Author : Sean Kanuck

Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Oct 22, 2019
Future conflict: The nays have it!

CyFy 2019 will advance the global discussion on technology, security, and society through six pillars encompassing public policy, government regulation, virtual communities, reactionary regimes, democratic processes, and digital platforms. The notion of disruptive innovation will undoubtedly permeate each of those dialogues, and the reality of human conflict (military, political, economic, social, religious etc.) will inevitably contribute to re-defining the relationship between technology and society. This essay offers a framework for understanding the macroscopic trends that will shape the future of conflict and its manifestation through war and other means.

Four macro-trends are currently driving international affairs, and each is decidedly negative in nature: (1) insecurity, (2) disinformation, (3) anti-globalization, and (4) unenlightenment. Those negative factors are not only mutually reinforcing with one another, but they are also all destabilizing at the systemic level. This framing essay coins the term “indisantiun” (a conjunction of the relevant prefixes “in-”, “dis-”, “anti-”, and “un-“) to collectively refer to those four first-order phenomena, the synergistic interplay among them, and the broader strategic implications of their confluence. Indisantiun is partially a by-product of disruptive information technologies and is fast becoming the defining characteristic of modern conflict.

Figure 1: Conceptual Bases of Future Conflict


Both international conflicts and domestic strife are often engendered by politico-economic competition between ethnic and/or social interest groups within a society (including global “society” writ large). Technological development is having profound impacts on the labor force and the re-distribution of wealth, or more appropriately, the accretion of massive wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals.<1> That redistribution of value is jeopardizing many individuals’ sense of economic security and fueling populist movements, as illustrated by President Trump’s political base in the United States and the “Brexit” supporters in the United Kingdom.

In the context of finite commodities (like gold or oil) and shared resources (like freshwater aquifers than national boundaries), even the perception of zerosum competition can lead to insecurity and efforts to preserve or expand one’s own advantage. At the personal level, fear of unemployment due to automation or competitive pressure from immigrants in the workplace also breeds insecurity. As the world approaches the third decade of the 21st Century, information and communication technologies (“ICT”) are transforming the global economy and displacing many long-standing parochial interests. In turn, insecurity is pervading the national political discourse in many countries.

This first contributing factor to indisantiun is equally apparent in military affairs, including at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. First, the evolution of precision guided munitions and unmanned vehicles (e.g. aerial or maritime drones) are radically altering the experience of “combat” for aviators and sailors in advanced militaries while simultaneously increasing the risk of battlefield casualty for combatants from less developed nations.<2> Second, the introduction of artificial intelligence (“AI”) and lethal autonomous weapons systems (“LAWS”) mandates the reconsideration of operational doctrines and procurement policies because large, expensive military platforms that aggregate immense value within a limited physical area are increasingly becoming vulnerabilities rather than assets.<3> Third, the potential threat of cyber-attacks to nuclear command and control (“C2”) systems is creating a source of strategic instability.

At all three levels, insecurity driven by new technologies will define the future of war. Moreover, cyber operations and other measures are increasingly being used by adversaries to hold each other’s critical infrastructures at risk in order to coerce or to exact concessions.<4> This is a highly disturbing trend because many of those targets in the financial, media, transportation, and health sectors are civilian in nature. That shift in focus from attacking an adversary’s military to undermining its civilian infrastructures is a serious and radical departure from 20th Century legal and diplomatic efforts – as embodied in the Geneva Conventions – to insulate civilians from the dangers of international armed conflicts. At CyFy 2017, I suggested that future conflicts would become safer for soldiers and more dangerous for civilians, and that trend is indeed proving to define modern conflict and spread insecurity across populations.<5>


The second element of indisantiun – disinformation – has gained wide public notoriety through Russian-sponsored interference in recent Western elections, such as the 2016 US presidential election, the 2017 French presidential election, the 2016 Brexit referendum, and the 2017 Catalan secession debate.<6> However, similar methods are being utilized by many state and non-state actors to protect regime stability, disparage political opponents, and challenge the legitimacy of foreign government institutions to gain advantages on the world stage. Disinformation offers belligerents the opportunity to coerce and destabilize their adversaries without crossing the legal line of kinetic armed conflict. In fact, the strategic doctrine of multiple countries now identifies hybrid warfare methodologies as important components of military operations (e.g. the “Gerasimov doctrine” from Russia).<7>

Just as with insecurity, disinformation can have tactical, operational, and strategic applications. It could be employed to influence specific voters or investors, to alter the situational awareness of military commanders, or to undermine the very legitimacy of a political regime or form of government. AI will further empower offensive activities over defensive activities in the near term (i.e. the next 3 to 5 years) because automated algorithms will be able to generate and disseminate falsified information at a much faster rate than humans or competing algorithms will be able to detect, assess, and countermand such disinformation. The most difficult cases will involve falsified components that are included within otherwise accurate documents or accounts. Furthermore, public officials of limited credibility who are confronted with the release of compromising private information will likely not be successful in confessing that certain aspects of the leaked data may indeed be true but that some of the more egregious aspects are disinformation nefariously fabricated and included by their opponents.

The emergent threat of deep fakes (i.e. falsified documents, digital pictures, audio files, or videos) that are essentially indistinguishable from true productions – and therefore highly impactful on unsuspecting audiences – profoundly challenges the notion of objective reality.<8> The world will soon be without definitive sources of uncontestable evidence or “proof” of what is true.<9> Without recourse to a collective reality or definitive truth, future conflicts – whether international confrontations or domestic unrest – are likely to be much easier to instigate and much more difficult to dissipate.

Disinformation both stems from and reinforces other elements of indisantiun. Insecurity induces actors to employ disinformation against their competitors, and polarizing content only exacerbates anti-globalist tendencies – usually in both the perpetrator and target of such influence campaigns. The absence of agreedupon epistemological principles or common evidentiary processes for establishing factual reality and objective truth is the antithesis of Enlightenment ideology. Postmodernist and relativist tendencies may also permit individuals’ experiences or biases to drive their perceptions, thereby creating uncertainty. In turn, anti-globalism and unenlightenment complete a recursive cycle by making populations even more susceptible to disinformation and feelings of insecurity.

Figure 2: Negative Feedback Cycle of Mutually Reinforcing Factors


Insecurity fosters xenophobia, nationalism, and even radicalization. Moderate examples of such inclinations can be observed among the electorates that supported President Trump’s campaign and the Brexit referendum. In both of those cases, politicians converted public fears of zero-sum competition into populist movements favoring national advantage over global integration. The most egregious examples of anti-globalization include increased tariffs between China and the United States, violent protests against international trade agreements, recent support for ultraright- wing political parties in Europe, periodic skirmishes on the India-Pakistan border, and even terrorist acts by certain Islamic extremists.<10>

Under the indisantiun conceptual framework, future conflicts become more societal than military in nature. Sovereigns compete with information in addition to weapons. Moreover, they strive to directly impact their adversary’s populace without necessarily engaging that country’s military forces.<11> In essence, it becomes an indirect intervention whereby one state leverages another state’s constituents to challenge their own government and necessitate the target state’s public officials and institutions to focus inwardly at the expense of contesting foreign adversaries on the world stage. Social media platforms have already been exploited by foreign influence campaigns designed to distract and/or destabilize target countries. They have also been exploited to spread disinformation aimed at fomenting sectarian violence within societies.<12>

In the political and social context, anti-globalization is often accompanied by intolerance, censorship, and disinformation. Disinformation is the modus operandi that enables a government to delegitimize its opponents and degrade their situational awareness, thereby reducing their capacity to supplant the existing regime. Whether at the international or domestic level, disinformation is utilized to reinforce rifts between social groups, discourage mutual understanding, and thwart political compromise.

In the technology sector, anti-globalization manifests itself in a competitive arms race that prevents robust information sharing and joint research and development (“R&D”) initiatives that could be economically beneficial. We currently see such competitive – rather than cooperative – R&D in the areas of cybersecurity and AI.<13> Other examples of technology-based anti-globalization are: data localization regimes, efforts at the extraterritorial application of content restrictions, and segregated national “intranets” that can be disconnected from the global Internet.<14> Unfortunately, advancements in ICT are both a causal factor and an implementing methodology for indisantiun.

Anti-globalization is the center point of a negative reinforcement cycle whereby disinformation is used to simultaneously destabilize competitors and insulate one’s own adherents from external voices. However, the paradoxical result is that the censorship and disinformation that are bred by insecurity make one even more susceptible to manipulation and coercion by both truth and foreign disinformation … which in turn breeds even greater insecurity. Indisantiun is a conjunction of self-realizing and compounding phenomena.


The three negative and synergistic trends that have already been identified above operate in opposition to nearly three hundred years of Enlightenment learning that favors rational thought, objectivity, and tolerance. Taken collectively, the fear of insecurity, the creation and dissemination of false information, and anti-globalist policies relegate individuals, communities, and societies to parochial relativism. Indisantiun rejects the existence of common interests and undermines the desire for common understanding. Without those commonalities, there can be no shared human experience.

At a recent Stanford University event, Herb Lin described unenlightenment as the lack of a shared rationality.<15> Enlightenment values include: acceptance of alternative cultures and religions, recognition of empirical evidence and a scientific method for evaluating propositions, and a reliance on reason (vice mysticism or dictatorial fiat) as a governing principle for human endeavor. Future conflicts will stem from entities that not only disagree with one another, but which also do not even see the value in seeking any agreement. ICTs now permit people to interact almost exclusively with like-minded persons who share the same insecurities and subscribe to the same disinformation (e.g. fake news).

Paradoxically, some of the most militarily aggressive empires in history espoused pragmatic tolerance regarding selected issues, even while they engaged in oppressive colonialism and slavery. The Roman, Mongol, and British empires all permitted certain cultural and religious freedoms, provided that their subjects gave unwavering political and economic fealty. Conquest afforded these administrative systems expanding resources, so the insecurity attendant to zero-sum competition was not determinative.

However, such tolerance withers when heightened competition between and within societies manifests itself. Rather than the universal rights and entitlements that the Enlightenment ascribed equally to all human beings, indisantiun ignores absolute truths and preoccupies itself with obtaining relative advantages and entitlements. Insecurity, disinformation, and anti-globalization all pierce the Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” that demands rational thought unfettered by personal circumstance.

Figure 3: Destabilizing Implications of Technological Advances

It is highly ironic that ICTs are effectively used to divide interest groups instead of encouraging engagement and mutual understanding. Furthermore, it is ironic that ICTs and AI are now being utilized to delegitimize evidentiary standards and established processes of rational inquiry. Without the ability to reach factual consensus, conflicts – and escalation of those conflicts – are more likely. Finally, perhaps most disturbing is the increasing adoption of indisantiun beliefs, policies, and strategies by liberal, democratic societies. What will be the result if adherence to Enlightenment values is not deemed to be a viable strategy in today’s competitive geo-political environment? Do technological development and the historical dialectic favor liberalism or authoritarianism?


This framing essay posits that the future may experience more conflict, but of a qualitatively different nature. So, where would a teleology of indisantiun lead? Future conflict would be passive aggressive. Reliance on innovative (and uncertain) technology would be the primary catalyst of that conflict as well as its primary resultant. Adversaries would indirectly exploit civilians to harm themselves and their polities. Local advantage and personal entitlement would be paramount motivators. Truth and tolerance would become casualties of future conflicts, but those Enlightenment ideals would no longer be held in such esteem by the vast majority. In order to prove the “naysayers” of insecurity, disinformation, anti-globalization, and unenlightenment wrong, the world community must recognize the implications of ICT for political economy. Second, analysts must examine the evolution of strategic incentives and conflict dynamics to identify opportunities to exit the recursive cycle of indisantiun.

Hopefully, CyFy 2019 will provide a vibrant forum to explore these topics in a collective environment that reflects a broad array of backgrounds, interests, and perspectives. It should come as no surprise that the motivation for preparing this essay for the CyFy journal Digital Debates is specifically to counter unenlightenment, anti-globalist tendencies, and the deleterious practice of disinformation. Common understanding is vital to alleviating insecurity and reducing conflict.

This essay originally appeared in Digital Debates — CyFy Journal 2019.


<1> See e.g., “Outrageous fortune”; The Economist; 5 October 2019, page 82 (citing a University of California, Berkeley study that found 0.1 percent of taxpayers in the United States accounted for approximately 20 percent of America’s wealth in 2012).

<2> See generally, Amy Zegart, “Cheap flights, credible threats: The future of armed drones and coercion”; Journal of Strategic Studies; 28 February 2018.

<3> Massed infantry has for some time been regarded as a liability vis-à-vis artillery or aerial bombardment, but in the face of hundreds or thousands of “swarming” drones even warships and other major combat platforms could soon become indefensible targets. For example, this very subject was discussed aboard the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth during the Atlantic Future Forum in New York City harbor on 22 October 2018.

<4> The December 2015 and 2016 cyber-attacks against Ukraine’s energy grid can certainly be viewed as such actions. See e.g., Andy Greenberg, “New Clues Show How Russia’s Grid Hackers Aimed for Physical Destruction”; Wired; 12 September 2019.

<5> Sean Kanuck; panel presentation entitled “The Big Questions: Technology, Security and Society” at CyFy 2017; Observer Research Foundation.

<6> See e.g., Grand Jury indictment in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (Case 1:18-cr-00215-ABJ); United States Department of Justice; 13 July 2018.

<7> See, Molly K. McKew, “The Gerasimov Doctrine”; Politico Magazine; 5 September 2017.; The United Kingdom and United States Army are also advancing new military doctrines for “cyber electromagnetic activities (CEMA)” that include information operations, while China has collocated a range of hybrid warfare assets within its new Strategic Support Force.

<8> For example, the fate of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 is represented very differently in the European versus Russian press. Examples of the conflicting media accounts.

<9> What constitutes definitive evidence has varied over time and between cultures. Europe’s ecclesiastical inquisitors once sought a personal confession from the accused as proof of guilt, and some Islamic tribunals required the oral testimony of three adult males to establish proof. Now, we are in an era where even a photograph – or other technical information – may not constitute incontrovertible evidence.

<10> Even the European Union – which allegedly prides itself on democratic traditions and the protection of human rights – has recently seen Danish and French laws prohibiting certain traditional Islamic clothing in order to preserve nationalist cultures.

<11> Supra note 7.

<12> See e.g., Devidutta Tripathy & Annie Banerji, “India cracks down on Internet after communal violence”; Reuters; 21 August 2012.

<13> See e.g., “New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan” released by the State Council of the People’s Republic of China on 20 July 2017; full translation by New America, 1 August 2017.

<14> See generally, Jeff John Roberts, “The Splinternet Is Growing”; Fortune; 29 May 2019.

<15> Herb Lin, presentation entitled “Cyber Enabled Information Warfare and Influence Operations”, Cyber and Artificial Intelligence Boot Camp; Stanford University; 27 August 2019.

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Sean Kanuck

Sean Kanuck

Sean Kanuck was a Distinguished Fellow at ORF. As a globally recognised cyber expert he advises governments corporations law firms and entrepreneurs on the nexus ...

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