Communication, Communications, and the “cyber arms” debate

By Cliff W. Gilmore

In Tom Gjelten’s September 23 NPR story titled “Seeing The Internet As An ‘Information Weapon’” Gjelten asks, “…why is there no arms control measure that would apply to the use of cyber weapons?” One obvious answer is that geography-based legal frameworks are ill-adapted to deal with a domain that is unconstrained by geography and subject to numerous competing interests. The situation is complicated further by an environment that changes at the speed of Moore’s Law.

Perhaps the most significant challenge however may be the information-centric mindset highlighted by Gjelten and prevalent among leaders, planners and communication practitioners alike. Part of the reason we have yet to develop applicable arms control measures for cyber weapons is a continued treatment of communications and communication (sans "s") as a singular activity rather than as two distinct fields of practice, the former grounded in technical science and the latter in social science.

Communication practices are generally grounded in one of two schools of thought and theory: The technical or monologic school that evolved in parallel with the advent and wide distribution first of radio and then TV; and the social, dialogic or transactional school that evolved in parallel with the evolving effects of those radios and televisions upon public perception. A key distinction between the two is that in the technical school a receiver is a machine while in the social school a receiver is a person. In essence technical theory emphasizes information control and delivery as a process of communicating at while social theory addresses human interaction and information exchange as a process of communicating with.

Any given communication model, even technical mathematical models like the one presented by Shannon in the 1940’s, includes several elements — yet analysis of the parlance of our times reveals persistent fixation upon the information and a general disregard for other elements including barriers, filters and, arguably the most significant, the people with whom we intend to communicate. Gjelten wrote of information warfare, information threats, information controls, and information operations all in the context of an information environment brought about by a dawning information age. This focus on the information element of the communication process stifles creativity and hinders innovation necessary for success in a communication environment in which interaction not delivery, exchange not control and dialogue not monologue are the defining characteristics. Persistent concern about ways to control a flow of information that continues to grow in speed and volume is like the proverbial Little Dutch Boy sticking his finger into an oncoming wave.

Limitations of a communication mindset grounded in technical theory become evident when the "information is a weapon" concept is explored a bit further, for the metaphor quickly becomes inconsistent within itself. The technical system or network is the weapon; information is merely munitions — and while munitions must certainly be managed, accounted for and secured, it would make little sense to establish munitions operations as the primary framework to guide the holistic use of our greater systems.

Communications is a technically-grounded activity that includes firing our munitions and degrading the ability of our adversaries to fire theirs; Communication (sans “s”) is a social science-grounded activity that involves analyzing the communication environment, selecting appropriate rounds and the right systems to launch them, and evaluating outcomes. Each — cyber and social — will require its own set of rules, laws, regulations, doctrine, etc. and our continued habit of trying to intertwine them only serves to narrow our vision.

Deliberate thought in terms of communication operations within a communication environment will help develop a mindset that leads to practice grounded in social communication theory. Based on that mindset we can then develop a framework within which to consider the matter of influence and perception effects on people while at the same time continuing to manage, improve and protect our technical systems.

Gjelten says the Russians prefer the term "Information War" and highlights the desire of many governments to control the flow of information. Like us their mindset seems to be grounded in technical communication theory and fixated on the information element. That is terribly shortsighted and brings back to mind the image of the Little Dutch Boy poking his finger into an oncoming wave. Before that wave comes crashing down, we need to ask ourselves: Would we rather be him – or do we want to ride the wave like Frankie Avalon?

Cliff W. Gilmore is an active duty Marine Corps Major currently assigned as Special Assistant for Public Communication to the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Cliff is a 2010-2011 Fellow with MIT’s Seminar XXI. He holds an MS in Organization and Management with a Leadership specialization and is a PhD Learner in the same field. The focus of his ongoing dissertation research is principle-based communication as a leadership practice and he is the author of "Principles, Credibility, and Trust", Appendix P of the U.S. Joint Forces Command Handbook for Strategic Communication (Version 3) (Appendix P begins on page 197).

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