John Robb on iWar and the Modern Nation State

It’s Monday at World War D. Marc Faber and Jim Rickards have delivered their remarkable presentations. It’s still only lunchtime. There were three hours to go on Day One. In the break your editor grabbed some food, and a delegate of the conference grabbed us on the arm and said, ‘How good is this!’

We didn’t know it then but it was about to get even better. Analyst John Robb was here to talk about social disruption, network analysis and the systematic vulnerabilities in centralised systems all over the world. The name of his speech was iWar: How Anybody Can Declare War on the World and Win. Think: Edward Snowden.

The US National Security Agency has the most sophisticated defence network in the world. John Robb called it the Fort Knox of information. Snowden took it down. He’s not alone. Robb calls this the era of the super empowered individual.

Given the right skills and access, a lone operator can disrupt power supplies, shut down oil pipelines and refineries, stall manufacturing plants, steal classified information and hijack your computer from anywhere. That’s just touching the base.

And in the centralised systems of the modern world, you get cascading failure as one crashed system takes down the next and so on. It can also cost hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and lost output. Boeing, for example, lost a contract in the wake of Snowden revealing NSA spying on the Brazilian government. Recently, only the bungling of an attack on a Saudi Arabian oil installation saved wiping out six million barrels of global oil per day indefinitely. If the driver of the car bomb hadn’t got lost after getting into the facility and hit the wrong target, it may have been a very different story.

Robb made the point that even if you think you’re safe — with your data, your identity, your money, the world you interact in every day — you’re not. Because in a networked world, there’s always a vulnerability that can be exploited. This, Robb said, was how the major guerrilla campaign in Iraq operated. The average Iraqi could bear US troops on the ground. But they couldn’t cope with systems and basic services being broken day after day.

Robb also showed how exploiting social networks can incite riots — and worse. He bought up the case of US pastor Terry Jones. The man was effectively a nobody.  He came up with his ‘Burn the Koran’ campaign. Previously it would have gone nowhere. But social networks took this idea national, then global. It brought the very top of the US administration into crisis management as Islamic groups responded. In Benghazi, it resulted in the death of the US ambassador. And all you need is a socially disruptive theme and nasty mind and anything like it could happen again.

But if you think that threat is enough to give you the shakes, Robb argued that technology will destroy today’s economy entirely — what he called the bureaucratic industrial system. And when he said destroyed, he meant it. 95% of today’s jobs gone or disrupted.

He compared today to the agrarian way of life around 1800. Practically everyone back then lived on farms and raised food. The industrial revolution shattered that. And now, Robb says, software bots and automation are replacing jobs faster than we’re creating others. The bureaucratic industrial state is rotting. The future for many is a life of spot work and insecurity. This isn’t theoretical. Robb is a technology entrepreneur with his own company. He finances start-ups. He works in the very heart of the tech world. He pointed out that pilots are basically becoming redundant with drone technology. That’s the trend.

One conclusion Robb reached is that, as far as he sees it, China is investing in the old economy. So don’t write off the US, because it’s still at the forefront of tech innovation. Hmm. But what do you do to make money?  You innovate. You build your own company. You find a service you can offer and sell. You extract value from your existing assets in creative ways. You keep going after the big hit. You have to be an entrepreneur — or else.


Callum Newman+

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Originally graduating with a degree in Communications, Callum decided financial markets were far more fascinating than anything Marshall McLuhan (the ‘medium is the message’) ever came up with. Today Callum spends his day reading and researching why currencies, commodities and stocks move like they do. So far he’s discovered it’s often in a way you least expect.

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