Interview: John Robb

John Robb is an astronautical engineer turned US Air Force Special Operations pilot turned Forrester lead analyst turned startup CTO/COO turned military theorist and author, to oversimplify. His writing has heavily influenced my own (eg you’ll find his phrase “open source insurgency” several times in my novel Swarm.) He blogs at Global Guerrillas and edits Resilient Communities.

Q: Your writing has focused on three themes: global guerrillas, resilient communities, and, more recently, drone disruption. Could you give the quick nutshell summaries of each of those?

Sure. The general theme of my work is to be at the center of the information flow in the place the world is changing the fastest. I did that four times (tier 1 spec ops, the Internet, Internet Finance, blogging) in the past. I think these topics are where the change is happening fastest now:

Global guerrillas (the blog and the book, Brave New War) is about open source warfare and systems disruption. Open source warfare is a new form of guerrilla warfare that works exceedingly well in the modern, connected environment. It’s loose and highly effective. It worked in Iraq during the insurgency and in Tunisia/Egypt to topple dictators. Systems disruption is about taking sabotage to a new level. Systems disruption is how individuals and small groups can topple critical networks with very small attacks. These attacks are so successful–I have plenty of examples–they can generate returns on investment over one million to one! This area of my work has lots of fans in US special operations, the CIA, the NSA, guerrilla groups around the world.

Resilient communities is a topic where I spend most of my time. Why? There are two globally systemic threats we can’t solve. Finance and the environment. Both systems are deeply broken and they are going to do considerable damage to all of us over the next decades. The only way to get ready for that is to build networked resilient communities. Resilient Communities efficiently produce most (not all) of the food, energy, water, and products we use daily. These communities reduce our vulnerabilities to the future’s inevitable disruptions (that will damage/impoverish those that don’t transition), reduce complexity to a human scale, and improve the quality of our lives. Since these communities network with the global system, they don’t lose any of the complexity/value we enjoy in the current intellectual environment. My bet, and it is the reason I started the resilient community newsletter, is that the most successful, happiest people on the planet in twenty years will be living in resilient communities.

Drones. Robots are transforming the US military and warfare. I’m a former military pilot. I have seen first hand what drones are doing to the Air Force. Already more than half of all of the people going through pilot training end up flying drones. There are more military drones flying right now than manned planes. We’ve also seen the development of the last manned fighter (the F-35) and I doubt anybody anywhere will produce a new one. Around the world, drones are being deployed permanently (eliminating the need for soldiers) and they are being used frequently (they kill thousands). Unfortunately, this makes sense. Drones are nearly costless. They don’t generate any public push back (no US casualties) and they are much less expensive than people (no retirement/health/etc.). They can also be controlled from Washington. What makes them really scary is how fast they are becoming autonomous, smaller, and less expensive. It’s easy to envision a 10 million drone swarm pacifying a 30 m person city in 20 years time (completely controlled by just a few people at the top).

Q: A common assumption among all three, it seems, is that increasing economic and technical connectivity will lead to increasing military/political instability, which in turn will reveal the fragility of our existing infrastructure. What would you say to those who argue that this is excessively apocalyptic, and that the West’s existing society and infrastructure are already plenty robust?

There’s a simple answer to that: the financial crisis of 2008 and the EU meltdown. Another is climate change, which is another runaway train of a disaster. Why aren’t these fixable? Finance and the environment are truly global systems and there isn’t anybody at the lever.

Q: Technology and creativity are becoming increasingly crowdsourced: not just open-source software, but also Kickstarter, Thingiverse, Ushahidi, etc. Do you view these as steps in the direction of resilient communities, or do you think something qualitatively different needs to be done to get there?

Yes. I think crowd funding is the wrong term. People don’t put money into just anything. They put money and time into things they care about. As such, this is more community financing than crowd financing.

So, does community financing (via the JOBS act and other methods) make it easier to build resilient communities? Yes. Building out food, water, and energy infrastructure at the local level will require that type of financing. I think people are going to find that investing locally in these efforts is a much better way to fund a retirement than investing in broken financial products that have no intrinsic value.

Q: Your writing deals extensively with “open-source insurgencies.” Can you give a couple of concrete example of those insurgencies, how they work, and how they’re enabled by modern technology?

We had a hot open source insurgency in Iraq. Lots of different groups: Baathists that supported Saddam, Baathists that didn’t, nationalists, different flavors of Jihadi, criminals, tribal groups. All of them came together to develop an open source project: to fight the US occupation and keep the Iraqi government in a state of disarray. It worked for years, despite incredible odds. One of the reasons it worked so well is that the rate of innovation in open source insurgencies is extremely fast. IEDs (improvised explosive devices) designs improved extremely quickly. They were able to defeat US counter-measures weeks after they were deployed.

Another example is Egypt (and the other insurgencies/protests of the Arab Spring). The reason the protest worked was that it used an open source framework. It didn’t have a fixed leadership cadre and its goals were extremely simple. The only people that were able to gain credibility as leaders were those people that moved the protest forward. If they tried to insert their own agenda, they were quickly discarded.

Q: You believe drones, and in particular autonomous swarms of drones, will soon revolutionize warfare and military thought everywhere. How do you see this happening over the next ten years, and what milestones do you think will be reached along the way?

It’s already underway. Drones already are killing thousands. They are so easy to use, they are the first option in any plan.

Much of the rest of the military that isn’t directly employed in the service of deploying and managing drones, is an expensive legacy that will take years to scale down and mothball.

Q: What steps do you think nation-states will take to ensure that drone military power will remain their exclusive preserve? (I’m thinking of Cory Doctorow’s The Coming War On General-Purpose Computing.) Do you think they’ll ultimately succeed, or will that technology metastasize to insurgents (open-source or other) and other non-state groups? If so, what will the geopolitical effects be?

I personally believe that nation-states are in the process of becoming hollow shells of what they once were. Global systems are hollowing them out, reducing their ability to control events or their finances. Most states are going to end up being mere conduits for extracting wealth to send to the global financial system (think Greece, Ireland, and soon Spain). They won’t deliver any meaningful services and their focus will be on control of the countryside (probably through drones/robotics that makes it possible for people in Washington to non-lethally put down riots in LA with a flip of a switch). Also, will we see robotic pirates and terrorists? Yes, probably.

So, given that this is a likely future, I’d rather have the genie out of the box and working on our side.

Image: DronesHawks swarming over Panama City, by yours truly.