what AMD is about. The platforms are its field of economic dreams. Markets that can be geared to specified ends are all the rage in Nobel-prize-winning economics, and the digital age has unleashed these experiments in market design at scale. People who are still using the term ‘free markets’, and the various defences thereof, have some contorting and, one suspects, some reading to do.

The digital infrastructure we share with the US, the automated mechanisms driving the digital economy and presiding over increasingly large portions of trade, business and resource allocation, might mean we already stand outside the frame in which meaningful discourse about isolation versus engagement is still viable. It seems fair, given demonstrable trends in the commercial civilian economy, to ask if AUKUS might be envisioned by some in Washington as an experiment in a subscriber model of strategic security.

A scary question for scholars of the Australia–US alliance: what do ‘mateship’ and a ‘shared vision’ mean under these conditions? What does shared history, the field of shared human action, mean if economic and defence interests are relegated to bids in an automated blind auction? As Jathan Sadowski explains, subscribers in the digital economy don’t own things. They rent them. Permanently. The platform wins.

The idea—which has risen again in commentary on AUKUS and on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and what it means for American power—that Australia’s strategic horizons still fall somewhere inside a conversation about the US government’s appetite for engagement has become stupefyingly redundant when one considers the emerging techno-politics of the digital economy as currently conceived.

One benefit of studying digital transformation in military affairs is in seeing that the same ‘Uberisation’ dynamics also weighed heavily on the US experience in the Middle East and Central Asia. Resource optimisation was largely what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had in mind when he appointed Arthur K. Cebrowski, the doyen of network-centric warfare, to the Office of Force Transformation in October 2001 and took the US military to war in Afghanistan.

Narrow optimisation functions, whatever they are applied to but especially when they hop across contexts, are dangerous. With AUKUS, Australia’s military, industries, businesses and society have taken a giant step into unknown digital territory.