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15 October 2007

Intel 3.14159265

A lot has been said recently about the application of Web 2.0 technologies to the intelligence community. The debate has also attracted new bloggers to the field – some academic / student, some more professional.

But this debate occurs at a time when many are seeking to identify the next generation of technologies beyond the current crop of lightweight / social / rich experience / web as platform entrants that have defined the generation. Some commentators have even gone so far as to declare the Web 2.0 meme dead – ironically at around the same time as the intelligence community has just begun to manage to wrap its collective head around the possibilities of the technology, with things like Intelink blogs, Intellipedia, and now the new A-Space.

We remain uncertain what the next new wave of technologies might bring to the community. However, certain tantalizing possibilities do present themselves. The Web 2.0 revolution is fundamentally a change to the way information is shared and internalized by those tasked with production – in short, the way analysis is done. (And contrary to the self-aggrandizing claims of certain university types, real distributed collaborative analytical work is being done in the environment of the community’s wikis and blogs, not merely just descriptive summation.) New analytic tradecraft is developing, enabled by these new technologies, in ways that it is frankly impossible to fully predict. We have only begun to observe the first outlines, hinting at what might eventually be the native competence of these environments.

Given that Intel 2.0 is all about exchange and analysis, the next iteration of revolutionary transformation will likely change forever the dynamics of intelligence collection. The systems and processes which dominate collection as a problem set remain firmly mired in industrial age models, part of the long legacy of the cultures which gave them birth. The new generation entering these fields will bring with them changes which cannot be forestalled for long.

Exactly what the nature of these changes might be is another question entirely, however. The community has not fully grasped the implications of iteration 2.0, and peering forward to what will come after is less an exercise in forecasting as it is in fortune-telling. In this, however, we unapologetically look to the jesters at the futurists court’s table – the speculative fiction authors, who may fearlessly explore these new spaces unbound by the constraints of the mundane.

It is from one such writer we recently observed the fascinating potential for emergence at the intersection of several technologies and social changes. Charles Stross is no stranger to writing about intelligence in fiction – quite enjoyably crossed with elements of the fantastic in an elaborate Cold War allegory (which he has also sought to explain in an essay on "The Golden Age of Spying", well worth reading even for those professionals which otherwise eschew the genre). His latest novel, Halting State, touches again upon the work, this time presenting a series of intriguing suggestions regarding future trajectories of the field. Among his concepts (one of which led to the title of this post) are that alternative reality games might be adapted to training a pool of unwitting subjects for future intelligence and related support tasks, that an age of nearly ubiquitous networks will lead to new emphasis on classic HUMINT operations, and potential radical changes in field operations will be enabled by the introduction and common adoption of augmented reality vision displays. He further highlights the nature of the potential future adversary – the “blacknet” of highly networked transaction driven hostile connectivity which enables a market of illicit goods and services (including those things of economic value in persistent virtual worlds) exchanged on behalf of criminal and other adversarial interests.

Like all good speculative storytelling, it is based on elements of the future which are already here, but not evenly distributed (in the words of Gibson). A fascinating menu of potential, to say the least, the implications of which are well worth exploring in a more formal manner within the community. Again, if ever there were a role for the intel studies academia…

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