Oct 302006

Note: The following is my contribution to a disucssion about war called underfire
(Thanks to Jordan Crandall for conveing this discussion and inviting me. This is especially in response to the remarks of Saskia Sassen on borders, Alain Joxe on structured chaos and Paul Edwards on weak discipline.)

As Immanuel Wallerstein once pointed out, old empires did not survive if they took more than forty days travel to cross from end to end. On that basis, we now find ourselves in world of six billion people sitting on the head of a pin. Virtual travel, at least, occurs in a fraction of a second, so the possibility of an “empire” or indeed a closed state is out of the question — unless every point is the capital, and, equally, a center of resistance.

Consider that we are all almost literally on top of one another, that crowding is supposed to promote anger and violence, and that so many means for violence are now readily available. What is most striking: The actual amount of violence at any scale is tiny. It is so especially in comparison with what we can easily imagine and what has been repeatedly prognosticated. It is certainly so in comparison with the spasms of killing that dominated the first half or even the first three quarters of the last century. This is not to deny or negate the horrors and criminality of most violence still happening. Nor is it to say that worse cannot happen; it certainly might, but we should not exaggerate the likelihood either. On the whole, Homo interneticus is remarkably peaceful.

Yet violence seems much more interesting to notice, watch, playact, imagine, bemoan or discuss than more peaceful topics. Hence this discussion itself. Somehow, it is very easy to put oneself in the shoes of either the murderers or the victims — or both. On the whole, I think, the victims cry out to us more, but only because we also understand the deliberateness of killing, and that it, too, is done by those like us. A victim of deliberate violence may cry out no more loudly than the victim of a natural disaster or a disease, but draws our sorrow and pity and desires for justice or revenge much more intensely. Heartless as we may feel is an employer who lays off workers or a real estate developer who disposseses tenants, or even a tobacco tycoon who knowingly presses the chance of lung cancer on unsuspecting smokers, we do not normally feel as much anger towards them as towards a small-scale serial killer, a torturer or rapist in some distant place who we read about only in the daily newspaper. Sex may sell; violence sells even better, or at least it more completely draws our attention.

Violence draws our attention. That thought, I argue, is key to understanding the violence and especially the “war-like” or terrorist variety of it still prevalent. War has always been “about” the control of scarce resources. The scarcest these days is nothing material. It is the attention of our fellow human beings. (See goldhaber.org for many more details.) Terror, conquest and killing always work to draw attention, but especially so in this media-filled age — provided however that they do not settle into boring routine. The Western front in World War I would not have been ideal from this point of view, and audiences tire very quickly today on any particular war. Right now, after “only” three years, and with far fewer American casualties and no draft to incite opposition, the American public is much more tired of the current Iraq war than it was of the Vietnam war after more years. This despite the fact that this war was (falsely) sold on the basis of an actual attack on our home soil (9-11) — a case that could not be made against North Viet Nam.

I have repeatedly argued that, as we remember it, 9-11 was mostly a fluke —on the one hand quite possibly the fruit of an unprecedented and hard-to-repeat degree of organization on the part of the 19 terrorists and their accomplices, on the other hand a totally accidental horror — in that no one had reason to guess that the twin towers were so peculiarly designed that airplanes hitting them could bring them down. It mattered that the hit was in the media capital, so it brought intense worldwide attention, coupled with unprecedented hysteria. That was added to by the anthrax scare a month later, whose perpetrator we still do not know, but could have well been someone close to the neo-cons in outlook.

We must recall the long propaganda buildup — starting in the 1950’s — about the dangers of what were once known as “ABC weapons” (atomic, biological and chemical) — a phrase that papered over the immense difference between nuclear and other kinds of weapons, eventually lumping them all as equal “weapons of mass destruction.” Anyone using this term is trying to draw attention by a scare tactic, as has been much of the talk about “rogue states” and then “terrorists” obtaining some form of WMD destruction, as if “mutually assured destruction” was a less roguish concept.

If 9-11 led to the Afghanistan invasion, its apparent success led to the “axis of evil” nonsense and then the Iraq build-up and invasion, as a way to focus domestic attention on continued war successes in unknown parts. The reason the Bush administration was so unprepared for the realities of the Iraq occupation was that none of that mattered. What did matter was winning the ’02 and ’04 elections. Remember how the Iraq war was ushered in as a media spectacular: “Shock and Awe,” live night-vision videos, “embedded” reporters. Fake heroes. The works.

If politics today is less about statecraft than showmanship, heading a seemingly powerful state such as the US creates an overwhelming temptation to use its supposedly invincible supply of high-tech weaponry in a dramatic show —largely for domestic consumption. Why is that high tech weaponry there in the first place? It is a habit begun in WWII, then rationalized in the cold war. A purely quantitative arms race against the single-minded Soviet Union could not be won. But building a supposedly insurmountable lead in a highly expensive, qualitative arms race might, and in the process, the Soviets might be bankrupted. That was certainly not the only reason the Communist government eventually collapsed, but it did play a significant part, I believe.

High-tech weaponry has another role. Purely modern societies have small families, who are not very supportive of sacrificing their few children in wars. Only by what might be called greater “destructivity,” the flip-side of high productivity, can even rich advanced nations contemplate war today. Except that destructivity has to be very “precisely” targeted now. Had the US invaded Iraq in a World War II-style mode of destructivity, flattening Baghdad utterly, say, before occupying it, “victory” might have been possible. But in a media-saturated world, where, indeed, media reports are essential to the plan from the start, that level of destruction would have spelled utter defeat, not victory at all.

Even Rumsfeld could see that. There has to be at least some pretense that the populace welcomes the invading troops with flowers. If all that is seen on TV is destruction and gloom, that amounts to defeat. Israel found that out in its recent excursion into Lebanon. Where once — not long ago — destruction would have accompanied success and glory, now it achieves the opposite. The victims do better in world opinion. To win, you now must suffer more, or at least appear to.

This is a profound reversal. It demands the most careful consideration. Seeing a map in a newspaper showing the advance of “our” troops, along with a few heroic photos of them, which was the way the public mostly connected to WWII and other mid-century wars makes it easy to forget the suffering on the other side, and all the support goes to the valiant troops. Today, that luxury is no longer possible. We see and are directly affected by suffering because it is so much more central our own humanity than killing is. Statesmen only barely are beginning to understand this. One thing the Internet ahs already done is enlarge this contact with “the other side.” I don’t see any easy way for this trend to stop. Nor do I believe that anywhere in the world where such images are available they will not have effect.

This new form of war is entirely opposite of that that prevailed in WWII, where entire cities were demolished to make a point. There was not good war reporting in Japan, for instance, so the allies felt justified in fire-bombing Tokyo, heavily bombing other cities, and then using A-bombs against Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki, just to make a point that might affect the Japanese war cabinet. Today such destruction would be seen immediately throughout the world, and the onus of evil would fall on the bombers, at least mostly.

Of course, the world consists of more than one audience. Al-qaeda-like attacks do win some number of fans in the Arab and Islamic worlds, just because these worlds feel otherwise utterly on the sidelines — affected by major changes at a heightening speed, but not able to affect them. At first, after 9-11 bin Laden surely garnered many fans, even though very few of these would be willing to blow themselves up to share in the glory.

But they no longer need to. Bin Laden’s success in 9-11 made him a media star. Whereas before his videos would have attracted little notice, now they are shown and discussed everywhere. How many people must you kill to get an audience? Well, none, actually, if you can somehow connect your rhetoric to the thought of ruthless activity. Bin laden is still no Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Of course, other kinds of war, with much less media presence, still take place. Darfur, partly. The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, Sri Lanka and Tamil Tigers, the endless border wars of Myanmar-Burma. I view these as aftershocks of aftershocks of aftershocks, the 4th world obtaining enough self-consciousness to fight back against the Third, as the Third becomes more like the first, after-after-after-effects of industrialization and colonization, but still, all in all, petering out. As other ways to get attention proliferate, as the Internet spreads further, the drawbacks of risking one’s life in actuality rather than in dramatization come to the fore. A dead suicide bomber can live on video, but so can a strategist or tactician or theorist or blogger who does not bother to become dead.

And death is rather a drawback in advancing one’s career through further steps. Bin Laden doesn’t seem any more interested in that trope than does Bush himself. After 9-11 and the stirring scene of the victory dance on the aircraft carrier, respectively, neither one knows exactly what to do for an encore. Still there is always the chance for one more personal-appearance tour. Hey, it works for the Stones.

  One Response to “War in the Attention Economy era: A hopeful future?”

  1. Dr. Goldhaber:

    If you haven’t read Don Delillo’s “Mao II” and find the time tp pick up a novel, I think you’ll appreciate how he treats the idea of terrorism and war as media spectacles. His books are generally prescient, I think, in their exploration (in the 80s and 90s) of the increasingly recognizable trend of violence as primarily a method for manipulating media focus and fixing it on the image of the terrorist; Mao II is the most on point, but Players, Cosmopolis, and perhaps others I haven’t read treat this as well.

    One of my favorite passages from Mao II is his observation that in the age of the answering machine, we are no longer at home or not at home; instead, we are either picking up or not picking up. A hackneyed observation in the Internet age, perhaps, but a striking description of the attention economy for its time (it was published in 1992).

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