Cybernetics and Empire

Our working hypothesis assumes a certain amount of typological invariance in historical change. For example, transportation and communication have always provided the basic frame within which humans must exist. Though the scale has massively changed since 1850, the basic principles to which they must conform remains essentially constant. Tactics change faster than strategy. Changes in communication based in technological evolution has quickened the dynamic between the center and the periphery. Maintaining military communications between outposts and home base has improved through technological advances.

Imperial communications have at all times been strategic. Communications in a strategic context is defined as “the stream of supplies and reinforcements” which in terms of a network connects a reliable base to a fleet or army force. Indeed, this definition has not changed since Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote his classic work on seapower in 1890. As transportation and communication systems change with technological progress, “operations of war become easier, more rapid, more extensive; but the principles to which they must be conformed remain the same”(7). Maintaining secure lines of communication so material supplies and information are quickly transmitted from point A to point B remains the key to military strategy. Moreover, since mobility is essential to warfare, securing the fuel sources that power modern transportation has also become an objective of any imperial strategy.

Technological changes in the 19th century also revolutionized the timeless manifold problems of gathering and transmitting information. Transportation became conceptually and linguistically distinct from communication when objects—composed of symbols—known as messages could be transported through space without having to be physically carried in traditional ways. Navies were, by and large, unaffected until wireless. Any maritime expedition traditionally had only two fixed points: the point of departure and arrival. While the latter remained a mystery, the former point was knowable: most ports were cosmopolitan, and thus full of spies. Once ships were at sea, their dispositions were impossible to determine. “Indeed, the traditional problem in naval warfare,” writes John Keegan, “was for opposing fleets to find each other at all”(19). Most battles occurred around the mouths of rivers and sea-lanes. Naval strategy depended upon good intelligence to help determine which sea-lanes and ports were worth guarding or attacking.

New inventions like the telegraph and radio permitted fast communication between governments, foreign ministries, embassies, military officers and spies. The telegraph shaped imperial policy by influencing finance, diplomacy and the art of warfare—news of events and plans traveled faster than troops and warships. The military historian John Keegan writes, “The armies and navies of the pre-electricity age operated within an intelligence horizon of considerably less than a hundred miles.... Alexander, Caesar and Wellington all operated within the peculiar constraint, to the modern way of thinking, of very slow communication speed over any distance not to be covered by a running man or a galloping horse”(18). Indeed, the common expression that Napoleon did not travel faster than Caesar is not just a figure of speech. Instant communication has changed military intelligence. Because officers in war could neither trust the telegraph nor radio to communicate their commands, the importance of encryption and clandestine activity increased. Some believe that code-breaking during World War II made the difference between victory and defeat. Since all empires need to be defended, they devote time to intelligence gathering—in addition to establishing fortifications, armies and navies—which has been moving towards real-time intelligence. This movement of interlocking contingencies and feedback loops has reinforced the ‘logic of speed.’