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03 February 2006

Naming the haunt of all ghosts

Intelligence professionals know that names matter. If nothing else, they learn this early on as part of problem restatement techniques, and then usually have it reinforced absolutely through multiple levels of coordination and editing hell which must be endured to herd a product through to its eventual publication.

The end of cyberspace is an interesting collection of interviews with some serious thinkers of the virtual world, including the man who coined the original term: William Gibson. All discuss what the name will become when the net ceases to be a novelty and becomes a pervasive phenomenon.

Curiously, the intelligence community has already had to grapple with this question, as part of at least one published study on future intelligence challenges - Proteus: Insights from 2020 (Copernicus Institute Press). One of our favorite publications of its class, and painfully prescient given that it was authored in the pre-9/11 world. In fact, it remains one of the only futurist readings we recommend from the antebellum era.

We have, in our research, almost universally adopted the concepts used there. As defined in Proteus:

... we began to think of the Internet as an emerging and fundamentally new kind of destination - a universe parallel to the physical one. In this metaphor, the Internet that we see today is akin to the Earth in Cambrian times, when biological life underwent an unprecedented explosion of speciation. New life cropped up everywhere-more than 300,000 new distinct forms in a geologic instant.

If the Internet is a Parallel Universe-a silicon-based version of the carbon-based one we know-then the incredible uploading of global knowledge we are about to experience might produce a digital Cambrian explosion in which an amazing array of digital "beings" will arise. And, if that is true, then present attempts to understand the future Internet topographically will be like trying to understand the development of life on Earth by meticulously cataloging its geology!

Bad news, that. Biology isn't geology. Sentient beings arise in complex ways, whereas inert matter responds to a more Newtonian rhythm. If we do experience a "Digital Cambrian," then the rise and interactions of complex software will be understandable only in terms of chaos mathematics, about which we have only an adolescent appreciation in the early 2000s. In a Digital Cambrian, all kinds of unpredictable digital life could emerge-from software herbivores that graze the knowledge bases of tomorrow to frightening new kinds of predators that would make today's hackers look like little salamanders. Most frightening, these digital beings leave only virtual trails-we can imagine them, but we can't actually see them. If we only imagine the geology of the future Internet, we won't see the biology that others-perhaps an adversary-might. It takes little imagination to figure out where that asymmetry might lead.

Thinking of the Internet as a Parallel Universe helped us significantly because it conveyed the sense of a destination. We found this much more useful than thinking of it as network, however sophisticated. But even that conception inadequately captured the enormous role the Internet played in our futures. Across every world-even we tried to invent scenarios that minimized its relevance-cyberspace became a key enabler of human activity and an underpinning of the world order. Virtual enterprises and activities ranging from global schools to electronic religion flowed along a future Internet that came to be seen as a definer of community and a theater for welfare, competition, and subversion.

A second metaphor, the Internet as a theater, became as useful to us as the Parallel Universe model. In at least two of the worlds, The Enemy Within and Militant Shangri-La the Internet allowed vast illusions and great deceptions to be played out while the authors remained hidden in the shadows. The Internet is a near-perfect venue for perception management on a global scale. As we observed in the chapters on Veracity Wealth, and Herds, ideas move around the globe so fast in a wired world that it is difficult to pull them back once they are set in motion. At the same time, the ideas of distinctly offensive and defensive actions become distorted.

Indeed, the tempo of the future Internet became cause for great concern on our part. Neither the metaphors of Parallel Universe nor a world theater captured the temporal nature of the Internet well. In the end, we came to appreciate that the Internet was a place where time-not space-was the defining dimension. To perceive the Internet properly, we must find ways to build a cognitive interface that will allow analysts-who, after years of biological evolution possess marvelous senses for spatial considerations - to live in a world driven increasingly by time. To say it in an even more mind-boggling way, we think the future Internet is a place where sophisticated software agents evolve and interact in complex ways in time, not space. It is an alien planet with very different life forms in a different dimension. But actions and events carried out on that "planet" have complex and near immediate effects on the world in which humans live.

Regrettably, it is almost impossible to find original copies of Proteus these days, but well worth the read and study. So much so, that years after its publication DOD papers continue to revisit and reevaluate its findings favorably - such as this paper and presentation.