‘Sometimes war dreams of itself’.
In his 2016 documentary Lo and Behold, the filmmaker Werner Herzog asks his guests, from Elon Musk to brain scientists: ‘the Prussian war theoretician Clausewitz–Napoleonic times—once famously said “sometimes war dreams of itself”, could it be that the internet starts to dream of itself?’ His question produced wonder at the brilliance of the provocation and reflective answers from experts (Herzog 2016).
I could not find this reference anywhere in any of Clausewitz’s writings.
Puzzled, I emailed Herzog to ask him where he found that reference. His producer and brother Lucki Stipetic replied with a one-line answer: ‘This quote is invented by Werner Herzog and contributed [sic] to Clausewitz’.(Stipetic 2017)
Clausewitz is the theoretician most turn to characterise modern war. Clausewitz’s theory, while approaching its bicentenary, offers us a guide to approaching the wicked problems of the planetary present and beyond. Our efforts to capture something of the shifting surface of war over time has led us to keep adding modifiers to explain its changing forms. ‘Digital War’ may well explain war’s latest appearance. But Clausewitz seeks to explain war’s nature, deeper than its surface expression (Clausewitz 1984).
Clausewitz’s war is an ‘organised complexity’ (Beyerchen 1992, 2007), and the chameleon has a quality of organicist animality to it. In the last century, war has expressed mutation at each generation: from a syntaxis of modernism’s fusion with total war, through the dystopic parataxis and adjacency of postmodern conflicts, to our present a-topic metaxis of being ‘both-neither’, but with a resonant oscillation (Vermeulen and van Den Akker 2010). That is, the metamodern is a platonic non-place where, in this temporal formation, contemporary reality is ‘both-neither’—at once modern and postmodern, and neither of them.
It seems clear that the chimera of current circumstances demands a new meta approach to understanding our situations and problems: analysis that thinks, and dreams, of itself. In this piece, I will seek to deploy insights and knowledges from a range of disciplines and approaches not with an intention to reconcile or synthesise them, as interdisciplinarity might propose, but to generate a higher, more actively self-reflective, perspective or awareness. This flows from my work on the urgency of understanding cyber security as a metadiscipline,Footnote 2 but is more broadly applicable as we consider the questions posed in this issue about the future of war itself (Sear 2017).
Clausewitz wanted to define war’s essence. To him, war is a trinity of ‘irrationality/non-rationality/rationality’. War is a ‘chameleon’ whose skin reflects firstly violent affect, secondly creativity and chance, and thirdly its subordination to ‘pure reason’ as an instrument of policy. The first of these exists in an individual skull, separate from rationality which exists in multiple skulls. The third (not emotion or calculation) exists outside the skull as external reality (Bassford 2007). War, Clausewitz’s analysis suggests, exists as an interstice, a membrane between the experience of consciousness and the world. War is a creation of simultaneous, mutually constituted interaction between selves and societies, adversary and environment. The trinity is reflexive interplay, a continuous feedback loop.
In this short, exploratory piece I argue that digital computation has become the vehicle for these processes between the trinity. Cybernetics enables meta realisation of war’s essential dynamic forces. A human–machine ensemble organises the relations of the trinity, specifically the interplay between violence, chance and probability, and rational calculation. Computation interacts dynamically with humans and with itself, as explored in the speculative fiction that begins and ends this article.
Turing, Shannon, Weaver, von Neumann and Wiener created the current informational epistemic epoch in a previous ‘world’ war. Their ‘worlding’ of ours has helped generate planetary scale recursion conflict. Computational recursion is now integral to the reflexive interplay of war Clausewitz describes. War has been integrated into human machine individuation, which is ‘constituted by the two ‘poles of interiority and exteriority, which consist of a recursive movement: the interiorisation of the exterior and the exteriorization of the interior’.(Hui 2019b)
The computation of information within this new form of sovereignty incorporates individuation and reproduces it through one core component of itself: recursion. Recursion, so central to the development of the Church–Turing Thesis, is integral to computability. A recursive function is one which calls on itself as part of its execution, until it reaches a halting state (a goal or the incomputable). As such, it is an automation which is self-realisable. Recursion occurs in computation at all levels, from the function of algorithms to planetary scale communications. For example, Google takes all the data of its users and returns it back, as advertising for example, and at a meta level thus reproduces itself (Hui 2019b). Philosopher Yuk Hui has described a recursive computational hermeneutics that ‘evaluates the past in order to anticipate the future, which in turn determines the present’. (Hui 2019b) Recursion is now integrated into a new form of the social that is cybernetic. This new relation between human and machine is why Heidegger stated that cybernetics had taken the place of philosophy. Or, as Yuk Hui condenses, in summary of Heidegger’s position: ‘cybernetics is fundamentally a metaphysical project’ (Hui 2019b).
Digital computation’s mature recursion between the membranes of Clausewitz’s trinity has expanded the relationship between the character and nature of the war without breaking it. Consider Computational Clausewitz as a 3D Trefoil knot (Przybyl and Pieranski 2014). Cyberspace is topological: it deforms, distorts, twists war, but many of its properties are preserved. (Jordan 2009) This does not mean older forms of warfare are foreclosed, instead the topology is scalar. Older forms of warfare exist at ‘manifolds’Footnote 3 where vectors intersect in Euclidean geometries and Newtonian thermodynamics of flesh and steel (Kilcullen 2016).
Senior leaders in the military who have experienced war and made decisions throughout the preceding era fairly uniformly suggest that technology will change the character of war, but not its nature, and war will remain a ‘human activity’. (Langford 2019a, b)
But rather than war being a human activity, all human activity is now war. ‘Users’ are a ‘standing reserve’ for the Gestell. Humans are looped into an assemblage of machine temporalities of daily life as data war whorls in financialised information society. Just as a ‘derivative’ makes ‘the future actionable in the present’ (Martin 2015), data collected now by global entertainment and social media companies will be deployed in future wars. But this is less data war than database war. The Gestell is Otaku (Azuma 2009). Chloe plays Fortnite, appears in TikTok, and this archive provides capacity for the future in the present. Algorithmic governmentality as recursion creates Users in war who are engaged in a perpetual ‘Battle Royale’ convergence, rushing towards singularity.
Chloe’s—and our—civilian data today will be used in war in the future. That in turn suggests that not only data will be a military objective in the future, it already is. The Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), Article 52, states that all attacks must be limited to military objectives (ICRC 1977). Tallin 2.0 (Rule 100) argues that data is not a military objective because Tallin does not consider it be an ‘object’ within ‘ordinary meaning’ as the manual suggests it is ‘intangible’ (Schmitt 2017; McLaughlin 2018).
Clearly something like weapons system software could be a military target. But digital information might also be used in a deception operation to have kinetic effects—like the data Chloe uses to have her target killed. Cyber influence/information operations (CIO) with lethal effects, Chloe’s ‘Plan B’, implanting a message on the phone of the target’s wife, is one such example. But how Chloe is targeted, and how she targeted her adversary, deploys data from civilian systems. Both Chloe and her adversary exploit past exfiltration and encryption as part of cyber interference. This data was and is civilian—but how it is used and where it is held makes it both a military object and an objective. For data to be targetable as a military attack the LOAC requires combatants to mitigate the effect of collateral damage on civilians and infrastructure in targeting through the LOAC. This is likely to be challenging, given cyber-attacks are likely to target or use that very data (McLaughlin 2018).
In Cyber War Will Not Take Place, Thomas Rid claims that cyber measures do not constitute war, claiming computation has accelerated older forms of conflict like sabotage, espionage and subversion, but not war in a Clausewitzian sense because the effects are not violent or kinetic (Rid 2013). However, the cyber information and interference operations described in the speculation have effects which are kinetic. Differentiating non-targetable espionage data from data that has lethal effect means cyber IO will be considered a normal part of war.
Operations in the Information Environment (OIE) will expand contest further into the civilian interface globally (Morgan and Thompson 2018). Digital computation has enabled a paradigm shift of political economy at a planetary scale. Information has become a commodity. Data infrastructure—vectors, not capital—control and extract information as surplus value (Wark 2019). Such vectors are what Benjamin Bratton describes as Stacks. The Stack is a new form of planetary megastructure, a computational apparatus of exchange layers Bratton calls User, Interface, Address, City, Cloud and Earth. Stacks create a form of geopolitics that blurs the boundaries of previous Westphalian national sovereignty and territory, instituting a new Schmittian nomos. (Bratton 2015)
In the speculative opening story, war has transitioned from being about control of space and spun into the Stack infrastructure. The symbiosis of private corporations controlling such cyberspace vectors and their innovation has reflexively contributed to the decay of traditional nation-state borders, just as vectoralist insurgents hack older states. Cyber mercenary Chloe’s employers and her adversaries, vectoralists in the States and Big Tech of the West (Wark 2019) and the CCP (even, the Russian Federation), are creating competing internet territories. Conflict will take place in the vertical interstitial layers of the stack itself as much as on horizontal geographies, perhaps as Stack on Stack. Large internet entities will come into conflict as states begin to look more like platforms and vice versa: Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT) vs Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA) (Bratton 2017).
Asymmetry will be expressed as inhuman scales. Asymmetry in a spiral is expressed as chirality. In nation-state adversarial Stacks, these Stacks are chiral: enantiomorphic forms which are not superimposable on their mirror image despite their similarity. In this way, a US-centric hemispherical Stack is opposed to a PRC/CCP China Stack as cyberspace empires of metaxis.
Feedback loops define politics globally. Post-colonial cyberspace since 1990 has collapsed physical space. The result is a politics of time. The post-1989 Fukuyama futurist ‘politics of inevitability’ has disintegrated, to be replaced by the ‘politics of eternity’. (Snyder 2018) Eternity politics places a legacy nation at the centre of a ‘cyclical story of victimhood’. The future is a drained swamp in an eternal present. Time is no longer linear but instead is a ‘circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past’. (Snyder 2018) War has a future, but there is no future in war. The future is cancelled. The future has become obsolescent and evaporated like vapourware. Historicity has waned, and the ‘experience of time itself, the phenomenological sense of time as linear as demarcating space decayed’. (Fisher 2014)
Nations of empire, starved of space for growth, look backwards to frame the future. In 2013 Xi Jinping launched ‘China dream’, the US Presidential campaign of 2016 promised a recursive destiny to ‘Make America Great Again’, and the UK sought a halting state of #Brexit (Sear 2020). Nations pursue recurring dreams. Nation states will seek to control the turbulent wake of time’s arrow with data. Hybrid, asymmetrical warfare, will morph into ‘recurgency’ and ‘counterecurgency’ as non-state actors target the Global Value Chains (GVCs) of Transnational Corporations (TNCs) and asymmetries of data control and Intellectual Property (IP) become the key determinants of geopolitical security, strategic objectives and deployment of the military instrument. Asymmetrical warfare is about using unconventional tactics against a superior force. Informational contests are now about time, where, in an era of post scarcity, advantages are either shortlived, or decisions entropic. Recurgent activities are about using asymmetrical tactics of temporality. Whether you are cyber or psyops - Shadow Brokers, or the Internet Research Agency - all operations are about influence: compelling an enemy to your will. Or, more precisely: shaping their decisions (Sear and Lieber, 2019. War and warfare is increasingly about shape and shaping. The shapes are topological and recursive. Recurring dream (nation) state narratives of eternal loops, are Möbius strips where a military objective is no longer victory but vector: the continuation of politik by Other dreams.
While the temporal horizon recedes, data accretion fills time’s vacuum. The ‘exosomatic deterritorialization’ (Stiegler 2018) of data provides archive and cloud interface for a future adversarial AI Ragnarök.
AI already diagonalizes as an eigenvector into inhuman, alien cognition. Extreme recursive Otherness will spiral into the start of the Xenowars of the mid to late 21st century. Xenowar is the Clausewitzian trinity in recursive loops of alterity, where conflict will close on the uncanny (Sear 2016). From this event horizon of war’s future black hole will pulse another type of un-war, where the future of war will be the edges of the incomputable, a matrix decomposition into a canon of Non-Turing mathematics. As quantum topological computers reinforce their enclosures, Non-Turing computation will question first conditions. Limits, which are reflexive borders, will evolve at the strange attractor of recursions.
Consciousness is one such limit. Consciousness is experience, the phenomenological. It is informational, integrated, definite and a perspective in time. (Koch 2019) Ultimately, consciousness is ‘intrinsic causal powers’. Integrated Information Theory (IIT) suggests consciousness is a cause-effect power arising from integrated information in a reentrant system (Koch 2019). Reentrant is a feedback loop with cause and effect power on itself. (Fallon 2018) Recursion is also the key to computation. Computation has held sway for 75 years as the basis for the human mind and consciousness. The exact opposite may be true. One IIT shows that consciousness is non-computable. Yet, if consciousness is non-computable, it is possible that war will seek to intervene into the experience of consciousness itself. Augmented Reality (AR) deception will intercede like glitches, seeking to hack the unhackable.
The reflexive seperation between computation and consciousness reveals the role of recursion at higher dimensionality. War combines the intrinsic causal power of consciousness upon ourselves and, through violence, deploys extrinsic powers to effect that experience of will onto other humans. As Clausewitz noted, ‘violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will’ drives the trinity’s function. This information is subjective, an affective form. Information is integral. Computation as information processing interpolates the layers of the Clausewitz trinity as a topological form—a Trefoil Knot—distorting war’s properties while preserving its form. As it does, the process loops individuation into a new kind of epistemology. War’s adversarial accelerationism, in its Trefoil Knot armature, extenuates as it exposes the category of the human, through endless loops of Turing trauma.
Emergent is a ‘mechano-organicism’, where ‘digitalization’ is shorthand for computation ‘becoming organic’, seeking to heal the wound of alienation in the inhuman (Hui 2019a). But just as Clausewitz’s theory interpolates the layers of the trinity, and as computation is now a layer which accelerates the recursive spirals of the trinity, so it would seem all this further ties back into a recursive power that is a natural force equivalent to cause and effect of the laws of physics in human consciousness. Information in consciousness is highly integrated. The Turing Trauma triggered a displacement of the human form of cognition itself.
Deploying the Clausewitz rubric, militaries tend to agree what separates the ‘character’ of war from its ‘nature’. The character describes how war is fought and its subjective experience. Nature describes what it ‘is’—an essence—it is immutable and inherently human. These categories, of ‘nature’, ‘essence’, ‘eternal’, ‘rational’, ‘willpower’, ‘human’ and the ‘universal’, are rarely interrogated as being in flux within these arguments and their assumptions. Recent analyses suggest AI squares the trilogy as autonomous calculation varies the speed and complexities of elements but just tweaks the components (Hoffman 2019). Traditional military conceptions of consider Clausewitz’s trinity as a two-dimensional isosceles triangle. Instead, Computational Clausewitz has transformed conflict into three dimensions in a way that emphasises connection and shape, not geometry. Rather, I suggest the trinity remains, but computational recursion has added more than speed—it reconstitutes the relationship between the subjective and objective in conflict as it constitutes a new mathematical topology of war. Rather than enclosure, contingency is incorporated via recursion’s loops. Another of war’s chameleon skins emerges—Xenowar.
Xenowar is topological. Xenowar is an abstraction of connections, independent of its representation, appearance and form: it is ‘geometry without distance or angle’ (Jordan 2009) Intrinsic recursions of causal powers which form integrated information, such as consciousness and the will to compel another consciousness to that will, whorls into the knot of war. Meanwhile, extrinsic computational recursion spirals into the chirality of emergent alien cognition.
Computational agency as alternate cognition will introduce other than human agents to war (Dwyer 2019). Move ‘37 s’ will replicate (David et al. 2016). The accelerationism of AI will create cognitions that are alien (Parisi 2019). Climate change will incorporate the in/nonhuman as both a force and subject of ecological governance, and a necessary condition of war. The planet will introduce causal force as turbulence into the Trefoil Knot, compelling militaries to defend ecologies, even tearing social democracy’s 100 year tenure with human sacrificial civic participation, to include ecologies, animals and molecules (@Bratton @TomSear 2020). Equally, a recognition that artificial intelligence is not artificial but something inhuman still generated by the planet, will inversely refuse the ‘naturalness’ of sectionalising human bodies as gender (Hester 2018). Cybernetics as metaphysics may spiral Stacks into a conflict-seeking singularity, or cosmotechnics (Hui 2016) that emerge as Stack enantiomers. Singularity is unlikely to be a teleology in one fundamental manifold. The armature of computational recursion will continue to spiral towards an event horizon of the incomputable: consciousness itself. At this horizon, the feedback loops of causal power that compose the experience of consciousness will confront those that which are alien. Then at its zenith, Xenowar will discover whether intrinsic and extrinsic causal powers are really just homeomorphic dreams of itself = dreams it has dreamt before.