Asymmetrical vulnerabilities

This morning’s Observer column:

In their book, The Future of Violence, Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum point out that one of the things that made the Roman empire so powerful was its amazing network of paved roads. This network made it easy to move armies relatively quickly. But it also made it possible to move goods around, too, and so Roman logistics were more efficient and dependable than anything that had gone before. Had Jeff Bezos been around in AD125, he would have been the consummate road hog. But in the end, this feature turned out to be also a bug, for when the tide of history began to turn against the empire, those terrific roads were used by the Goths to attack and destroy it.

In a remarkable new paper, Jack Goldsmith and Stuart Russell point out that there’s a lesson here for us. “The internet and related digital systems that the United States did so much to create,” they write, “have effectuated and symbolised US military, economic and cultural power for decades.” But this raises an uncomfortable question: in the long view of history, will these systems, like the Roman empire’s roads, come to be seen as a platform that accelerated US decline?

I think the answer to their question is yes…

Read on