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Letter from the Editor

How to Stay Young

The easy part is understanding a new technology; what’s harder is to think creatively about it.

  • This letter appeared in the March/April 2008 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • February 19, 2008

On November 20, 1917, at the Battle of Cambrai, a new technology was used successfully for the first time. In a plan conceived by a young British staff officer named J. F. C. Fuller, hundreds of tanks advanced on astonished German trenches. The gains of the British Army were soon lost, but within the year Fuller had planned the tank operations at the Battle of Amiens. There, British tanks broke through the German lines and were followed by Allied infantry, who held the ground thus taken. The Battle of Amiens ended the stalemate of trench warfare and led to the end of the First World War.

Jason Pontin, Editor in Chief and Publisher.

After the war, through command of an experimental mechanized brigade, in books, and in journalism (often in collaboration with the ­British military historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart), Fuller urged the ­British Army to prepare for a different kind of war. Fuller believed that tanks should be used in concentrated formations for their shocking capacity to penetrate the enemy’s defenses. But the ­British ­General Staff thought tanks should be used in support of ­infantry–despite the successes at Cambrai and Amiens, where they had led the advances.

This story is part of our March/April 2008 Issue
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Yet if Fuller and Liddell Hart were unappreciated at home, they found an audience abroad in one imaginative officer, Heinz ­Wilhelm Guderian, who translated their work into German and agitated for the adoption of their ideas by the Wehrmacht.

In his autobiography, Panzer Leader, Guderian wrote that in 1929, “I became convinced that tanks working on their own or in conjunction with infantry could never achieve decisive importance. … What was needed were armored divisions which would include the supporting arms needed to allow the tanks to fight with full effect.” He got his way: starting in May 1940, Guderian led a German armored corps in its blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) through the Ardennes forest, a campaign that ended with the fall of France and the evacuation of the British Army at Dunkirk.

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Guderian was 51 in 1940, but he had preserved a quality of mind that seems to atrophy in many of us as we grow older: the ­capacity to be unconfounded by new technologies. Guderian was not merely an enthusiast of the new technology of tanks. He did without resistance what Fuller had unsuccessfully entreated his own generals to do: think creatively about how they might be used.

In “A Technology Surges”, David Talbot provides a modern analogue in his account of a new military intelligence network called TIGR (or Tactical Ground Reporting System). Developed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, TIGR is a “map-centric application that junior officers can study before going on patrol and add to upon returning.” It is part of a broader effort the military calls “network-­centric warfare,” in which information is swiftly relayed to soldiers. TIGR is popular with junior officers because it allows them to exchange information in a way that recalls the “peer production” common to wikis, rather than relying on whatever information a battalion intelligence officer chooses to disseminate. Yet as John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School and a leading proponent of network organization in the military, writes in “Network Warfare”, “These technologies are wonders, but generally they have not been accompanied by shifts in military doctrine and organization. … New organizational forms and practices must develop along with new tools.”

For anyone who has invested a lifetime in understanding the uses and benefits of a technology that has become outmoded, it can be supremely hard to think creatively about a new tech­­nology. Our difficulty is that we have powerful emotional reasons to dismiss its capacity to disrupt our established ways.

Elsewhere in the magazine Jason Epstein provides a different example of this melancholy truth (“What’s Wrong with the Kindle”). Epstein may be the greatest living publisher: at Random House, where he was editorial director for more than 40 years, he invented the modern paperback, and he cofounded the New York Review of Books and the Library of America. He is certain there will be no large market for electronic readers like Amazon’s Kindle (see one cracked open on page 94). Epstein understands that the digital transmission of books is an established fact, but he believes that “the most rational form of digital transmission is not an electronic reader posing as a book but an actual library-quality paperback that has been printed, bound, and trimmed at low cost on demand, created from a digital file at point of sale by a machine like an ATM.” In this, he is like the British generals who understood that the tank was an important new technology, but not that it would change warfare.

How can we stay young? How can we be unconfounded by 2008’s “10 Emerging Technologies”? Certainly, we must not suspend our critical faculties: not all the scenarios suggested by such technologies are equally plausible, and something of the past always leaks into the future. But we should try to be as little attached to the past as teenagers, and to satisfy our creativity not in the disparagement of new technology but in the contemplation of how it might change our lives. Write and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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