I’m well into the second episode of Hardcore History’s series on the First World War. I can tell you about the second all day long, but I’ve never spent much time on the original.
What’s striking about the war itself is watching as 19th-century gentlemen-soldiers, with frilly 19th-century uniforms and a romanticized 19th-century outlook of war, run headlong into a 20th-century machine gun fire. It wasn’t the first time that industrialized technology saw battle, but it was the first time that major powers faced each other using these technologies. What happens when 19th century people have to solve for a 20th century battlefield?
The French rode off to war wearing metal breastplates, white gloves and red pants. It was honorable for officers to stand and wave their sabres around during firefights. It didn’t take long to learn that charging calvary at machine guns presented some problems. Thousand year old tactics suddenly made obsolete, the entire war becomes a series of experiments. Lose a few hundred thousand troops using one tactic, switch it up.
While it’s easy to condescend to generals sending hundreds of thousands of people armed for Waterloo to a front line of drum artilary and chemical gas attacks, I get the feeling, a century later, we are at a similar crossroads. People are going to look back and see 20th century people dealing with 21st century technology. An estuary between ages.
Governments are still using the word “cyber.” The hacking and data collection that we hear about is only a fraction of a percentage of what is really going on. ISIS uses video on the web successfully, the US learns from that and begins to counter with videos of their own. Modern warfare is as much about communication, data, and ideas as it is about troops on the ground.
On the civilian side, we’re using the most disruptive technology ever invented as a new way to watch television, read books, listen to radio and send mail. We're using 21st century technology for 20th century ideas of media and interaction. If you need any evidence that marketing hasn’t figured out what to do with the internet, look no further than the continued use of display advertising, despite overwhelming evidence of its ineffectiveness.
The more I think about it, the more I’m starting to think that being born before the Internet was widely in use isn’t all that different from having been born before electricity. When people look back, they’re going see us just as we see that German on horseback, carrying a lance and wearing a gasmask.