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Doesn’t it seem like there is a new app, device, or scientific breakthrough every day? Hard if not impossible to keep up with.

This past year, the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas had 140,000 visitors viewing 3100 exhibits. I went in 2011, when there were only 2800 exhibits of new and cool stuff to see and play with. Didn’t get to more than a couple of hundred exhibits. Might have done better if the crowds had been smaller and I could have used a Segway! Of course, most of it could be viewed via the web, but there is no substitute for playing with the new “thing.”

Seems I hardly get used to a new app and it gets updated by the author, or a better one is offered for only a few bucks more. It has taken me a year to begin to master my iPhone and I can now upgrade it and learn even more new stuff!

As the pace of technology increases, will the demand for these new capabilities also increase? Seems so. New phones and cool apps are devoured quickly by the masses. The younger generations appear to be very comfortable and to expect an almost constant barrage of newness. Us older folks just seem to struggle and often fall behind.

Most of this new technology makes life easier, better, and more fun. It also provides new opportunities for criminals and other assorted bad guys to spy, rob, and generally mess with the rest of us. Unlike the break-neck speed of new technology, our system of governance and civil defense moves at the pace of the 1790s debate club that generated it. Not surprising that our laws, policies and doctrine are a bit out of date.

Maybe time for some of this technology to be applied to governance. I would love to see an app that would let me zap the next Congressman I hear saying something stupid!

Seems that we are constantly being watched, listened to, monitored, or hacked! I understand there are over a million cameras watching London visitors as they flock to Wimbledon and the Olympics. Add this to the proliferation of cameras at stop lights, intersections, stores, malls, parking lots, schools, playgrounds, and even offices. Someone is always watching!

Plus, everything I do that touches the grid seems to be in use against me…often with the excuse that it is for my benefit. Every time I buy anything, the purchase is tracked by some frequent buyer program or credit card monitoring group. All of this data is used to catch bad guys stealing credit cards and to improve service provided to me. Great! But I know it is also used to build and send ads my way that directly speak to me and my buying habits.

This is not necessarily bad. I like the fact that Amazon knows what books I like and sends me notices about new ones that I will like. I also like the fact that my food market prints out coupons for me that speak to my wants and needs. I really like the 5% discount I get for letting them track my data this way.

Many of the newer apps that we download onto our pads and phones track our usage data too. They claim that this is just so they can improve the product and service. Hope so.

What really worries me is the potential for someone to gather all of this data on me, analyze it well and discover that I am a flake, a slob, uneducated, or a redneck just looking for someplace to hide.

Not unthinkable. DARPA had a program a few years back that wanted to do this in order to find terrorists hiding in our midst. Worthy goal. Just worried about the potential for misuse.

What if someone used this data to find the people who might be planning a crime? What if their “pattern” of interaction on the grid showed them to be dangerous? Would we arrest them, a la Minority Report?

Scares me some.

I know! You can’t really declare war on a process for conducting war. Terrorism is a tactic, not a country or international entity that we need to destroy. But for more than ten years, the “War on Terror” has been the title of our efforts to defeat a set of Islamic Radicals who declared war on us more than ten years earlier.

These crazies not only declared war on us in the 1990’s, they started to attack us. But you have to hit the Big Guy really hard to get his attention. They managed to bomb the World Trade Center’s basement (how many of you remember that?), a couple of our Embassies, and one of our Navy ships, without us equating these obvious acts of war with an enemy. It was not until this new enemy used modern high-tech stuff, commercial jetliners, as weapons, and managed to kill almost 3,000 US citizens in a single day, that we realized we had an enemy we’d better take seriously.

The problem was that this new enemy was not a nation-state, so it was very hard to characterize this new enemy. We needed to go to war, but Afghanistan, where our attackers were located, was not the enemy - just a place where the crazy radicals lived. Somehow we justified the Iraq war, and we have been chasing terrorists around the world for over a decade.

We have actually embraced three or four national strategies for combating terrorism. One of the first strategies the US adopted was to push these international terrorists back into their countries of origin, where the problem could be treated as a law-enforcement issue…yes, I know that makes no sense. Over the past decade, our strategy evolved to the current one, which is focused on finding and killing everyone identified as a leader, a leader “wannabe,” a leader could-be, or even just a courier associated with the bad guys.

In the early days, we captured these guys and questioned them by various means, seeking intelligence. The residual political fallout from doing this has discouraged most politicians from considering this today. Now, it is just easier to kill them. Often, this is done remotely, using very high-tech Remotely Piloted Vehicles armed with really lethal missiles. These tactics have succeeded in killing all but a very few of these international terrorists, including one who was a US citizen.

The question I pose today is: Will this win the war?

In an article in Policy Review in August, 2003 (during the early days of the War on Terror), Frederick Kagan wrote, “It is a fundamental mistake to see the enemy as a set of targets. The enemy in war is a group of people. Some of them will have to be killed. Others will have to be captured or driven into hiding. The overwhelming majority, however, have to be persuaded.”

We have indeed destroyed most of the targets (people who were in charge) and captured those who could or would be in charge if given a chance. Certainly we have driven all the others into hiding. How are we doing on the job of persuading the rest of the Arab World, the vast majority, that those we killed were wrong and not worthy of support?

I think we have much work left. I call it The War On Terror Part II: convincing the dissatisfied that we can help, vice the current view that we are bad and must be attacked.

Difficult, but if we can’t sell free will, freedom, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, equal opportunity….maybe these things aren’t worth believing in?


In the 1960s and 1970s, the Star Trek TV series - and later, movies - portrayed a future where humans traveled faster than the speed of light, were transported from one place to another almost instantaneously, and carried handheld devices that allowed instant communication with anyone on a planet. The crew members of the Enterprise also were treated in a medical facility where the entire body could be imaged, and handheld devices read vital signs to the doctors.

Twenty-five years later, we still cannot travel faster than the speed of light (of course, we have almost totally abandoned space travel research) and we cannot transport ourselves from one place to another, although physicists have demonstrated the science behind this possibility in the laboratory.

We do, however, have something like the “tricorder” from the Star Trek series. In fact, our version of it, the iPhone, is far more capable and smaller than the one in the old TV show. We also have body imaging and medical diagnostic technology far more advanced than that envisioned twenty-five years ago.

I know: cool, but what’s the point? There are two points to be made.

One, we take all of these new capabilities and gadgets for granted, and act like it has always been this way. The Current Status Quo is, “like, normal,” man. Well, it isn’t normal. It is far different than it was ten or twenty years ago: just ask someone over sixty! These great changes in technological capability are happening so rapidly now that we have several generations of user expertise levels coexisting in our society at the same time.

Example: I know people who still prefer to have just a phone: yes, a cell phone, but without features. They say smart phones are just too confusing. They were really happy when cell phones came along and changed their lives, but they’re not ready for all the “bells and whistles.” Right next to them in the theater trying to watch a movie, while everyone else is buzzing or beeping, are Blackberry users who swear the ultimate in connectivity is email and phone service as represented by the 1995 technology in their pockets. And of course, everyone else is using an iPhone or Android with the ability to watch TV or another movie while sitting with you in the theater. There are also surely people out there who are only comfortable with a landline-touch-tone phone, but we don’t care as much about them, because there is no way they are reading this blog!

The second point is that we really should be thinking, and thinking really hard, about what will come next. Surely it will be cooler and better than what we have now. But it will also change our lives, society, the way we do business, etc. Preparing for the next great technological advancement will require first a bit of vision to postulate what it will be, and them some thought as to what it will mean for us. This type of science and technology forecasting is not in our nature, nor often practiced. I would claim it is something worth considering.

The nation was greatly surprised in 1959 when the Soviets (remember them – before the Russians…or weren’t they Russian too?) put something in space before we could. Scared us half to death, and spurred the ONLY commitment this country has ever had to space research and investment.

If we don’t take the time to think about what might come next and who might get there first, we are likely to be just as surprised again.

I will try very hard in these musings to describe some of the important science and technology policy issues that our world society is or should be dealing with.

First, what do we mean when we refer to science and technology policy?

Science and technology policy is about two things. One is the discussion and formation of policy to help us deal with the ever-increasing spread of technology. New technologies almost always affect society in both good and bad ways. The best current examples are smart phones or Internet devices. These wonderful inventions allow us to follow our children, get instant updates on events, track stocks, etc. They can also be used to spy on us and provide unprecedented access to our children. Clearly we need to develop, and are developing, policy and legislation to increase the good while limiting the bad.

The second type of science and technology policy is the use of science and scientific methods to analyze the options for development of public policy and legislation. In other words, we think that good public policy should have rigorous science behind it, and that policy or law should not be based solely on the whims of one segment of the population. This is difficult!

That is the theme, science and technology policy, and I will try to stay in that lane, but will surely run off the road from time to time. So, here’s an invitation to join me on that ride. I’ll spend a few minutes every other day or so discussing these issues, and as always – your feedback is more than welcome.

Mike Swetnam