Systems Disruption 101

John Robb
John Robb
Aug 12, 2016 · 3 min read

Here’s a simple overview of what is increasingly becoming the dominant method of offensive warfare in the 21st Century. Early applications of this methodology to modern conflict have been very successful. In short, it’s better to understand its dynamics than to assume it doesn’t exist.

There are two basic types of systems disruption:

  • Social. Disruption of social networks. Division of the network into non-cooperative or openly antagonistic centers of gravity.
  • Physical. The disruption of physical networks, particularly infrastructure.

System disruption leverages network structure and dynamics to turn small attacks into large events. Selection of the best point to attack is based on an analysis of the network’s design and flows. The term to describe this point is: the systempunkt. Essentially, the systempunkt is the point in the network, that if attacked, will yield the maximal possible impact.

Systems disrupters typically prioritize attacks based on the potential of the following:

  • Cascades of failure.
  • Cross network/system cascades.
  • Self-reinforcing failures. Those failures that generate feedback loops that keep the system from returning to the status quo ante (the former equilibrium point).

Systempunkts typically fall into the following categories:

  • Highly connected nodes (particularly useful in scale free network designs).
  • Sources of systemic flow.
  • Cross sub-network or cluster connections.

Repetitive systems disruption yields better results than singular large events since it impacts decision making processes of those impacted (disruption tax).

Systems disruption is superior to traditional methods of attack due to the following:

  • It is effective at delegitimizing governments. Service availability is a key political good.
  • It produces minimal public backlash and is likely to generate co-operative entities.
  • It is easy to recruit for (few skills and very little, if any combat required), usually results in low casualties and few arrests, and requires nearly zero (financing, equipment, and personnel) to accomplish.

Open source warfare, a set of autonomous groups engaged in coopetition to achieve an amorphous promise/goal, works extremely well with systems disruption due to the following:

  • Rapid discovery of systempunkts across a variety of target systems/networks via tinkering networks and stigmergic processes of cross network communication.
  • Increased chance of repetitive attacks due to a multiplicity of groups.
  • Self-reinforcing dynamics. Systems disruption gives rise to groups that can profit or exploit the dynamic. These groups in turn disrupt systems to perpetuate their survival and thereby give rise to yet more groups.

Market dynamics and systems disruption can become mutually reinforcing processes. The precise dynamics of this connection are still amorphous and ill defined. However, practice shows that this cross connection can be leveraged to achieve coercive results.

Most target networks are designed to maximize efficiency. This design constraint yields configurations that are particularly vulnerable to systemic disruption. Further, globalization (due to network integration, tight coupling, and network complexity) have made systems disruption applicable to nearly every corner of the globe.

Urban environments are particularly vulnerable to systems disruption due to the extreme concentration and cross connections of the networks required to sustain high population densities. As a result, urban takedowns are possible if not probable.

The high levels of amplification and potential reach of system disruption allows participants in a local conflict to attack regional and global foes with minimal effort.

Systems disruption can generate results (damage) that if measured in a return on investment (the damage caused divided by the cost of the attack) that exceed one million percent.

The long term trend toward individual superempowerment — the leverage gained by individuals due to network access and new tools — is made dangerous due to an ability to accomplish systems disruption.

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