Defence confronts the Media Age (part 2)
18 May 2016|

The terrain of the Media Age is a networked series of places—both land and a land of the mind. The borders are ever more porous.

A vital part of the terrain is still occupied by The Press and News Media. Journalism matters and will continue to be important. Courtesy of the United States, think of this as First Amendment Land—the place of a free press not subject to government control.

Yet First Amendment land is only one part of the terrain. Other areas are growing fast and taking over a lot of territory—to use the jargon, they are occupying more bandwidth.

Across the lands of the Media Age roam the Digital Citizens. In their billions. Newly connected. Greatly empowered. As the previous column noted, the strategic corporal will now move amid a sea of Digital Citizens.

Serving the Digital Citizens and using them at the same time are the great new digital corporations. Apple and Facebook and Google et al are media companies. These modern media companies assume First Amendment rights but they don’t think like The Press; journalism may be one product they communicate but journalism isn’t what they do.

The differences in the foundational attitudes of The Press and the new media giants point to how the terrain is altering.

The Press are creations of the nation and expressions of their home country—the Fourth Estate functioned so a country could have a conversation with itself.

The digital corporations disregard national boundaries. The media corporations think international and aspire to be universal. This is both a social and business model. Governments are chosen for their tax regimes, not any sense of national loyalty.

The aim is to provide communication and connection. Like The Press, the new media aren’t too keen on government secrecy.

The corporations worry deeply about the security of their systems and promise secrecy to their customers. The digital giants want all their customers’ secrets (data) with the promise those secrets will be kept safe—even from government. (Not secret from advertisers, by the way—but that’s about cash not principle.)

Apple’s fight against the FBI’s demand to hack into the Apple phone of a terrorist was a struggle over the security interests of customers versus the security needs of the state.

Thanks to the glories of digital convergence, another great chunk of the Media Age is Cyber. For Defence purposes, Cyber is a new realm where Australia will now play offence as well as defence.

Cyber, though, isn’t a separate realm in the Media Age but part of the era’s foundation. And Cyber is deeply contested territory, as the President of Alphabet’s Jigsaw (previously Google Ideas), Jared Cohen notes:

‘The Islamic State, or ISIS, is the first terrorist group to hold both physical and digital territory: in addition to swaths of land it controls in Iraq and Syria, it dominates pockets of the Internet with relative impunity. But it will hardly be the last…In fact, the next prominent terrorist organisation will be more likely to have extensive digital operations than control physical ground.’

Little wonder the US has created cyberunit mission teams modelled on Special Operations forces. The function of the cyberunits? A succinct but vivid description from the US deputy Secretary of Defence, Robert Work: ‘We are dropping cyberbombs. We have never done that before.’

Another way to think of the Media Age is as the Age of Transparency. That’s the title of Sean Larkin’s Foreign Affairs article making the case that open-source information from commercial surveillance satellites, drones, smartphones, and computers will bring an unprecedented level of transparency to global affairs:

‘Commercial satellites will capture daily images of the entire globe, offering inexpensive and automated reports on everything from crop yields to military activity. Journalists, NGOs, and bloggers will increasingly use crowdsourced data to uncover wartime atrocities and expose government hypocrisy. Private security companies will discover the sources of cyberattacks and data theft. Biometric systems will expose the identities of clandestine operatives, and government agencies will struggle to contain leakers and whistleblowers. Although some secrets will likely remain hidden, ubiquitous surveillance will subject the vast majority of states’ actions to observation.’

The phrase ‘ubiquitous observation’ is a statement of coming fact, to be delivered by hundreds of inexpensive miniature satellites.

The idea of ‘ubiquitous observation’ raining on us all leads me to a metaphor: Transparency is going to become a bit like the weather: governments can plan for it and protect against it, but they can neither control it nor make it go away.

Even decisions about levels of transparency will be much less matters of government choice. That’s tough news for Alpha personalities who give orders and expect to be obeyed.

Like the weather, the transparency of the Media Age can’t be denied—a discomforting change that will disrupt deeply entrenched habits of mind and action.

To be any use, Defence communication settings have to be able to deal with The Press and Digital Citizens and the Cyber realm. And still serve Defence and its political masters. What simple formula could do all this?

The next column will give the answer: truth-with-speed. It sounds simple, but for the Defence Department and the Australian Defence Force it would be revolutionary.