Network Intelligence

My Dad, now retired, used to work in the US intelligence community (he was the academic/researcher type, not the “envelope swap at midnight” type). He and I were chatting recently about the evolution of intelligence gathering, and the recent tsunami. And how it related to, of all things, blogs. And mobile phones.

On the one hand, and at the risk of offending some of my more blogomaniacal friends, I do admit to feeling blogs are a tad overhyped. But only in the sense that blog content isn’t all that different from the content that preceded the blog’s building blocks. What is underhyped, in my view, is the impact of blogs on the advancement of simplicity and convenience. The most powerful weapons known to this industry. My friend Adam’s long been a proponent of the simple – I could not agree with him more. Simplicity changes the world. Convenience is a force multiplier.

Simplicity drives ubiquity (and you know how I feel about volume). How many people use search software today, vs. 10 years ago? If you Google, you’re a searcher, and I’d say the ratio of internet users to Google users is pretty impressive. The number’s large partially because the price is right, and partially because it’s so simple. (Although I was appalled to note my father just bought a book on “Using Google,” proving the demographic for that genre is closely related to those of us that grow too cocky believing we’re making the world a simpler place). Google has hundreds of millions of users, driven by simplicity and convenience. Just as there are hundreds of millions of cell phone users now using camera phones. Now how does any of this relate to intelligence and the tsunami?

Around the time of the coup that removed Gorbachev from power, I remember my father talking about CNN as an ‘intelligence asset.’ Information traveled fast through CNN, and their signal was global and readily accessible. And the quality of their intelligence rivaled government sources. That was a fascinating thought – CNN was as efficient, for a breadth (not all) of intelligence gathering, as a far more expensive ‘private’ network. Granted it was a singular voice, there was a single editorial team (doing all the interpretation), but the speed and color of the coverage was amazing. It was simple, and effective.

So it was doubly amazing for both of us to realize that in the recent tsunami, blogs were beginning to eclipse even CNN as a source of instant primary intelligence. As far as on-the-ground coverage of that extraordinary disaster, bloggers were more accurate, speedy and accessible than any other news or intelligence vehicle. Using everything from camera phones to Typepad to video footage. It was awe inspiring. And I agree with Dan Gillmor’s sentiment that the tsunami will be seen as a turning point in understanding the impact of Citizen Journalism (or, in my view, network intelligence).

But there was more happening than just bloggers blogging. The most interesting evolution, to me, went two steps beyond. First, it’s one thing for a web site covering, say, digital cameras, to have a review of the latest camera. But there were no “Tsunami Update” sites before the tsunami hit. They were created on the fly, as fast as the tsunami hit, impromptu outlets for the latest updates and information. Just go look around, you’ll be stunned at the breadth. And they’re continuing to grow in value, both as sources of information on missing loved ones, as well as gathering points for critical science or fund raising (and hats off to Amazon for quickly deploying a “One Click Donation“). Aggregation happened on the fly.

Second, the diversity of content sources is beginning to grow. Mblogs and vlogs are emerging around the world, pointing to an even more interesting future (although one aid worker with whom I spoke found the prevalence of .wmv (Windows Media) files disturbingly inaccessible to non-Windows users). The common wisdom is that mobile devices are insufficient for the demands of content creators – who must therefore default to a PC. Me, I wouldn’t bet on that as a lasting conclusion. My bet is more people will buy camera phones this year than the world will buy PC’s.

And from an intelligence gathering perspective, who would’ve thought the anachronistic Minox’s arch rival would become Nokia – delivering a far higher resolution, more compact, video-enabled information gathering asset. (And with cell coverage more ubiquitous than Minox processing facilities, I’d short the market for trench coats and plain manila envelopes.)

The simplicity of blogs, the convenience of pervasive networks, and an explosion of new content sources – as a combined force, is radically underestimated. And not for its impact on the publishing industry, in specific, but on any industry that finds competitive advantage in the latency of information, or in complexity. From national security to the whole IT industry. Simplicity can be a sustainable competitive advantage. It’s becoming more obvious by the day.

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