John Arquilla Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

International Relations in the Information Age: Conversation with John Arquilla, Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey; March 17, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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When 9/11 occurred, after the shock was there an element [of recognition]? Because if you look at the work you've done, it was prescient in exploring possibilities. Unfortunately, this very tragic one became a reality. What was that moment like for you? I know you shared the sorrow and the tragedy that all Americans did. But your insights about networks pointed to an understanding of what, in fact, happened, an understanding which we were lacking and the authorities were lacking.

Yes, 9/11, of course, was a terrible tragedy that we all feel and will continue to feel. My reaction after the initial shock was that I must rededicate myself to this message that my colleague Ronfeldt and I have been pushing since the mid 1990s. The real difference we observed in the days and weeks after was the enormous receptiveness at all levels, including up into the executive levels of our government; an enormous openness to the idea of thinking like a network and trying to figure out how to deal with a network.

In that regard, we were both very, very busy trying to explicate our ideas to a variety of audiences. And in that regard, maybe the terrible tragedy of 9/11 served to catalyze a shift in thinking, to allow the creation of a turn of mind.

Do you see that turn of mind in the actions and policies of the government, or is it a kind of a rush, in terms of seeing the new directions that are necessary?

It's a mixed bag. The military has gotten generally better in the area of networking. But there is always this tug back to the old familiar ways. "Let's send a court of a million troops, not 25,000 or 50,000." Go bigger/stay home apparently works both at the poker table and on the battlefield for a lot of traditional thinkers. But there's been good progress in networking. In our own government there's also been an effort to build connections with other countries that has been a very excellent sign of awareness of the power of networks.

The biggest impediments have been within our own system. We still have walls between what's civil and what's military; what's federal and what's local. These walls either have to come down or we have to learn how to walk through walls to begin to communicate with each other, because bureaucracy and the peculiarities of our own electoral politics tend to reinforce the creation of new hierarchies, which then fight over resources. And this is tremendously counterproductive.

One final question. If students were to watch or read this interview, what advice would you give them for preparing for the future in terms of the kind of training they should have to understand the world? And if they are interested in military affairs and the fight against international crime or international terrorism, what's the preparatory work like? What you're saying has implications, also, for people who want to do NGO-type work.

Exactly. For those who might be undergraduates or graduate students, I would say begin by "networking thyself." Whatever it is you're interested in, I guarantee you there's an affinity group, there's a community of interest to which you must connect yourself. If it's to be a part of an antiwar civil action group, well, coordinate there. I'm amazed, for one, that there wasn't more coordination across campuses around this country, much less around the world, of a variety of networking techniques that, for example, could have had demonstrations taking place on some major campus around the country every day for thirty or forty days. The networking of civil society actors in the latest antiwar movement had, from its beginnings, only a very fitful presence. This thing could be far greater. So for students, perhaps, hooking up with some kind of hands-on networking would give you a very, very good skill set.

For those who might have an interest in international security or military affairs, I can only say to stay away from most of the traditional thought in those areas, because, really, the future of national and international security is based on works only now being written.

I'm left with the thought that in some ways, networks and the networking process is like chicken soup for the common cold. There is a sense in which we all know networks before we really know networks, that in our lives or settings that matter to us, we network already.

Absolutely. And as we go back in the prehistory of mankind, we're probably going to find that even before the tribe emerged as a form, there was probably something like social networking going on, even before the earliest chief came along to try to grab power. Here we are, a million years later with the same sort of thing: the chief is trying to grab power away from the individual network. So we may as a species simply be coming back to what we originally were. We may be coming full circle in terms of this empowerment of the individual. I hope so.

John, on that note, thank you very much for being here today and sharing this intellectual journey, but also these very important insights for understanding the age we're in. Thank you.

My great pleasure, Harry.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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