In late 2017, a team of Polish climbers traveled to the Karakoram in an ambitious attempt to summit K2, the second-highest mountain in the world and the last of the fourteen great peaks higher than eight thousand meters to remain unclimbed in winter. Team cohesion was already fragile when the strongest climber departed the camp and set off on a forlorn solo push for the summit. Facing deteriorating weather conditions, the team accepted defeat shortly afterwards. Reflecting on the expedition, its leader Krzysztof Wielicki expressed skepticism regarding the role that internet access on the mountain played.
Photographs posted online showed climbers in tents on various laptop computers, the team had a social media page dedicated to the summit attempt, and the digital connection facilitated instantaneous personal communication with family and friends back home. “I don’t know if having internet on an expedition is a good thing or a bad thing,” Wielicki told National Geographic. “We never used to have it, of course, but now it is normal.” Internet access generated a particular tension. While physically located in the high-risk mountain environment, through the digital network the climbers were also experiencing intense, protracted interpersonal interactions far beyond their immediate environment that may have had disruptive effects on the expedition through reduction of morale and loss of focus.
Interpersonal activity mediated by the internet is rarely neutral. It tends to produce either harmonizing or disruptive social effects. Nowhere is the duality more marked than in the field of conflict, where it has the ability to either galvanize or degrade combat cohesion. Positively, the foreign policy theorist and practitioner Audrey Kurth Cronin depicts the internet as the new levée en masse, a “mass networked mobilization” ushering in a new era of war. By contrast, in the book LikeWar, P. W. Singer and Emerson Brooking argue that social media on the internet can be “weaponized” to create confusion in an adversary, degrading both the will and ability to fight. Far less consideration, however, has been afforded to the debilitating effect social media usage will have on relations between civilians and the nation-state, particularly the armed forces. The sociological, psychological, and neurological effects of social media use will aggregate to significantly erode military participation in democracies, restricting the utility of coercive violence as a foreign policy tool.
Within society, the internet matters because this device-mediated network has become pervasive. Interpersonal contact through the internet is effortless and inexpensive, instantaneously generating new social linkages and by extension, relations. Effects are therefore rapid and widespread. Through social media, we are all simultaneously chronic consumers, producers, and disseminators of information. These “platforms” have raised the profile of each user equally, making life a staged spectacle. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman notes, by using these platforms the individual is “hoping to elevate private actions into public events, biography into history” and creating a new currency in decentralized networks: personal experience.
Immersed in social media, the individual exists in a multiplicity of competing, overlapping communities where strong relations of reciprocity are created by incentive structures such as “likes,” “shares,” and the cultish theme of “followers.” These structures create the urge in the user to continually generate transactional material, with little or no regard for its quality, as Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey noted in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2018. The effects on data generation are profound. It took more than three years after Dorsey’s first tweet in 2006 to reach a billion tweets in total. Today, there are approximately two hundred billion tweets a year. According to the business intelligence firm Domo, Americans use an average of 4,416,720 gigabytes of data a minute in 2019.
Through the phenomenon of spectacle, new layers of meaning imbue previously mundane activities. As Bauman notes in The Individualized Society, now that our social lives are routinely electronically enabled, actions that were once largely invisible and inconsequential are performed upon a public stage mediated and amplified by “portable electronic confessionals.” It is through the articulation of such life stories on these platforms that both meaning and purpose have been inserted into life. Immersion in these social networks, with their perpetual promotion of comparison and competition, erodes the existing sinews between an individual and the nation-state in subtle ways. Recognition, worth, and meaning—and perhaps, above all, identity—are all provided by the network, diminishing the relevance of the nation-state in the lives of the individual.
The nation-state is not a permanent feature of world history. It is a recent product of political artifice, only emerging in the seventeenth century as the offspring of violent and fluid geographic ancestors. By extension, the national military force that fights for it is similarly youthful. The eminent British military historian Michael Howard has argued that the modern military—uniformed members of the federal government tasked with defending the realm—is only a relative recent transition from soldiering for mercenary gain, chivalrous ideals, or vassalage. Seen against the backdrop of this broad historical arc, the nation-state is a vulnerable relationship between individuals and government only solidifying through institutions and reciprocal transactions such as taxation and law enforcement.
This social contract between the individual and the state that condenses and unifies fragmentary identities such as religion and family beneath a single political authority is being rapidly obscured by social media. These platforms are filling the human desire for participation and recognition more acutely than the physical reciprocity of liberal democracies. For digital natives, the first generation immersed in internet-connected devices from childhood, these platforms are their primary social environments. Digital natives will be approaching their mid-twenties by the end of the decade. Given that the average age for enlistment into the United States Army is twenty and the average age of deployed personnel is thirty-three, digital natives are now the primary demographic cohort that will be charged with training for and fighting wars on behalf of the nation-state.
The consequences of these digitally mediated lives are pronounced. Where we focus our attention and for how long is changing. A 2019 paper in Nature Communications concluded that “increasing information flows” drive “shorter attention cycles,” as “the abundance of information leads to the squeezing of more topics in the same time intervals.” The Pew Research Center found that six in ten users of Snapchat and Instagram, platforms most popular among digital natives, visit the sites daily. Solid relationships in physical communities have been replaced by fluid and ephemeral digital ones. These bonds have profound psychological implications. In his book Tribe, the war journalist Sebastian Junger observed that the predictability and security of everyday American life left him hoping for something “that would require us to all band together to survive. Something that would make us feel like a tribe.” For Junger that was the military, specifically war, which can “feel better than peace,” with meaning and validation discovered through mutually endured hardship. Yet today the armed forces are not swollen with individuals searching for meaning.
Instead, America’s wars are being fought by a dwindling share of its population with American society characterized by a military at war and a public at peace. While the 9/11 attacks ushered in the longest period of sustained conflict in the nation’s history, the military participation rate fell below half a percent of the population. Not since the interwar years has a smaller share of Americans served in the armed forces, and the military today has approximately a third less manpower than two decades ago. Nor has war imbued its combatants with meaning and purpose. Only a third of veterans polled by the Pew Research Center for its 2011 report, War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era, believed that the protracted campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq had been worth fighting. The message from the population is clear: peace feels better than the war. There is no surprise, therefore, that the average length of military service for enlisted personnel has diminished: after peaking in the mid-1990s, the average length of service has drifted steadily downwards.
The ubiquity of social media will also complicate deployment for armed forces personnel, in the same way that it may have disrupted the Polish climbers on K2, who co-existed in multiple social networks far beyond the mountain. In the film 13 Hours, a dramatization of the events leading up to the death of United States Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, armed private contractors in the city of Benghazi are seen repeatedly on multiple digital devices, communicating visually and orally in real-time with family in the United States. The scenes demonstrate conflicting emotions enabled by the technology that subsequently eroded morale and impeded professional focus. When the main firefight begins, one private contractor who discovered in a video chat that his wife is pregnant, creates an audio message: “I wish I was home,” he laments. “I just wish I was home.” Social networks that enable instantaneous digital interaction create parallel tribes in war—service members are deployed physically, and domiciled digitally. These simultaneous dual relations, one to the combat unit, one to the domestic family and social networks, has already begun to significantly erode combat cohesion and focus, and those impacts will only become more pronounced. These effects will prohibit the long-term, large-scale presence of military personnel deployed in service to the state abroad.
Social media’s powerful and unconstrained neurological effects will also marginalize warfighting as a human compulsion. Sebastian Junger argued that armed conflict is hardwired into the human brain via a dopamine reward system. This neurochemical feedback system, he wrote, led humanity to become “obsessively involved in such things as hunting, gambling, computer games, and war.” The visceral mortal experiences in war produce chemicals in the brain that lead to addiction: the “war junkie” phenomenon. As Junger quotes one soldier, “It’s like crack, you can’t get a better high.” But social media usage triggers the same neurochemical feedback loops, surging dopamine in the user and stimulating behavioral cravings through continuous anticipation of new content. Risk-averse digital natives do not need drugs of war to get high, or dependent. The extent of addiction to the devices is so pronounced that increased physical distance between the device and the user has been shown to cause distress in the brain similar to physical pain. Ubiquitous and gratuitous, social media fulfills fundamental and myriad human desires that will replace the addiction of war.
Immersed in social media since childhood, digital natives have been presented with two divergent allegiances. The first is electronic: to technology companies that offer borderless, costless emancipation through social media. The second is physical: the nation-state, which safeguards individual security through the restriction of freedoms. The two realms therefore exist in tension, which periodically emerge in the public domain. One example with implications for the relationship between technology companies and the armed forces occurred when Google employees petitioned their company, and some resigned in protest, in a successful attempt to prevent the company from renewing a contract providing artificial intelligence technology to the Department of Defense for use with processing drone footage.
The borderless products of technology companies are positioned as a counterbalance to the boundaries of the state and compete for users’ allegiances. Many challenges digital natives face will diminish the legitimacy of the state. In the United Kingdom, one think tank has warned that a third of British millennials will still be in rented accommodation when they reach retirement age. As governments fail to solve insoluble social problems, patriotic sentiment among the youth in liberal democracies will reduce. Simultaneously, allegiances to technology companies will burgeon, as social networks, characterized by shared values and prospects, amplify. The parallel paths—dwindling physical, escalating digital—will erode the armed forces as a viable career path, the highest expression of service to the state and greatest sacrifice of an individual.
Evidently, the increasingly digital dimension of everyday experience will impact the ability to wage war because widespread and unrestricted social media usage will induce three debilitating effects in relations between states and their armed forces. Firstly, ever-present, overlapping digital networks will replace the unifying political authority of the state as the primary allegiance of the individual, corroding enlistment rates. Secondly, constrained by the requirements of social media participation, deployed military personnel will experience the pronounced erosion of combat cohesion. Thirdly, social media will usurp armed conflict as a primary medium through which to live visceral, addictive experiences. In concert, these effects contribute profound implications for the future of democracies’ ability to wage war, raising the prospect of enforced alterations to conventional notions of warfighting.
Image credit: Spc Walter Reeves, US Army