P.W. Singer

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P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War, has a new book about cybersecurity and sat for an interview on the topic with Alyson Sheppard of Popular Mechanics. An excerpt:


How are countries coming to terms with the ethics of using digital weapons in a military context?

P.W. Singer:

It’s a new realm of international competition and conflict and it’s very much on its way to becoming an arms race. I mean the worst aspect of arms races in the past, where countries spend a lot of money competing with each other but end up all less secure. We explore in the book the role of international negotiations and the potential of new laws and arms control. It’s going to be really difficult, but that doesn’t mean there’s not value in trying.

You also have this issue to be worked out on the national level. You have more than 100 countries building cyber military command equivalents. The civilian side needs to better understand the ramifications. This is most definitely a concern in both the U.S. and China, particularly right now when there’s a buildup of capabilities and military doctrines that are not well understood by the civilian leaders.

It’s not just our role as citizens of these countries and netizens of the Internet itself, but it’s all affecting this online world that we depend on. Cyberwar is not something that will take place in a far-off realm. It’s something that will happen on the Internet that we all use. It’s not just that we might be targeted—it’s that it will go through us.”

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Here, in no particular order, are this year’s 20 selections. These pieces, which made me think or reconsider my opinions or just delighted me, are limited to ungated material that’s only a click away. (I included work from publications such as the New York Times which allow a certain amount of free articles per month.)

  • The Reality Show” (Mike Jay, Aeon) Brilliant essay that points out that the manifestations of mental illness are heavily influenced by the prevailing culture. In our case: ubiquitous technology.
  • Invisible Child–Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life (Andrea Elliott, New York Times) A tale of two cities in present-day New York told through the story of a talented grade-school girl trying to make it through the hard knocks of class divisions. What’s expressed tacitly is that if the best and brightest homeless children only have a so-so shot at success, those less gifted have almost none. 
  • The Robots Are Here” (Tyler Cowen, Politico Magazine): The best distillation yet of the economist’s ideas about where the technological disruption will lead us as a society. I’m not completely on board with his forecasting, but this article is smart and provocative.
  • In Conversation: Antonin Scalia(Jennifer Senior, New York) Amazing interview with the Supreme Court Justice which reveals him to a stunning, and frightening, extent.
  • Return of the Oppressed (Peter Turchin, Aeon) The father of Cliodynanics forecasts a dark future for humanity thanks to spiraling wealth inequality.
  • Omens (Ross Andersen, Aeon) With a focus on philosopher Nick Bostrom, the writer wonders whether humans will survive into the deep future.
  • Thanksgiving in Mongolia(Ariel Levy, The New Yorker) Heartrending story of a reporter’s loss in a far-flung place is personal journalism at its finest.
  • Blockbuster Video: 1985-2013 (Alex Pappademas, Grantland): A master of the postmortem lays to rest not a person but a way of life which is disappearing brick by brick and mortar by mortar. 
  • The Corporate Mystique” (Judith Shulevitz, The New Republic) A reminder that a female CEO is not a replacement for a women’s movement.
  • The Global Swarm” (P.W. Singer, Foreign Policy) The author considers privacy as drones get smaller, smarter and seemingly unstoppable.
  • The Master” (Marc Fisher, The New Yorker) A profile of a predatory teacher is most interesting as an extreme psychological portrait of the cult mentality.
  • Why the World Faces Climate Chaos” (Martin Wolf, Financial Times) An attempt to understand why we cling to systems that doom us, that could make us the new dinosaurs.
  • The Hollywood Fast Life of Stalker Sarah” (Molly Knight, New York Times Magazine) Thoughtful article about celebrity in our age of decentralized media, in which fame has entered its long-tail phase, seemingly available to everyone and worth less than ever. 
  • Academy Fight Song(Thomas Frank, The Baffler) The author plays the role of designated mourner for common sense in U.S. higher education, which costs more now and returns less.
  • The Wastefulness of Automation(Frances Coppola, Pieria) A smart consideration of the disconnect of free-market societies that are also highly automated ones.

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P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War, gets to the essence of the future of drones in a new Foreign Policy article: size matters. When an unmanned system is the size of a bird–the size of a flea–privacy, borders and security may be all but over. An excerpt:

What really matters is not just the proliferation to an ever greater number of countries, but the proliferating makeup and uses of the technology itself. The first generation of unmanned systems was much like the manned systems they were replacing — some models actually had cockpits that were just painted over. Now, we are seeing an expanding array of sizes, shapes, and forms, some inspired by nature.

Within this trend, the size issue is important to discussions of armed drones. It is not just that drones are becoming smaller, but they are also carrying smaller and smaller munitions. So, if you want, for example, to carry out a targeted killing, do you need to send a MQ-9 Reaper carrying a JDAM or a set of Hellfire missiles? Or would a guided missile the size of a rolled up magazine, or a tiny bomb the size of a beer can that is equipped with GPS (both already tested out at China Lake) fit the bill instead, especially if it comes with less collateral damage? And if that smaller weapon is all that you need, do you need a drone the size of an F-16 to carry it?

While the discussion of the proliferation of armed drones has focused on those countries that field large systems, we will soon have to address those that have smaller systems.”