Until recently, a twitter was simply a bird making high-pitched mating calls. Now Twitter is in the vanguard of an army of cybernauts whose speedy steeds are propelling both democratic and authoritarian governments through a period of social change that is more profound than anything we have experienced through 5,000 years of recorded history.
Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, YouTube, LinkedIn, blogs, podcasts, StumbleUpon, Technorati, Social Wheelz, Stunt Pilot, instant messaging, social networking, Web sites – in short what Web 2.0 is spawning with hundreds of millions of users. And all this is but a pixel on the "Web's edge," according to the engineers building Web 3.0, the Internet of 2020 and beyond.
Twitter, now almost three years old, has graduated from the banal to a geopolitical convulsion; it has already shaken Iran's regime of aging theocrats to its foundations. Limited to 140 characters per tweet, put down by detractors as cackle prattle, Twitter demonstrated it can mobilize hundreds of thousands for street demonstrations against a despotic regime. Inconsequential social networking became instant social mobilization – and sources of reporting for television networks whose correspondents were ordered to pack their gear and fly home. But 7 out of every 10 Iranians own a mobile, and 35 out of 100 use the Internet, which is more than Greece.
A Boston Globe cartoon shows the turbaned, white-bearded supreme leader on his balcony ordering an acolyte to expel all the foreign correspondents reporting on the popular uprising in the streets below. But, responds the acolyte throwing up his arms, "they're all correspondents." In the street below, thousands of demonstrators turned instant journalists are firing their electronic weapons, twittering away the standards of foreign reporting, tweeting the future of journalism, and tweaking history. Online screams from men and women falling under the rubber truncheons were heard around the world.
Twitter also opened up a new dimension to geopolitics. Everything from photos of Iranian militia thugs firing on civilians demonstrating against a religious dictatorship, to real-time attacks on innocent civilians will seriously curtail a government's ability to lie or deny. In what was a clearly rigged election that gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad four more years as president, the mullahcracy lost its last shred of credibility and international respectability.
In the world at large, Web 2.0 linked to 3.8 billion individual cell phones – or well over half the world population – is bound to play a critical role in global referendums to move national governments in directions that are unpopular domestically.
In less than 10 years, say the cyber engineers, the Web will connect every aspect of our digital lives to every other aspect of our non-digital lives – e.g., when typing an e-mail message the Web will already know what the subject is and will suggest Web sites and books, as well as documents, photos and videos that are pertinent, and anything you have saved in the past that is still relevant today. It will be known as the Web's "inherent intelligence."
A recent Pentagon test pushed the speed of an amalgam of supercomputers to one quadrillion – or 1,000 trillion – operations per second. In the future, this will radically overhaul the basic platform of the Internet so that it understands the near infinite pieces of information that reside on it and draws connections between them.
One quadrillion is a number once used only by computing engineers and astronomers. Now the Basel-based Bank for International Settlements – the central bankers' bank – estimated the number of outstanding derivatives prior to the 2007 financial crisis at $1,144 trillion. Derivatives are the financial instruments predicted in congressional testimony in recent years to be "a global time bomb in our midst." No one was listening as too much easy money was flowing in to powerful pockets. But it exploded and brought down some of Wall Street's giants.
This coming year's $609 billion defense budget – on top of two wars that have already cost just under $1 trillion – is now larger than the combined defense budgets of China, Russia, France, Britain, Germany and India. How cyberwars of the future will impact defense spending is bound to be debated in defense appropriations committees. In World War I, Germans in rickety biplanes were dropping bombs by hand over allied trenches in France. Twenty-eight years later, or less than a historical nanosecond, the first two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
With Web 3.0 a decade hence and the pilot out of the cockpit in tomorrow's Air Force, Defense Secretary Bob Gates doesn't believe that warplanes at almost $200 million a copy and destroyers that don't have close in-shore capabilities at $5 billion each make much sense. When President Eisenhower, in his farewell address, warned about the military-industrial complex's voracious appetite for dollars, he forgot one key word – military-industrial-congressional.
Defense Department Deputy Secretary William J. Lynn describes today's gamut ranging from 18th-century piracy to 21st-century cyber threats. In a single day last year the Pentagon and its 15,000 networks (including 7 million computers, IT devices, laptops and servers) were cyber-attacked 6 million times. Would-be intruders range from China's cyber warriors to 15-year-old computer geeks. The Defense Department, says Lynn, "spends billions annually in a proactive effort to protect and defend our networks."
"The power to disrupt and destroy, once the sole province of nations," says Lynn, "now also rests with small groups and individuals, from terrorist groups to organized crime, from hacker activists to teenage hackers, from industrial spies to more than 100 foreign intelligence organizations [that] are trying to hack into U.S. networks." Global organized crime groups are building "global networks of compromised computers, botnets and zombies (that involve computers all over the world) and then selling or renting them to the highest bidder, in essence becoming 21st-century cybermercenaries."
The new limitless ability to listen and respond is not only impacting the exchange of ideas on a global scale; it is impacting national security. Iran is the lodestar.
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