The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones — Confronting A New Age of Threat

  • By Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum
  • Basic Books
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by Connie Uthoff
  • April 22, 2015

How to balance liberty and security in a world in which new technology offers great benefits and terrifying threats?

The Future of Violence: Robots and Germs, Hackers and Drones — Confronting A New Age of Threat

Today, rapid developments in biotechnology, robotics, and cyber technology offer unprecedented opportunities for economic growth, advances in healthcare, and quality of life. Unfortunately, these advances also increase our vulnerability by providing individuals, collectives, and terror organizations with a means to cause significant damage in ways that were not possible before.

The same drones that now could be used in crop dusting could also be used by a well-funded terror group to spread aerosolized anthrax. The increased use of mobile and other networked devices is empowering organizations and individuals in areas such as marketing, global reach, communication, and social interaction, but has also created an atmosphere ripe with an ever-expanding pool of experts in cyber exploitation, theft, and attack.

It is feasible that, one day, a sophisticated adversary could launch a cyber attack and severely upset the financial market or infrastructures related to power, transportation, or communication. Air traffic could be overwhelmed through cyber means, and fiber-optic lines could be compromised. These types of attacks from the civilian sector are not only possible, but, some believe, probable.

Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum examine these issues at “high altitude” in their new collaboration, The Future of Violence. Drawing on previous works from Philip Bobbitt and John Robb, the authors broaden the discussion of asymmetric threats and the challenges to the modern state; however, their focus departs from security issues related distinctly to terrorism.

Instead, Wittes and Blum look at the shifting distribution of power that results from the proliferation of technologies accessible to the general public. They further explore conceptual aspects of security, liberty, privacy, and jurisdiction that are impacted by this change and conclude with an insightful discussion of domestic and international governance, offering options for managing the future of security.

In their exploration of the transformation of security challenges and the new issues that governments do and will face, the authors first illustrate how the environment has changed: threats are everywhere. Individuals can possess the destructive capability once reserved for nation states; borders are no longer barriers to attack. Their aim is not to act as alarmists, but to instead look at how to effectively govern and maintain security at a time when technology has universally provided so much possibility and so much risk.

Their initial discussion is similar to one in The Future of Power, in which Joseph Nye studied the diffusion of power, both vertically and horizontally, as a result of the challenging threat landscape. Wittes and Blum further convey that there is simultaneously greater power and greater vulnerability everywhere with distinct implications for national security, violence, governance, and the future of the nation state. It has and will further change the way we think of security.

This leads to some essential governance questions, including: If the emergence of new technology has made us increasingly more vulnerable, how will that impact privacy and other liberties? In this new environment, the liberty-security relationship within the United States will need to be examined. Further examination of political theory that places the role of security more firmly on the state may also be required.

For Wittes and Blum, a liberty-security blend is possible, but it might be necessary to recognize the importance of surveillance as part of a security support apparatus while ensuring liberty is an integral piece of that approach.

Conflicts and attacks today often cross borders, and governments are becoming increasingly aware that security issues in one country can impact the security of another, raising questions about sovereignty, international views on liberty, and security, as well as jurisdiction.

Clearly, these urgent and expanding issues will impact domestic and international governance. Wittes and Blum recognize that managing the future of security will not be easy, but they leave the reader with both a cautionary message and tools for hopeful consideration.

By deeply exploring the challenges related to the emergence of technologies that both empower and threaten us, providing helpful ways to look at the liberty-security debate, and proposing options for governance, The Future of Violence opens up essential dialogues to consider as we move into an ever-more complex future.

For students and policymakers alike, this book offers valuable insights and thoughtful recommendations, and continues the necessary conversations that will help us to navigate through a potentially unstable new environment. The Future of Violence is a well-written, timely, and compelling work. I strongly recommend this book.

Connie Uthoff is assistant director of Strategic Cyber Operations and Information Management, College of Professional Studies, at George Washington University.

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