Since the United States decided to go all-in with a focus on the great power competitions, terms such as irregular warfare, counterinsurgency, and small wars have lost vogue. However, while military theorists would like to return to a more conventional mindset, it is important to understand that a new era of “dirty wars” is on the horizon. This is relatively intuitive for those who understand the causes of unrest leading to instability and insurgency, but it is not clear that the geopolitical or military strategists who could make a difference see it coming.
The metaverse, block chain, artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, machine learning, augmented/virtual reality, and quantum, cloud, edge, and spatial computing are foundational elements of the emergent global world order. The possibilities are limitless, but not all are positive. With one foot in the industrial age and one in the virtual age, the risks are daunting. There is much debate about the risks of technologies such as AI eventually outsmarting and overtaking humans, but the risk addressed herein is more comparable to concerns during the Cold War that nuclear weapons would take the world back to the “stone ages.”
Technology is changing (virtually) everything. The traditional constraints of human labor are no longer a limiting factor in the global market. Corporations and governments are the benefactors of cost-cutting and labor-reducing innovations. Rapid technological advances will continue to reduce the demand for jobs. Thousands of people are losing their jobs every week—not because they failed to perform—but because the skills they developed through education, training, and experience are no longer relevant. Labor statistics are not just numbers—they are “hearts and minds.”
These dynamics will force even “skilled” workers down the economic ladder and will disproportionately impact labor markets at the lower end of the skills (and economic) spectrum. With this trend toward large-scale joblessness comes increased economic inequality. As we have seen throughout history, when the divide between the (relatively few) “haves” and the (relatively many) “have nots” is in a perpetual state of growth, a breaking point is inevitably reached. Perhaps more unsettling is that such divides are currently developing, simultaneously within national societies and on a global basis with nation-states landing on either end of the spectrum. This is a domestic and global national security issue.
The Unites States’ recent misadventures in Iraq demonstrated how a people deprived of their economic well-being and social identities will take up rudimentary arms against the world’s most technologically-advanced military force. And while this was more so a case of one nation imposing its will over another, it demonstrated how people react when they are being left behind. As was the experience after the “haves” transitioned into the industrial age, the transition to the virtual age is likely to leave the most needy in the world behind, in much greater numbers.
Fiction becomes fact. As the world pushes faster and further into the virtual age, those being left behind will eventually “rise against the machines.” Then we will see how the relatively small number of “haves” with their keyboards and virtual reality headsets as weapon systems, fare when the masses of “have nots” arm themselves with the weapons of their age—the only ones they have ever known.
Aden Magee is a career intelligence professional. He has performed as a senior advisor in support of the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy, and the FBI. He has most recently performed as an advisor to USCYBERCOM, and USSOCOM. He is a retired U.S. Army officer and a veteran of foreign wars. His most recent book is titled The Cold War Wilderness of Mirrors: Counterintelligence and the U.S. and Soviet Military Liaison Missions 1947–1990.