Dr. Strangeyak or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the internet.
Of the many figures, facts, and quotes drilled into USAFA cadets during their freshman year, one in particular has always stood out to be as particularly poignant to the Air Force in the 21st century — Giulio Douhet, “Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, and not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after those changes occur.” While often referenced in the context of airpower being a revolutionary and unanticipated change in warfare of the 20th century, I feel like too many have forgotten it as a relic of a bygone era (or because we dump all k-test knowledge the instant pencils are down): “Well of course Douhet, Mitchell, and Arnold were right about air power!” What’s lost is the fact is that Douhet’s insight is perpetually relevant to the Air Force, specifically in regards to the evolution of the internet.
Believe it or not, the internet is still relatively “new.” Many Millennials have never known a world without computers or internet connectivity. If I may arbitrarily choose AOL as the “start” of the internet as we know it, then we’re barely further separated from the advent of cyberspace than the World War One aces were separated from the advent of flight itself. Even as the years wore on, in war after war, air power even today isn’t truly “refined” in the same manner as other facets of warfare — so what does that say about our experience in cyberspace? Not only militarily, but socially?
YikYak is a novelty to the Air Force, and the Air Force Academy in particular. Never before have we had to deal with the grapevine being given such power — instead of a telephone of person-to-person, the Yak instantly gives you a universal audience, and with near-complete anonymity to boot. Of course, its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness — a public audience to the anonymously-voiced thoughts of individuals. We’ve seen the problem the Yak can cause: rapid dissemination of rumors, negative and sometimes outright mutinous ideas being not only displayed but supported, and so on. As our beloved Wing King brought up last night, Wing Staff’s proposals to improve the wing are sometimes countered by Permanent Party by means of quoting the popular sentiment displayed by the Yak!
YikYak, and the internet in general, is one hell of a double-edged sword — which that brings us to the issue at hand: Should Yikyak be banned or not?
In any other era, in any other context, the answer would undeniably be “yes.” It fosters mutinous behavior, poses a notable security risk, and let’s not get started on how it looks for our public image. But, this is the Air Force Academy — dedicated to educate, train, and inspire the future leaders of the Air Force, a “leadership laboratory.” Why the heck are we taking the easy, by-the-regs answer to this issue — one that is ultimately ineffective — instead of adapting to this new, permanent issue?
Banning YikYak is ultimately a false solution, for two reasons: First, it fails to address the issues that cause the Yak to be a problem; second, it fails to address how the changing nature of communications is affecting our military culture.
YikYak: A Symptom of a Deeper Problem
March, 1991. While the sun is down, the Cadet Wing is up — 3/4 of it, at least, as upperclassmen prepare to initiate the first morning of Recognition for the Class of 1994. As the clock strikes “Too damn early,” the morning silence is broken by the sound of a thousand doors being kicked, airhorns blaring, etc. etc, soon to be replaced by CQ desk phones ringing as the confused cadre called their compatriots (sorry) to ask the question: “Where the hell are our doolies?” As the sun rose, the growing light slowly revealed the truth: the face of the Front Range was covered by a sea of red hats. The Class of ’94 had, without a single leak to the upperclassmen, coordinated a class-wide walkout of Recognition, using the now infamous chant “Tick-tock, tick-tock, can’t stop the clock.” Of course, the attempted subversion of Recognition failed, as the week-long beat session was extended to Graduation in punishment of the mutiny. A moment of silence for our predecessors in the Long Blue Line, “There but for the grace of Crane go we.”
What relevance does the infamous “Can’t Stop the Clock” story of 1991 have to the YikYak problem of 2016? Well, one has to look at how ’91 happened — somehow, a class of over 1,000 people managed to coordinate a complete walkout with no upperclassmen knowledge, no personal internet, no cell phones, nada. Purely word of mouth. Additionally, some of USAFA’s largest cheating scandals took place before cadets even had computers. It seems simple to prove that the concept of “grapevine transmission of rebellious thoughts” is one that predates the proliferation of YikYak. And, before YikYak, there was Facebook, MySpace, Usenet (once upon a time)… the list goes on. YikYak, ultimately, just makes visible what has been a problem not just for the Academy, but the military in general, forever.
Therein, primarily, lies the first problem with banning the Yak — you’re treating a symptom and not the underlying problem, like taking cough medicine when you have pneumonia. Sure, you get rid of the immediate, ugly, and embarrassing signs that all is not perfect in the Cadet Wing and that Cadets are far from paragons of military virtue, but the problem still exists — you still have cadets who are bad-mouthing and resisting authority, you still have dissent fostering, and now you don’t know where it is or how bad it is. If anything, the Yak is useful as an eavesdropping tool into the mind of the wing. Now, I’ll note that I couldn’t tell you what the solution to that underlying problem is — if I could, I’d be Wing King — but for what it’s worth I know what isn’t the solution.
However, that brings me to the second reason banning the Yak is a poor plan: it ignores the fact that the character of our society’s take on communication and connectivity is fundamentally changing. The US military has a particularly poor track record when it comes to adapting to changes in American culture. One needs look no further than Vietnam to see how antiquated perspectives on media led to catastrophic damage to the military’s reputation — banking on the old WW2 ideal of “the media reports on the war, paints our boys in a good light, and fundamentally serves as propaganda,” the free access of reporters to the Vietnam battlefields instead incited massive public disapproval and protest, since technology had advanced to the point that the suppression of the horror of war was no longer possible.
The world is changing, and the Air Force has to change with it. We live in the “Information Age,” where transfer of knowledge and communications is faster and more prolific than any time before in human history. More importantly, the first generation to grow up entirely within the Information Age — the Millennials — is coming into adulthood, bringing their perspectives and expectations into society. This change cannot be avoided — the military has no say in how our society evolves. So, short of maintaining a population of people devoted to obsolete ideals, we have to find a way to integrate our culture’s new view of how communication should function and how our military can stay secure.
You might ban YikYak now, but all that does is kick the problem down the road for someone to solve in the future with more drastic consequences. There’s dissent among the ranks — that’s always been the case, and will not change by banning YikYak. The dissenters whine and spread said dissent — same here, banning YikYak won’t change that. What happens if we do go through with the ban? Then the grapevine just moves elsewhere — it goes back to private messages, or Facebook, or reddit, or whatever the next vector of communications becomes. This is not something that is going to go away by banning one smartphone app.
Here, now, we have a relatively benign and contained example of Millennial mindset in regards to communication, in a place dedicated to the study and application of new leadership techniques for the next generation of Air Force Officers. Rather than applying the normal, ham-fisted standard of “Don’t like it, get rid of it,” USAFA is in the unique position to try something new. To adapt to the changes in the character of our society now, rather than after they’ve occurred and become a problem.
You never know, we might actually improve things.