The sociological eye means looking at things for what they are, as best we can given the blinders of interest and ideology, of cliché and ritualized belief. It is not an individual enterprise. Chaining our efforts together as a long-term network of theorists and researchers improves one’s own sociological vision, provided we make the effort. The sociological eye holds up a periscope above the tides of political and intellectual partisanship, spying out the patterns of social life in every direction.

Thursday, July 19, 2018


The following questions were posed by a Chinese on-line newspaper, The Paper []:

[The Paper:] 1. The Credential Society was published in 1979, but its Chinese edition has just come out. Therefore, I assume it is a good opportunity for you to review the days when you wrote it. So, after 39 years, do you still believe your observation and judgment of education and society? Has the educational system operated in the way this book presented in recent years?

Yes, inflation of educational requirements for jobs has increased quite a lot. In the US, the value of a 12-year (high school) diploma now is almost worthless for getting a job; it is only useful for entry into university to get a higher degree. Jobs that formerly had lower requirements, like police officer, now require a college degree, while a M.A. in Criminology or Criminal Justice is required to become a Police Chief. In the 1970s, when I wrote the book, a B.A. degree was becoming common for a job as a business manager; now most of these jobs require an MBA (as I  predicted). This has happened all across the spectrum of jobs.

[The Paper:] 2. Although the Credential Society focused on the U. S., it has been globally influential over the years. How do you evaluate its universal impact and value? In your opinion, is it applicable to other countries?

Credential inflation has become applicable world-wide in the last 30 or 40 years. The US began credential inflation earlier than most other countries; already by 1930 it had a higher percentage of university students and 12-year high school students; it started aiming for universal high school education in the 1950s, and now for universal university education. Russia (the old Soviet Union) and Japan were two other countries that developed mass high school and university systems early. Most European countries-- England, France, Germany-- had elite systems, with only a small proportion attending high schools (lycée, Gymnasium, etc.) and even smaller fractions attending university. They began to follow the US path of inflation in the 1960s and 70s, and then accelerated. Now many other countries-- for example, Chile, South Korea-- have pushed to a level where a large majority of the youth cohort attend universities; and it has become a major political demand-- how to provide free university education for everyone.

[The Paper:] 3. Since its publication, the Credential Society has caused persistent discussion. Has any relevant comment or discussion impressed you?

Originally my book was considered scandalous by many people. When I presented the original manuscript to my first publisher (University of California Press), they refused to accept it, even though it was under contract. A new publisher, Academic Press, published it, but then they refused to allow a mass paperback publisher (Anchor Books) to buy the rights to it, and Academic Press refused to issue it in paperback. So the book became hard to buy; and people would write to me to ask for a copy. Since it was written before the time of word-processing programs, the best I could do was send them a photo-copy. 

Over the years, the argument was known to specialists in sociology of education-- especially those with a more critical viewpoint; and several articles I had written on the topic were well known to students. The issue of credential inflation started becoming public after the 2008-9 financial crisis; and in the following years newspapers started carrying articles questioning whether a university degree is a good investment, because its value as a job payoff has fallen, while its cost has risen sharply.

[The Paper:] 4. What does this book mean to your academic career and your life? Has it influenced your other works?  

When the book was first published, I resigned my university position, because I felt it was wrong for me to work in the system that I had criticized. But the other books and articles that I published-- I worked in many other areas besides sociology of education-- resulted in receiving many job offers. I took a position that mainly consisted of doing research, and have published books that have had a good reception-- on sociological theory, creativity in intellectual networks, face-to-face social interaction, and sociology of violence. I stopped writing on credential inflation for many years, to work on other topics.

[The Paper:]  Are you satisfied with this book? If you were given a chance to rewrite it, would you like to make any modification or improvement?

To rewrite it now, I would need several research assistants to examine all the research that has been done of education and careers, education and its rising costs, education and social inequality. In general, the correlation between parents' social class and children's education has not changed from the 1930s through the present-- i.e. a huge increase in the percentage of children who go to high school, university, and advanced professional schools has gone up but stratification hasn't changed. The belief that more access to education would bring social equality has proven wrong.

On the theoretical side, the main thing that I would add to the book is to refine the concept of credential inflation as similar to monetary inflation. As economists have known for a long time, putting more money in circulation reduces the buying power of money. But the difference is, printing new money costs very little; and in the centralized banking systems we now have, it is possible to increase the money supply just by changing the procedures for making loans or to change the numbers in a computer. (This happens every day when the market value of a popular stock goes up.) But educational credentials are not just the paper that diplomas are printed on, but require much investment in school buildings, salaries for teachers and administrators, etc. Therefore: although monetary inflation theoretically has no limit, "printing" more educational degrees becomes very expensive when degrees are inflated and students spend more years of their lives in school. So the historical trend to inflate degrees goes through periodic crises-- either the students can't afford the degrees when their job payoff declines, or the government (or parents) can't afford to keep expanding the educational system. There was a mini-crisis like this in the 1980s, and again in the 2010s; and we can expect more such crises in the future. At some point, if 100% of the population is going to spend 20 or more years in school getting more and more advanced degrees, the cost of education becomes equal to almost the entire economy.

[The Paper:]  5. What research did you do for the book? What was the most challenging part when you wrote it?

Besides the theoretical analysis, I made two main research contributions. One was to assemble data to show how the job value of degrees has inflated during the 19th and 20th centuries in the US (the modern country that started credential inflation). I showed, for instance, that jobs as business managers required only high school degrees (or even less if one started as a family member or apprentice) until the 1950s. Surprisingly, even technical jobs-- engineers, the most essential technical job for modern industry-- was mostly learned by apprenticeship or on-the-job, rather than by formal education.  Traditionally in the West, lawyers and medical doctors, along with priests, were the main occupations that required university degrees; and even in these fields, people could learn these professions by apprenticeship. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, was a lawyer who never went to school, but learned law as an apprentice. The movement to require university and advanced degrees came in the late 19th century (in the US) and explicitly tried to make these fields more socially elite.

I would add here that if I were to revise The Credential Society today, I would add a section on how the big fortunes in the Information Technology area were made: Not by going to university to get a degree, but by dropping out of the university, to follow one's own innovations. This was the way the founders of Apple came to create the personal computer, and later the career paths by which Facebook, Google, and other digital empires were created.  (Apparently this is true in China, too, where the founders of Alibaba and Tencent were not academic stars, but failures in the exam system, who found experience in telecommunications work that gave them the idea of spinning off new products.) There is an important theoretical reason for this: the fortunes were made by creating a new technology, and it was too new to be taught in the universities. The creators went directly to the most advanced practitioners of technology of that day, examined their equipment, sometimes stole their best ideas or put them to new use, hired away the best technicians and engineers. For them to wait until they got their degrees would have put them behind in the race to invention.

This is one reason why the creators of high-tech industries and especially the entrepreneurs who make huge fortunes, are usually men. In the US, women have made great advances in getting into universities and advanced professional schools, and are the majority of the students now at these levels. But the educational degree pathway is a bureaucratic career pathway, step-by-step. Women increasingly get to be named the head of a big corporation now, but few women do what Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg did-- drop out and concentrate on the innovation, not on getting the degree.

I mentioned that The Credential Society made two main research contributions. The second one was to test the dominant theory about educational expansion, at the time I wrote it. This was the technological theory of education. It said that modern jobs become more complex and more technical, so in order to get a job in the modern sector one needs more education. This was a theory; no one ever tested it. I got data on many kinds of organizations, their educational requirements in hiring, and how technologically advanced they were. I found that the high-tech organizations of the time (i.e. the 1960s) had lower educational requirements than low-tech organizations; and that higher credential requirements were in high status organizations (such as elite law firms).  Economists favored the technical-skills argument; but they never measured whether advanced education really did provide the skills for the job. They developed another theory that education may not provide skills, but it is a signal that a person has some thing unmeasured which makes them good at acquiring skills. They never tested this either. In more recent years, the examples of people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have made some economists (or at least newspaper writers) recognize that entrepreneurship and innovation are not really what education teaches, and that there is a more direct route to the technological frontier.

[The Paper:]  6. The Credential Society has been well-known for its fierce criticism to the educational system. How did you realize the inequality of the educational system and start to query its rationality?

My father was a diplomat, and we lived in foreign countries while I grew up. Most of what I learned came from reading my father's books or books in the Embassy library.  My last two years in high school were an a prep school in New England, where most of the other students came from rich families, and the school taught us how to take the exams that would get one admitted to an Ivy League college. I went to Harvard, where everybody was proud of how much more elite they were than anyone else. What I learned about education at that point in my life was that it was stratified, some schools were considered more elite, and it was mainly children of rich families who went there; but even if your family wasn't rich (my father never owned a house until he retired), if you could get into an elite school, its high status would rub off on you too. (This is only partially true. I was never really accepted into the clubs of the rich kids; but I did become part of the academic elite.) Going to Harvard meant that you could go to graduate school at Stanford or Berkeley, and those degrees got you hired at a top research university. But the elite status of being a faculty member at those universities depended on doing the most famous research inside the network of researchers, and my professors were the best network I could have started from. I learned what topics were on the advanced edge, how to do their kind of research; even criticizing them and moving on to new theories was the kind of skill they favored. From my perspective now, I would say that elite research universities provide a kind of apprenticeship, or on-the-job training, by starting as a research assistant to famous professors. Academic research is the one job where an academic credential pathway coincides with actually learning the skill you will apply later on.

[The Paper:] Which theories affect your thinking at that time? Was it related to your own experiences? 

To sum up my early experiences: education clearly was related to stratification, since the elite schools were always bragging about how elite they were. But this was incongruous with what social scientists were teaching as a theory of education:  that education is a pathway to social equality.

When sociologists starting doing field research and survey research in the 1930s-1950s, they discovered that the most important division in people's lives was by social class. Research on social mobility (now called status attainment) found that the strongest predictor of a child's future job was the education of his or her parents. So the theory of meritocracy was developed: if a child could get more education than one's parents,  he/she would end up in a higher social class. Most research since that time-- from the 1960s until today-- concentrates on the first part of the chain: what factors lead from family to school attainment. (They paid little attention to the second part of the chain: once you have the educational degree, what determines what happens to you then?) In France, Pierre Bourdieu became famous in the 1970s, by showing that children acquire "cultural capital" from their parents, and this determines how well they do in school; Bourdieu also thought that this "cultural capital" would also affect would kind of jobs they would get, since the people doing the hiring want people who have the same cultural tastes as themselves.

My early work was done parallel to Bourdieu. Both of us were critical of the idea that expanding education would make a society more equal. The main differences in my work were: [1] to empirically criticize the theory that advanced technology was the reason why all societies were now demanding more education; [2] focusing on the mechanism of credential inflation, or the dynamics of the system over a long period of time.

[The Paper:]  7. The Credential Society presented an in-depth exploration in the educational system and employment of social sciences, but seldom mentioned natural sciences and engineering. Do you think that your analysis and inference also make sense to natural sciences?

Yes. First, to describe the history: as I mentioned, engineers were the last major profession to credentialize; the inventors and entrepreneurs who made the industrial revolution, the automobile revolution, etc. were not educated in professional schools of engineering, but from working with the machinery itself, trying out new combinations. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford were the Steve Jobs and Jack Ma of their day.  Yes, it is possible to create educational credentials in engineering and science, but this happens after the key developments begin, and it standardizes them so that they can be taught.

In recent years, as universities have been squeezed for funds (because of the rising costs of mass-producing credentials), they have encouraged engineering and science departments to connect more directly with entrepreneurs, or to become entrepreneurs themselves. This means, instead of focusing on the credential, focusing on getting into the entrepreneurial and technological networks themselves. 

Natural scientists also do "basic research" and here the careers within universities and research institutes are like what I described for my own career in social science. The universities are the center of these networks, and scientists learn how to innovate by apprenticeship to scientists who are already doing it.

So one can make an argument that natural science-- at least some of it-- really does have a technological and economic payoff. I have already suggested that following the academic route to credentials is not what the most famous innovators have done. But assuming that some of the credentials pay off, is it reasonable to expect that a majority of the jobs in a society of the future will consist of scientists and technicians? Especially if credential inflation goes up towards 100% of the population: does China really need 1 billion engineers and scientists, or the US needs 300 million?

[The Paper:]  8. In this book, you show your approval of credential Keynesianism and credential abolitionism as the solutions to the problems of education, do you still believe these? How do you evaluate their feasibility?

Political efforts to abolish credential requirements for certain occupations have been tried in the US, but have done nothing to slow the general trend. Keynesian economics was out of fashion with economists for many years, but since the 2008 recession "stimulus" spending has often been favored. Few people seem to realize that government expenditures on education are Keynesian, in the sense that they provide jobs both for teachers, payment for builders and other suppliers of material resources; they also keep full-time students off the labor market, and if they receive room and board, it is a transfer payment which puts more spending money into the economy. In the book Does Capitalism Have a Future? (written with Immanuel Wallerstein et al., 2013, Oxford Univ. Press), I suggested that in a future where computers take over human jobs, expanding the school system to everybody for lifetime learning would be a way to carry out socialism without calling it by that name.

[The Paper:]  9. According to the preface, despite your criticism to education, you had to work as a university professor for many years. What do you feel about this situation?

It is rather pleasant to work in a high-level research university, so my only objection to working there was my moral objection to living off an institution that operates on false promises. But it is interesting to work around intellectually creative colleagues and thoughtful students-- especially if they are more interested in intellectual discoveries than in getting credentials.

[The Paper:]  Have you made any attempt to change the educational system?

Hardly anyone in American schools objects to credential inflation, if they recognize it at all, because where there is a large demand for degrees, there is a demand for teachers.  My colleagues, if they think about it at all, would probably say that to criticize credential inflation is to attack their jobs.

[The Paper:]  10. Have you ever paid attention to China’s education and society? And do you have any academic interest on it? If so, please share your observation and thoughts.

Yes, both historically and for the present.  In my book, The Sociology of Philosophies [1998, Princeton Univ. Press], I wrote several long chapters about networks of Chinese philosophers. Their organizational base included the Imperial university and the examination system for government positions. The Han Dynasty had one of the world's earliest educational bureaucracies; and the Song Dynasty created the first period of credential inflation, which grew stronger in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. But although candidates had to pass an increasing number of exams and degrees, and some studied until they were more than 40 years old, the exam system only provided credentials for employment in the Imperial bureaucracy; unlike modern credentialism in the US and elsewhere, it did not spread to other kinds of jobs. So dynastic China had credential inflation that was confined to a rather small elite.

Since the Deng Xiao-ping market reforms, Chinese high schools and universities have expanded, and the intense competition among students to enter elite schools is famous. There are some differences from the US system of credential inflation, however. The Chinese system is more "meritocratic" in the sense that university admission depends so heavily on academic examination. The US system, under political influences, uses multiple criteria, including scores on national exams, but also grade point averages in high school, participation in athletics and other extracurricular activities, desirable personality, and attempts to include ethnic minorities in (unofficial) quotas. As a result, I would say the US system tends to be somewhat anti-intellectual, whereas the Chinese system is more narrowly focused on intellectual performance. The US system also has a trend to "grade inflation" as most students now are awarded the top grades, with the effect of diluting the criteria of excellent performance; the Chinese system appears to uphold more strict standards. This is probably a reason why US students tend to score low in international comparisons, whereas Chinese students score high.

I would like to draw one theoretical conclusion from this comparison. The US economy has performed strongly, almost all the time for over 100 years. It performed well when we had a small elite school system; it performed well when we expanded to mass education; it continues to perform well even when we dilute the standards and undergo both credential inflation and grade inflation. My conclusion is: it does not matter how the school system performs. Not everyone educated in American has to be a scientist or engineer; if only 10 percent of them are good at this, nevertheless we have such a large system that it fulfills our technical needs. And other features of the US society foster entrepreneurs of the Steve Jobs/ Thomas Edison type; so the economic dynamism is there.

China, in proportional terms for its large population, does not have the extreme credential inflation found in the US.  Perhaps it will get there in the future. Or perhaps it will go a different path.

A new edition of The Credential Society will be published in 2019 by Columbia University Press.

Thursday, June 28, 2018


What effect did meeting Trump have on Kim Jong Un?

Faces and body postures give information about emotions and social relationships that don’t necessarily come out in what words are spoken. Kim Jong Un looked distinctly different with his followers in North Korea than he did with Donald Trump in Singapore. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un leads all the action, down to facial expressions that everyone else imitates. In Singapore, the shoe was on the other foot. Trump set the tone and KJU imitated him, but in a more subdued manner. Trump took almost all the initiative, on the non-verbal level as well as verbally, and KJU passively followed.

When Trump returned from Singapore and declared that the US was now safe from nuclear attack, he was probably expressing his feeling that he had prevailed over Kim Jong Un personally. Was this so? Let’s look at the visual evidence.

Kim Jong Un and his terrified sycophants in North Korea

In a previous post, “Faces Around a Dictator,” I examined all available photographs of Kim Jong Un with other North Koreans.

Throughout, KJU sets the facial expression and body posture. His followers mirror him, but with a difference-- their expressions are over-the-top, trying really hard to show they agree with him. We see this in the strain lines in their faces, and their exaggerated body postures.

Their faces are also tinged with fear. Not surprisingly, given Kim’s record of ruthlessly eliminating potential opponents and any sign of opposition.

When KJU smiles, everyone smiles.

KJU uneasily confers with his father, Kim Jong Il. The man in the middle is KJU’s uncle.

Whatever the dictator’s mood, others imitate it.

On the left is Kim Jong Un’s uncle, once considered the power behind the throne, now (2013) on his way to prison and execution.

Kim Jong Un doesn’t so much threaten people to their face as dominate them emotionally. People around him are emotionally beaten down.

What happens to KJU’s emotional domination when he meets Trump face to face?

Kim Jong Un with Trump in Singapore

I examined all photos available on-line and in news media that show Kim Jong Un and Trump together.

12 photos show both men facing the camera, not looking at each other:

12 show Kim and Trump looking at each other face to face, in reciprocal face contact:

11 are asymmetrical: 10 in which Trump is looking at Kim Jong Un’s face, while Kim looks away:

Looked at in more detail, these photos show Trump setting the emotional mood with his face, while KJU mirrors him but less intensely. This contrasts sharply with what we see in North Korea, where KJU always takes the emotional lead. With Trump, KJU doesn’t look like one of his own sycophants, straining to out-do the leader’s expression; but he has gone from being extremely dominant emotionally, to looking at least mildly emotionally dominated.

1 photo shows Kim Jong Un looking at Trump while Trump looks away:

This is the scene where a North Korean general saluted Trump, and Trump returned the salute. No doubt it was Trump enjoying acting military. Kim Jong Un looks surprised, taken aback, a little intimidated. His feeling is probably something like, what the hell is he going to do next? KJU is doing the looking, but in this case his looking is reactive, while Trump is active, whipping up his arm.

Summing up, in one-third of the photos Trump has the initiative and the emotional dominance; in the other two-thirds, they are symmetrical, either looking at each other reciprocally, or both facing the camera. But if we examine all the photos for their facial expressions and body action, we find the following.

In 10 photos, Trump is more active-- either showing more body movement, or more forceful body posture.

In only 1 photo is Kim more active than Trump:

This is the photo where KJU puts his hand on Trump’s shoulder as they are about to walk by themselves in the garden. Kim is momentarily being more active, but it is also the photo where  Kim most spontaneously expresses friendliness.

In 6 photos, Trump’s face is more expressive; there are zero photos where KJU shows the more expressive face.

Altogether, there is a lot of ceremonial ritual in the Singapore meeting, especially where Trump and KJU greet each other on a flag-covered stage and when they perform for the camera. But even here they are largely playing Trump’s game. The asymmetrical moments and the more informal interactions show Trump’s emotional domination.

Is all this a show put on for the Singapore summit? Are they just acting out a conventional script? Some comparisons to other situations will help.

Trump in hostile confrontation-- and others

Less than a week before the Singapore meeting, Trump had a major confrontation at the G-7 meeting over threatening tariffs.  The archetypal photo shows most of the other G-7 heads of state on one side of a table, Trump on the other. Angela Merkel, the most prominent politician in Europe, takes the lead in a stare-down with Trump. At her side, French President Macron (seen only in profile) joins in the stare-down. They are all collectively trying to stare down Trump, with the exception of Japanese PM Abe, who watches Merkel with a slightly embarrassed look. (I would read this as indicating Abe is more willing to break with the European leaders and to negotiate with Trump.)

How does Trump handle the pressure? He narrows his eyes, while continuing to meet the hostile stares.

This is a typical move in top-level international confrontations between leaders of mutually hostile states. We see it in 1959 when Fidel Castro, just having overthrown the government of Cuba, comes to the United Nations and has a handshake with Vice President Richard Nixon. Castro, the victorious revolutionary, aggressively stares, even slightly smiling, at Nixon, who responds with a grim face and narrowed eyes:

We see this also in 1960; Nixon is the more aggressive, pointing a finger at the Soviet leader Khrushchev, who refuses to turn his face away while narrowing his eyes to a slit:

In June 1961 in Vienna, it is Khrushchev who has the political advantage (the US-organized invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs having failed ignominiously). President Kennedy does not meet his eyes, but the two have a wary handshake, looking down at each other’s hands:

Trump at the G-7  shows the typical international tough-guy look in a hostile confrontation. In his meeting with Kim Jong Un four days later, his demeanor is completely different. Ostensibly, the meeting could be as threatening as those between Khrushchev and American leaders at the height of the nuclear arms race. In previous months Trump and KJU had both threatened to use nuclear weapons against each other. Possibly Trump chose to show his hard face at the G-7, in order to intimidate KJU in advance, then showing up with his Mr-nice-guy effusiveness, we-can-get-along performance.

Kim Jong Un’s face in Singapore, minus Trump

Is it just that Kim Jong Un is very new to international summit meetings? But we don’t see the same asymmetry and emotional domination in photos of KJU meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in; nor in his meetings with Chinese leader Xi Jinping; nor when greeting the Singapore PM a few hours before meeting Trump.

These photos show the usual symmetry in polite meetings at the top rank. KJU looks confident, holding his own easily.

Another clue comes from photos taken the evening after the Trump meetings, when KJU and his entourage went out to view the sights of Singapore. Here KJU is among his followers (mainly his stone-faced security guards, but also his sister and other guests, including basketball star Dennis Rodman):

Although he is back in safe company, KJU looks passive, a bit bewildered, not in control of the situation. Perhaps this is because he is impressed--- not to say dazzled-- by the bright lights and  postmodernist architecture of Singapore’s night scene. But he looks less like he is enjoying it, perhaps because he is thinking about Trump’s blandishments, offering to jump-start the modernization of North Korea in return for a nuclear disarmament deal. 

What next can we expect?

Kim Jong Un was at least temporarily dominated by Trump during and after their meeting. How long will that last?

The Singapore meeting so far has led to little specific agreement about practical steps to nuclear disarmament. But that may not be the most important thing. Even apart from the pace of negotiations and the extent that North Korea stops making nuclear weapons and rockets and disposes of the ones it has, nuclear war is prevented as long as the North Korean dictator feels no urge to use them.  Being emotionally dominated means being less self-confident, more passive, less likely to start something. We may get passive-aggressive foot-dragging, but that is better than hard-charging belligerence.

What will happen depends above all on the personal relationships between the two men. Having more face-to-face meetings would be well worth-while, if Trump can produce the same emotional result.

Inviting KJU to the White House might be politically unpopular, but in emotional relationships, it would be another step towards averting a nuclear war. It could further build up Kim’s confidence that he and his country would do better without nuclear weapons.

Major shifts in international diplomacy have hinged on the personal chemistry-- or lack thereof-- between world leaders. The out-of-control nuclear arms race in the mid-1980s turned to detente and arms reduction when Reagan and Gorbachev personally met at Reykjavik in 1988 and liked each other. The Munich meeting in 1938 between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler opened the door to Nazi aggression because Chamberlain was emotionally dominated by Hitler.

There a track record, as we know, of North Korea offering to negotiate a halt to their nuclear program, in return for economic aid. Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, negotiated such an agreement with President Bill Clinton, resulting in only a temporary lull, and then renewed arming. Why won’t this happen again?

What this prognosis leaves out is the emotional element of social relationships. The photo below shows Kim Jong Il, with U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright on a visit to North Korea in 2000. Kim Jong Il is jovial and at ease in the meeting (hardly his normal demeanor on his home turf, where he was usually dour and threatening). Albright looks strained. Between the two of them, it is Kim Jong Il that emotionally dominates the situation. This is more like the demeanors shown at the Munich agreement, where one side is getting suckered by the other.

This is not what the Trump/KJU summit looks like. Here, the US has the upper hand. And not just in sheer amount of nuclear destruction it can cause. Emotional relationships on the personal level is the ground zero of all international politics, the code that turns the rockets on, or off. At least for now, the emotional balance of power favors the US, and the cause of peace. Our aim should be to prolong this as much as possible.


For the technique of analyzing emotions from facial expressions and bodily gestures:

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


During the series of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, insurgents have used low-tech weapons against Western forces and their allies. Typical are suicide bombers who carry explosives right up to its target, and IEDs-- improvised explosive devices hidden in the roadway and set off by a mobile phone when a enemy vehicle passes. But these have acquired a high-tech component. Spotters who see a vehicle approach do not have to communicate directly with the trigger-man who sets off the bomb; both are connected to a coordinator in an Internet cafe in Brussels. We can trace the link but we can’t do anything about it. Ironically, this parallels the command structure of US high-tech military, where spotters can be Special Forces putting laser tags on enemy targets, or silent drones flying overhead, or satellites in space, all sending their information to a remote headquarters, like the Air Force base in Florida that controlled the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The Long Trend: Dispersing the Battlefield

How did this situation come about, and what direction is it heading in the future? The pattern of military high-tech has been building up since the First World War. Weapons have gotten more lethal, and more accurate at increasingly longer distance. The digital revolution in the last 30 years has vastly increased targeting information, by aerial surveillance and satellites using an array of sensors that track vehicle movements and even individual humans by infra-red heat signature, radar,  and computer-enhanced photographic imagery (which can be compared over time to look for tell-tale changes). Enemy headquarters can be located by its buzz of electronic activity. Enemy rockets or artillery that use radar for their own targeting can be tracked by radar-seeking devices (similar to auto drivers locating a police radar trap) and fire back immediately to destroy the enemy weapon. Huge super-computers assemble the information into a composite picture of the battlefield, and remote computers increasingly control firing on enemy targets, whether from aircraft, ships or ground-based weapons.

What follows from this? Troops and their equipment cannot be bunched together, since this makes them too vulnerable a target. By 1916, machine guns made old-fashioned marching into battle suicidal. Soldiers split into small groups, taking cover where they could find it on the ground.  The trend has continued with every advance in weaponry. In World War II, the front was typically 5 km from one brigade to another; now it is 150 km. Forward Operating Bases, supplied by helicopter and communicating electronically, make a checker-board of mostly empty battlespace. If the enemy has similar weapons, even high-tech troops need to take advantage of natural cover, and hide their electronic and heat signatures as much as possible. World War II was the last such war between what the military calls “peer adversaries,” although US military are now planning for a mutually high-tech war with China.

Guerrillas and terrorists disperse even more

Most wars in the last 50 years have been asymmetrical, a high-tech military versus a low-tech insurgency.  The resource-poor side of an asymmetrical war has responded by dispersing its forces even more, and making hit-and-run attacks on isolated enemy bases and the supply lines between them. This was called guerrilla war, as long as it attacked military targets; it became “terrorism” when it concentrated on civilian targets, since these are softer, less-protected than military targets. Guerrilla war slides over into terrorism, because guerrillas between attacks hide in the civilian population. 

Terrorists generally are civilians, and they live among other civilians, especially in cities, since these provide the most cover against high-tech weapons. Urban sight-lines are poor; it is difficult to distinguish the heat-signatures of civilians from combatants; and high-tech surveillance is evaded by hiding in the electronic clutter of normal life-- even in poor countries, cell phones and other consumer electronics are the features of modernity that diffuse the fastest. 

The biggest problem in fighting urban guerrillas is political: they use other civilians as shields; and they welcome civilian casualties because these turn the local population against the outside enemy. Atrocities are the major recruiting tool for militant terrorists and revenge-seeking suicide attackers.

Terrorism has grown in symbiosis with high-tech weapons and communications, because the weaker side cannot win on conventional battlefields. Politically, an insurgency does not have to win battles or take territory, but only to resist pacification by an outside enemy. Islamic State made the mistake in Iraq and Syria of taking territory, setting up a state structure and using more conventional military tactics, which transformed ISIS into the weaker side of a somewhat more symmetrical war. Similarly, the Taliban in Afghanistan became an easy target when they were a government, but hard to eradicate as guerrillas.

Terrorism is media-dependent war

Small numbers of insurgents can keep a war going. Their main resource is advertising their presence by spectacular attacks, even if they are bloody atrocities of their own. As long as their actions are  well-publicized, they demonstrate a will to continue the fight. They expect to prevail over time, if only because occupying forces lose the political will to persist. 

On the high-tech side, a modern military is surrounded by news networks as well as its own communications media, so it cannot avoid having its own atrocities publicized world-wide. It doesn't matter if civilian casualties are accidents, or emotional reactions by occupying troops embittered by fighting an enemy who hides and disguises themselves as civilians. The cell-phone photos of American soldiers humiliating and torturing prisoners at Abu Grahib are typical of the ubiquitous Western media redounding to their own political disadvantage.

The growth of world-wide high-tech is shifting the crucial balance of military power to communications, above all because contemporary war is primarily political statements. The irony here is that global communications-- both for consumers, and as a major component of the post-industrial economy-- means that every innovation by the rich capitalist countries creates a military opportunity for insurgents. It is not so much that they imitate our weapons (although they can capture or buy them, especially from the West’s so-called local allies), but they can share in digital communications because they are marketed world-wide.

Many of the most advanced surveillance systems are umbrellas covering everything within their range, friend and enemy alike. In Iraq, insurgent fires were coordinated via Internet cafes in Belgium, just as US soldiers could link to Internet cafes or any other sites in the world for private communications with family and friends.  Cell phones are used to trigger IEDs, but shutting down the local cell phone network was not feasible, since US commanders themselves use them as a more-reliable alternative to centralized military communication channels. GPS coordinates, pin-pointed by a network of satellites around the earth, are used both by allied targeting and by insurgents targeting us. The terrorist attack on Mumbai luxury hotels in 2008 was run by the ISI from Karachi, Pakistan.

Terrorist fighters might be killed in action, but the main principle of modern military doctrine-- to decapitate the enemy by knocking out its headquarters command-and-control and thus destroying it as a functioning organization-- has become impossible. There is no command post “in theatre,” but on ostensibly neutral foreign soil; and there need not be any clandestine network on the spot to uproot (as the French attempted during the Algerian war). Commands and targeting information are sent out by one-way messages, on the open Internet-- its source lost in the morass of ordinary communications.  In the Russian semi-proxy war in the eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military used the same satellites as the Russians (since they were the same country not long ago), so neither side could disrupt the other’s targeting without disrupting their own.

Cyber-war has been growing as a cheap resource for insurgents, because they operate inside the same global communications umbrella as their resource-rich enemies. The US does not have an advantage in cyber-space. By concentrating on digital high-tech, the West is playing in an arena where its advantage in other kinds of military resources do not count.  Cyber-war can also be practiced by wealthy states, but it is above all a weapon of the weak. Its physical tools are easily available commercially; skill at hacking requires no great organizational coordination, and is easily acquired by alienated youth all over the world.  Fighting a cyber-war is exactly the wrong place for the wealthy states to fight.

Unthinkable counter-measures

So what can or will be done about the Great Powers’ loss of military advantage in a cyber-linked world? Here we come to an unthinkable solution that the military is actually thinking about: shutting down the Internet in time of war. This is a short-hand way of referring to all the communications devices under the modern world-umbrella that are shared with our adversaries: mobile phones, GPS  coordinates, networked computers.

But how could these be shut down, without enormous damage to our own economy, and our contemporary way of life?  Air travel (and increasingly ground travel) are coordinated by digital networks; so are power grids, hospitals, and police forces; so are most financial transactions, from international banking to personal salaries and bill-paying; so are the now-huge business of on-line shopping and delivery.  In fact, one of the most devastating forms of cyber-war now being worried about is a cyber-attack, not from isolated mischief-making hackers or from thieves, but from an enemy government (or an insurgency), aimed at shutting down the economy of one of the rich capitalist nations. More primitive economies would be safer from such attack, being less reliant on digital coordination. 

But although this is an extremely dangerous prospect, it is not the most dangerous event that could happen. Since an ultra-modern military is so heavily organized around electronic command and control,  the worst threat to its existence would be if an enemy could hack into its links to disable its weapons, its mobility and its logistics-- in effect an electronic giant rendered blind, deaf, and paralyzed. (This is the scenario envisioned in P.W. Singer’s novel, Ghost Fleet, where Chinese-made components in American electronics are programmed to put the entire US military out of operation during a surprise attack.) There is even one nightmare step beyond this scenario: enemy hackers leave the operational system of our military intact, but take over controls of our weapons so that our rockets and aircraft are turned about to fire on ourselves. There have  been some steps in this direction, as Iranians and others have been able to capture some US-made drones by diverting their remote controls.

If the US military’s digital control system were seriously threatened by an enemy, the response now being considered is to shut down the entire digital umbrella. (This is based on discussions with high-ranking US and UK military commanders who were active in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.) There are two ways this could happen: either the enemy themselves shuts down our digital network or attacks it to the extent that it becomes useless; or we shut it down pre-emptively to keep our enemies from using it.

Probably there would be several levels of shut-down: smallest would be to shut down all mobile phone and Internet activity in a given area (e.g. battlegrounds in Iraq or Syria), by shutting down cell phone towers and servers. Or the Internet and/or mobile phones could be put on one-way broadcast mode; messages going out from a central source (as in some emergency warning systems) but otherwise clearing the network of traffic.

Another choice would be to shut down crucial targeting infrastructure, such as GPS; since this is a satellite-based system, it would affect the entire world. Such plans are being seriously contemplated; the Chinese reportedly are building their own GPS system (based on their own satellites) that would be inaccessible to others. 

This seems unthinkable, since GPS is included in all sorts of devices, including ordinary smart phones. But GPS was originally created as a secret project by the US military (as a way of preventing aerial collisions and other blue-on-blue attacks); and was opened up to commercial use in the 1990s. In the same way, the Internet originated as the DARPANET: Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration. There is precedent for returning GPS  to government control; and it may become a matter of military necessity-- or what is presented to the public as such. We should not expect that history has one continuous trajectory, and that technologies and social customs surrounding them become impervious to removal once they become widespread. The Chinese government’s use of super-computers, complete with facial recognition systems for tracking every move of every citizen, shows what kinds of things are technically possible, although they may be politically repugnant in some countries and not in others. (In fact, Chinese citizens in the future might well benefit from some kind of emergency that caused the shut-down of its central government computers.)

Backing up to non-digital backup

But how would the military operate under this unthinkable contingency, shutting down the electronic networks that have become the core of its organization? Planning on this point is proceeding. The essential pattern is to build back-up procedures-- how to run a war without the Internet, computer links, GPS, or mobile phones.  In fact, there is discussion about how over-reliance on digital networks even now is reducing military efficiency; and how weaning ourselves away from it can be done.

We tend to forget that the ultra-computerized military is a relatively recent thing. Big mainframe computers were developed in the military from World War II onwards; it is the dispersed, omnipresent commercial and private networks and its devices that have become widespread so rapidly since the 1990s and early 2000s. Military officers have commented on the huge increase in computerization since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. A company (about 200 soldiers) then had 5 computers, operated by the Executive Officer and First Sergeant. Now all officers have computers, so much so that they spend 75% of their time reporting to headquarters. A US general commented: “Network has become more problem than solution.” On Navy ships, the traditional system was a single wireless link under authority of the ship’s captain; now with all sailors in possession of personal computers or smart phones, official channels are surrounded by links used for personal reasons. All news gets out, even if confidential. Officers have become risk-averse, since even minor mishaps are scrutinized; junior officers lose initiative and feel they must clear every decision with higher command.

Similarly with the profusion of information from battle sites, gathered by electronic sensors and relayed to all levels of the command network. The term has developed, “Predator pawns”-- as if Predator drones are pawns in a chess game. Since high-ranking officers as well as drone operators can watch the video feed from the drone; the result is a strong temptation to micro-manage.  This is a general problem for all military organization. Wars have become increasingly political, in the sense that counter-insurgency is largely a fight “for hearts and minds.” A major recruiting device for guerrillas and terrorists are their dramatic or even gruesome attacks, such as videos of bass beheadings circulated on the social media. The same dialectic encompasses the Western forces, through periodic scandals of civilian atrocities that are more or less inevitable given that civilian presence is exactly where insurgents choose their battlefield.

There are many channels for war stories to leak out; politicians are under pressure to achieve results, but also highly vulnerable to criticism for mishaps. All this increases the tendency for politicians to intervene, even at the smallest tactical level. A US commander gave the example of how much time he had to spend going back-and-forth with a high official in Washington about whether a load of small arms could be dropped to a local ally in Syria. Multi-national forces are considered politically desirable, but US advisors describe the resulting organizational chart as “a wiring diagram”-- and US commanders spend much of their time clearing requests for resources with the National Security Council and Iraqi politicians. “I spent a year in Iraq and all I fought was the IJC” -- a sardonic remark about the tangled authorities of the International Joint Command.

The core problem is communication overload; the presence of information technology everywhere results in a situation that one general described as “we’ve gone from network-enabled, to network-enamoured, to network-encumbered.”  Thus military planners see some advantages to going back to older forms of command and control-- cutting off reliance on cyber, going back to local radio links to coordinate troops. Computers, especially when centralized and taking inputs from a vast area, make it hard to quickly change course. Old-fashioned communications allow for more flexibility and more rapid reaction to emergencies and sudden opportunities. Historians point out that just this kind of flexibility by aggressive front-line officers were the key to the blitzkreig successes of World War II.

The limits of computerized warfare

As I mentioned earlier, the cyber-war expert P.W. Singer’s novel, Ghost Fleet, envisions the US being devastated by a Chinese cyber attack that incapacitates the US military. In the novel, the US makes a come-back by resuscitating an old moth-balled World War II fleet, unhackable because its controls are pre-digital; plus creating some advanced weapons that can’t be diverted from their targets since they carry no on-board mini-computer to be taken over. I have written my own thought-experiment, a novel about a hypothetical civil war, in which the American military divides and fights itself with exactly the same weapons on both sides. (Just as happened in the Civil War of 1861-65). The novel is called Civil War Two. The war begins with cyber attacks attempting to turn bombers against their own bases. The solution to the cyber hacking is to shut down the computerized system and build another control system. High-tech aircraft have enormous capacities for locating enemy targets and firing back at their electronic location; but since both sides can do this, the result is to destroy a large proportion of the most advanced aircraft on both sides.

Moreover, the most advanced aircraft are the most expensive, and take the longest time to build, as well as requiring assiduous maintenance between missions-- e.g. a B-2 stealth bomber costs over $1 billion dollars each, plus operating costs. Attrition of such weapons would inevitably result in older weapons being pressed into service. Even a battle between robots would be, most likely, not Hollywood's humanoid giants on two legs, but armored tanks containing no humans, like driverless cars firing at each other. The outcome of such a battle would depend, not on the superiority of one side’s robots over the other, but on the skill and energy of humans going out onto the battlefield to repair the damaged robots. My chief conclusion is that a war fought between two very advanced militaries would lead over time to mutual degradation, and a return to earlier forms of warfare.  

I have already suggested that remote computerized communications and control would be shut down early in such a war. If both sides have drones, armored helicopters, anti-missile missiles, and robot vehicles, the mutual attrition would eventually result in humans making the difference. 

High-tech stalemate will drive combat back to the human level. The idea that has prevailed for about a century-- that the state would win which created the next super-weapon before the other side did-- will probably not hold in the future. That is because the recent wave of digital technologies, whose initial thrust has come heavily from military inventions, has spread into the civilian economy and ordinary life; and warfare centered in the cyber sphere gives most advantage to the disrupters of the other side’s communications. This is true whether it be asymmetrical terrorist attacks against a military and economic behemoth; or symmetrical war between states with equally sophisticated equipment.

Our idea that history is moving in a straight line is wrong. What seems unthinkable now-- shutting down the Internet and all the other digital media-- in one degree or another is likely to happen. Where we come out on the other side of that crisis will probably become normal to people who live in it, just as the digital devices of the last 15 years have become so normal that we can’t imagine living without them.  If we continue to live, it will probably be because we have learned to get along without them.

P.W. Singer and August Cole.  Ghost Fleet. A Novel of the Next World War. Mariner Books. 2016.