Life is moving faster and faster. Just about everything—transportation, weapons, the flow of information—is accelerating. How will decision makers preserve our personal and national security in the face of hyper speed?
An American consulate is surrounded. At 1:06 p.m. local time, three trucks arrive and a dozen men gripping matte black assault rifles stream out of the vehicles. There might have been an explosion in the compound.
Thousands of miles away, a member of the National Security Council is checking email between meetings. Just ten minutes after the incident, updates and questions start pouring in.
News media has the story. It's trending on Twitter. How should the United States respond?
This kind of pressure-cooker scenario is not uncommon. As the velocity of information—and just about everything else—accelerates, leaders face immense pressure to act or respond quickly. To help them adapt, researchers at the RAND Corporation are studying the phenomenon of speed as part of a special project, known as Security 2040, which looks over the horizon to evaluate future threats.
In his former roles as Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy National Security Adviser, Antony Blinken was one of those leaders responding to speed-driven crises.
"The single biggest change that I experienced in almost 25 years . . . was in the area of speed," said Blinken, a RAND adjunct researcher who shared his expertise on the project. "Nothing had a more profound effect on government and the challenges of government."
Blinken is concerned about things moving faster physically and virtually and the resulting pressure placed on government leaders. "It's going to increase the probability of bad decisions."
Almost every aspect of our lives is accelerating—communication, travel, financial transactions, cultural change, even evolution itself through new gene-editing technologies. These changes have benefits. But in many cases, there is a paradox: With progress, comes risk.
Three-dimensional (3D) printing, for example, could drastically reduce the time needed to deliver lifesaving materials to communities after a disaster. But the same technology could also increase the risk of weapons proliferation.
"With speed, we're anticipating risks that come from tech like 3D printing and virtual threats from cyberattacks." said Seifu Chonde, an associate operations researcher at RAND and one of the lead authors of a new paper, Speed and Security: Promises, Perils, and Paradoxes of Accelerating Everything. "But speed can also lead to new, diverse threats seemingly overnight."
Chonde—along with research partner and RAND associate social scientist Kathryn "Casey" Bouskill—predict that this acceleration will continue into the year 2040 and beyond. It can't be stopped, they say, but we can prepare for the changes it might bring. If governments, private-sector leaders, and the public start talking about speed now, there could be ways to mitigate its negative effects.
When it comes to national security, we feel the effects of speed in many ways. It compresses the time that leaders have to respond to threats. It disrupts traditional, more-predictable patterns of conflict escalation. It enables bad actors to attack democracies in novel ways—such as using bots to spread propaganda quickly. Speed is also transforming the weapons that adversaries will have in their arsenals.
Speed disrupts traditional, more-predictable patterns of conflict escalation, and compresses the time that leaders have to respond to threats.
During his time in government, Blinken regularly received notice of urgent security situations. News and updates poured in via email, phone call, and text. Often, as soon as a threat was reported, another one would emerge. Separating fact from fiction proved challenging.
He recalls a handful of violent attacks that were immediately labeled as acts of terrorism but turned out to be something else. In such circumstances, decisive action can be necessary—but pausing before acting is essential to getting the facts straight and understanding the second- and third-order consequences of potential actions.
"There is incredible pressure to be reactive and responsive to information that's coming in at any given moment," he said. "But the biggest risk is that, in your haste to react or to show strength, you get it wrong."
In the past, measured diplomatic discussions helped decision makers understand and manage conflict. Now, tweets can fan the flames of conflict in an instant.
Weapons are accelerating, too. Hyper sonic missiles and planes move at five times the speed of sound. Other threats, such as cyber weapons, can be deployed with the click of a mouse. Blinken likens these weapons to being "a little bit like Dr. Strangelove on steroids." Even if such an attack is detected, officials have just minutes—or seconds—to respond.
Leaders must prepare for these emerging threats, but speed has already landed a few blows on American democracy. The rapid growth of social media and online news platforms have accelerated the spread of online propaganda and misinformation. That plays a role in what RAND calls "Truth Decay," a phenomenon marked by the diminishing role of facts and analysis in public life.