The Future Is Upon Us: Failed Predictions, Boiling Frogs and Gun Printers by Paul T. Mitchell

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Militaries are future-oriented institutions. They consider the impact of advancing technology, changing political dynamics, and the implications of global economic shifts.  Yet as Nils Bohr reminds us, predictions are difficult, especially about the future. Very often, our predictions say more about our present: as Yogi Berra says, the future ain’t what it used to be.

At the present moment, the Canadian Forces is rewriting its Future Security Environment document, a publication which sits at the base of its whole capability development process.  In the United States, the recently announced “Asia Pivot” drives military strategies like the Joint Operational Access Concept and the so-called Air Sea Battle. All of these consider the implications that the growth of Asian powers, in particular China, will have for strategic relations on a global scale.

At the Canadian Forces College, the Majors on the Joint Command and Staff Programme have just finished an exercise called Global Powers which requires them to examine the shifts in power between the major states and emerging ones like the “BRICS” in the effort to understand the environment in which the Canadian Forces may be called to operate. The estimates the students produced were remarkably conservative in nature, none of which called for any major transformations in global relations (defined in terms of other powers replacing the role the US plays currently). In essence, this is not at all surprising. The track record of experts in predicting the future is decidedly poor, despite decades of intensive regional study, events like the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11 came as total surprises, so the students share plenty of company in expecting that the future will look more or less like the present.

Nevertheless, the future is a real problem for militaries. Get it wrong and you lose a war, or worse.  Historically, this has not always been so. In the ancient world, the advance of technology was remarkably slow. Agricultural societies practiced a form of warfare that did not change over periods of millennia. The equipment of Egyptian forces during the Middle Kingdom did not dramatically differ from that of Alexander the Great or even later Roman legions.

Crassus defeated by the Parthians.

The technology employed by Dark Ages Vikings did not dramatically differ from that used by Henry V at Agincourt. The combination of light infantry, heavy infantry, light cavalry, and heavy cavalry were present in varying amounts in all armies such that tactical affairs were essentially a game of rock-paper-scissors, and strategy was about looking at what had been done in the past to figure out what should be done in the future.

Industrialism changed all of that, however. The introduction of firearms began a period of technological development, fueled by the growth of both capital markets and the concentration of power in states. As the historian Charles Tilley remarked of this dramatic shift: “War made the State and the State made War”. Scientific methods of management, anticipating the ergonomic studies of Frederick Taylor and the industrial production line, emerged to guide the employment of the new military formations and the science of geometry was employed to create new fortifications taking advantage of firearms and even the movement of forces to and from the battlefield. Science, rather than history became the feature animating military power. Militaries that did not pay attention to how war was affected by technological and political developments could get caught by surprise with striking results. Perhaps the best recent example of this was during the Battle of France when French and British armies were surprised by the different ways the Wehrmacht employed armour, aircraft and wireless radio technologies.

The classic characteristic of what is commonly known as “blitzkrieg” is a highly mobile form of infantry and armour working in combined arms teams. (German armed forces, June 1943)

But if a new information age is upon us, what effect could such a social change have upon the conduct of warfare?  During the 1990s, following the spectacular feat of arms in the liberation of Kuwait, speculation began to surface about a so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs” and the role played by emerging information technologies. Global Positioning Systems, Missile Defence, Precision Guided Munitions, battlespace management systems like AWACS and JSTARS radar planes, and Stealth technology affected the war in ways that suggested that a major change, perhaps not unlike the German introduction of blitzkrieg tactics. The outcome of this debate was a vision of a future of air traffic control type technologies applied to the battlefield, where everything could be seen, tracked, targeted and destroyed. It suggested a level of god-like control over battlefield events and lead to operational concepts like information dominance and decision superiority. The brutal experiences of both Iraq and Afghanistan revealed that no matter how efficient information technology could make battlefield operations, it had very little effect on strategic outcomes. War remained a messy, brutal affair as it always has been. The future, once again, failed to conform to what we expected.

Cpl James Oosten rests in the brush during the patrol. Kandahar, June 2010. Photo by: Sergeant Daren Kraus, Image Tech, TFK Afghanistan, Roto 9

The trouble with most attempts to predict the future is that it is essentially unknowable. The future is the contingent outcome of a multiplicity of decisions and actions by innumerable actors and events. Looking back, there seems to be a story, what we call history, which suggests an inevitability to how events ultimately turn out. But this is a logical fallacy: looking at diaries, journals, and interviews of those in the past, there is always a sense that people have little idea of the ultimate significance of the events taking place all about them.  Yet most predictions are often extrapolations of what presently exist. This sort of methodology leads to estimates of flying cars and space colonies, and fails to detect the Arab Spring.

The real revolutions either emerge from weak signals approaching from the horizon, like that of a disenfranchised fruit seller immolating himself, or from the slow development of material forces wherein incremental changes ultimately result in entirely new circumstances. The growth of information technologies are an appropriate example of this.  Writers as diverse as Marshall McLuhan, Peter Drucker, Alvin Toffler, Manuel Castells and Daniel Bell have all called attention to the impact of information technology for the emergence of new material social conditions that will transcend the old structures that developed in the scientific and industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. As Vincent Moscoe points out, the promises of the transformative power of technology date back as the invention of the telegraph, in terms that are similar to today’s predictions surrounding the internet. Indeed, some have even argued that social media dates as far back as the Gutenberg press. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water, we don’t realize change is upon us until it is too late.

Castells argues that in the Agricultural age, mankind was simply surviving, as best as possible, the harsh conditions of the natural world. Tyrannical imperial political systems reflected these realities, organized around maintaining control of populations forever on the fine edge of disaster. Warfare sought to increase the resources to sustain subject population (and increase the labour available to work) or to eliminate the excess through the organized slaughter of war. In the industrial age, mankind learned to “conquer” nature and biological energy was replaced by mechanical and chemical varieties. Science mobilized and regularized the power of human creativity and industry and capitalism developed a growing variety of products in a continuous and reflexive process of development. One thing led to another and, in turn, built upon what went before. Knowledge became rationalized and ordered into a growing set of categories, which in turn, demanded the growth of specialization.  The state too became increasingly ordered and extended that order outwards to society itself.  Our modern industrialised civilization is founded upon the state’s monopoly over violence.

Castells argues that the information age will be a social age. However, such a development may not be as progressive as this statement may seem. The spread of ideas and our growing ability to control and manipulate information may lead to the intensification of differences amongst us, rather than its amelioration. Recommendation services in systems like online book merchants and music systems may simply reinforce our pre-existing wants rather than allowing us to discover new ideas; social media tends to organize us along with ideas that we are already comfortable, echo chambers in many cases. The explosion of conspiracy theories and scandals, the cynicism surrounding political, religious, and professional  authority all suggest a growing skepticism towards any claims of truth. These social divisions and the growing difficulty in arriving at political compromises necessary for social cohesion evident not only in the current US election, but also in Canadian debates all point to the divisive effect of growing access to information. One way in which the coming age may be more social is in the growth of contested knowledge and the social process of trying to establish both “truth” and political order.

Many have argued that information technology is inherently liberating and will lead to democratic outcomes. However, if information is corrosive to both knowledge and collective agreement over truth, it may be more the source of conflict than democracy. In either case, it is true that information technology liberates agency or the ability to act for individuals, institutions and perhaps even technology itself. 3D printers, also a form of information technology, are another modality in which agency can be liberated. If you can imagine it, you can build it, from Lego bricks to buildings. This can liberate the creation of products from industrialised processes, which seems to promise flights of inventive fancy subject only to the limitations of imagination. But what if you want to build assault guns, rocket launchers, and high-grade explosives? What if you can build your own arsenal and equip your own army of “followers”?

If the industrialised age was one of rationalized control and ordered process into which the individual had to conform, the information age may be one of socially designed movements to fit your own specific lifestyle fashion and those who agree with you (and to hell with the rest). Rather than the “levee en masse”, we may have the levée sélective. That would be a real revolution in military affairs, staring at us in the face, but completely unobserved engrossed as we are with the latest in Tablet computing.

Dr. Paul T. Mitchell is a Professor of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College, an alumnus of Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Research Associate of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Canadian Forces College or the Department of National Defence.

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